Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Irina Leimbacher”
Monday, January 22, 2018
I have been asked to tell my Flaherty story, to recover a few impressions from my first time at the seminar.
But my first-person voice, particularly when narrative and recollection are involved, tends to be weirdly “away” and about itself. I rarely remember much. At least, nothing in continuity.
Away and yet a way. Because I talk about forgetting. So, here we go.
Irina Leimbacher, who championed our work in the 1990s as a programmer for the San Francisco Cinematheque, invited my longtime collaborator Jeanne C. Finley and me to present at her 2009 Flaherty Seminar entitled Witnesses, Monuments, Ruins.
We screened our single-channel works: At the Museum: A Pilgrimage of Vanquished Objects , Based on a Story , and The Adventures of Blacky . We also installed a two-channel installation entitled Guarded , and presented an artist’s talk about other installation works.
I do remember Guarded, or rather I remember what it looked like, having consulted my photographs, but not the single channel works. Fortunately, the screening notes tell me what else we showed, otherwise I would have to guess.
That is to say, I cannot remember a single story, a specific conversation, or a telling word from that seminar. Instead, there are a few images.
I remember standing next to Jeanne at the podium at the front of the packed Golden Auditorium, waiting to present our artist’s talk.
I remember chatting at the bar with Roger Hallas, a documentary scholar, writer, and professor from Syracuse University, though these descriptors do not form part of my recollection. And was that chat before or after our talk? I forget.
In subsequent years, I’ve tended to greet Roger as “Bruce.” Sorry, Roger!
I remember that John Knecht, Professor of Art and Art History and Film and Media Studies at Colgate—I just looked up his title online—greeted us the first evening.
Wearing jeans, and sporting a grey ponytail and a mustache, Knecht was affable, warm, positive, encouraging. He must have oriented us to the space where Guarded was to be mounted and to the equipment available. We must have arrived early to set up.
One final image: after one of our post-screening panels, I know I talked to someone, maybe it was Lucien Castaing-Taylor, a documentary filmmaker from the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard. But maybe I’m just wishing it had been him. Irina doubts my recollection. I trust her.
My Lucien said he was irritated because we handled the Iraq War so flippantly in our installation Flat Land , a work we described during our artist’s talk but did not install.
He didn’t say “flippant.” That is the impression that persists though. I remember Jeanne and I saying to each other afterwards, “We will never present that piece in a talk again.” Of course, we did subsequently, because we learned to trust our own ironies and handle them more delicately.
Over the years, I’ve shared many of my Flaherty photographs with friends and seminarians via social media. Yes, I photograph everything. As mentioned before, I documented Guarded. These pictures include me, Jeanne, and Warren Wheeler, but there are a few that someone else must have taken. Who? Strangely, aside from these, I took only three pictures.
All three are of Jeanne and my wife, Vicky Funari, the documentary filmmaker featured at the 2000 Flaherty, at dinner in the Colgate cafeteria. Jeanne talks. Vicky listens and smiles. I know it is dinner. The metadata tells me it is 7:15pm.
(Kafka’s line in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida rings true and false. Yes, I photograph things to forget them, but I cannot forget the things I have not photographed. It is as though these latter things never existed and so cannot even be forgotten.)
As I look at these three photographs now, they seem strong documents because they’re filled with particulars and with people I love.
But they are also weak. They give me nothing to help me frame events that I know I lived through, but cannot recall.
Fortunately, I have other ways to remember.
In a June 24, 2009 Facebook reply to a friend who wanted to know more about the 2009 Seminar, I posted the following:
It was grueling. And amazing. Irina Leimbacher curated this year; and she’s wicked smart and has wide ranging and eclectic tastes. For the first time, there are installation works at Flaherty. I didn’t know how huge and intense this event was; now I do…
The schedule produces just enough exhaustion that folks finally say all the things they shouldn’t, which makes for lively conversations. I like the secrecy and the saturation. The inevitable tension: academics versus makers versus non-profit denizens versus representatives of NGO's versus cinephiles.
And let me combine two emails I sent to Irina soon after the Seminar:
Irina, thanks so much for the adventure. The week was a feast, both intellectual and sensual; and we’re grateful that you thought and think enough of us to put us in the same league with the filmmakers and artists on the program…
It was really exciting and strangely fulfilling: Guarded looked great, and I feel better about the work, even At the Museum (and I take back my own objection: the work doesn’t dictate the destruction of all museological habits, otherwise the interviews would make no sense.)— I and we feel better about the work for having shown it there and survived.
The “enchiladas” (Vicky’s word for academic intellectuals) were lukewarm but warm. Which, given the power of most of the work, is good enough for me.
For me, remembering is simply the process I’m undertaking right now as I write this piece.
