Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Lourdes Portillo”
Sunday, February 4, 2018
The Flaherty Seminar is a homecoming.
But home isn’t always the most pleasant of places.
At the Flaherty, I leave behind my life as a professor, media-maker, and programmer in the Midwest, a place I’ve never really considered home.
I make the long drive to Colgate. Along the way, I visit family and friends in the Buffalo area. The vast rolling hills of central New York amaze me. Photos never do them justice. Zigzagging on rollercoaster roads, I manage to remember how to find Hamilton, New York, where the Flaherty Seminar happens. I have gone four times.
When I went to college, my family couldn’t afford the dorm experience. So going to the Flaherty offers a chance to live the youth I never had. While many participants don’t like the dorms, I think it’s fun living there for a week. I often joke I should hang a Creed poster on the walls.
The rigid schedule of screenings, discussions, and meals comforts me. Perhaps it is similar to how military people appreciate routine or how prisoners eventually relish their own institutionalization. Structure provides a weird comfort: it takes care of everything.
At the Flaherty, I have conversations with the custodians and cafeteria staff, the working folks running things behind the scenes. These are sometimes my best, most unpretentious Flaherty conversations. To watch all these documentary films about ordinary people and not actually engage such people in real life would feel strange.
The seminar challenges participants to exist without preconception, a task difficult to accomplish, especially for smart academics with big egos. But can these faculty types win at foursquare, a schoolyard game often played at the seminar?
After the last screening and discussion of the day, I like to walk quietly through the small thicket of trees to return to my dorm room. No media. Insects buzzing. Stars.
Once, late at night, a van packed with seminarians went skinny-dipping. Like a lost scene from Dead Poets Society, naked people from Mexico, Spain, and maybe Portugal swam in a secluded lake owned by a fancy school. As the sun rose, we returned on winding back roads flanked by foggy landscapes, feeling exhilarated.
Rubbing shoulders with others from Buffalo is another Flaherty highlight. These DIY media-makers, folks from Squeaky Wheel, and descendants of the radical Media Study Department at SUNY-Buffalo remind me where I am from.
A rust-belt city, Buffalo’s unofficial nickname is The City of No Illusions, which for me translates as a city with a vastly under-recognized experimental and media-activist legacy. Without fail at the Flaherty, I meet New Yorkers who wear fancy glasses that cost more than my monthly rent and they talk shit about Buffalo. Their disdain drives me mad.
One year, Tony Conrad, my former mentor at SUNY-Buffalo, crashed the seminar. It was a pleasure to catch up. Some whispered, “I think that’s Tony Conrad over there.” To me, he was just Tony.
I remember his radiating smile. At a local dive bar in Hamilton, Tony playfully hopped up and down on the dance floor like an ostrich, a nod perhaps to Tony’s former band, The Primitives, and their famous song and dance, “The Ostrich.” Tony’s dancing was joyfully out of place and challenging, just like his experimental films and videos.
We chatted about the trials of my life as a professor in Illinois. We joked that the Department of Media Study is such a radical program that afterwards it’s hard to fit in anywhere else. I sought career advice. Tony replied cryptically, “These things take time. They can take a long time.” Tony passed away the following year. This was our last conversation.
Tony’s teachings, Buffalo’s vanguard media scene, and the Flaherty heavily inform my ideas about underground media, radical experimentation, and challenging the status quo.
The documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty made a career constructing dehumanizing films about other people and cultures. Now a seminar exists in his name. Yet, that seminar is very critical, even of him, a strange contradiction.
Beyond Robert Flaherty’s problematic representations of others, many criticize the seminar for high cost and limited accessibility. When I enthusiastically tell others about the seminar, a common response is, “I’d love to but it’s too expensive.” What about all the people who might never have a chance to attend the Flaherty?
