Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Nanook of the North”
Thursday, March 8, 2018
The Wells College campus felt hot, bright, and oddly sterile.
I had just spent time in the south of England shooting my new film about memory and coincidence. With my 16mm Bolex, I’d wandered around Europe, revisiting places I had been and spontaneously reacting to these encounters. It was 1995.
My knowledge of Wells College was as slight as my knowledge of the Flaherty seminar.
I lived in Helsinki, Finland, and knew only two people attending the seminar: Phil Hoffman and Monica Flaherty.
Phil and I had been invited to present our film Sweep , which critiqued traditional strategies of representation in documentary films. Monica Flaherty was my grandmother’s sister. She would be presenting her own project.
Within the Finnish film scene, Sweep’s open-ended, self-reflective, radical form had stirred debate. In our film Phil and I problematize Robert Flaherty’s trip to Thunder Bay on his way to film Nanook of the North —when he was 33, the same age as I was when we made Sweep. I had no idea if our film would resonate at the Flaherty Seminar.
I shared my dormitory room with Riyad Wadia, a filmmaker from India who was the grandson of J. B. H. Wadia, the founder of Wadia Movietone Studies. Riyad was also one of the first openly gay filmmakers in India. Like me, he was attending the Flaherty for the first time.
Riyad was two years younger than me, but I remember him as a much more mature, dedicated, and knowledgeable filmmaker than I was.
In his post-screening sessions, Riyad discussed his family history and talked about his family’s archive of Indian films. He shared his own very personal and touching film, Fearless: The Hunterwali Story , about Australian actress and circus artist Mary Ann Evans, a 1930s Hindi cinema action queen who did her own stunts. She was known as Fearless Nadia or Hunterwali.
During the Flaherty week, screenings, common meals, and discussions merged in a flurry of activity and people. I never contributed to the post-screening discussions. Listening to the abstract academic jargon, I felt clueless. Verbose commentators aggressively slashed at my fellow media artists. The discussion petrified me.
Maybe because both of us came from outside the North American academic and filmmaking community, we shared similar impressions of our first Flaherty. We witnessed the slightly hysterical expressions about “Flaherty family” among longtime seminarians, who revealed an awe-inspiring familiarity with each other. It felt like a cult, a friendly and kind-spirited cult.
I felt much less freaked out expressing these observations with Riyad.
My father’s family were descendants of Dutch colonials from south India. Riyad’s family were Parsees from Bombay. Our shared background but different family histories intensified our connection. After the seminar, we stayed in touch. Sadly, I never met him again in person. He passed away in 2003.
At some point, Monica Flaherty, one of Robert Flaherty’s three daughters, presented her Moana with Sound .
Monica had spent years creating an atmospheric—and in her words, authentic— soundtrack for her father’s and mother’s 1926 film Moana of the South Seas. Although her 16mm print of Moana with Sound was more than ten years old, Monica zealously carried it from screening to screening. She seemed desperate to protect the reel of plastic from loss, damage, and the evil eye.
An awkward discussion followed Moana.
Monica was defensive. She aggressively protected the Flaherty legacies. She refused any new readings of the film. I did not imagine that years later I would devote a large part of my life to salvaging and restoring her Moana with Sound project.
Philip and I finally screened Sweep. I understood very little of Sweep’s post-screening discussion. Phil answered some questions. The discussion bypassed all our ideas to critically interrogate heroic male road trips in documentary.
On the way out of the theater, I joined Monica for the walk to the discussion room. I was curious for her feedback. I’d shot an entire scene at the Flaherty farm in Vermont. Despite the fact that I was her grandnephew, Monica had been reluctant to grant permission. She had grave concerns about how I might deal with the myths of Robert Flaherty’s genius.
Monica and I walked slowly. She was seventy-five at the time. She did not seem to want to comment on our film.
Finally, I asked for her thoughts on Sweep. She offered one frosty comment: the credits misspelled her surname. After all my anticipation of a challenging discussion about representations of the exotic, the problems of non-preconception, and our common family heritage, her comment was a downer.
As the week rolled on, I met many serious, dark-clothed people from New York City. They seemed to know everyone. I also met fellow artists dedicated to their causes. All were interesting, insightful, and generous.
Several filmmakers impressed me. Craig Baldwin screened Sonic Outlaws , an eruption of powerful media-political energy. For Spin  Brian Springer organized weird satellite feeds that caught American presidential candidates and campaign spin doctors off guard.
Slowly but surely, Flaherty seminar traditions sucked me in.
On the last day, I took my Bolex over to the Wells College golf course. I’d enlisted Phil as a stunt person.
With new creative vigor germinated at the seminar, I returned to my work-in-progress about memory and coincidence. I filmed two rolls of silly golf antics. We sped around the course in the golf cart. One golfer had a black Lab. That beautiful black dog, glistening in the midday central New York sun, kept us company.
I used nearly every frame from those two rolls in the film I titled Texas Scramble . Texas Scramble is a particular way for a group of golfers to play together. After each shot, all agree to hit their next ball from the position where one of the golfer’s balls has landed. In some odd way, Texas scramble seems to correlate with how I experienced the 1995 Flaherty Seminar.
