Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Indiana University Press”
Sunday, September 10, 2017
When I was at Columbia Journalism School, Willard Van Dyke, then curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), told me to stay connected to the independent film community by joining the New York Film/Video Council (NYFVC)—I was headed toward a career in television. Why didn’t he suggest that I attend the Flaherty Film Seminars? I don't know, but he was involved with both.
So were others I came to know, like Bill Sloan (Bill’s Bar is still a Flaherty mainstay) and George Stoney, whose All My Babies  had been shown at the first Flaherty Seminar.
I’d seen All My Babies in a documentary course that George taught at Columbia University before he went to Canada, then came back to become a legendary professor at NYU. Both Bill and George were past presidents of the New York Film/Video Council of which I was a board member for seventeen years and president for eight.
The NYFVC was a non-profit that had been serving the independent media community since 1946. It programmed all forms of visual media. I never thought of TV and film as separate pursuits but many did. Other distinctions abounded: narrative vs. documentary; film vs. video; and one that always disturbed me, journalism vs. documentary. Often at Flaherty I heard filmmakers say, “I’m not a journalist.”
The first informal continuing professional education I experienced before Flaherty was at INPUT: the International Public Television Producers Conference in 1992 in Baltimore when I was Executive Producer of Listening to America with Bill Moyers [1992: 26-part TV series] on PBS. I would go on to other INPUTS in Fort Worth, Halifax, Rotterdam, Aarhus, Barcelona, San Francisco, and Lugano.
Law, medicine and many other professions have continuing education requirements; journalism and documentary filmmaking have none—though within each area non-profit organizations like the Flaherty informally make continuing education possible.
For me the Flaherty Seminar has been a condensed form of graduate school with a diverse group of students who share similar interests. Lifelong friendships are formed.
In 2003, the year I went to INPUT in Aarhus, Denmark, I attended my first Flaherty Seminar, at Vassar College. It was curated brilliantly by John Gianvito. Lucy Kostelanetz, a neighbor and member of the NYFVC and the Flaherty Board, had recommended that I go because the topic was “Witnessing the World.”
Two films by Canadian filmmakers fascinated me: Zyklon Portrait  by Elida Schogt and Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights, and the News  by Peter Wintonick and Katerina Cizek.
Avi Mograbi’s Israeli films were incisive and humorous, especially Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi . The entire audience at Vassar seemed appalled by Holly Fisher's Kalama Sutta  because she’d made an experimental, artistic film in Burma — a place and subject that cried out for documentary reporting. I’d never before seen an audience erupt in such disapproval.
Tran Van Thuy’s Vietnam documentaries were a special gift. The British filmmaker Franny Armstrong showed McLibel: Two Worlds Collide ; it was critical of McDonald’s before Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me .
Franny also showed an impressive film she’d made in India, Drowned Out . I recommended it to Thirteen/WNET’s new international series Wide Angle, which commissioned her to make a shorter, more journalistic version for broadcast. Marlo Poras’s Mai’s America  stayed with me and I screened it for documentary students years later at Columbia.
At my first Flaherty, Marcia Rock, who runs the NYU journalism documentary program, asked me if I’d like to teach Documentary History and Strategy. For the next three Spring semesters, I taught at NYU and then, after raising enough money to complete production on my work-in-progress, Nam June Paik & TV Lab: License To Create, I co-taught and mentored students at Columbia Journalism School. A student filmmaker I met at Flaherty, Alana Kakoyiannis, shot second camera when I interviewed Paik’s widow Shigeko Kubota, a video artist in her own right.
In 2007 I saw two versions of Natalia Almada’s Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side), one at INPUT in Lugano, the other at the 53rd Flaherty Seminar, “South of the Other,” programmed by Mahen Bonetti and Carlos Gutierrez, at Vassar. Almada’s film focuses on drug trafficking and illegal migration between Mexico and the United States and highlights narco corrido music. I subsequently went to MoMA to see her next film El General [ 2009]
Dan Streible, of Orphan Film Symposium fame, superbly curated the last Flaherty seminar I attended in 2011, "Sonic Truth.". George Stoney showed A Reunion of All My Babies  and we saw the 1906 film A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire. Most powerful for me was Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore Gaga . I’ve followed her films since.
