Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Robert Flaherty Film Seminar”
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.
Friday, December 29, 2017
Based on my very first experience attending the Flaherty Film Seminar in the summer of 2003, I never would have thought I’d become part of the Flaherty family.
My first experience at the seminar, which probably was not that different from many other people’s, was overall frustrating and discouraging, even though I saw some amazing work and met some great people including filmmakers Eryk Rocha, Ernesto Ardito and Virna Molina.
For me, having recently graduated from a MA in Cinema Studies program, it seemed redundant to return to an environment where academic discourse and personal interpretations predominated over the interests of the cinephile.
However, the then Executive Director Margarita de la Vega Hurtado insisted that I return and so I did in 2004, for the seminar marking the Flaherty’s 50th anniversary, and again a couple of years later. I was not conscious at the time that I was slowly sipping the Flaherty Kool-Aid.
To my surprise, I was then selected to program the 2007 seminar, along with my friend and colleague Mahen Bonetti. We had previously partnered to produce an outdoor screening of Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus at Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park back in 2002, drawing a wonderful crowd.
One of the biggest assets of the Flaherty Seminar is its placement of curatorial practices at the forefront of the organization. With over sixty years of history, the Flaherty is one of the limited number of film organizations that do this. Sure, film festival programmers abound, but for the most part they fail at creating conversations and larger discussions with their film selections.
I’m surely not the first one, and won’t be the last one, to say it, but curating the Flaherty Seminar is a programmer’s dream come true. Having a captive audience for one week, not having to announce the program in advance, and having complete freedom to mix formats, genres, nationalities, narratives and aesthetics is an idyllic experience.
For many of us who have had the privilege to program the seminar, the experience has served as a sort of postgraduate degree that has made us reflect and improve our curatorial practices.
I have to confess that some of my favorite moments at the seminar have been non-cinematic. The recent and unexpected passing of director Eugenio Polgovsky brought to mind the times we mischievously sneaked out of screenings to catch some of the World Cup Games.
Watching the Argentina, Mexico, and Spain games at the 2010 seminar with Eugenio, Lisandro Alonso, Josexto Cerdán, Pedro González Rubio, Sofía Gallisá and others, or watching the Brazil-Mexico game at the bar of the Colgate Inn with Cao Guimarães, Chris Gude, Daniella Alatorre, and Jorge Caballero, and others, created a very special camaraderie that I deeply treasure.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
I was a townie and former carpenter who was a cinema and photography student at Ithaca College in upstate New York.
In 1987 I was privileged to be one of the first undergraduate students to attend the Flaherty Seminar on an internship.
I was encouraged to apply and delighted to be accepted. I enjoyed meeting filmmakers and scholars from around the world. I enjoyed seeing films I would never have been able to see otherwise.
I have two very vivid memories of the Flaherty.
One is the screening of The Journey  by Peter Watkins and the other is a discussion of The Bombing of Osage Avenue  by Louis Massiah.
I’ll start with the latter.
It’s the story of the police bombing of a house controlled by MOVE that engulfed an entire block in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia.
During the discussion the comments by a British man talking about how police in the U.S. used excessive force as a matter of course struck me as much as the film did. My immediate gut response was Northern Ireland and the official British response to that conflict. My take away was that we all seemed to be myopic about our own state of affairs.
Unfortunately, I was a little too timid and unsure of myself to speak up.
I also give a lot of credit to Richard Herskowitz, as well as Peter Watkins and Scott MacDonald, for screening Watkins’ 14-hour epic, The Journey .
While I did indeed consider it a marathon, I’m glad I watched the whole film.
I even turned my name badge over and drew a “?” to mimic the ending of each segment of The Journey.
At that 1987 Flaherty Seminar, I had the rather schizophrenic reaction of being simultaneously in over my head and at home.
Friday, June 16, 2017
“I bet you thought I was dead!”
At my first breakfast at the 1980 Flaherty Seminar at Wells College in central New York, I picked at overcooked scrambled eggs and burnt wheat toast. I had sat down at the only open seat at a table with two gray-haired gentlemen.
Sheepishly, I introduced myself. One man offered he was George Stoney, who I knew as the community media and Challenge for Change legend.
The other, the one who thought I figured he was dead, identified himself as Erik Barnouw.
I blurted out that I had just read his books on documentary and the history of broadcasting to prepare for my PhD qualifying exams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That’s when he chortled the statement above. He was 72.
