Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Robert Flaherty”
Saturday, January 12, 2019
The Flaherty Seminar was legendary in the New York City independent film community, when I became a part of it in the early 1980s. People spoke about the seminar reverently.
However, it took me years to find the courage to take the plunge.
I finally signed up for my first seminar in 1991. At lovely Wells College on the shore of Cayuga Lake, the seminar lived up to all my expectations. It fostered serious devotion to film, but was also very social and enjoyable.
The cinema of the Arab world shown that year deeply impressed me: Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces  (Tunisia) by Asfour Stah; Omar Gatlato  (Algeria) by Merzak Allouache; Canticle of the Stones  (Palestine) by Michel Khleifi; and A Door to the Sky (Morocco) by Farida Benlyazid. The year before, I had traveled to Morocco twice, hoping to make a documentary, but the filmmakers’ deep commitment to their material, their compelling storytelling, and their expert cinematic techniques taught me more about the Arab world than I had perceived as a traveler.
The founder of the seminar, Frances Flaherty, had described the value of my experience at the Flaherty. Invoking philosophy, she had written about watching films as a means of “learning to see.”
An image stays with me from that first seminar. After sitting in the darkened auditorium in the morning, quietly concentrating on what was on the screen, I walked out into the sunshine and down to Lake Cayuga with others from around the country and the world. The seminarians were so friendly; the group spirit, very encouraging. Filmmakers discussed the subjects of their films and how they’d secured funding. Programmers and curators talked about what they were showing. Students, with their great enthusiasms about film, nudged me to recall my own passions for media when I was their age.
However, after such a memorable first Flaherty, I must admit I became disillusioned at subsequent seminars because of what was programmed and what was left out. I felt that Flaherty programmers began to favor poorly made “personal documentaries” and nearly incoherent experimental works on trendy subjects. Films that come to mind: Mirror Mirror  by Jan Krawitz, shown in 1993; Video Letters 1, 2 & 3  by Yau Ching, shown in 1994; Self Portrait Post Mortem  by Louise Bourque, shown in 2004; and Mutual Analysis  by Péter Forgács, shown in 2005. In the worst of these films, the filmmakers narrated in gloomy tones and complained about how harsh reality had hurt their sensitive souls.
In an article for International Documentary in 1997, I wrote about these works as “Films about Me.” I noted they “convey a bitterness towards the world, forever moaning about being victimized by one thing or another.” The creators seemed to disdain cinematic techniques. For example, some filmmakers waved a camera around the room and asserted heavy-handed conclusions on complex subjects. The preponderance of these films eclipsed an important documentary tradition where directors expressed a large concern for humanity and the world beyond oneself.
In the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, works on personal subjects so crowded the Flaherty schedule that almost nothing was programmed about the American economy, the banking and financial industries, or the struggles of people in the workplace. The Flaherty contributed little or nothing to prepare people for the financial crisis or to provide a lens though which to understand it.
Despite this critique, I wish to express my enduring admiration for the Flaherty at its best. At the seminars I’ve attended, there has always been something extraordinary to see: Lumumba: Death of a Prophet  by Raoul Peck in 1993; Secuestro: The Story of a Kidnapping  by Camila Motta, also in 1993, and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One by William Greaves [shot in 1967, first version 1972] in 2005, for example.
Many people have tried to describe exactly what makes the Flaherty unique. I’ve been thinking about this question since my first Flaherty twenty-some years ago. After reading the new book The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema, which vividly evokes the great times of the seminar over the years and its important discussions, I finally understand how to answer two important questions. How did the organization that presents the seminar endure for over sixty years? Why are busy and sophisticated people like me spending time writing essays on the Flaherty?
Here is my answer. The seminar’s structure, designed by Frances Flaherty, is the best forum in the world for enabling us to truly care about cinema in all its forms.
To make my case, I invoke philosophy, as Frances Flaherty did in writing about the origins of the seminar. I’ll use terms from the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism to explain, starting with a description of the contradictory nature of the self who signs up for his or her first Flaherty.
