Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “The Flaherty”
Thursday, March 8, 2018
In Germany, the Flaherty isn't well-known.
But I had lived in Boston from 2006-2012, and spent my weekends at the Harvard Film Archive (HFA). Through the Boston filmmaking grapevine, I heard about the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.
Another regular HFA patron mentioned the seminar to me with great respect. She said that everybody who returned from the Flaherty raved about it. Since I was a foreign filmmaker seeking contacts and insights, the seminar seemed to be the place to go.
So, in 2009, I went to the Flaherty. I’d imagined a seminar of maybe fifty participants. When I got there, I was shocked to realize that I was one of 180!
I had trouble following the large group discussions, partly because I speak German and partly because I could not hear everything that was said. For me, these huge discussions neither added much to the films nor opened up the programming concept.
However, I enjoyed the programming itself. I discovered filmmakers I’d never heard of, including Chick Strand, Omar Amiralay, and Pavel Medvedev. I also liked that year’s program curator, Irina Leimbacher.
I was lucky to take part in some lively late-night talks at Bill's Bar. I made a few friends. And I became more familiar with the Boston filmmaking community. Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass  was screened with many Bostonians present.
I would have loved to return to the seminar the following year, because the theme was “work.” In 2007, I had curated a little film series in Germany, as part of a big project supported with national cultural funding, entitled “Work in Progress.” I applied for a LEF fellowship to attend the seminar, but wasn't lucky enough to receive one. Since my financial situation was less than stable, I could not afford to pay my own way.
In 2014, the ethnic German filmmaker named Caspar Stracke co-curated the seminar together with his Mexican partner Gabriela Monroy. Although I had returned to Germany, I could not resist going to this Flaherty.
Also, I had a mission.
I had joined the programming team of a small ethnographic film festival, the Freiburger Film Forum. Since 1985, it has run biannually in an old university town in the south of Germany.
I hoped to start a collaboration between the Freiburger Film Forum and The Flaherty. Our forum and the seminar share a similar structure of continuous screenings with only one film shown at a time, and a focus on dialogue and discussion between the filmmakers and participants.
I recruited a filmmaker friend from Germany who was planning a US trip. We both enjoyed the seminar. We loved some of the programming, and especially the chance to listen to the great experimental documentarian Jill Godmilow.
I’d contacted the seminar director and some board members concerning my idea of a collaboration. They were friendly and interested. I departed from that seminar with a clear intention to develop a Flaherty homage for the Freiburger Film Forum.
In 2016, I returned to the seminar to arrange a mutual project. I studied the history of the seminar in order to develop a programming proposal, which evolved from a retrospective of ethnographic work to a focus on contemporary political documentary with some historical works: Eloge du Chiac , Los Sures , An Injury to One , Free Land .
Our collaborative program eventually happened in May 2017.
We invited former Flaherty curator and board member John Gianvito to serve as a special guest. He discussed the films in a most delightful way. This well-received program made a strong statement about the committed cinema of resistance in the U.S.
I wanted to introduce the long-standing institution of the Flaherty Film Seminar to the German film community. Because our Freiburg venue belongs to the nationwide association of community theatres, the programmers who belong to this organization are stimulated by our careful curation. They learn about our programming through articles published in the association’s magazine.
My hope is that the collaboration between the Freiburger Film Forum and the Flaherty Seminar will inspire others to provide access to the immense archive of films that have been shown at the seminar over the decades. For me, these programs signal love for the documentary genre and the treasures of reality one can discover in these films.
My Flaherty story underscores that one important aspect of the seminar is to facilitate networking among those who care deeply about accomplished filmmaking. I am happy to be a small part of this community. Though I would not call myself a seminar devotee, the virus of the Flaherty has touched me.
Nevertheless, I would suggest that downsizing might be something for the seminar to consider.