Combined with the Buffalo scene and DIY punk culture, my Flaherty experiences galvanized me to create a microcinema in the irregular hallway in my Champaign, Illinois, apartment. I called it Hallways Microcinema, a nod to Buffalo’s Hallwalls. It had a two-year run with twenty-one events, all free.
I programmed screenings drawn directly from the Flaherty, including projects by Su Friedrich, Lourdes Portillo, Johan Grimonprez, and Jesse McLean. I met up with Vanessa Renwick from the Oregon Department of Kickass at a Flaherty. While touring, she presented her films for us. Without Hallways, these works wouldn’t have seen the light of day in Champaign.
Hallways served as a microcosm of the Flaherty Seminar. We screened challenging works and opened up lively discussion. People drank, hung out, talked, and formed a community. Like any community, it could be seen as exclusionary.
At the Flaherty, you work through half-baked ideas and get advice over meals. You never know where a conversation might lead you.
In 2016, I was thinking about applying for a Fulbright Fellowship. Somehow, I got connected with screen studies scholar Patty Zimmermann. She had recently spent time in Ukraine, delivering lectures. She encouraged me to apply to Ukraine, an emerging democracy with students voraciously consuming new ideas. Her enthusiasm sold me.
I write this Flaherty Story looking at winter outside my window in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, my home for a year. I contemplate my next course of action. I think about how the Flaherty Seminar supported and nurtured me. I consider how fortunate I was to be able to attend.
The problem with experiencing a mind-blowing Flaherty Seminar is that the next one will most likely disappoint you. Even though this has happened to me twice, my return to Buffalo, central New York, and the Flaherty always conjures a homecoming, reminding me where I am from and where I might go.
Thursday, February 1, 2018
Yes! I programmed the Flaherty Seminar, in 2012. We were young and wild. Well, more wild than young.
[From here on, you can read the whole text in a linear way, paragraph after paragraph, or choose your own way. I’ll try to help you with some indications. If you’re just interested in my Open Wounds seminar, you can read #3, #5, #10 & #12, and skip the rest]
Since then, I’ve been wanting to return. I didn’t try to come back in 2013—I needed a rest after 3 seminars in a row, and being in the center of the storm during the last one. Anyway for one reason or another, I haven’t been back. And yes, I miss you, Flaherty Seminar.
[More about the earlier seminars I attended in #4, #5]
I think 2012 was a good year for the seminar. At least, people looked happy at the end and most of the anonymous surveys confirmed this. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the nice comments I received; I read them to myself when I’m feeling down.
[If you think this is too corny you can find some wilder anecdotes in #5, but if you’re really enjoying it, you might want to jump to #10]
I participated in my first seminar in 2010. I’d arrived in New York that year on a grant from NYU’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese Literature. The year before, I had agreed to be artistic director of the Punto de Vista film festival. Former executive director of the Flaherty, Margarita de la Vega Hurtado, was my contact in America for Punto de Vista, so, being in New York and given my new programming position, there was no excuse: I had to go.
[If you would like to program the Flaherty, you’ll find more about how I was selected to program in #6 & #7]
The 2010 seminar, WORK, was programmed by Denis Lim. I remember meeting Dennis the day before the seminar. He looked extremely nervous. I have great memories of that year. Carlos Gutiérrez has also shared this in his “Flaherty Story”: 2010 was the year of World Cup in South Africa (yes, the one won by Spain!). Most of the Latinos at the Flaherty, including Lisandro Alonso, Pedro González Rubio and Eugenio Polgovsky, were soccer fans, so when there was a match (and there were matches all the time) we skipped screenings. I remember Lisandro saying to us in low voice, “Hey guys, the next film is one of mine; let’s watch the game!” The problem was that Lisandro’s films are short and we couldn’t see the whole match before the discussion.
In 2012 there was no World Cup, but someone knew about a lake near Colgate University where people could swim. At the end of the seminar there were two kinds of participants: those who had gone to the lake and those who hadn’t.
[Is this too frivolous? Maybe you can find something more transcendental in #7 or #11.]
