Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “THE FLAHERTY: DECADES IN THE CAUSE OF INDEPENDENT CINEMA”
Tuesday, December 18, 2018
I arrived at Wells College in August of 1987—of two minds.
For 15 years I’d been passionately interested in what has been called variously, “avant-garde film,” “experimental film,” “underground film”—and had heard legendary tales of how the Flaherty Seminar chewed up avant-garde filmmakers. Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs had apparently attempted to crash the 1963 Flaherty to screen Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures  and Jacobs’ own Blonde Cobra , an event later documented in Mekas’s film Lost Lost Lost . To Mekas and Jacobs the Flaherty seemed the tired past, not the creative present—an organization and an annual event in need of an intervention.
On the other hand, I’d agreed to be present at the seminar as one of the representatives of Peter Watkins’ epic media-critique, The Journey , which had premiered at Berlin the previous winter. I was proud of the work I had done, along with hundreds of collaborators, on The Journey—and excited that Richard Herskowitz (at the time program director at Cornell Cinema) had decided to show all 14 ½ hours of the film, much of it outside normal screening hours for the Flaherty. This was to be an intervention into conventional media-time, including the media-time of Flaherty seminarians.
I registered to attend the whole week, saw a few acquaintances, made some new ones—and kept telling myself that it would be fun to discuss the visionary Watkins film with seminarians on Wednesday evening.
“Visionary”? The process of making The Journey was meant to model a new kind of political organization: an international, non-hierarchical network of people around the world committed to social justice and environmental sanity, and interested in using the grassroots production of media as a way of learning about the world and acting progressively within it. Ideally, the network created in the production of the film would continue to expand beyond the film, perhaps by using the film (remember, this is before the Internet). Watkins had circled the earth three times between 1984 and 1987 to establish grassroots production units in 12 countries, to talk with locally organized crews, and finally to shoot the film.
I told myself I was not at all nervous about the upcoming discussion.
Then, that Wednesday morning I woke up with large welts covering my body. I’d never had them before and have never had them since.
The discussion with Watkins (and several others who had worked on The Journey) turned out to be a legendary “trashing” of a film/filmmaker (the discussion is included in The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema). The film had more than tested the patience of many seminarians and they were happy to vent their frustrations.
In the end, I was disappointed with the response to what I thought was a remarkable cinematic effort, and later on, saddened to realize that my having worked to bring Watkins to the seminar had seriously damaged my relationship with him.
I’m not sorry The Journey was presented at the Flaherty; it deserved to be shown and resonated well with the other films Herskowitz had programmed (by Su Friedrich, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, John Greyson, Alfred Guzzetti, Johan van der Keuken, Ilan Ziv…). But looking back on that discussion, I do have regrets.
The Journey is focused on the fact that, around the world, serious global issues were almost never a topic around the family dinner table (not sure the “family dinner table” still exists!). Watkins was interested in demonstrating how conventionally organized families avoided discussing serious issues together. I remember Patty Zimmermann directing a question to me in particular: something like, “Do you think the film might be stronger if it included a unconventional family, like say a lesbian couple?” I should have said, “Well, the focus here is on the dangerous anti-educational, anti-political habits of what traditional culture considers ‘normal’ families.” Instead, I remember saying something (I no longer remember exactly what) that I felt would ingratiate me with Patty and others who felt her question was pertinent.
I believe the final comment to Watkins was by a woman who identified herself as a former clinical psychologist: “I’m not being mean when I say this, just brutally real—please understand that. I liken your film to radical surgery with a rusty knife without anesthesia.” She went on to explain that there was no way her students could be expected to sit through the film.
Watkins said, “I’m sorry. I can’t respond to your comment.” But I continue to wish I’d said, “If you honestly believe you were not “being mean” with your comment, I’m afraid you’re not clear on what being mean means!” Or perhaps, “I see why you’re a former clinical psychologist!”—though actually being a smart-ass never works out for me.
I returned to the Flaherty the following year, partly because I felt I might need to continue to defend The Journey (I was correct)—and as had been true the year before, I continued to see films of considerable interest, to meet new filmmakers, and to develop new relationships.
The irony is that, though I’ve found it fascinating to transcribe and edit many of the big-group Flaherty discussions (first, for a special issue of Wide Angle [vol. 17: nos. 1-4], bravely published by longtime Flaherty-ite and then-editor Ruth Bradley; and years later for The Flaherty; Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema), I’ve never liked the seminar model of discussing a film immediately after seeing it and with the filmmaker present—I’m so rarely clear about what I think immediately after a film and am not particularly interested in hearing others’ off-the-cuff reactions.
