Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “George Stoney”
Thursday, January 18, 2018
EH: Do you remember when exactly we met at Flaherty? I realize I don't remember. I know it was at the 2001 seminar.
MW: We met the first night. You were with Sam Green and I introduced myself to you guys, and we started hanging out post-screenings and at night
EH: Oh, okay! So Sam was there too. Interesting. I didn't remember that. Did you already know Sam?
MW: I didn’t know anybody. I was 19 years old. I’m not even sure how I had heard about the Flaherty Seminar. Maybe my professor George Stoney at NYU had said something, or through my internship with Sandi DuBowski on Trembling Before G-D .
EH: Do you have any special memories of that year? I remember seeing a lot of movies with you.
MW: I remember the first movie we saw. It was about a blind boy, and I believe he was listening to a go-cart race, but I might be remembering it incorrectly. Sight and its relationship to sound were a big theme that year. But of course the theme wasn’t sketched out in advance. It gradually revealed itself.
EH: Yes, I think that was called Hermann Slobbe/Blind Child II  by Johan Van Der Keuken?
MW: Yeah that was it. I was very young so I had seen very little documentary or avant-garde film work. And when I saw that film, I felt like I had entered a special place where my mind would be cracked open. The other highlights of the seminar related to that theme of seeing.
EH: That's incredible. That film stuck with me as well over the years, and I think they showed an Arne Sucksdorff film about seagulls [Trut (“Seahawk”), 1944], which also stuck with me.
MW: Derek Jarman’s Blue , The Heddy Honigmann film about military vets listening to music [Crazy, 1999], the blind photographers collective [the Seeing with Photography Collective gave a slide presentation with live narration entitled Shooting Blind]…they made me think about what it means to represent something you can’t see, which is still something I think about a lot.
EH: Honigmann’s work was also revelatory for me. I've loved it ever since and have watched a bootleg I have of Crazy many times.
MW: It’s incredible to watch people’s faces as they listen to a song that was meaningful to them during war, especially faces of veterans who you might expect to be fairly repressed or stoic.
EH: Yes and especially Dutch soldiers, who are only on supposedly humanitarian missions, but still have to live through wars. I’d forgotten about the Blind Photographers Collective. Derek Jarman's Blue—I remember I hadn't seen that film since it was brand new; I went to a preview screening in San Francisco. I remember that seeing the film print so distressed, with scratches and specks from the intervening decade, actually made me cry. I was thinking of friends I had lost.
MW: Yeah, I remember seeing you cry, and that was a consciousness-raising thing for me, for lack of a better word. I’ve seen Blue a number of times as a digital projection and it’s so much less powerful. There’s a kind of entropy to the print that seems appropriate.
EH: I've never watched Blue in its entirety as a digital copy.
MW: Nowadays museums loop it on video but it’s so flat that way. Remember, they did a secret advanced screening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch  too?
EH: Oh yes, that's right. That was fun. Emily Hubley's animations are the only thing I remember about that movie now.
MW: Did Emily and Faith Hubley show work that year too? It’s funny when you see so many films they start to blur together. I can say that every film I saw there was a revelation to me.
EH: I honestly don't recall, but I think you’re right. For me the big revelation was more the “Flaherty world”—that particularly eclectic crowd that Flaherty attracts. It wasn't exactly what I was used to in NYC film culture.
MW: At that time, my film culture was the MIX Experimental Gay and Lesbian film festival or NYU film school. Flaherty was interesting because it was this place where experimental and documentary film intersected, and the discourse there was academic, but not in the basic film-school sense. There were these ethnographic-film anthropologist types, more theory-driven film studies professors, filmmakers, and students. And those distinctions were really flattened; it was a level playing field for everybody to discuss the films.
EH: Yes that was super interesting. Also I remember getting a strong sense of the “old days” a lot from members. And by that they meant the really old days, because people like George Stoney were still around and in attendance.
MW: Yes, he was my professor at the time. It was exciting for me to be in such close proximity to real filmmakers. I gained access to information and ideas that I just wasn’t going to encounter at film school, particularly a traditional film school like NYU. And you were a big part of that. I remember a specific conversation we had between screenings.
EH: There was a lot of chatter about the controversies of the past too. Before I went, I recall many people in the Anthology crowd relating the story of George Kuchar getting attacked. They were like—those Flaherty people are crazy! Who would attack dear loveable George??