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
Like everyone else in graduate school for film and media, I had heard many stories and rumors about the Flaherty.
The post-screening seminar discussions with filmmakers I idolized like Trinh T. Minh-ha, George Kuchar, and Ken Jacobs constituted the stuff of legend. As colleagues in film and media recounted numerous Flaherty intensities and flare-ups to me, I must admit that I assumed that these oral histories had blossomed into exaggerations as they passed from person to person.
However, as I read lively discussion transcripts edited by Scott MacDonald in Patty Zimmermann and Erik Barnouw’s epic quadruple issue of Wide Angle , it became clear these stories were not exaggerated. The Flaherty loomed larger than life.
Years later in the autumn of 2001, I started my new faculty job as an assistant professor of cinema production at Ithaca College. I learned about an event happening in November at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY, only three hours northeast of Ithaca. It was advertised as Digital Flaherty. I was intrigued.
In that period, attaching the word “digital” to any concept, practice, or event signaled an attempt at transformation. This seminar would adhere to the longstanding Flaherty ethos—an intense, shared engagement with works, makers, and participants. But it would be shorter in duration and focus on work that was, for lack of a better term, “digital.” In this context, “digital” meant artworks existing only within a digital framework (video games, VR, code art) rather than using digital tools to facilitate analog workflows such as a digital editor or digital effects.
My anxiety mounted as the seminar approached.
Digital Flaherty seemed like a great opportunity. The stories I had heard of intellectual battle royales invaded in my psyche. I feared that I would be discovered as a fraud. Or worse, identified as Just Not That Smart.
I rode to the seminar with Patty Zimmermann, my colleague in my new Department of Cinema and Photography. I was nervous about driving with her as well. We ended up talking so much about the upcoming event that we hardly ate the salt and vinegar potato chips we acquired for the road.
September 11 was fresh in everyone’s memories. It cast a pall over nearly everything in that post 9/11 period. However, the intellectual and artistic electricity of the Digital Flaherty seemed to dissolve all those the social and political uncertainties by gathering people together to explore the unknown through conversation.
The imagined combativeness of the seminar was nowhere to be found. We did not just discuss media, we talked tactics with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! and Graham Harwood from the British new media collective Mongrel, which specialized in digitally-based artists projects with low income and marginalized groups.. We initiated pranks and were deliberately provocative while playing Eric Zimmerman’s Sissyfight 2000 . Afterwards, we spent hours discussing and arguing in small groups trying to figure out why.
My transformative moments came from two guests at that Flaherty: video artist and activist Alex Rivera, who was in a residency at RPI that coincided with the seminar; and VJ and activist Art Jones.
One evening at the seminar, Rivera’s class had taken over a large open space in downtown Troy. They transformed it into a chaotic maze of surveillance with huge movable projection surfaces that continually destroyed and rebuilt while impossibly loud drum-and-bass vibrated the building.
As I navigated the show (Or was it an installation? Or an immersive experience?) trying to establish my bearings, I entered an ad hoc atrium built into the art space. A ring of data projectors aimed at the surrounding temporary white walls, pointing out like spokes on a wheel.
I recognized the projected images from Flaherty’s Louisiana Story . A bank of computers and projectors distorted and recontextualized the images. At the center of this technological confluence stood Jones, manipulating madly on a couple of laptops like a wizard or a shaman. It took me a few moments to understand that everything I was experiencing was being made and remade live in the moment—the space, the sound, the video, myself, everything.
When I returned to Ithaca, I started experimenting with live VJ performance. I even had the good fortune to perform with Art Jones a few times at special music and projection events mounted in the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College: Within Our Gates Revisited  and Tet Vu Lan: Dismantling Empire .
I ended up mostly leaving experimental analog filmmaking. As an artist, I transitioned almost completely into expanded cinema and live performative media, using computers with mobile and haptic interfaces to create immersive visual experiences in real time in front of audiences.
This new work led to collaborations that I could not have foreseen in my previous artistic life. I designed and performed media for plays at 3LD Art and Technology Center with the Talking Band Theater Company, the American Composers Orchestra, and composer Dan Visconti at Carnegie Hall. I created solo live cinema experiences such as my current touring show, Blood Lust of the Wolf (http://quarknova.com/blood). For this show, I take Flaherty’s Nanook of the North  and remix it into a fugue state about race, ethnicity, and exploitation. While performing the show live, I detect audience reactions, sensing their level of engagement and even their resistance. I modulate my performance to enter into conversation with the audience, provoke them, and generate more substantive dialogue.
Before the Digital Flaherty, I gave only cursory lip service to moving between and across disciplines. Afterwards, I realized that connections across different ideas, modes, and technologies galvanize everything I make, think, and do. The spark from a few days in Troy, NY ignited fundamental changes in my thinking. In some ways, my unusual mid-career-acquired PhD in information science traces back to those explosive cross-disciplinary connections started at Digital Flaherty.
Revelations are hard to come by. Those artists and thinkers I interacted with at Digital Flaherty long ago in Troy afforded me a privilege beyond a mere technological awakening. They redirected my artistic practice and opened up a new space of epiphany.
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…