Founded by the American poet and literary critic Eli Siegel, Aesthetic Realism argues that the self is duel—one aspect of a person yearns for a deep experience in life, hoping to be profoundly affected by the world. This experience can obviously occur after seeing a significant work at the Flaherty.
But something can get in the way of this experience, at the Flaherty or at any other film event. Aesthetic Realism contends that another part of the self seeks to remain intact and runs away from expansive, deep feelings. For example, I might see the greatest film of my life at the Flaherty, but ten minutes later jokingly ask friends about the latest gossip concerning someone at the seminar. Aesthetic Realism describes this impulse as “contempt” and defines it as “the false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.”
In other words, I may love a film and be genuinely moved, but stubbornly resist its sway over me by gossiping, making a phone call, or mindlessly checking my email in an effort to regain composure.
Fortunately, the structure of the Flaherty effectively counters this contempt.
After a great work is presented, we discuss it in formal sessions, and then again at breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is no running away from the impact and meaning of a film.
No matter how unsettling the original experience, the seminar allows the film to get inside of us and endure. For me, this is the legacy of the Flaherty.
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.
Sunday, February 11, 2018
My first encounter with Robert Flaherty was in 1962, the spring of my first year at Bennington College.
Totally by chance I happened to see a handwritten announcement on a chalkboard on the stairs going to the top floor of the Commons, saying that Frances Flaherty would be screening Robert’s films. I had never heard of Flaherty. But something compelled me to go.
The following fall, I wrote to Arnold Eagle, who had worked with Flaherty on Louisiana Story , inquiring about an internship. I never heard back from Mr. Eagle. But years later in the 1980s, I became his student at the New School, taking courses in 16mm production and subsequently using his studio as a place to work.
One day, when he was cleaning out his files, Arnold happened to find my letter. It stated that Frances had screened Flaherty’s Man of Aran  and Louisiana Story. I sort of remember her doing it in two visits. In any event, I was blown away. I’d never seen anything like these films.
After college, I embarked on a career as an arts administrator. I worked primarily for the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA). My last position there was as Deputy Director for what was then called the Division of Communication and Visual Arts, where I supervised funding for film and media organizations.
Although I loved being part of something I believed in, I’d always wanted to work on the creative side of film and media. So I left NYSCA in 1981. Fortunately, by 1982, I found the Flaherty Seminar. I was hooked forever.
My first Flaherty was in 1982 at Topridge in the Adirondack Mountains in Northern New York State. The film and media historian Erik Barnouw programmed it. Barbara Van Dyke was helming the organization as executive director and coordinator of the seminar. The projectionist was Murray Van Dyke. Located deep in the woods on a lake, with its many historic buildings intact, Topridge was the former “rustic retreat” of Marjorie Merriweather Post.
At this seminar I felt such gratitude to find a community of people with whom I shared goals, dreams, and mission. And, as an aspiring filmmaker, I found this seminar experience and the many, many more to follow extremely helpful in giving me the courage to pursue my own creative path.
As I became more and more familiar with the organization and its people, I discovered what I would call Flaherty godmothers and godfathers, people who came almost every year.
As I said at his recent memorial, Bill Sloan was one of these treasured people. He first attended the seminar in 1964, which means he knew Frances Flaherty. With Nadine Covert, he programmed his first seminar in 1972, another one in 1975 with Barbara Van Dyke, and then worked solo to put together the 1979 seminar.
When I read the program Bill Sloan created with Nadine in 1972, I know I would have been totally blown away. They showed The Sorrow and the Pity . Does that mean Marcel Orphuls was actually there? They showed a film by Ozu, several films by Claudia Weill and Eli Noyes, and of all things, Greed  by Erik Von Stroheim. They also screened many titles by filmmakers I’m sorry to say I do not know.
My overall impression of their program is one of great variety and richness. I understand from Patty Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald’s recent book about the history of Flaherty [The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema], as well as from Nadine herself, that variety was something they worked hard to accomplish and promote as a programming goal.
Bill served on the Flaherty Board of Trustees and as its president from 1974-1977. I believe he continued on the Board over subsequent years in various capacities. He established Bill’s Bar. To this day, it persists. The best conversations about film take place at that makeshift bar.