I attended the Flaherty regularly for many years, but my relationship with the seminars has always felt tentative—perhaps a residue of my experience with The Journey. I guess I’ve never quite forgiven that group of seminarians for not having a sense of humor about how their own impatience with the Watkins epic (a film meant to be a conscious intervention within the regular, predictable, comfortable schedules of those who see it, including “media-savvy” audiences like those at “Flaherty summer film camp”) was, in fact, the essence of what The Journey was about.
Sunday, April 29, 2018
The 2014 Flaherty, “Turning the Inside Out,” examined “the state of documentary as it travels between the art gallery, the cinema, and the interactive screen,” according to seminar marketing. At the time, this issue constituted the heart of my doctoral research and a significant part of my film festival programming.
I was ecstatic to be awarded a fellowship to attend. I traveled from Toronto to Colgate University with film scholar Tess Takahashi and former Flaherty curator Pablo de Ocampo. Right away, the fellows met with Jill Godmilow, whose What Farocki Taught  I had seen previously, but whose larger body of work was new, thrilling, and uncompromising. Generous to us fellows yet recalcitrant in her documentary dogma, Godmilow set the stage for the Flaherty’s storied conversations and arguments.
The seminar opened with Godmilow’s Far From Poland , which provoked the audience to erupt into applause as the first frames appeared. It was a kind of nerdy-nirvana to experience it.
Filmmakers I admired participated that year, including Jesse McLean, Johan Grimonprez, Raqs Media Collective; and Hito Steyerl, beamed in via Skype as her daughter was ill. A number of new-to-me films were screened that left me reeling. The Anabasis Of May And Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi And 27 Years Without Images  by Eric Baudelaire transported me so intimately that I felt the dread of the haunted subjects’ lives. Duncan Campbell’s Bernadette  transformed homage into mystery. His film and others I saw at that seminar found their way into my programming and course syllabi.
An unexpected key issue emerged: a critical look at the currency of the term “essay film” and the rhetorical strategies of artists using documents, historical records, archival materials, and standard talking heads. Many attendees asserted that this format had shifted so much that some entries seemed more like lecture films. They circumvented the open, interrogative, and often surprising logical connections the essay form embodied.
Those rooted in the documentary film world exhibited anxiety towards gallery-based moving image work. Gallery artists mounted a defensive, apologist discourse about the shortfalls of film and video installation. Many agreed a black box would need to be built inside a white cube in order to sustain a gallery screening. These debates raged on through the week of the seminar.
The seminar’s format cannot ever completely fail—curation be damned.
If audiences don’t like the programming, the discussions still produce generative observations and insights into strategies and approaches. When the programming is well received, the most successful qualities of a work bubble up in discussions, crystallizing.
The Flaherty’s intensive and immersive schedule produces a think-tank like focus where a mutual interrogation of ideas germinate into a richer, more pronounced understanding of documentary. Still, a few more breaks in the screening schedule would be welcome.
The fellowship program introduced me to many remarkable people. I met scholars and curators such as Sonja Bertucci, Almudena Escobar López, Laliv Melamed, Herb Shellenberger, and Josephine Shokrian. I met talented filmmakers such as Emily Mkrtichian, Bjargey Ólafsdóttir, Arjun Shankar, Peter Snowdon, Libi Striegl, and Julia Yezbick.
The seminar came with both catharsis and a few regrets. Highs included being on a dance floor with Tony Conrad not long before he left us.
After the most intense critical discussion, I ate dinner with two filmmakers who had just experienced a less-than-jubilant reception. Their harshest critic sat next to me at the table. The filmmakers shed any defensiveness. A discussion about protest, representation, and the self-mythologization of the Left ensued. Conclusions were made and some consensus formed. Here, I felt the generosity and openness of the Flaherty as an intellectual laboratory of artists and thinkers.
There were a few regrets, such as when I returned to my dorm room exhausted, missing a fun night gallivanting in a nearby pond with new comrades. I didn’t want to bother curators Gabriela Monroy and Caspar Stracke, a lost opportunity. I later connected with them at DocPoint Helsinki. Their intelligence, curiosity, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes overwhelmed me.
