Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “Robert Flaherty Seminar”
Monday, January 21, 2019
If you ever took a university film studies course, you’ve met Bill Sloan.
If you are film professor, you worked with Bill Sloan.
If you ever watched classic cinema or documentaries at a film festival, you sat with Bill Sloan.
If you ever borrowed a DVD from a public library, you know Bill Sloan.
For decades, Bill Sloan served as the film librarian and curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Circulating Film Library, appointed in 1980 after a stint at the New York Public Library. His wide-ranging vision of international art cinema, American independent cinema, documentary, and experimental film infuses this influential collection. Festivals, museums, and universities around the world depend on it.
With his sharp instinct for films that offered significant breakthroughs in form or content, the MoMA collection contributed a major building block for the emerging academic discipline of cinema studies. It not only set the standard for developing film collections at libraries, but also staked the claim that film and video were as important as books.
I have always conjured Bill as one of those rare and special shamans of cinema who hovered in some mystical meta-mode that knew where you needed to go before you got there.
While his white hair and beard floated around his always-smiling face like cumulous clouds fluffing an azure sky, his black glasses summoned a counterpoint. They seemed a metaphor for his ability to focus on what mattered in cinema.
I first met Bill at the Flaherty Film Seminars in 1980, early on in my career as a screen studies scholar when I was a University of Wisconsin graduate student. By then, he had been attending for two decades.
At that time, I suffered from a very bizarre delusion that the holy trinity of films, filmmakers, and theory exclusively defined film culture. At that first seminar I attended, Bill introduced me to the idea that librarians at museums and public libraries who purchased, collected, and screened films built a field-sustaining infrastructure supporting independent cinema. Across the decades, he had cajoled many librarians to attend the Flaherty. I remember he also insisted that audiences matter as much as the films, an idea that jolted me back then.
Graduate school pummeled me to take up arms as a partisan fighter defending the one form of cinema I felt mattered the most politically—documentary.
In contrast, Bill’s view was more expansive, a galaxy of practices and approaches. He was curious about all films, all genres, all periods. I imagine he considered this strategy a way to trek through many different universes of approach, content, form, style. He possessed that rare gift to find something marvelous in all that he saw. His attitude influenced how I teach film, with shorts dialectically juxtaposed with features.
His pluralist, wide vision of cinema materialized decisively in his programming with Nadine Covert, another film library world luminary, in the landmark 1972 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. They imported a concept of heterogeneous films jostling against each other to galvanize a combustion of ideas. This aggressive curatorial strategy, channeling Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 from an earlier era, has influenced legions of programmers and professors in the half a century that followed. Bill and Nadine concocted a tempest of diverse filmmaking styles in the works of Les Blank, St. Claire Bourne, Lianne Brandon, Stan Latham, Marcel Ophuls, Yasujoro Ozu, Ousmane Sembene. In 1979, he programmed again, showcasing radical Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens.
Many know Bill from Bill’s Bar, mounted each year at the Flaherty. He assembled this jerry-rigged, speakeasy-like bar with a folding table, plastic pails for ice, and a glass jar for donations for libations. It took me many years to decipher why he always worked behind the bar. Literally and figuratively, I suspect he loved serving the next generation of filmmakers, programmers, and scholars. As he poured these young seminarians cheap chardonnay in clear plastic cups and plied them with stale pretzels, Bill connected with each of them. Their urgencies and obsessions delighted him.
Bill impacted me even more profoundly as I plunged into what felt like an endless dark pit of historical research for Scott MacDonald’s and my The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema (Indiana University Press, 2017).
Because he served as President of the Flaherty Board from 1974-1977, I interviewed Bill’s four times. We talked about his career as a librarian, his programming and trustee experiences, the evolution of film culture, the importance of the seminar for both its devotees and the field. He proclaimed resolutely “there’s nothing like the Flaherty anywhere.” He argued for its irrefutable impact, but also relished detailed nasty gossip about various trustees and seminarians whose hardline, narrow positions he found despicable, even thirty years later.
When I first approached him, I promised the interview would only require thirty minutes for some historical fact-checking. Every call flooded to two hours. Tales cracked out like lightning in a thunderstorm, a contrast to what many assumed was his quiet demeanor. I wrote furiously in my notebook to capture his labyrinthine stories and the textures of his passionate advocacy for the Seminar so I could figure out the next question that archives could not answer.
He unleashed a hurricane of films, people, debates, love stories, board decisions, disputes. He wanted to be sure I knew who had affairs with whom, who was difficult and harbored selfish agendas, who had a good soul.
As I listened, it became clear, like patches of blue sky erasing storm clouds, that he found the debates that cut through the people who migrated to the Flaherty to argue about cinema energizing, important, vital. I suspect, for him, their ferocity ripped the roof off old structures to expose new cinematic terrains below.
Bill was truly the wizard of international independent cinema, the man behind the screen and behind the scenes who brought all of us into a more capacious world of cinemas we never could have imagined—or gotten to-- without him.
