Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Michael Glawogger”
Thursday, February 1, 2018
I was asked by Mary Kerr to film a trailer for the seminar, something that could be used for “propaganda” purposes.
The filming was to take place during the 2010 seminar, “WORK,” programmed by Dennis Lim. The idea was to give viewers the visceral sensation of being in the thick of it, as if they were taking part in the screenings, discussions, and the extra-curricular activities.
I’d been a Flaherty filmmaker the year before. The 2009 Seminar, “MONUMENTS, WITNESSES, RUINS,” programmed by Irina Leimbacher, was my first, and it was love at first sight. I was happy to help promote the cult of Flaherty.
I was delighted to find out that my friend Josh Solondz would be participating in the project as assistant director. Josh and I were born on the same day (December 11). The stars were definitely aligning in our favor.
Our producer was Mary Kerr herself; Lucila Moctezuma was associate producer. We enlisted the help of Gerry Hooper, a frequent Flaherty participant and an experienced DP, who had worked in Bollywood on the breakthrough gangster film Satya .
From the start, the idea was to conduct interviews with the Seminar filmmakers. This would be a way for us to get to know them, learn from them, poke fun at them and, perhaps, to abuse them a bit. Our team got a boost from Daniela Alatorre, who helped us with the interviews, and from Eva Weber, who worked as general assistant.
Our dual role made the Seminar experience exhilarating for me—and a constant challenge. But because of our special situation, we could see more than an average participant, and we could enjoy the comic aspect of this gathering of film lovers who brought their various preconceived notions and prejudices to a place where non-preconception was the official rule.
We’d been asked to make a trailer, something on the level of a brief commercial, but somehow we were inspired to approach the task as a serious film project. Surrounded by brilliant seminar filmmakers, academics, and other outstanding participants, I felt we had to try for the highest level of excellence.
The problem was, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d hardly ever filmed human beings, except for dead ones!—in Nascentes Morimur . I’d filmed pigs and naked mole rats, and sewage!
I tried to place the interviewed filmmakers in environments corresponding to the atmosphere of their films. Michael Glawogger’s Megacities  and Workingman’s Death  put viewers in the midst of perilous workplaces: a slaughterhouse in Nigeria, a do-it-yourself coal mine in the Ukraine, sulphur collection inside an Indonesian volcano... We interviewed Michael in the Flaherty kitchen, in the midst of the clamor, with workers passing in front of the camera.
I would start each interview asking about the idea of non-preconception. Michael asserted that there was no such thing, but that it was a nice idea to entertain.
We shot two great Mexican filmmakers, friends and rivals, Eugenio Polgovsky and Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, in the swimming pool, a location suggested by Pedro’s Alamar .
For Lisandro Alonso, we tried a Hitchcockian Vertigo zoom—suggested by Lisandro’s film Los Muertos . As Lisandro and Dennis Lim walked up a ramp towards the camera, which had been placed on a rug, we attempted, at first without success, to pull the rug and camera backwards as I zoomed in. Lisandro was amused, and said that our clumsiness reminded him of shooting Los Muertos in the midst of the jungle. We enlisted the filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad to help us, and the rug began to move.
We filmed the artist Mika Rottenberg at the local gym, using exercise machines and lifting weights as she spoke—a fabulous location full of reflections in the mirrors and different types of bodies in motion. At some point my conversation with Mika veered toward sex. That part was later excised from the online interview. Flaherty censorship! The official version is posted below.
We also interviewed Uruphong, Lucy Raven, Benj Gerdes and Jennifer Hayashida, Akosua Adoma Owusu, Alex Rivera, Kazuhiro Soda, Zhao Dayong, and Naomi Uman. The interviews were exhaustive. We’d set no limit to how long the conversations should be.
We began to spread the word that this would be a feature film about the seminar. We quickly produced a meta-trailer for that fictitious feature, while working on the trailer proper. In our meta-trailer Bill Brand, using the small, waterproof Kodak camera Mary Kerr had loaned us, filmed underwater shots of Lucy Raven doing laps in the pool. Dennis agreed to show the meta-trailer as part of a regular screening. I wonder if this was the first time that a film made during the seminar was shown at the seminar?
After “WORK” was finished, Josh and I began editing our many hours of footage. We loved the material and had endless fun with it. During particularly hot summer days we’d strip and edit au naturel. Many versions were created, representing the various modes of experimental filmmaking. Six months later we had a 2 ½-hour feature.
We’d have continued, had Mary not come by to bring us back to reality: the Flaherty, she reminded us, had requested only a 2-minute piece.
Josh and I are still entertaining the idea of making the feature. After all, there’s entire archive of interview footage, as well as discussion tapes that could be tapped. The feature could be endless, a Flaherty film that continues to grow longer, like the Flaherty experience itself, which feeds us and through which we continue to grow.
The official Flaherty Trailer: https://vimeo.com/18136767
Michael Glawogger interview: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=3EsqC6I7Hm0
Mika Rottenberg interview: https://vimeo.com/23155242
(Thanks to Josh Solondz and Jim Supanick for reviewing and adding valuable points to this piece.)
Saturday, October 28, 2017
How does one extract the highlights of a cultural phenomenon that meets, exceeds, undermines, and sometimes thwarts expectations?
How does one parse an intensely subjective experience that defies easy description and begs for critique?