It is also true that the Flaherty is not exempt from the self-aggrandizement that often characterizes public cultural environments. Instead of a true dialogue between different kinds of participants, the large group discussions tend to become a chain of overly elaborate scholarly statements. I would like some of the scholars in attendance to behave in a less “scholarly” way.
Nevertheless, compared to other film gatherings I have attended, the Flaherty is the best at providing a democratic and open platform.
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.
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
“There won’t be any time,” said the hazel-eyed woman standing next to me at the check-in desk.
She was smiling warmly, but I tensed up.
I had just arrived at Colgate University after a seven-hour drive in my tiny car from Oberlin, Ohio. I was exhausted, and more than a bit anxious. I’d recently finished an intense but rewarding year as a visiting professor at the University of Toronto. It was my first job teaching film, so I’d meticulously prepared every lecture, planning into the wee hours of the night.
I’d left Canada for a postdoctoral fellowship in the Cinema Studies Program at Oberlin College, but I was second-guessing my decision. I knew that Oberlin had launched some careers, sunk others. Things would eventually work themselves out for me, but back then I didn’t know that.
My life felt very unstable. My spouse and I had been apart for three long years, and I was nervous about my professional choices. Still, I was about to dive into a crowd of scholars, filmmakers, curators, and programmers gathered together by their passion for experimental documentary.
I had studied documentary with the late George Stoney at New York University, and had written a short article on the films of Francesco Pasinetti, a Venetian documentarian active in the first half of the 20th century. That was the extent of my knowledge. I felt more than a bit intimidated. Impostor syndrome, they call it. Commonly reported among graduate students and early career academics. No surprise there.
The group stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, hosted by Brazil, were in full swing. The much-favored home team was about to be humiliated by Germany with a crushing 1-7 defeat, the worst in the tournament’s history.
A loyal supporter of my own national team (Italy), I was apprehensive about not finding a place to watch the two matches that coincided with the seminar’s opening and closing screenings. “Is there a TV on campus where I could watch the World Cup Games?” – I queried at the check-in desk.
Later, I learned that the woman who intercepted the question was Ruth Somalo, a Spanish filmmaker, future NYC Flaherty programmer (“Broken Senses,” 2017), and one of the nicest people on the planet. She was clearly aware that this was my first seminar. And of course, she was right. There was no time.
Luckily, I was not the only soccer fan in this erudite crowd. Filmmaker and programmer Jason Fox, who was then pursuing an MFA at Hunter College, worked his considerable charm with the projection staff. He cajoled them to beam snippets of matches onto the same theatrical screen where during that week we watched works by Eric Baudelaire, Duncan Campbell, Cao Guimarães, Johan Grimonprez, and Hito Steyerl, among others.
Italy won the first match, lost the second. And then the third. Better luck in 2018, I thought. Things didn’t work out for them: in 2018 the team didn’t even make it through the qualifying rounds.
I’d become aware of the Flaherty seminar in 2010, when my then-roommate Robert Sweeney traveled upstate to attend what sounded like a film-nerd boot camp, programmed by Dennis Lim, a critic he had always admired. Rob and I were friends from graduate school, beginning to shape our respective careers out of our shared passion for film. He was already working at Kino Lorber and slowly working his way up the ranks of the New York film critics circle; I was writing a Ph.D. dissertation on migration in Italian cinema, a topic that was as vast and complex as it was personal.
Rob was always the more intellectual one, an omnivorous cinephile scurrying off to screenings of obscure films in musty basements throughout the city. He would carefully study all the schedules, organizing his week accordingly. Sometimes I would tag along, trusting his taste and hoping to learn something new. I often did.
That 2014 Flaherty felt a bit like those New York evenings watching films carefully selected by my friend. Except that the seminar took place in an air-conditioned auditorium with comfortable seating, pristine image quality, and an expert projectionist. There was even a piece projected in the campus planetarium.