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
This is my first blog post so I am not sure how to this but will do my best.
Dear Flaherty Seminar:
I love you!
I love you!
I love you!
There, I’ve said it.
Who am I? And why do I feel that way? I will try to be brief—though I rarely am!
My name is Linda Lilienfeld. I have been a film and picture researcher for forty-five years, specializing in history and science. I work in documentary film, PBS-type series, features, books, and museum exhibitions.
Years ago, I started to work with Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery of Art film program in Washington DC. This allows me to travel to film archives around the world, where material has not been digitized, and look at all kinds of films. The National Gallery of Art shows a sampler of each year’s Flaherty program.
In 1992 I worked on an exhibit about climate change for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The companion book was written by Andy Revkin. It was so compelling that it changed the course of my life. Climate change: what the f..k was that? I mean, I’m from Brooklyn, what do I know about plants and animals?
But I realized it was a very important and complex subject.
So I started a project known as Let’s Talk About Water (www.letstalkaboutwater.com) where I bring scientists together in a panel discussion after a film showing connected to water, and do my best to instigate a dynamic interaction with the audience. I try to get the scientists to speak more simply and clearly and let people feel comfortable to ask “stupid” questions—there are no stupid questions. I try to make it fun. I work with the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science (CUAHSI) cuashi.org. We do events all over the world.
Water knits it all together and is a great point of entry for conversation about climate change.
So, why do I love The Flaherty Seminar?
Years ago, a colleague of mine, who is very reticent, had just come back from The Flaherty (whatever that was!). He told me it was a week-long seminar where people watched film together, morning, noon, and night. After each program, they would talk about it as a group and continue talking over dinner and into the wee hours of the morning. They argued, fought, and agreed. They deepened each other’s insight into the films—and in some cases changed each other’s opinions of the film.
Each year when we would meet after a “Flaherty,” he could not stop talking—this person who barely said a word!
So he invited me to attend a Flaherty in 1976. Now, in 2017, I have attended between twenty-five to thirty Seminars. How crazy is that?
My first time speaking to the group was utterly terrifying. I was clammy and hyperventilating. But I said my piece. When I’d finally made public contact with the group, the experience deepened.
What is more amazing is how sad I was when it ended and I had to leave the “Flaherty family” and reenter real life.
Afterward my mind kept racing. It was hard to talk to friends who had not been at The Flaherty.
Shards of images continued to flash through my mind, along with connections between the films, the genius of the programmer, why one film sits near another in the sequence, the way those interconnections opened deep reflective thinking about beauty, love, conflict, process, change. And what the filmmakers, who also attend the The Flaherty, had had to say.
The smorgasbord of films and ideas upon which we feasted would express a visual idea so compelling as to be breathtaking. I wanted that feast again and again.
The idea of leaving the real world behind, watching films all day long, spending time with wonderfully bright people to THINK, TALK and REFLECT about life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is just so gratifying, challenging, and fulfilling.
The programmer has complete freedom—no censorship—to program what she or he wants. But we never know what it will be until the actual show.
No preconception. What is that? RARE! In today’s world, everyone knows too much about everything before experiencing it.
Currently, we are housed on the beautiful and welcoming campus of Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. Due to excellent administration of the event, we glide seamlessly between dorm rooms, not-so-bad cafeteria meals, walks to the screening room, breaks, discussion, happy hour… We float through the magic as film upon film, day after day, unspools and chat after chat washes over us.
As a group, you become (which in fact we all really are) one big organism. You pass people in the hallway. You might never directly talk with them and yet somehow you miss them when it is over. It is the way they said hello, or the fact you met at various intervals in a mysteriously synchronous way. At the Flaherty, I’ve also made friends for life.
But the most amazing effect is how the Flaherty experience enriches my real life and my work—especially my work.
One of the most important challenges of our time is why people are in denial about climate change. How can it be that scientists, geoscientists in particular, and hydrologists especially, know so much—and we know so little. How can anyone call climate change a “hoax?”
I think the problem and the solution is communication between scientists and the public, with universities as the conduit.
I took what I absorbed from The Flaherty and created the Let’s Talk About Water project.
I serve as moderator in many of the panels or as a consultant to the host university team. But I strive over and over again to recreate the life, the light, the warmth, the energy, the conflict, the resolution, the clarity that I have experienced at The Flaherty.
The process of The Flaherty gives me confidence to work against the grain of the quiet, reserved scientific community and to push them gently into The Flaherty Way.
We try to convey the power of an image, the many ways it can be read, and the ability to open minds with information, experience, context, and emotion to help us communicate our way out of oblivion.
Thank you, dear Flaherty Seminar. As I said at the beginning, I love you.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
At my first Flaherty Seminar in 2006, I was asked to sit in a circle with the other participants to introduce ourselves. Each person opened with a numerical inventory of how many seminars they had attended.
I had just returned from India. I wasn’t sure whether jetlag distorted what I was hearing or it if these statements were really being uttered in public.