MW: Well attacking filmmakers is part of the culture there, and I’m not into that.
I guess people are worn down and tired and lose track of the typical decorum of speaking to a filmmaker in a Q&A setting. There’s something weird about people talking about the filmmaker while he or she is sitting there. And some people don’t just talk, they wax on and on about the films and the filmmaker in a way that I think is odd.
There’s a breaking down of boundaries I guess you could say.
EH: Maybe that's the price of the “anything goes” discourse at the Flaherty. It's not limited in any way, really.
MW: I think good stuff comes out of that though, and I think because it is such a horizontal, open forum, people get an opportunity to speak who ordinarily might not be allowed to respond openly to a film. They’re not film critics or professors; they’re students like me. And I probably said some stupid shit to a filmmaker...
EH: Oh yes, always there’s something really amazing or fascinating. It’s also just fascinating to hear everyone’s different perspectives and issues and positions.
MW: Yeah, it becomes less about the film and more about the different approaches to looking at films in general. The thing that you told me that was really transformative was that you can’t just analyze or interpret a film, you have to analyze it within the context of a particular historical moment. I guess on some level that idea seems basic, but it was radical to me at that time. It’s interesting because so much of the present critique of young students is that they look at things ahistorically and “problematize” them.
EH: That’s interesting. I'm not sure I would express that same sentiment in the exact same way today, but I can imagine myself saying that then.
MW: Well, in the context of Derek Jarman’s Blue, that was really meaningful. You’re not just responding to a blue screen right now, you’re responding to a blue screen as a spectacle experienced by people dying of AIDS and the people around them, and the scratches on the print are artifacts of the passage of time. That’s a way of representing something that can’t be seen.
EH: Yes. I think it’s about how all films happen in their own time, but they also happen again and again. For me, that 2001 screening of Blue was qualitatively different from when I saw it on its release.
MW: Yeah, that’s a more nuanced way to put it. I guess what I mean is that I wasn’t an adult during the height of the AIDS epidemic and seeing how you were reacting to that film in the theater helped me understand something that I couldn’t see. That was my biggest takeaway from the Seminar.
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
“There won’t be any time,” said the hazel-eyed woman standing next to me at the check-in desk.
She was smiling warmly, but I tensed up.
I had just arrived at Colgate University after a seven-hour drive in my tiny car from Oberlin, Ohio. I was exhausted, and more than a bit anxious. I’d recently finished an intense but rewarding year as a visiting professor at the University of Toronto. It was my first job teaching film, so I’d meticulously prepared every lecture, planning into the wee hours of the night.
I’d left Canada for a postdoctoral fellowship in the Cinema Studies Program at Oberlin College, but I was second-guessing my decision. I knew that Oberlin had launched some careers, sunk others. Things would eventually work themselves out for me, but back then I didn’t know that.
My life felt very unstable. My spouse and I had been apart for three long years, and I was nervous about my professional choices. Still, I was about to dive into a crowd of scholars, filmmakers, curators, and programmers gathered together by their passion for experimental documentary.
I had studied documentary with the late George Stoney at New York University, and had written a short article on the films of Francesco Pasinetti, a Venetian documentarian active in the first half of the 20th century. That was the extent of my knowledge. I felt more than a bit intimidated. Impostor syndrome, they call it. Commonly reported among graduate students and early career academics. No surprise there.
The group stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, hosted by Brazil, were in full swing. The much-favored home team was about to be humiliated by Germany with a crushing 1-7 defeat, the worst in the tournament’s history.
A loyal supporter of my own national team (Italy), I was apprehensive about not finding a place to watch the two matches that coincided with the seminar’s opening and closing screenings. “Is there a TV on campus where I could watch the World Cup Games?” – I queried at the check-in desk.
Later, I learned that the woman who intercepted the question was Ruth Somalo, a Spanish filmmaker, future NYC Flaherty programmer (“Broken Senses,” 2017), and one of the nicest people on the planet. She was clearly aware that this was my first seminar. And of course, she was right. There was no time.
