Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Omar Amiralay”
Thursday, March 8, 2018
In Germany, the Flaherty isn't well-known.
But I had lived in Boston from 2006-2012, and spent my weekends at the Harvard Film Archive (HFA). Through the Boston filmmaking grapevine, I heard about the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.
Another regular HFA patron mentioned the seminar to me with great respect. She said that everybody who returned from the Flaherty raved about it. Since I was a foreign filmmaker seeking contacts and insights, the seminar seemed to be the place to go.
So, in 2009, I went to the Flaherty. I’d imagined a seminar of maybe fifty participants. When I got there, I was shocked to realize that I was one of 180!
I had trouble following the large group discussions, partly because I speak German and partly because I could not hear everything that was said. For me, these huge discussions neither added much to the films nor opened up the programming concept.
However, I enjoyed the programming itself. I discovered filmmakers I’d never heard of, including Chick Strand, Omar Amiralay, and Pavel Medvedev. I also liked that year’s program curator, Irina Leimbacher.
I was lucky to take part in some lively late-night talks at Bill's Bar. I made a few friends. And I became more familiar with the Boston filmmaking community. Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass  was screened with many Bostonians present.
I would have loved to return to the seminar the following year, because the theme was “work.” In 2007, I had curated a little film series in Germany, as part of a big project supported with national cultural funding, entitled “Work in Progress.” I applied for a LEF fellowship to attend the seminar, but wasn't lucky enough to receive one. Since my financial situation was less than stable, I could not afford to pay my own way.
In 2014, the ethnic German filmmaker named Caspar Stracke co-curated the seminar together with his Mexican partner Gabriela Monroy. Although I had returned to Germany, I could not resist going to this Flaherty.
Also, I had a mission.
I had joined the programming team of a small ethnographic film festival, the Freiburger Film Forum. Since 1985, it has run biannually in an old university town in the south of Germany.
I hoped to start a collaboration between the Freiburger Film Forum and The Flaherty. Our forum and the seminar share a similar structure of continuous screenings with only one film shown at a time, and a focus on dialogue and discussion between the filmmakers and participants.
I recruited a filmmaker friend from Germany who was planning a US trip. We both enjoyed the seminar. We loved some of the programming, and especially the chance to listen to the great experimental documentarian Jill Godmilow.
I’d contacted the seminar director and some board members concerning my idea of a collaboration. They were friendly and interested. I departed from that seminar with a clear intention to develop a Flaherty homage for the Freiburger Film Forum.
In 2016, I returned to the seminar to arrange a mutual project. I studied the history of the seminar in order to develop a programming proposal, which evolved from a retrospective of ethnographic work to a focus on contemporary political documentary with some historical works: Eloge du Chiac , Los Sures , An Injury to One , Free Land .
Our collaborative program eventually happened in May 2017.
We invited former Flaherty curator and board member John Gianvito to serve as a special guest. He discussed the films in a most delightful way. This well-received program made a strong statement about the committed cinema of resistance in the U.S.
I wanted to introduce the long-standing institution of the Flaherty Film Seminar to the German film community. Because our Freiburg venue belongs to the nationwide association of community theatres, the programmers who belong to this organization are stimulated by our careful curation. They learn about our programming through articles published in the association’s magazine.
My hope is that the collaboration between the Freiburger Film Forum and the Flaherty Seminar will inspire others to provide access to the immense archive of films that have been shown at the seminar over the decades. For me, these programs signal love for the documentary genre and the treasures of reality one can discover in these films.
My Flaherty story underscores that one important aspect of the seminar is to facilitate networking among those who care deeply about accomplished filmmaking. I am happy to be a small part of this community. Though I would not call myself a seminar devotee, the virus of the Flaherty has touched me.
Nevertheless, I would suggest that downsizing might be something for the seminar to consider.
It is also true that the Flaherty is not exempt from the self-aggrandizement that often characterizes public cultural environments. Instead of a true dialogue between different kinds of participants, the large group discussions tend to become a chain of overly elaborate scholarly statements. I would like some of the scholars in attendance to behave in a less “scholarly” way.
Nevertheless, compared to other film gatherings I have attended, the Flaherty is the best at providing a democratic and open platform.
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.