If Margarita de la Vega Hurtado was the one to bring me to my first seminar, Lucila Moctezuma, then a Flaherty Trustee, first made me think about the possibility of programming a Flaherty. I have a clear memory of her innocent smile when she asked me, during the 2010 seminar, “Would you like to program a seminar?” During my holidays I drew up a proposal, and at the end of 2011, when my Flaherty experience was a distant midsummer night’s dream, I received a call from Mary Kerr.
[You’ll learn about the curatorial process in #7 and #9.]
I learned a lot working on my Flaherty for almost a year and a half. I remember a crisis with Mary Kerr. It happened eight or ten weeks before the seminar. I sent Mary a first draft of the program, and then, after a long, sleepless night, changed everything. She was really mad, and Lucila needed to mediate. Finally Mary accepted my changes, and I agreed not to work during sleepless nights. My seminar was the last one for Mary as executive producer—no connection I hope! By the end of the seminar Mary and I were like two old pals after a dangerous mission. The title for my seminar (“Open Wounds”) was Mary’s idea. I wanted it to be “Bleeding Wounds.” Dennis suggested “There Will Be Blood.” I liked them all.
[Now I need to summarize; if you feel you didn’t read anything remarkable in the previous paragraphs, maybe you’d better stop reading, because you won’t in the next five either!]
Steve Holmgren was, at least for me, another key person during those years: he ran the bar my year and was the one who introduced me to the Flaherty Skull Ceremony. If you haven’t heard about this, either you know little about the Flaherty, or you’re not interested in nightlife!
[A lot of partying goes on during the Flaherty. There are some other words about sleepless nights in #12]
I do have bittersweet memories too. Debating my ideas with the Advisory Board on the phone was sometimes painful. I thought I was the programmer, but everybody had something to critique or something to propose.
On the good side, I remember the conversation with Kathy Geritz about Sun Xun, and how she opened my mind—and Sun became part of the program. I have a special memory of a couple of conversations about seminar dynamics with John Gianvito at the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival. And Maria Campaña, a Flaherty Fellow my year, helped me after the seminar: she made possible our having Eduardo Coutinho at Punto de Vista in 2013. I also remember Mar Cabra, a young Spanish woman who didn’t enjoy the experimental part of my program. Now she’s a well-known investigative journalist in Spain.
[In #11 I try to develop some controversial thoughts on the seminar dynamics.]
I loved having Lourdes Portillo and Su Friedrich heading my filmmaker team. Now, almost six years later, I think even the collisions between filmmakers during the discussions allowed us to go further into how we think about film, history, and humanity.
[Do not read the next one if you haven’t read #3, #5 & #9.]
There is always something repetitive about the Flaherty. Not because of the regular structure of the event, but because of the dynamics of the discussions. It doesn’t matter what the topic of the seminar is; at a certain point, particular issues will arise again and again. I was astonished during the WORK seminar that there was no discussion about class struggle at all. At some point the discussion went back to gender issues right away.
And in between discussions, there is always an underground battle going between two groups: the academics on one hand (too pretentious and theoretical for the others) and the filmmakers and people from the industry (often identified as the old timers). Of course, neither group believes in the principle of “non-preconception,” and part of the programmer’s work is to deal with the preconceptions of both groups. I faced it in a confrontational way, by playing a song before every screening to create a particular mood.
[Last paragraph: I hope your journey through my text has been worthy of your time.]
The morning after my seminar, I remember a small group of sleepless people crossing the campus, heading down into the town of Hamilton to have breakfast. I was walking with a Flaherty newcomer, David Pendleton, the programmer at the Harvard Film Archive. He was completely enthusiastic about the seminar. Later, he had his own (PLAY, 2016). David was one of the three now-dead friends I’ve mentioned in my text, along with Eugenio and Eduardo. If documentary is about something, it’s human beings, and the passing of these loved ones has left us all with bleeding wounds.