Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Ithaca College”
Friday, December 1, 2017
Perhaps the struggle to recover fading memories, what St. Augustine would call remembering forgetfulness, is more useful than having access to perfect memories.
Or so I thought as I sat to write this remembrance of events from two decades ago. The truth is at first I remembered little about my involvement with the Flaherty Seminar in 1997, which is ironic given that the theme was “Exploration in Memory and Modernity.”
There is a somewhat valid excuse for my forgetfulness. At the time, I was holding down a full time job producing video advertisements for the cable company, studying full-time in a masters program at Ithaca College, and working as research/project assistant for Patty Zimmermann, an Ithaca College screen studies professor who was one of the programmers for the mini-Flaherty Seminar—Michelle Materre was the other.
I remember getting up at 4:30 AM on weekdays to do school work before going to my job, and then attending graduate classes in the evening. I often share this tale with my students struggling to balance work and school, which I am sure they find annoying.
In any event, the point is that I was busy, probably too busy to fully appreciate the impact of what I was involved in.
So it is only now, as I collect the isolated memories floating around my head and “curate” them into a meaningful experience, that I realize the impact that the Flaherty had on my development as a scholar.
What I actually remember from that October are little snippets of life as a student assistant.
I remember stuffing envelopes with invitations (this was before e-vites). I remember running to and fro making sure programs were distributed, chairs were available, signs were posted, and speakers were escorted to the right classrooms. I remember helping to fix projectors and setting up snacks; in short, getting done the things everyone just expects should be done when putting together an event. I do remember the artists and scholars: Daniel Reeves, Anne-Marie Duguet, Reginald Woolery... Or rather, I definitely remember the names and some of the work, even if I don’t always remember the faces.
I remember the parties and get-togethers and being a bit intimidated about interacting with the kind of folks whose work I previously encountered only in the classroom and who were now standing in front of me.
Most of all, I remember the Digital Salon, a room full of computers featuring websites and CD-ROM content by artists like Muntadas.
I provided technical assistance in putting the room together. I remember getting the sense even then that this was something new and exciting that redefined modes of spectatorship and interaction.
Of course, by today’s standards it seems quaint that we would have to get all this digital content into one room in order for people to experience it. But it is precisely because consumption of digital content has become so atomized and individualistic that the idea of the Salon seems endowed with a sense of collectivity that is now missing.
As I put all these memories together, I realize that the Flaherty was a key moment in my education as a scholar.
Yes, I was taking graduate classes at the time, reading and writing and working on research projects.
But the experience of helping to organize that weekend Flaherty gave me a sense—for the first time, I think—of belonging to an intellectual community, of being able not just to watch or read thought-provoking work, but to interact with the people who created it, and be able to have a discussion about it. In other words, as a student I had done scholarship, but now I started to feel like a scholar.
I eventually went on to do my doctorate at Columbia University and have been teaching at SUNY Oswego for almost a decade.
Many years from now, I know my students will probably not remember the details of everything they are learning. They are just as busy as I was.
But hopefully some of them will have similar opportunities to reflect on and organize their memories, to realize that they did find a community and a purpose in the midst of all that activity.
And hopefully they will also remember the sense of excitement about their discovery, as I do when I think about my involvement with the Flaherty in 1997.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
I was a townie and former carpenter who was a cinema and photography student at Ithaca College in upstate New York.
In 1987 I was privileged to be one of the first undergraduate students to attend the Flaherty Seminar on an internship.
I was encouraged to apply and delighted to be accepted. I enjoyed meeting filmmakers and scholars from around the world. I enjoyed seeing films I would never have been able to see otherwise.
I have two very vivid memories of the Flaherty.
One is the screening of The Journey  by Peter Watkins and the other is a discussion of The Bombing of Osage Avenue  by Louis Massiah.
I’ll start with the latter.
It’s the story of the police bombing of a house controlled by MOVE that engulfed an entire block in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia.
During the discussion the comments by a British man talking about how police in the U.S. used excessive force as a matter of course struck me as much as the film did. My immediate gut response was Northern Ireland and the official British response to that conflict. My take away was that we all seemed to be myopic about our own state of affairs.
Unfortunately, I was a little too timid and unsure of myself to speak up.
I also give a lot of credit to Richard Herskowitz, as well as Peter Watkins and Scott MacDonald, for screening Watkins’ 14-hour epic, The Journey .
While I did indeed consider it a marathon, I’m glad I watched the whole film.
I even turned my name badge over and drew a “?” to mimic the ending of each segment of The Journey.
At that 1987 Flaherty Seminar, I had the rather schizophrenic reaction of being simultaneously in over my head and at home.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
At my first Flaherty Seminar in 2006, I was asked to sit in a circle with the other participants to introduce ourselves. Each person opened with a numerical inventory of how many seminars they had attended.
I had just returned from India. I wasn’t sure whether jetlag distorted what I was hearing or it if these statements were really being uttered in public.