Caroline Martel’s Wavemakers  was an intriguing work-in-progress and I later went to the Museum of the Moving Image to see a completed version.
Sam Pollard showed some of his work with Spike Lee, and I was introduced to the animated films of Jodie Mack, whom I later ran into on Main Street in Hanover, NH during a fall mini-reunion at Dartmouth.
I met Lillian Schwartz and learned that she had worked at the TV LAB at Thirteen/WNET, the subject of my nearly finished documentary. Dan showed her earlier experimental work at Bell Labs.
For me the highlight of “Sonic Truth” was my friend Jane Weiner, who came from Paris to show her documentary On Being There with Richard Leacock . I later drove her to interview Robert Drew in Sharon, CT.
When organized well, there’s no better introduction to remarkable films and significant filmmakers than the Flaherty Seminar.
Thursday, September 7, 2017
It was late September when two quite colorful groups of people descended on the charming resort town of Jūrmala in Soviet-occupied Latvia.
The groups spoke two different languages and there were just two interpreters to facilitate communication.
One group was Soviet documentary filmmakers and scholars, and the other, American documentary filmmakers and scholars. That was the first and only Soviet-American Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.
Rather than a hotel, we all checked into a sanatorium of the Union of Soviet Composers, a spacious structure just two steps away from a beach on the Baltic Sea. This was where Soviet composers were supposed to rest from the daily grind and soak in the musical inspiration carried by the salty Baltic air.
The year was 1990. The Soviet Union would be dead by the end of next year, but few in the world sensed the unforeseeable.
For seven days, we explored each other’s films. And, inevitably, we explored each other.
To start, the Americans said a few kind words about Gorbachev. We winced. In turn, the Soviets made a few kind remarks about Ronald Reagan, whose stature for a brief period in the Soviet Union was not unlike Simon Bolivar in South America. American filmmaker Steve Roszell then stood up and ripped Reagan apart to the enthusiastic cheering of his fellow Americans.
We all took note and dove back into films.
The screenings began with the obvious and the sacred: Nanook of the North  and The Man with a Movie Camera  and progressed to then current American and perestroika films. Although it seems unbelievable now, most of us so-called Soviets had never seen Nanook until that seminar. And most of the Americans had never seen Dziga Vertov’s masterpiece.
That September we saw a great number of excellent films. I personally made three major discoveries: The Thin Blue Line  by Errol Morris, The Seasons  by Artavazd Peleshyan, and Sherman’s March  by Ross McElwee. Of the three filmmakers, only Ross was present. I fell in love with his film and its brave, intricate self-irony.
Michael Moore’s blockbuster Roger and Me  was also screened. Its showmanship struck me with its chutzpah and subtle card stacking. After the screening, some American filmmakers were quick to explain to the uninitiated that not all aspects of capitalism were as bad as painted in Michael’s film. Those were kind and reassuring sentiments.
Another important discovery was Tongues Untied  and its gentle, amiable author, Marlon Riggs, who passed away so young.
Our two interpreters were in high demand. Not one of the Americans spoke any Russian. A handful of the Soviets spoke some basic English. Outside of the theater, our professional interactions were rather limited, although everyone generously compensated with hand gestures. We were genuinely interested in understanding each other.
No matter how free spirited, the Soviets were more or less part of the State system of filmmaking. There were no independent film studios. Everything we did, no matter how subversive (remember, perestroika?) was financed by the State. We worked with set budgets and as a rule tight production schedules.
Unlike us, the Americans were truly independent. They often assumed considerable personal and financial risk when they embarked on a project.
To borrow a phrase from Pulp Fiction , “the little things” stood out. We shot 35mm stock, whereas the Americans shot mostly 16mm and with a few exceptions, on video. None of us Soviets had ever worked with video. “U-Matic” was a word we heard at that seminar. Steve Roszell, who directed the documentary Writing on Water  on video, patiently explained “U-Matic” to all of us. With his thumb and index finger he had us imagine ¾-inch tape. The “U” sounded exotic and foreign, maybe because it reminded us all of a U-boat.