As I look through the various seminar programs during those years, I regret I was not there. The 1970s seem like the Flaherty’s golden age of film programming.
I served on the Flaherty Board twice, once in the 1980s and again in the late 1990s. For two years in 2000-2001, I was the president. Like most nonprofits during both those periods, Flaherty was working to transition into a more professional and stable organization. A lot of our focus centered on a need for an office and a paid director, first part-time and eventually full-time.
There were of course a number of rocky years along the way, but Flaherty always seemed to bounce back stronger than before. I’ve come to think of the Flaherty as an organization with a soul. It's never lost its reason for being.
I attribute this clarity of purpose to the Flaherty “godparents”: Dorothy Olson, Paul Olson, Bill Sloan, Erik Barnouw, Jack Churchill, Barbara Van Dyke, Tom Johnson, Nadine Covert, George Stoney, and many others. With their unique charismatic presence, these godmothers and godfathers operated as spiritual guides to film and media. Forgive me if I wax too metaphysical.
After taking a break for a few years, I came back to The Flaherty for its 60th anniversary in 2015. I was hooked again and have returned several times. I’m astounded by the community of people that the seminar attracts, a group that has become more and more international. The word is out: this year the seminar sold out in less than twenty-four hours!
I’m proud of all the time I contributed to help the Flaherty to develop and flourish. I see my work for the organization as a chance to give back some of the good the seminar has given me through the decades.
A Flaherty godparent passed away in 2017 at age ninety-nine: Dorothy Olson, a journalist, arts administrator, filmmaker, former Flaherty trustee, and mentor to many in the film and media world. In my last conversation with her, she talked about never forgetting and never recovering from seeing The Sorrow and the Pity at that 1972 Flaherty.
The Flaherty is an organization with a soul. It always seems to find a way to continue, and, I like to think, evolve.
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.
Friday, December 1, 2017
Perhaps the struggle to recover fading memories, what St. Augustine would call remembering forgetfulness, is more useful than having access to perfect memories.
Or so I thought as I sat to write this remembrance of events from two decades ago. The truth is at first I remembered little about my involvement with the Flaherty Seminar in 1997, which is ironic given that the theme was “Exploration in Memory and Modernity.”
There is a somewhat valid excuse for my forgetfulness. At the time, I was holding down a full time job producing video advertisements for the cable company, studying full-time in a masters program at Ithaca College, and working as research/project assistant for Patty Zimmermann, an Ithaca College screen studies professor who was one of the programmers for the mini-Flaherty Seminar—Michelle Materre was the other.
I remember getting up at 4:30 AM on weekdays to do school work before going to my job, and then attending graduate classes in the evening. I often share this tale with my students struggling to balance work and school, which I am sure they find annoying.
In any event, the point is that I was busy, probably too busy to fully appreciate the impact of what I was involved in.
So it is only now, as I collect the isolated memories floating around my head and “curate” them into a meaningful experience, that I realize the impact that the Flaherty had on my development as a scholar.
What I actually remember from that October are little snippets of life as a student assistant.
I remember stuffing envelopes with invitations (this was before e-vites). I remember running to and fro making sure programs were distributed, chairs were available, signs were posted, and speakers were escorted to the right classrooms. I remember helping to fix projectors and setting up snacks; in short, getting done the things everyone just expects should be done when putting together an event. I do remember the artists and scholars: Daniel Reeves, Anne-Marie Duguet, Reginald Woolery... Or rather, I definitely remember the names and some of the work, even if I don’t always remember the faces.
I remember the parties and get-togethers and being a bit intimidated about interacting with the kind of folks whose work I previously encountered only in the classroom and who were now standing in front of me.
Most of all, I remember the Digital Salon, a room full of computers featuring websites and CD-ROM content by artists like Muntadas.
I provided technical assistance in putting the room together. I remember getting the sense even then that this was something new and exciting that redefined modes of spectatorship and interaction.