I sat back and relaxed as much as I could, trying to overcome the awkwardness of forgotten names and shared bathrooms, of damp dorm rooms and sleep deprivation. The presence of my friend Ohad Landesman, a documentary film scholar I knew from graduate school, comforted me. He became my social buoy throughout the week.
I let Gabriela Monroy and Caspar Strake, the programmers of “Turning the Inside Out,” take me on a journey. I learned by watching and listening, rarely taking part in the group conversations that followed the screenings. I forced myself to ask a question on the last day. I felt like the child who spends the day talking himself into finally riding the rollercoaster when the park is about to close, when most of the people have already gone home.
I made my one and only comment on the last day of my second Flaherty, too: the 2016 seminar, “Play.” I suggested smugly that the morning program be renamed “The Michelangelo Antonioni Memorial Program: The Genius of David Pendleton.”
Probably rather pedantically, I proceeded to compare the films we’d just viewed to different periods in the long career of the Italian maestro. It was meant to be a heartfelt compliment to both the filmmakers and to David, whose programming savvy I had quietly admired all week.
One morning at breakfast David approached me to talk about one of his passions, Pier Paolo Pasolini, a filmmaker whose work I was never truly able to appreciate. At least not as much as David. He looked fatigued, but at the time I was not aware that he was already fighting the disease that eventually took his life in 2017. I’m grateful for that short conversation.
I felt validated by David’s gesture, which he performed so gracefully. I will watch more Pasolini, who, coincidentally, was also a soccer fan, and I will think of David, who taught me so much in so little time.
The Flaherty Seminar will never be a comfortable experience for me, but it will always be a deep one. It has exposed me to things I would not otherwise have had access to. It has introduced me to films I now teach regularly. And it’s made me feel connected to a great community, even if only for brief moments. It is also a humbling experience. A room overflowing with talent and history can have that effect.
I will return. I will make a comment on the last day, voice quivering and palms sweating, but it will be a good moment for me. A small victory.
Thursday, January 4, 2018
In 1991, Faye Ginsburg proposed a Flaherty Film Seminar that was devoted to films produced by indigenous filmmakers.
She submitted the proposal to the International Film Seminar (IFS) board, the organization that at that time ran the annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, and it was approved. Both Faye and I were serving as board members at that time.
Shortly after obtaining approval, Faye asked me to co-program the seminar. I agreed. We met with Tom Johnson, IFS president at the time. He approved the idea.
Shortly after that, IFS sent out a press release announcing the seminar and an open call for films. And Fay and I began a list of potential films we already knew. As far as I was aware, Faye was the most knowledgeable person on indigenous filmmaking in the country.
Soon thereafter, two board members circulated a memo via fax to other board members. I never received a copy.
Apparently, Pearl Bowser, a programmer, and Louis Massiah, a filmmaker, objected to having two White academics organize the seminar. They felt this perpetuated the domination of the West over underrepresented minorities. They felt the seminar should be programmed by an indigenous person or at least co-programmed by Ginsburg and an indigenous programmer.
The board discussed the problem. If a meeting was called, I never received an invitation.
While I was never directly told, it appears that the board supported Bowser and Massiah’s objections. In addition, the question of cost was raised. Someone suggested that the cost of transporting the indigenous filmmakers, some from a great distance, was beyond the budget the organization had allotted for the seminar.
It is unclear why the issue raised by Bowser and Massiah, along with the question of excessive costs, was not discussed when Faye’s proposal was under consideration.
I learned of these matters indirectly when Faye called me. She had come to feel that the situation was hopeless and that her only option was to resign as programmer. I agreed and did the same.
No other board member or the president or the executive secretary showed me the courtesy of calling to discuss the situation. As the old cliché goes, “I knew when I was not wanted” and resigned as a trustee. I never again attended a Flaherty seminar.
It is crucial to remember that the Bowser/Massiah memo provided no names of qualified programmers from indigenous communities, nor, so far as I know, did any board member or the president or the executive secretary offer any suggestions.