“It took me four years to complete Sherman’s March,” Ross McElwee told me over our evening glass of kefir. I shook my head in awe and disbelief. In 1989, I completed my first feature documentary Interpretation of Dreams in under ten months. Little did I know that it would take me sixteen years to complete a feature documentary when I relocated to the US.
My film was rather well-received by this binational crowd. No small part of this favorable reception was due to the simple fact that Freud and his books were on the forbidden list in the Soviet Union. Our American friends were just beginning to discover the Soviet realities. “The little things” were very often shocking to them. Impressed with my film, video scholar Deirdre Boyle brought a tape of Interpretation of Dreams to Richard Pena. The next year, he invited me to the New Directors/New Films series. That invitation was a transformative event in my life.
I offer one final memory about that September.
The seminar coincided with the Jewish High Holidays. One day, several American filmmakers expressed interest in visiting the only synagogue in Riga. Some of us Soviets joined them. We arrived in the city. We met a number of old men praying outside the synagogue. One of them asked who we were. I began to explain, of course, in Russian. Then British–Israeli scholar and filmmaker Alan Rosenthal
We stepped aside and watched Alan and several of these men converse in a once dead and now revived ancient tongue. Two worlds connected without any external help.
In a way, this connection across divides is exactly what happened during that 1990 Flaherty Seminar. Half of us did not speak Russian, the other half did not speak English. Certainly, almost none of us spoke Hebrew. But we all spoke film. And we connected. We all got some sense of each other, and maybe even a better sense of the world.
Where this “better sense of the world” took us all is a whole different story.
P.S. The former Soviet Republic of Latvia is now an independent country and a member of the European Union. The sanatorium that once belonged to the Union of the Soviet Composers has long been converted to luxury condominiums. A three-bedroom apartment currently lists for 650K Euros. Long live capitalism! I guess…
Saturday, August 26, 2017
It was a week of many firsts for me.
My first film seminar. My first time staying in college dormitories. My first summer not leaving Upstate New York the moment the semester at University of Rochester ended. My first time moderating in a theater (thanks to Laura U. Marks, Steve Reinke, and Khalil Joreige).
More significantly, it was my first time immersed in week-long experience dedicated to experimental film from the Arab world within a US context. I’m still unsure how to describe the seminar: summer camp for sleep-deprived filmmakers and academics; daily intense conversations after multiple screenings; and one too many caffeinated beverages.
I had heard of the Flaherty Seminar through the Film and Media Studies program at University of Rochester, which offers two annual fellowships that support the attendance of two doctoral students from different departments. At that time, I had just completed my coursework. I wasn’t sure I was going to commit to film. Logistically, it seemed very unlikely that I would have access to contemporary Arab or Middle Eastern cinema.
My hesitation immediately dissipated when I saw the announcement for Laura U. Marks’ program for the 61st seminar, “The Scent of Places عطر الأماكن.”
I had met Laura U. Marks in the spring of 2013. My advisor and director of the Film and Media Studies program Jason Middleton had invited her to screen her curated series “Arab Glitch.” With a continuous adrenaline rush of anticipation, I designed the poster for the event: an image of Souad Hosni juxtaposed with the text “Hubbell Auditorium, University of Rochester.” Arab cinema, experimental Arab cinema, was coming to Rochester, New York!
Only two years later it was back again—at the Flaherty.
I was especially intrigued by Marks’ program because of my own interest in Arab cinematic practices that shift away from mass-mediated trauma and politics. After spending so many years in the United States, I found myself yearning for alternatives that would cut through the homogeneity of images circulating around me.
Despite the constant influx of images from the Arab world, certain voices were painfully missing.
Where were the voices of those on the peripheries, the disabled communities, and the LGBT communities outside the project of the homonationalist other? Where are the women Lila Abu-Lughod has written about in her essay "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?"
Where were they?