Of course, by today’s standards it seems quaint that we would have to get all this digital content into one room in order for people to experience it. But it is precisely because consumption of digital content has become so atomized and individualistic that the idea of the Salon seems endowed with a sense of collectivity that is now missing.
As I put all these memories together, I realize that the Flaherty was a key moment in my education as a scholar.
Yes, I was taking graduate classes at the time, reading and writing and working on research projects.
But the experience of helping to organize that weekend Flaherty gave me a sense—for the first time, I think—of belonging to an intellectual community, of being able not just to watch or read thought-provoking work, but to interact with the people who created it, and be able to have a discussion about it. In other words, as a student I had done scholarship, but now I started to feel like a scholar.
I eventually went on to do my doctorate at Columbia University and have been teaching at SUNY Oswego for almost a decade.
Many years from now, I know my students will probably not remember the details of everything they are learning. They are just as busy as I was.
But hopefully some of them will have similar opportunities to reflect on and organize their memories, to realize that they did find a community and a purpose in the midst of all that activity.
And hopefully they will also remember the sense of excitement about their discovery, as I do when I think about my involvement with the Flaherty in 1997.
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.”
Saturday, October 28, 2017
Since 2003, I have attended eleven Flaherty Seminars!
I have moderated my share of discussions. I was a featured filmmaker in 2009. I served as a board member from 2006-2008. At this point, I see the seminar as a well-oiled machine with a schedule we can count on.
Yet each seminar has been profoundly different. How to sum that up in five points? I keep coming back to the films and the five ideas that return to me year after year as key constituents of the Flaherty’s unique zeitgeist.
What is cinema? What constitutes a cinematic experience? I have seen the gamut at the Flaherty, from essay films, expository films, experimental, non-fiction, fiction, musicals to installations and video games and Benshi performance. And each Flaherty shows work that expands my notions of cinema in wonderfully surprising ways.
Years before the GoPro and drone cameras, Leonard Retel Helmrich filmed a man walking over a narrow railroad trestle 1000 above an Indonesian Valley in Stand van de Maan (“Shape of the Moon,” 2004). The view was from above via a homemade bamboo-pole mount and it was terrifying. Helmrich filmed other scenes in the film with his own invention called steadiwings. He calls his filmmaking process “one-shot cinema” because he edits more for camera movement than framing or photography.
Another example of craft at the seminar was Laura Poitras’s Risk . Through her camerawork looking up at Julian Assange, she shows the egotistical anarchist to be as self-conscious as a People Magazine star even as he functions as an important historical figure in our time.
I have started wonderful and enduring friendships at the Flaherty. I met longtime heroes and heroines—Scott MacDonald and Trinh Minh-ha--and found them incredibly down to earth.
Beyond these moments of connecting with people you admire, there are also those more awkward moments reminiscent of junior high school when you emerge from the cafeteria food line with your tray, scouring the dining room for a seat. My most wonderful meals have been those when I’ve plunked myself down with people I’ve not met before: students, established filmmakers, critics.
At the 2012 “Open Wounds” seminar curated by Josetxo Cerdán, I remember a great meal with Susana de Sousa Dias from Portugal and Laila Pakalina from Latvia. Their work had not shown yet so I had no idea they were featured filmmakers. We talked about traveling, family, and the films screened at the seminar.
Later, I was completely blown away by de Sousa’s beautiful and horrific 48  featuring an incredibly adept use of archival mug shots woven with interviews with ordinary citizens arrested under the 48-year dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal.
I was mesmerized by Pakainiŋa’s gorgeous cinematography, measured pace, and dry humor portraying men and nature—especially riparian birds—in Three Men and a Fish Pond . I also loved fellow seminar attendee and filmmaker Robb Todd’s jilting imitation of the film-star birds’ during the discussion.
I confess that at times the quantity of images and ideas truly overwhelms. I feel the need to remind myself what I love about film. Of course, it is the ideas, but it is also the sheer pleasure I get from seeing truly beautiful images that transport me out of the room and under water in the Caribbean Sea, in Alamar  by Mexican Pedro González-Rubio and into the air in Teddy Williams’ The Human Surge  in 2017.