How does one describe the ways in which the polemical and the personal intertwine in inextricable, indistinguishable, and sometimes identical ways?
The Flaherty Seminar touches all these questions, and invites many more. I think of it as acomplex system, somewhat like a knitted thing constructed of varying stitches: a platform, aretreat, a conference, a school, a cult, a family, a haven, a coven, a privilege, a vestige of the past, a beacon of the future, a happy holiday.
So far, I’ve experienced four iterations of the Flaherty seminar.
Of course, I feel the ever-pressing obligations to write about the incredible films presented, the moderated conversations with the creators, and the conversations with esteemed academics in documentary film studies. Many others have written about the films, the people, the programs.
I want to dive into a different pool.
In my heart, the Flaherty Seminar feels like an intuitive and subjective experience. It unfolds with many sets of lived revelations, almost unbearable shudders, and shining moments.
Thanks to the advice and encouragement of my friend, archivist and historian Carolyn Tennant, I attended my first seminar in 2004 at Vassar College. I was fairly new to the job of film programmer. I was living in Buffalo, New York, working as media arts director at Hallwalls, the nonprofit arts center. This provided me with a magnificent and substantial hands-on education in arts management, arts funding, fundraising, curating, criticism, archiving.
2004 celebrated the 50th anniversary of the seminar. Susan Oxtoby curated. Perhaps because it served as an introduction to generations of makers whom I encountered in person, I remember this seminar the most clearly.
At that seminar, I hung out with filmmakers Eve Heller, Phil Solomon, Julia Meltzer, David Thorne, Janie Geiser, and Louis Klahr. I was as inspired by their work as I was by their warmth. A month or two before, my father had died, and in sharing that loss with them I felt both comforted and bolstered.
As I staggered across a field with my head spinning from excitement and agoraphobia, Ricky Leacock, the legend of direct cinema, steadied me. Scholar Eric Barnouw’s widow Betty Barnouw told me that she would always knit in movie theaters, occasionally slipping stitches in the dark. I frequently found myself sitting alongside fellow knitter Ruth Bradley, who ran the Athens Film and Video Festival and edited the journal Wide Angle at Ohio University.
In 2006, I returned to Vassar for Steve Seid and Ariella Ben Dov’s program entitled “Creative Demolition.” The Buffalo contingent (Carolyn Tennant, Caroline Koebel, Stefani Bardin, and myself) was in full force that year. Many people remarked at how much we seemed to like each other. A surprising observation. Of course we did!
Sharon Lockhart, Jacqueline Goss, Adele Horne, Patty Chang, Zoe Beloff, and Vittorio De Sita screened films and videos. Fridolin Schönwiese’s moderated conversation with Kathy Geritz about It Works  stays with me. The conversation was a revelation because it is so difficult to find adequate words to describe the workings and meanings of sound in film. Here were two brilliant people doing exactly that with inspiring generosity.
And, at the 2006 seminar I knit a fine-gauged, green gossamer cardigan—my “Flaherty sweater.” On the last night, I finished it in my single dorm room, enjoying the self-imposedisolation. In contrast to its intense camaraderie, the seminar also affords moments of solitude even while it does not openly encourage them.
In 2010, Dennis Lim was the programmer, exploring the theme of “Work.” I attended on a professional development grant and worked for the seminar. I poured wine at Bill’s Bar. I attended workshops. I communed with other fellows. There was no time to knit.
The late Austrian documentarian Michael Glawogger relentlessly put himself in harm’s way for films like Workingman’s Death  and Whore’s Glory (2010). Experimental filmmaker Naomi Uman, a dear friend from the 2004 Hallwalls Artists’ Residency Project, shared her Ukrainian Time Machine . During a post-screening discussion, she spoke with the Mexican filmmaker Eugenio Polgovsky who died this year, another premature loss.
As I look back on these experiences, the key wonder of the seminar resides in the post-screening discussions. Their intensities and reflections compound the Seminar’s great wealth of screening experiences and opportunities for connection. Listening and choosing to be involved in the discussions (or not) and remembering that they are only one of the opportunities for exchange is vital. Some of the most valuable insights are rendered during chats with others between screenings and discussions, colliding in the dorms, sharing meals, or raising a glass at the bar.
2013 was my most recent seminar. I went to take in colleague Pablo De Ocampo’s program called “History is What’s Happening.” Of all the seminars I’ve attended, this was the most overtly political. Sadly, my detailed notes are illegible today, the handwriting not keeping pace with the hand knitting.
The films of Sara Maldoror – the brilliant Guadeloupian director of African descent – still resonate with me. A cameo from one of her films appeared in Chris Marker’s San Soleil , an overt yet accidental, unmistakable connection across time, lives, makers, and states of being. This concept of cinematic excavation also reverberated across the films of Eyal Sivan, Basma Alsharif, Sirah Foighel Brutmann and Eitan Efrat as well as the Otolith Group, all makers invested in the fine gauges of historic memory.
Complexity. There is no one Flaherty seminar experience. Each seminar is distinct. The other attendees and one’s own stage of life inform each experience as much as the films programmed. One’s willingness to open up and remain present might be most important in navigating the somewhat unusual experience of not choosing the films you experience.
To exhaust the knitting metaphor: the common thread to my four seminars so far, unraveled and reworked, remains this maxim--“only connect.”