Rumors swirled in screen studies circles that the seminar was cultish and debates vitriolic. I remember feeling that the seminar seemed like a cross between a first-year seminar at a university and a 12-step program for lost souls seeking reorientation.
The seminar developed into something else: a vibrant space for the challenge of having one’s expectations disrupted.
I found myself addicted to the ritual of awaking each morning for three screenings of unannounced films and videos. When I attended the seminar again in 2007 and 2008, I remember feeling emboldened that I could announce to newcomers that it was my second or third Flaherty. I now understood how the seminar worked.
My colleague and now coauthor Patty Zimmermann had encouraged me to attend. She’d even found a way for me to get funding from Ithaca College. She also shared that the design of the seminar owes more to Frances Flaherty than to her husband Robert. I mused, how typical, a woman does the work and a man gets the attention.
I thought about how Alice Guy-Blaché films are not taught as widely as Georges Méliès films. I recalled that her role in developing film as a narrative medium had been largely forgotten until feminist scholars (all women in this instance) recovered this repressed history.
Patty revealed that in the film studies courses at Ithaca College, she and Gina Marchetti had adapted Frances Flaherty’s strategy of eliciting responses as free from preconceptions as possible.
I was part of the film studies team at Ithaca College with Patty. We distributed syllabi that included only the titles of what would be screened. No place of production. No year of production. No running time. No language or format. And certainly no director’s name.
Although the first year film students in this large lecture class could search online to learn more about the films, few did. They all seemed to find it more fun to arrive without expectations, mesmerized by the provocations to see and to hear and to think and to immerse in the unknown.
My experiences at my first Flaherty rewired my own lingering preconceptions.
I bonded over discussions with Mahen Bonetti, Amalia Córdova, Carlos Guittérez, Roger Hallas, Anna Siomopulous, Sharon Lin Tay, Chi-hui Yang, and others. No matter what was screened or what was said at the large group discussions, the seminar solidified our commitment to voices academia and film culture marginalized, discredited, or ignored.
The seminar disrupts standardized histories of narrative film, documentary, and experimental media, as well as standardized programming at art houses and museums. It made me realize how much has been excluded. It was my first experience of encountering indigenous media and video games in the same space as documentary—and documentary for television alongside documentary for art houses.
I met extraordinary artist-intellectuals including Ashim Ahluwalia, Natalia Almada, Rebecca Baron, Ximena Cuevas, Theo Eshetu, Jacqueline Goss, Leonard Retel Helmrich, Oliver Husain, Laura Kissel, Khalo Matabane, Christina McPhee, Liz Miller, Amir Muhammad, Jenny Perlin, João Moreira Salles, Eddo Stern, and Renée Tajima-Peña. Since then, their films, videos, and installations have ended up on my syllabi, and I’ve analyzed these works in my scholarly publications.
I also met artist-intellectuals whose work I studied in graduate school or had taught in classes, such as Ursula Biemann, Vittorio de Seta, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, and Moussa Sene Absa. I “met” Bahman Ghobadi live via Skype. He had not been able to secure a visa to enter the United States.
For me, the smaller discussions were fortifying. The big discussions were sometimes intimidating, often frustrating, and occasionally pointless. But they were always part of something larger that was unequivocally inspiring.
Although I have not been able to attend my fourth Flaherty, I look forward to doing so. I hope that a Flaherty might one day be held a little closer to where I live. Anywhere in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, or even East Asia would be closer than central New York. I have not found another event that rivals it.
After three seminars, I am addicted to screening media in classes and public programs without advance framing. I am addicted to having my assumptions proven incomplete and my preconceptions rendered incorrect.
I give thanks to the brave women (and men) in the history of The Flaherty Seminar, partisans for an independent cinema who made this way of knowing the world possible for so many generations of seminar participants.
The Flaherty Seminar pushed me to think in unanticipated and unexpected ways. I am so grateful to Patty for encouraging me to attend my first seminar and am eager to read the seminar’s history that she and Scott MacDonald have painstakingly assembled after a decade of research.
The Flaherty is a productively disunified and unruly experience.
Editors’ note: The Flaherty Seminar’s international scope is evident in the array of home countries for the participants mentioned above: India (Ashim Ahluwalia), México/United States (Natalia Almada), United States (Rebecca Baron), Switzerland (Ursula Biemann), México (Ximena Cuevas), Italy (Vittorio de Seta), UK/Italy with family from Ethiopia (Theo Eshetu), Kurdish Iran (Bahman Ghobadi), United States (Jacqueline Goss), Netherlands/Indonesia (Leonard Retel Helmrich), Canada/Germany with family from India (Oliver Husain), United States (Laura Kissel), Chad/France (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun), South Africa (Khalo Matabane), United States (Christina McPhee), United States/Canada (Liz Miller), Sénégal (Moussa Sene Absa), Malaysia (Amir Muhammad), United States (Jenny Perlin), Brazil (João Moreira Salles), Israel/United States (Eddo Stern), and United States with family from Japan and México (Renée Tajima-Peña).