Rumors swirled in screen studies circles that the seminar was cultish and debates vitriolic. I remember feeling that the seminar seemed like a cross between a first-year seminar at a university and a 12-step program for lost souls seeking reorientation.
The seminar developed into something else: a vibrant space for the challenge of having one’s expectations disrupted.
I found myself addicted to the ritual of awaking each morning for three screenings of unannounced films and videos. When I attended the seminar again in 2007 and 2008, I remember feeling emboldened that I could announce to newcomers that it was my second or third Flaherty. I now understood how the seminar worked.
My colleague and now coauthor Patty Zimmermann had encouraged me to attend. She’d even found a way for me to get funding from Ithaca College. She also shared that the design of the seminar owes more to Frances Flaherty than to her husband Robert. I mused, how typical, a woman does the work and a man gets the attention.
I thought about how Alice Guy-Blaché films are not taught as widely as Georges Méliès films. I recalled that her role in developing film as a narrative medium had been largely forgotten until feminist scholars (all women in this instance) recovered this repressed history.
Patty revealed that in the film studies courses at Ithaca College, she and Gina Marchetti had adapted Frances Flaherty’s strategy of eliciting responses as free from preconceptions as possible.
I was part of the film studies team at Ithaca College with Patty. We distributed syllabi that included only the titles of what would be screened. No place of production. No year of production. No running time. No language or format. And certainly no director’s name.
Although the first year film students in this large lecture class could search online to learn more about the films, few did. They all seemed to find it more fun to arrive without expectations, mesmerized by the provocations to see and to hear and to think and to immerse in the unknown.
My experiences at my first Flaherty rewired my own lingering preconceptions.
I bonded over discussions with Mahen Bonetti, Amalia Córdova, Carlos Guittérez, Roger Hallas, Anna Siomopulous, Sharon Lin Tay, Chi-hui Yang, and others. No matter what was screened or what was said at the large group discussions, the seminar solidified our commitment to voices academia and film culture marginalized, discredited, or ignored.
The seminar disrupts standardized histories of narrative film, documentary, and experimental media, as well as standardized programming at art houses and museums. It made me realize how much has been excluded. It was my first experience of encountering indigenous media and video games in the same space as documentary—and documentary for television alongside documentary for art houses.
I met extraordinary artist-intellectuals including Ashim Ahluwalia, Natalia Almada, Rebecca Baron, Ximena Cuevas, Theo Eshetu, Jacqueline Goss, Leonard Retel Helmrich, Oliver Husain, Laura Kissel, Khalo Matabane, Christina McPhee, Liz Miller, Amir Muhammad, Jenny Perlin, João Moreira Salles, Eddo Stern, and Renée Tajima-Peña. Since then, their films, videos, and installations have ended up on my syllabi, and I’ve analyzed these works in my scholarly publications.
I also met artist-intellectuals whose work I studied in graduate school or had taught in classes, such as Ursula Biemann, Vittorio de Seta, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, and Moussa Sene Absa. I “met” Bahman Ghobadi live via Skype. He had not been able to secure a visa to enter the United States.
For me, the smaller discussions were fortifying. The big discussions were sometimes intimidating, often frustrating, and occasionally pointless. But they were always part of something larger that was unequivocally inspiring.
Although I have not been able to attend my fourth Flaherty, I look forward to doing so. I hope that a Flaherty might one day be held a little closer to where I live. Anywhere in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, or even East Asia would be closer than central New York. I have not found another event that rivals it.
After three seminars, I am addicted to screening media in classes and public programs without advance framing. I am addicted to having my assumptions proven incomplete and my preconceptions rendered incorrect.
I give thanks to the brave women (and men) in the history of The Flaherty Seminar, partisans for an independent cinema who made this way of knowing the world possible for so many generations of seminar participants.
The Flaherty Seminar pushed me to think in unanticipated and unexpected ways. I am so grateful to Patty for encouraging me to attend my first seminar and am eager to read the seminar’s history that she and Scott MacDonald have painstakingly assembled after a decade of research.
The Flaherty is a productively disunified and unruly experience.
Editors’ note: The Flaherty Seminar’s international scope is evident in the array of home countries for the participants mentioned above: India (Ashim Ahluwalia), México/United States (Natalia Almada), United States (Rebecca Baron), Switzerland (Ursula Biemann), México (Ximena Cuevas), Italy (Vittorio de Seta), UK/Italy with family from Ethiopia (Theo Eshetu), Kurdish Iran (Bahman Ghobadi), United States (Jacqueline Goss), Netherlands/Indonesia (Leonard Retel Helmrich), Canada/Germany with family from India (Oliver Husain), United States (Laura Kissel), Chad/France (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun), South Africa (Khalo Matabane), United States (Christina McPhee), United States/Canada (Liz Miller), Sénégal (Moussa Sene Absa), Malaysia (Amir Muhammad), United States (Jenny Perlin), Brazil (João Moreira Salles), Israel/United States (Eddo Stern), and United States with family from Japan and México (Renée Tajima-Peña).