I loved the crazy, playful, imaginative Rube Golderg creations of Israeli artist/filmmaker, Mika Rottenberg in Squeeze , and in Cheese  where seven ethnically diverse sister/ maidens prattle and poke about an enormous wooden contraption, part farmhouse, part animal barn, part milking machine, part cheese churn, making cheese, yes, but also washing, combing, and styling each other’s impossibly long, Rapunzel-like hair. The experience was mesmerizing and hilarious.
Even the most wrenching of Flaherty Seminars has its moments of intense humor. In the midst of films about the tragedies of Minamata disease caused by environmentally-induced mercury poisoning, revealed by the Japanese documentarian Tsuchimoto Noriaki at the 2003 Flaherty, we saw Israeli Avi Mograbi’s hilarious and ominous films, Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi , August: A Moment Before the Eruption , and Wait It’s the Soldiers, I’ll Hang Up Now , which provided scathing views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When programmed together, they traced people’s reactions to Mograbi’s camera and the mounting distrust in the streets leading into the Second Intifada.
Ah, the moments of outrage.
I have been guilty of sharing in some of the politically-correct indignation over who gets to represent whom and how. And I have also been mildly piqued at the tremendous amount of time we devote to such debates, seminar after seminar. One memorable debate happened at my first seminar, “Witnessing the World,” curated by John Gianvito in 2003. In the post-screening discussion of Holly Fisher’s faux travelogue about Myanmar, Kalama Sutta: Seeing Is Believing  participants questioned Fisher’s right to represent the Burmese. At my most recent seminar in the summer of 2017, the debate was over Dominic Gagnon’s depiction of Inuit people in of the North . But the issues were different: if Inuit post images of themselves on the web that some feel reinforce negative stereotypes, what responsibility does a filmmaker bear if he uses them?
Of course, if we don’t keep asking ourselves those difficult questions, if we don’t demand that filmmakers create their work with a sense of purpose and responsibility, then there isn’t much to talk about. It’s why I go to the Flaherty—to see those non-commercial films I cannot see elsewhere and to talk about them with people whose varied perspectives provoke, enlighten, delight, and yes, sometimes outrage me!
Monday, September 18, 2017
I attended my first Flaherty Seminar at Pine Manor Junior College in 1977. That was forty years ago! It was a momentous event for me for many reasons. Part of it had to do with something no one could have foreseen: a film community known for its often heated debates came together in mourning over the sudden and unexpected death of one of its much loved participants, Sol Worth.
Still in shock, I soon discovered that the women’s movement was still being hotly debated at Flaherty: gender politics challenged the power dynamics of discussions, which surfaced most conspicuously around the work of Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner. I remember it well because I cut my teeth as a media critic by summoning my courage to take Tanner to task for his cavalier representation of women in his films. Laughed down by some audience members, I persisted with my critique, winning Tanner’s fury and my self-confidence in speaking up for women’s voices.
Not surprisingly, given all that was going on that year, no one challenged the conspicuous absence of video at the Seminar. This upstart, unprofessional medium was dismissed by an old guard who considered film the only medium worth looking at; video didn’t even rate a debate.
If memory serves, it took the Seminar’s most revered elder statesman to overturn resistance to screening video. In 1982 Erik Barnouw programmed what was for many of us our most memorable Flaherty seminar at Camp Topridge in the Adirondacks. It was a glorious site that had once been the summer home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, owner of General Foods and long reputed to be the wealthiest woman in the United States. Ms. Post also owned Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, which was later purchased by you-know-who.
Post considered Camp Topridge a “rustic retreat” situated on 300 acres in God’s country. It contained numerous buildings including a Russian dacha that proved essential to this story. Topridge was a stunning location for the Seminar; the main lodge featured a huge, circular, windowed room surrounded by sofas and a plethora of animal trophies mounted along the walls. Post-screening discussions looked out over a sparkling lake, and each day fabulous meals were prepared by students at a local culinary school.