Luckily, I was not the only soccer fan in this erudite crowd. Filmmaker and programmer Jason Fox, who was then pursuing an MFA at Hunter College, worked his considerable charm with the projection staff. He cajoled them to beam snippets of matches onto the same theatrical screen where during that week we watched works by Eric Baudelaire, Duncan Campbell, Cao Guimarães, Johan Grimonprez, and Hito Steyerl, among others.
Italy won the first match, lost the second. And then the third. Better luck in 2018, I thought. Things didn’t work out for them: in 2018 the team didn’t even make it through the qualifying rounds.
I’d become aware of the Flaherty seminar in 2010, when my then-roommate Robert Sweeney traveled upstate to attend what sounded like a film-nerd boot camp, programmed by Dennis Lim, a critic he had always admired. Rob and I were friends from graduate school, beginning to shape our respective careers out of our shared passion for film. He was already working at Kino Lorber and slowly working his way up the ranks of the New York film critics circle; I was writing a Ph.D. dissertation on migration in Italian cinema, a topic that was as vast and complex as it was personal.
Rob was always the more intellectual one, an omnivorous cinephile scurrying off to screenings of obscure films in musty basements throughout the city. He would carefully study all the schedules, organizing his week accordingly. Sometimes I would tag along, trusting his taste and hoping to learn something new. I often did.
That 2014 Flaherty felt a bit like those New York evenings watching films carefully selected by my friend. Except that the seminar took place in an air-conditioned auditorium with comfortable seating, pristine image quality, and an expert projectionist. There was even a piece projected in the campus planetarium.
I sat back and relaxed as much as I could, trying to overcome the awkwardness of forgotten names and shared bathrooms, of damp dorm rooms and sleep deprivation. The presence of my friend Ohad Landesman, a documentary film scholar I knew from graduate school, comforted me. He became my social buoy throughout the week.
I let Gabriela Monroy and Caspar Strake, the programmers of “Turning the Inside Out,” take me on a journey. I learned by watching and listening, rarely taking part in the group conversations that followed the screenings. I forced myself to ask a question on the last day. I felt like the child who spends the day talking himself into finally riding the rollercoaster when the park is about to close, when most of the people have already gone home.
I made my one and only comment on the last day of my second Flaherty, too: the 2016 seminar, “Play.” I suggested smugly that the morning program be renamed “The Michelangelo Antonioni Memorial Program: The Genius of David Pendleton.”
Probably rather pedantically, I proceeded to compare the films we’d just viewed to different periods in the long career of the Italian maestro. It was meant to be a heartfelt compliment to both the filmmakers and to David, whose programming savvy I had quietly admired all week.
One morning at breakfast David approached me to talk about one of his passions, Pier Paolo Pasolini, a filmmaker whose work I was never truly able to appreciate. At least not as much as David. He looked fatigued, but at the time I was not aware that he was already fighting the disease that eventually took his life in 2017. I’m grateful for that short conversation.
I felt validated by David’s gesture, which he performed so gracefully. I will watch more Pasolini, who, coincidentally, was also a soccer fan, and I will think of David, who taught me so much in so little time.
The Flaherty Seminar will never be a comfortable experience for me, but it will always be a deep one. It has exposed me to things I would not otherwise have had access to. It has introduced me to films I now teach regularly. And it’s made me feel connected to a great community, even if only for brief moments. It is also a humbling experience. A room overflowing with talent and history can have that effect.
I will return. I will make a comment on the last day, voice quivering and palms sweating, but it will be a good moment for me. A small victory.
Friday, June 16, 2017
“I bet you thought I was dead!”
At my first breakfast at the 1980 Flaherty Seminar at Wells College in central New York, I picked at overcooked scrambled eggs and burnt wheat toast. I had sat down at the only open seat at a table with two gray-haired gentlemen.
Sheepishly, I introduced myself. One man offered he was George Stoney, who I knew as the community media and Challenge for Change legend.
The other, the one who thought I figured he was dead, identified himself as Erik Barnouw.
I blurted out that I had just read his books on documentary and the history of broadcasting to prepare for my PhD qualifying exams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That’s when he chortled the statement above. He was 72.
I had received what was then called a “grant-in-aid” to attend the seminar programmed by documentary scholar John Stuart Katz, a film professor at York University in Toronto. This Flaherty was the first film event I’d ever attended on the East Coast. Madison friends insisted I was insane to go just two weeks before my exams.