No one asked Faye or myself or anyone else for a list of names. The reason for this is simple: at the time there were, so far as I knew, no qualified indigenous programmers. The board’s demand simply displayed a lack of knowledge of this field. While their stance appeared to be ideologically correct, it resulted in a demand impossible to meet.
The Bowser/Massiah memo made impossible what might have been a positive outcome: the mounting of an indigenous seminar where the growing number of Native-American filmmakers like Larry Littlebird might have had a chance to meet people who could have helped to find a wider public, as well as an opportunity to get to know other indigenous filmmakers. To my knowledge, in the subsequent decades, the Flaherty has never been able to produce such a seminar.
During this time in the late 1980s and early 1990s anthropologists were wrestling with what was called “the crisis of representation.” Both Faye and I had published articles that dealt with the profound problem of who has the right to represent another.
I am fairly certain none of the people involved with IFS were aware of how thoroughly these issues were being discussed in anthropology and in other scholarly fields.
Had we been allowed to program the seminar, there could have been useful discussions about how to deal with the thorny question of who gets to program whom, and whether the only way to correct the wrongs of the past was to restrict the programming of events like the Flaherty Seminar to programmers from the same community as the filmmakers whose films are being shown.
It is difficult for me to understand why Massiah and Bowser waited to voice their concerns until an announcement of the seminar was publicly circulated. This embarrassed the Flaherty organization and damaged its reputation.
Had they expressed their reservations at the meeting where Ginsburg’s proposal was discussed, a decision could have been made in private, thus avoiding the negative public impact of the memo.
The indigenous seminar could have been postponed or the board could have acknowledged the lack of experienced programmers among the underrepresented. They could have tried to develop some sort of apprentice program where people from these communities could acquire the experience needed to be film programmers.
This was an unfortunate episode in the history of the seminar. It could easily have been avoided. I have never understood why it was not.
Thursday, March 2, 2017
By Patricia R. Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald
We are pleased to announce our new blog, Flaherty Stories, which serves as a companion to our new book, The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017). The book is out in May 2017. In case you would like to pre-order, here is the link: http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?cPath=1037_7487_7488&products_id=808634
The blog will feature the voices and stories of the Flaherty Seminar, now in its 63rd year, as a way to celebrate the heterogeneity of people, films, and perspectives that have convened at the legendary film seminar.
In the ten-year journey of researching and writing this book, we encountered many stories and people. Many we spoke with had much more to say than could be quoted in a scholarly book. We hope to share these stories with you here, and invite other Flaherty devotees to contact us as well.
Here's the description of our book:
This is the inspiring story of The Flaherty, one of the oldest continuously running nonprofit media arts institution in the world, which has shaped the development of independent film, video, and emerging forms in the United States over the past 60 years.
Combining the words of legendary independent filmmakers with a detailed history of The Flaherty, Patricia R. Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald showcase its history and legacy, amply demonstrating how the relationships created at the annual Flaherty seminar have been instrumental in transforming American media history.
Moving through the decades, each chapter opens with a detailed history of the organization by Zimmermann, who traces the evolution of The Flaherty from a private gathering of filmmakers to a small annual convening, to today’s ever-growing nexus of filmmakers, scholars, librarians, producers, funders, distributors, and others associated with international independent cinema.
MacDonald expands each chapter by giving voice to the major figures in the evolution of independent media through transcriptions of key discussions galvanized by films shown at The Flaherty. The discussions feature Frances Flaherty, Robert Gardner, Fred Wiseman, Willard Van Dyke, Jim McBride, Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Erik Barnouw, Barbara Kopple, Ed Pincus, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Bruce Conner, Peter Watkins, Su Friedrich, Marlon Riggs, William Greaves, Ken Jacobs, Kazuo Hara, Mani Kaul, Craig Baldwin, Bahman Ghobadi, Eyal Sivan, and many others.