Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Pablo de Ocampo”
Friday, January 5, 2018
The 2013 Flaherty Seminar was my first time.
Many film friends were somehow connected with the Flaherty Seminar. Everyone recommended it. So I sent in my fellowship application.
The five-hour ride from Brooklyn to the small upstate New York village of Hamilton was shorter than expected. Chi-hui Yang drove the car, with me, Kimi Takesue, and Raquel Schefer, who had flown from Paris to New York the day before, talking all the way.
We talked about the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar organization, past films screened, and about Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden, who had flown to Hong Kong a few weeks before, in order to leak thousands of classified NSA documents. I was planning a film on Hong Kong.
I was new to the New York independent film community. In 2011, I’d earned a MFA degree from the School of Visual Arts. In early 2013, the Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight had screened my first film, China Concerto . I was struggling to make work and to survive in New York. The Flaherty Seminar promised both inspiration and community.
I had heard so much about the week-long, far-away, intense film seminar, which caged film people up together so they could watch films together and fight over them. The Flaherty’s reputation for intensity, the principle of nonpreconception (which I later learned was Frances Flaherty’s idea and not Robert’s), and egalitarianism both attracted and intimidated me.
The theme for the 2013 seminar was “History Is What Is Happening.” Pablo de Ocampo curated.
That first evening, the program opened with Queen Mother Moore Speech at Greenhaven Prison .
2013 was the time of post-Occupy-Wall-Street political fatigue. Trumpism was yet to appear on any horizon but his own.
Pablo’s programming was a map of contested geographies: Israel and Palestine; decolonization and postcolonial struggles in Africa and Asia; Japan, post-Fukushima; and America’s landscapes of racism.
As I look back from the vantage point of 2018—and Trump, Brexit, the wars, migrants and refugees, and environmental destruction—the seminar’s call for historical consciousness, radicalism, and collectivity looms as pertinent and urgent.
The first post-screening discussion was an immersion and the intensity and ruthlessness continued throughout the week. The participatory lecture performance, A Call to the Square by BLW, provoked criticism about how it positioned participants in its re-enactment of history.
The discussions heated up quickly.
I found Eyal Sivan’s The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal  one of the most interesting films in that year’s program. And it triggered one of the most intense discussions.
The Specialist focused on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, employing archival footage, much of it never widely seen before this film. Instead of concentrating on the victims, Sivan had turned his attention to Eichmann, a perpetrator, who sat inside a bulletproof glass cage during the trial.
The human face of the perpetrator defending his actions, combined with the repetitive spectacle of a trial comprised of archival footage, provoked questions about how we perceive history through archives and about the ethical construction of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil.”
I was conflicted by Deborah Stratman’s works. O’er the Land  and Village, Silenced  were the most enjoyable films I watched that week. However, I found King of the Sky  problematic. The film was shot in Xinjiang, the Uyghur province in Northwest China. At the beginning of the closing credits, Deborah described its location as East Turkestan, the term used by Uyghor Jihadists advocating independence. I’ve never been a Han nationalist, but Stratman’s (Western liberal) position seemed too easy. It ignored historical complicity and complexity.
Sometimes the discussions became overly intellectual and theoretical, the discussions about the Otolith Group, for example. And the intensities of continuous viewing and extensive talking were exhausting. For most people it’s rare to experience such intellectuality and intensity in post-screening discussions.
By the fourth or the fifth day, after days of challenging films and exhausting debates, everyone was tense. We walked into the theater to discover that the movie was Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil . I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed this screening, compared to my previous experiences watching it in a graduate school class. With the new context that the other films in the program had provided, Sans Soleil released me, and others, from the heated anxieties of intensive debate.
Many questions kept coming back to me all through the seminar. One especially salient problem was how documentary and experimental films should respond to the realities of the lived world.
Pablo’s programming combined conventional documentary films with many experimental works inflected with documentary qualities—blurring most boundaries.
The alleged role of documentary filmmaking—to use the camera as a way of exploring subject matter external to the filmmaker or to capture a social reality—has been questioned for more than a hundred years. The Flaherty was continuing this debate, but in new ways, with new films, and new participants.
The epistemological question haunting the entire history of documentary filmmaking is actually quite simple: how, and how closely, can the camera approach the reality of the subject filmed? Can the camera, in the end, only reveal its own practice?
Self-reflexive strategies and formalist experimentation offer safe, extremely self-conscious paths to validate the work of documentary as it intersects with the world. But are self-reflexivity and formalistic avant-garde styles enough to guarantee a progressive response to changing social realities and historical urgencies? Or are they, given their limited audience, just another form of conservative politics?
I left with many questions about cinema, along with pages of handwritten notes from screenings and discussions that I looked forward to examining later: Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s utilization of historical materials and spaces, Deborah Stratman’s aesthetics and playfulness...