I had received what was then called a “grant-in-aid” to attend the seminar programmed by documentary scholar John Stuart Katz, a film professor at York University in Toronto. This Flaherty was the first film event I’d ever attended on the East Coast. Madison friends insisted I was insane to go just two weeks before my exams.
When I signed in, Barbara Van Dyke, the Flaherty Seminar’s executive director, greeted me with a hug. I wondered if she was related to Willard Van Dyke, the legendary filmmaker from the radical film group NYKINO and eventual head of film at the Museum of Modern Art.
At the opening reception, I’d gravitated to a huddle of twenty-somethings like me. I connected with Ruth Bradley, a PhD student at the University of Michigan who later became editor of Wide Angle, director of the Athens Film and Video Festival, and a longtime friend and collaborator.
At that first breakfast, I froze. I was sitting at a table at 7:30 a.m. with two men who had, in my neophyte assessment, changed documentary history.
When they kindly probed about my in-progress dissertation on the history of amateur film, I blurted out that I felt overwhelmed by mountains of unknown material. Erik smiled. He said, “Never be intimidated. Just get out your shovel and keep digging.”
In graduate school, I’d read and battled about documentary, then a marginalized area in film studies. The abstractions of Bateson, critical historiography, Fanon, Foucault, Habermas, Marxism, and psychoanalysis, drowned my soul—and my clarity.
At that Flaherty, independent film was front and center. A community, a history, a practice, a theory, the Flaherty redefined the documentary community as a seething cauldron of obsessed partisans and gutted my preconceptions about documentary and independent film.
I watched American regional independent narrative cinema like Alambrista , Gal Young ‘Un , Heartland .
Observational documentaries such as Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers , Faces of November , N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman , Scenes from Childhood  were jammed against archival works such as The War at Home , The Trials of Alger Hiss , America Lost and Found .
Experimental documentaries like D.O.A.  and Poto and Cabengo  jolted me. For the first time, I experienced how documentary, programmed with experimental films by Warren Bass, Dana Hodgson, Emily Hubley, Caroline Leaf, could propel new conceptual thinking.
The French Canadian documentary/narrative film Mourir a Tue-Tete  scraped away my feminist documentary theories. The film chronicled a rape with daring self-reflexivity. Anne Claire Poirier, the militant feminist director from the National Film Board of Canada, was present. In the campus pub, I crammed into a booth with her and three other young women, enthralled.
I could not figure out if the seminar was conservative, liberal, or radical. I had never attended any media event so focused on long discussions, intense debates, and entanglements between animation, archival, ethnographic, experimental, expository, hybrid, narrative, observational, personal work.
The participants featured filmmakers from every genre, as well as anthropologists, art world types, broadcasters, cinematographers, commercial media workers, distributors, elderly cineastes, exhibitors, film scholars, graduate students, journalists, librarians, marketers, and producers. Their combustions torched something inside me about the urgency of independent media that I’d not felt as a PhD student.
I was utterly intimidated. The seminar experience catapulted me into verbal paralysis.
Discussions cascaded like ferocious waterfalls of debates, ideas, histories, positions, and anger. I listened from the back of the room, jumbled up with anger, awe, critique, disdain, engagement, fascination, and frustration. I uttered one incoherent, overly theoretical, tortured statement. I filled a spiral notebook with notes.
Here, documentary was not about theories but about aesthetics, debates, histories, people, politics, and high stakes. Documentary and experimental film felt confusing, embodied, pulsing, significant. Devotees possessed feverish intensities.
Walking to a screening, I bumped into visual anthropologist Jay Ruby. His sharp mind terrified me. He knew exactly what he thought about every film. Back then I criticized Nanook of the North  as racist and colonialist, a position I later gutted after reading Jay’s reassessment of the film as an early collaborative ethnographic film.
At lunch, I met Bill Sloan, the librarian for the Museum of Modern Art, who spoke generously about the short experimental works.
I met film librarian D. Marie Grieco. Before a screening, she whispered two revelations to me. First, Frances Flaherty, not Robert, inaugurated the seminars, but film history had erased her. Second, Barbara was Willard’s ex-wife, and she, too, had been expunged from film history.
I realized that Frances Flaherty had built a place where young people like me could talk to legends like Erik—and Anne Claire, D. Marie, George, and Jay…
At the end of that seminar, Erik Barnouw offered the closing benediction. He performed this at every seminar he attended.
Erik recounted a story about a seminar acolyte who asked French filmmaker Chris Marker how he created such complex editing. Marker replied, “I get lost.”
Smiling, Erik commanded all of us: “Now get lost.”