Arguably the best thing about the place, though, was the dacha, a charming Russian cottage dedicated to screening video. Several large-screen monitors were scattered in the vaulted but cozy central hall where videotapes by Daniel Reeves (Smothering Dreams, 1980), Edin Velez (Meta Mayan, 1981), and Minneapolis public TV producers Deanna Kamiel, Ken Robbins and Tom Adair were shown. Passionate discussions about the relationship of video to television and the documentary tradition were conducted there.
I do not know what it took for Erik to persuade IFS naysayers to give video a chance, but whether it was the spectacular sunsets on the lake, the superb dinners or the eerie stag antlers on the walls, video arrived at Flaherty with panache and seemed to please most everyone; video was no longer an oddity at Flaherty but a partner with film.
The following year tapes by video artists and documentary activists like Bill Viola (Hatsu Yume,1981; Chott el-Djerid, 1979; Ancient of Days, 1979-1981), Skip Blumberg (Pick Up Your Feet: The Double Dutch Show,1981) and Paper Tiger Television were shown. Emboldened by the success of single-channel tapes, Flaherty programmer D. Marie Grieco boldly decided to present the first video installation in 1984. Bill Stephens, one of the first African American video artists to be featured at the Whitney Museum in New York, showed Belief Sandwich, Relief Gauntlet (1981) which proved challenging to stage. Cornell University was not equipped to handle an outdoor display like this, but the Seminar’s adept technical staff pulled it off.
Bill Stephens was not the only video practitioner that year; also featured were works by Michelle Parkerson (Gotta Make This Journey: Sweet Honey and the Rock, 1983), Ed Emshwiller (Sunstone, 1979), Cecilia Condit (Possibly in Michigan, 1983), Max Almy (Perfect Leader,1983), and Dan Reeves (Amida,1983). Presenting innovative work by so many talented video makers made it clear that video had become a Seminar staple.
More tapes were featured the following year by artists like Louis Hock (The Mexican Tapes: A Chronicle of a Life Outside the Law, 1986), David Schulman (The Race Against Prime Time,1985), and Kirby Dick (Private Practices, 1986). Soon any differentiation between work shot on film or tape receded, and all those doubts raised about the video medium and its professionals subsided.
Today, a generation that calls everything “film” probably knows little about the battles that once raged between film purists and video iconoclasts determined to defend the distinctive features of this outlier electronic medium. I suppose this struggle to include analog video at the Seminar seems strange today. But it took leadership from influential figures like Erik Barnouw and George Stoney to usher reluctant trustees and snooty filmmakers to accept the “new media” called video as part of the Flaherty.
Once I stepped down as an IFS trustee, I attended far fewer seminars, but I did travel to Riga, Latvia, in 1990 for a terrific cross-cultural Seminar where the audience was surprised less by media than by the clash of confused expectations about the Other. The Americans expected the Soviets to make political films like Vertov, and the Soviets thought the Americans would offer up “heros” like Flaherty.
Instead of a cozy capitalist dacha, we enjoyed the generous appointments of a spa retreat for Soviet artists. No one was particularly interested in video, especially since the Soviet filmmakers were just beginning to use portable 16mm cameras instead of 35mm. Asked to introduce “guerrilla television” to colleagues who knew nothing about video, I got nowhere fast: we hadn’t understood that our new friends were just beginning to experiment with their brand of cinéma vérité.
Several decades later and back in the states I decided to see what was happening at the Flaherty Seminar. I attended the 2009 Seminar at Colgate University, which was brilliantly programmed by Irina Leimbacher. I was delighted to see the sophisticated presentation now given to video installations. Amar Kanwar’s multi-channel work was beautifully installed on several walls in a room of its own where participants could spend as much time as they wished to fully appreciate it. The Seminar had come a long way in recognizing the seriousness and artistic excellence of the now digital medium of video.
Looking back over all this time, I am pleased to have been a participant-witness to the early days of video at the Seminar and to have known many of the people—videomakers, programmers, technicians, trustees, and Seminar participants—who helped this history unfold. Many of them are gone now, and I am honored to bear witness to their varied contributions to making the Seminar new-media friendly, inclusive, and illuminating to this day.