My brain was exhausted from watching so many films and talking with so many different seminarians.
Driving home, I realized that my pre-Flaherty Seminar views on cinema needed reconstruction.
Beyond the gutting of my own preconceptions, that seminar left me with a curious and most welcome sense of empowerment and a newfound confidence that now, I could think through how I make films.
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.”
Friday, September 8, 2017
Breakfast, screening, discussion, lunch, screening, discussion, dinner, screening, discussion, dancing, repeat.
The more I read about the Flaherty Seminar, the more I was reminded of the description I’d heard applied to my BFA conservatory: hippie bootcamp. I applied for a graduate-student fellowship, cobbled together the remaining half of the subsidized registration fee and bus fare from my university, and found myself in June, 2013, at Colgate for the 59th Flaherty.
I soon learned that following the seminar organizers’ egalitarian intentions, everyone was provided with the same dormitory rooms and cafeteria meals, along with an experiment in cinephilic endurance and sleep deprivation that forced a confrontation with the art and ethics of film curation.
Upon reflection, I feel fortunate to have had my first Flaherty experience at Pablo de Ocampo’s “History is What’s Happening.” This challenging confrontation became emblematic of the struggle to talk seriously about documentary ideas, as a group, that I’ve experienced every time I’ve returned to the Flaherty—four times so far.
From Queen Mother Moore Speech at Greenhaven Prison  by the People's Communication Network, which opened de Ocampo’s program, to its repetition at the very end, so much has stayed with me: Basma Alsharif’s Home Movies Gaza , The Otolith Group’s People to be Resembling (2012), Deborah Stratman’s O'er the Land , and Joyce Wieland’s Solidarity .
I won’t forget sitting down for the first afternoon screening with no idea it would be Eyal Sivan and Michel Khleifi’s 272-minute Route 181 . The discussion of Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s Ca va, ca va on continue [It is ok, it is ok, we go on, 2012-13] led me to Édouard Glissant’s life-changing book Poètique de la Relation [Poetics of Relation, 1990]. And Jean-Paul Kelly’s Service of the Goods  forever marked my thoughts on Frederick Wiseman's documentaries from the 1960s and 1970s about social safety nets and institutions.
After Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga , I can never see Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil  the same way again, an experience that was repeated with Sana Na N’Hada’s O Regresso de Amílcar Cabral [The Return of Amílcar Cabral, 1976] at the 2017 seminar.
More retreat than a conference or festival with overlapping panels and screenings, the Flaherty’s medium is the program assembled by the curator. As the week continues, the burden is on “captive” participants to take control of the seminar through discussion sessions and make it their own. Tension builds amidst interstitial coffee breaks, happy hours, late night conversations, and small group breakout sessions, demanding some form of response in the large discussion forum. This often results in a midweek bloodletting.
In 2013, this came with a performance by the BLW collective (Rozalinda Borcila, Sarah Lewison, and Julie Wyman): A Call to the Square . Lewison and Wyman read Queen Mother Moore’s speech, then invited participants to recite Asmaa Mahfouz’s January 18, 2011, call to join the January 25 protests in Tahrir Square, demanding an end to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak regime.
Participants were invited to re-perform Mahfouz’s address in small groups, writing down their reactions. Intended or not, the exercise rehearsed the documentary proposition of re-presenting another’s physical performance or speech and re-locating its site of communication, necessitating confrontation with this new space of reassembly. The discussion that followed voiced important criticisms about how the exercise defined the seminar participant as white colonizing subject.
The problems brought to the surface by the performance reflected a central conceit of the seminar: the principle of non-preconception, originally instituted by Frances Flaherty at the earliest seminars. Revealing the nature of each film only as the projector’s light hits the screen (program notes are supplied later) is a constitutive feature of the seminar, which recruits its audience based entirely on the desire to return to its cinematic well and on the qualifications/theme of the announced programmer.
The principle reveals two diverging understandings: the notion that one can dispose of preconceptions versus a recognition that stripping typical curatorial pre-conditioning necessitates a different kind of controlled environment and requires that the group deal with different ways of preconceiving. This challenges the group to deconstruct habitual modes of preconceiving and embrace a shared yet always uneven vulnerability in imagining a more equitable space.
More often than not, the discursive spaces generated by the Flaherty remain embattled with normative power structures and defenses scraped down to blunt candor by cycles of sleeplessness, inebriation, and waking dreams in the cinema. This leads to moments of generosity, embarrassment, cruelty, and epiphany from veterans and first-timers alike.
The yearly exercise is a reminder of what it takes to honestly approach an art object, others’ reactions, and the ramifications of refining lines of separation and/or coalescing into general consensus.