I scour social media. I talk to friends. I fill in a few gaps and leave others to their enigmas. I talk about how I do this “remembering” while I do it.
The “I” that narrates its labors and the “I” found in memory and lost in forgetting coincide nowhere but here.
Sunday, December 17, 2017
My recollections of the Flaherty are closely tied to one courageous friend and witness and to one revolution witnessed through social media.
I first came to the Flaherty in 2003 as a guest for the “Witnessing the World” seminar, programmed by John Gianvito. My dear friend and comrade-in-arms, Joey Lozano, attended in conjunction with the screening of Peter Wintonick and Kat Cizek's Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights, And The News , a prescient feature documenting the impact of video on the world.
Seeing Is Believing surveyed the use of video for human rights. It featured the organization I work for, WITNESS, which focuses on how to enable anyone anywhere to use video technology to advance human rights, and works closely with citizens and human rights movements around the world. One of the film’s central characters is Joey Lozano, a pint-sized activist who with zest and tremendous moral and physical courage documented the resistance of indigenous rights activists on his home island of Mindanao in the Philippines.
In Seeing is Believing, Kat and Peter’s exploration of the question of who gets to tell the story of witnessed reality ranged from the members of Nakamata, an indigenous land rights movement that Joey taught to film for themselves, to anti-extremist activists in Europe, and people fighting human trafficking.
Because I attended only that one session of the 2003 seminar, my memories are tied up with the emotion of seeing my dear friend Joey and celebrating him on the big screen. The subsequent loss of both Joey and Peter to early deaths from illness tinges that memory, particularly poignant for me since I believe this screening was the only time we were ever all together in the same place.
My next opportunity to come to the Seminar was in June 20-26, 2009, for “Witnesses, Monuments, Ruins,” programmed by Irina Leimbacher (hmm, I spot a magnet-like attraction to “witness” in Flaherty Seminar titles). It was during this seminar that I witnessed a revolution on social media.
Some of my memories of the 2009 seminar are the classic Flaherty kind: kindred spirits meeting across a lunch table or after a discussion, amazing audiovisual experiences watched without regard for the time and in blissful ignorance of what would come next. I recall some manic dancing late at night to Michael Jackson music following the news of his death on June 25th during the seminar.
As someone who lives and works in the constant crisis mode of global activism and often watches videos as evidentiary material, sometimes on double-speed, the experience of the seminar’s screenings and gatherings embodied a refreshing change of pace.
The films that most powerfully spoke to me were the works of Omar Amiralay, as well as Lisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass  and Amar Kanwar's multi-channel video installation, The Lightning Testimonies . I had recently returned from Syria, which at that time was caught in the artificial passivity of an ossified authoritarian state whose pre-history Omar caught in his courageous, subtle films. Omar's Film-Essay on the Euphrates Dam  and The Chickens  spoke simply, directly, and powerfully to human rights issues.
Sweetgrass offered an amazing sensory experience quite different from my usual filmmaking tastes. Together with Sensory Ethnography Lab films I was to see later, this film set my mind thinking about what immersive experience could mean in a film and how one can really feel an alternate reality.
Shortly after the seminar, I began exploring how storytelling arcs of immersive livestreaming and virtual reality experiences that capture both the mundane moments and the crisis moments in frontline activism can help engage viewers to move from being passive spectators to immersed, engaged witnesses. This process has now evolved into a livestreaming-and-action project at WITNESS, called Mobil-Eyes Us.
However, frustration also infuses my memories of the 2009 seminar.
I was powerfully aware that a new form of witnessing was being enacted in Iran at the very moment we were enjoying the seminar. The events known as the Green Movement were entering their second week of massive global attention.
This political struggle mobilized images on social media to engage Iranian and global publics. On the first day of the seminar, Neda Agha-Soltan, a student protesting the Iranian election, was murdered on the streets of Tehran. Her death, captured horribly yet cinematically on camera, was then shared on YouTube for so many to see.
Nevertheless, the structure of the seminar, which insisted on privileging the program that had been curated, seemed to exclude this on-the-ground, amateur-produced witnessing. I remember a powerful sense that we seminarians were staying inside our box talking about witnessing while the world outside the seminar was changing and being witnessed in real time.
Of course, after eight years of continued work with movements and activists using digital media to witness so many variants of opportunity, failure, frustration, and success, the revelatory sense of that particular moment has dulled for me.
But I still remember that those of us engaged in human rights media practices occupied a moment of discovery in 2009. Yet, paradoxically, in the midst of a Flaherty seminar exploring the act of witnessing, we chose not to witness in real-time.
I'm waiting for my next Flaherty. Surely, now is the time for a curator to include witnessing not only within another seminar title, but also to reflect during the seminar the diverse ways witnessing occurs in social and real-time media.