When I signed in, Barbara Van Dyke, the Flaherty Seminar’s executive director, greeted me with a hug. I wondered if she was related to Willard Van Dyke, the legendary filmmaker from the radical film group NYKINO and eventual head of film at the Museum of Modern Art.
At the opening reception, I’d gravitated to a huddle of twenty-somethings like me. I connected with Ruth Bradley, a PhD student at the University of Michigan who later became editor of Wide Angle, director of the Athens Film and Video Festival, and a longtime friend and collaborator.
At that first breakfast, I froze. I was sitting at a table at 7:30 a.m. with two men who had, in my neophyte assessment, changed documentary history.
When they kindly probed about my in-progress dissertation on the history of amateur film, I blurted out that I felt overwhelmed by mountains of unknown material. Erik smiled. He said, “Never be intimidated. Just get out your shovel and keep digging.”
In graduate school, I’d read and battled about documentary, then a marginalized area in film studies. The abstractions of Bateson, critical historiography, Fanon, Foucault, Habermas, Marxism, and psychoanalysis, drowned my soul—and my clarity.
At that Flaherty, independent film was front and center. A community, a history, a practice, a theory, the Flaherty redefined the documentary community as a seething cauldron of obsessed partisans and gutted my preconceptions about documentary and independent film.
I watched American regional independent narrative cinema like Alambrista , Gal Young ‘Un , Heartland .
Observational documentaries such as Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers , Faces of November , N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman , Scenes from Childhood  were jammed against archival works such as The War at Home , The Trials of Alger Hiss , America Lost and Found .
Experimental documentaries like D.O.A.  and Poto and Cabengo  jolted me. For the first time, I experienced how documentary, programmed with experimental films by Warren Bass, Dana Hodgson, Emily Hubley, Caroline Leaf, could propel new conceptual thinking.
The French Canadian documentary/narrative film Mourir a Tue-Tete  scraped away my feminist documentary theories. The film chronicled a rape with daring self-reflexivity. Anne Claire Poirier, the militant feminist director from the National Film Board of Canada, was present. In the campus pub, I crammed into a booth with her and three other young women, enthralled.
I could not figure out if the seminar was conservative, liberal, or radical. I had never attended any media event so focused on long discussions, intense debates, and entanglements between animation, archival, ethnographic, experimental, expository, hybrid, narrative, observational, personal work.
The participants featured filmmakers from every genre, as well as anthropologists, art world types, broadcasters, cinematographers, commercial media workers, distributors, elderly cineastes, exhibitors, film scholars, graduate students, journalists, librarians, marketers, and producers. Their combustions torched something inside me about the urgency of independent media that I’d not felt as a PhD student.
I was utterly intimidated. The seminar experience catapulted me into verbal paralysis.
Discussions cascaded like ferocious waterfalls of debates, ideas, histories, positions, and anger. I listened from the back of the room, jumbled up with anger, awe, critique, disdain, engagement, fascination, and frustration. I uttered one incoherent, overly theoretical, tortured statement. I filled a spiral notebook with notes.
Here, documentary was not about theories but about aesthetics, debates, histories, people, politics, and high stakes. Documentary and experimental film felt confusing, embodied, pulsing, significant. Devotees possessed feverish intensities.
Walking to a screening, I bumped into visual anthropologist Jay Ruby. His sharp mind terrified me. He knew exactly what he thought about every film. Back then I criticized Nanook of the North  as racist and colonialist, a position I later gutted after reading Jay’s reassessment of the film as an early collaborative ethnographic film.
At lunch, I met Bill Sloan, the librarian for the Museum of Modern Art, who spoke generously about the short experimental works.
I met film librarian D. Marie Grieco. Before a screening, she whispered two revelations to me. First, Frances Flaherty, not Robert, inaugurated the seminars, but film history had erased her. Second, Barbara was Willard’s ex-wife, and she, too, had been expunged from film history.
I realized that Frances Flaherty had built a place where young people like me could talk to legends like Erik—and Anne Claire, D. Marie, George, and Jay…
At the end of that seminar, Erik Barnouw offered the closing benediction. He performed this at every seminar he attended.
Erik recounted a story about a seminar acolyte who asked French filmmaker Chris Marker how he created such complex editing. Marker replied, “I get lost.”
Smiling, Erik commanded all of us: “Now get lost.”