And what were people cooking nowadays in Syria? Who supplied medical equipment? How much does a wheelchair cost? What kinds of pets did people in Yemen have? When will we confront anti-blackness in our communities? Are people still buying Coca-Cola in crates? What parts of the lamb were the khalas and ammos cooking these days?
What does Baghdad smell like today?
“The Scent of Places” answered many of these questions for me.
In Rawane’s Song, Lebanese filmmaker Mounira Al Solh states that after trying—and failing— to make art about the war, she probably has “nothing to say about the war!” Though she stages a refusal to engage with geopolitics, Al Solh deftly works through her own conflicting identity politics, art clichés, gender restraints, and pregnancy woes in her films.
Similarly, in Sometime/Somewhere Else Egyptian filmmaker Hassan Khan refuses categorical identification through his use of irony and the absurd. Hala Lotfy’s arresting Coming Forth By Day captures one exceedingly long day in the lives of a mother and daughter, providing around the clock care for their disabled father/husband confined to his bed. They, too, are confined. Without any governmental or social support, the women’s lives are suspended.
These films impacted me in ways that continue, even now.
The program also included filmmakers who were not from the Arab world such as Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Arthur Jafa, Ulrike Ottinger, Steve Reinke, Juan Manuel Sepúlveda, and Ramon Zürcher who provided an interesting array of perspectives.
“The Scent of Places” was a profoundly moving and thought-provoking experience. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to participate as a fellow, especially during a time when images from the Arab world continue to occupy hollowed out binaries.
If I ask you to conjure three images from the Arab world or the Middle East, what enters your mind?
My guess is that those imagined phantasmagorias might not feature a 1960s Rocket Society, protestors on Second Life, or a man elaborating his dedication to winning a sunbathing championship.
These much more expansive and quotidian imagescapes emerging from the seminar’s programming are why “The Scent of Places” was an absolutely essential viewing experience.
Many thanks to Patricia R. Zimmermann for inviting me to write this post. Shukran to Laura U. Marks, Anita Reher, Sarie Horowitz, Toby Lee, and everyone whose labor contributed to such a wonderful week.
Thursday, March 2, 2017
By Patricia R. Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald
We are pleased to announce our new blog, Flaherty Stories, which serves as a companion to our new book, The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017). The book is out in May 2017. In case you would like to pre-order, here is the link: http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?cPath=1037_7487_7488&products_id=808634
The blog will feature the voices and stories of the Flaherty Seminar, now in its 63rd year, as a way to celebrate the heterogeneity of people, films, and perspectives that have convened at the legendary film seminar.
In the ten-year journey of researching and writing this book, we encountered many stories and people. Many we spoke with had much more to say than could be quoted in a scholarly book. We hope to share these stories with you here, and invite other Flaherty devotees to contact us as well.
Here's the description of our book:
This is the inspiring story of The Flaherty, one of the oldest continuously running nonprofit media arts institution in the world, which has shaped the development of independent film, video, and emerging forms in the United States over the past 60 years.
Combining the words of legendary independent filmmakers with a detailed history of The Flaherty, Patricia R. Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald showcase its history and legacy, amply demonstrating how the relationships created at the annual Flaherty seminar have been instrumental in transforming American media history.
Moving through the decades, each chapter opens with a detailed history of the organization by Zimmermann, who traces the evolution of The Flaherty from a private gathering of filmmakers to a small annual convening, to today’s ever-growing nexus of filmmakers, scholars, librarians, producers, funders, distributors, and others associated with international independent cinema.
MacDonald expands each chapter by giving voice to the major figures in the evolution of independent media through transcriptions of key discussions galvanized by films shown at The Flaherty. The discussions feature Frances Flaherty, Robert Gardner, Fred Wiseman, Willard Van Dyke, Jim McBride, Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Erik Barnouw, Barbara Kopple, Ed Pincus, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Bruce Conner, Peter Watkins, Su Friedrich, Marlon Riggs, William Greaves, Ken Jacobs, Kazuo Hara, Mani Kaul, Craig Baldwin, Bahman Ghobadi, Eyal Sivan, and many others.