In 2014, I was at a crossroads. I was simultaneously finishing my PhD with a dissertation about experimental documentary and post-minimal art and programming for film festivals in Toronto. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to pursue next. In a strange way, the Flaherty impacted my decision. Three years later, I was appointed a visiting assistant professor at Colgate University to teach documentary film classes.
Epilogue: The 2014 Fellows
On the second to last day of the 2014 seminar, I collaborated with the other fellows to try to give something back to the Flaherty.
We created a list of notable quotes we’d overheard. I’ve pulled a few of the gems from the sheet we distributed at the end of the seminar entitled “What The Flaherty Taught in 2014”:
Over the last week during break-out sessions, in private discourse over drinks, or otherwise, conversations between the fellows have generated many critical insights, deft observations and valuable provocations that, so far, have been left unshared with the larger seminar.
We want these comments to reach those best served by them, so here are a few morsels.
How to make a film (borrowed from “Rules of the Road” driving manual):
- Get the big picture.
- Watch out for the other guy.
- Make sure they see you.
- Keep your eyes on the road.
- Always have an out.
Thesis number one for documentary practice: films need to be beautiful not just on the outside but on the inside.
Every film should ask the viewer, “Who am I, standing next to this?”
You can only be conscious of yourself when there is an other.
You can’t be in solidarity with yourself.
Where’s your labor going, baby?
We’re not looking at the panopticon, This is the reverse shot.
Read yourself into a crisis—then make a film.
Eisensteinian montage can be a Pavlovian proposition.
A film should break vases.
Film festivals outsource risk to independent filmmakers.
The Flaherty runs on caffeine and alcohol.
I think we should just stay here and never go back to where we came from.
Friday, March 9, 2018
Why, when I think of the early (1957?) Flaherty seminar where I worked as a eighteen-year-old gofer, do I indelibly envision Frances Flaherty sitting high above the main floor of the barn, beside Sam Ogden’s chimney, looking down on the proceedings—while also being separate from them.
Curious, too, is how she tended, I believe, to be present at most screenings of her husband’s work whenever she had occasion to be present, as was true at her home, which was what the Dummerston setting for the seminar was—otherwise known as Black Mountain Farm, very much a hillside location, possibly deserted when the menfolk went off to war in the 1940s.
(I don’t know this factually in Frances’s instance, but I do know that by 1957, there had been well over a century of hillside farm abandonment in Vermont and other New England uplands.)
I do know, both at the University of Virginia, where I founded a film society (Moving Images) around 1958, where she appeared (and just how was that trip from Vermont financed?) and at Williams College (where I once hosted her) that she would sit through whatever Flaherty film was being screened, even though she must have seen these works hundreds of times.
Could it be that tending to Bob’s work, caring for his work, was an act of devotion, even a religious observance, say like Holy Communion, to be celebrated or practiced again and again?
So I don’t have a sense of Frances’s being down on the main floor of her barn, which housed both the screening/discussion room and (was it?) two larger bedrooms on the south side, the left side as the building was entered from the east. There must have been a bathroom, but I don’t recall it.
Confusing now to me, some sixty years later: was there a projection booth? There must have been, but do I now also recall David Flaherty, Bob’s brother, threading 16mm projectors out in the open room?
Also, when Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali  was screened that summer (and he himself was present as that seminar’s featured “guest”), surely no 16mm print existed, and just how was 35mm handled, presumably with two projectors?
Of significance in the main “screening” room was a grand piano. Included within the large coterie of summering artists and scholars amongst whom the Flahertys had settled in southern Vermont, was Rudolf Serkin, who usually played at the early seminars. But I don’t recall his doing so when I was there. Of course, my gofer role did cause me to be away from the property on errands to neighboring Bratttleboro and elsewhere—wielding Frances’ coupe car, with a rumble seat (why the Flahertys, or why she, with such a car?).
But back to the aerie: Frances up there alone in her high-elevation inglenook. It was a balcony seat of a sort. I never recall anyone else being up there with her, and I don’t know if I myself ever went up.
And I should say, it was always difficult, however often in her later years I saw Frances, mostly in Dummerston, to know what she was thinking. There was, about her (at least for me), an air of superiority, and maybe that air has wafted through subsequent seminars over the years: here is film that, on the whole, is not blockbuster, that is the work of individuals more than companies, that may be somewhat outside the mainstream of box office successes, that is somehow special and to be savored by only the cognoscenti or self-appointed.
I also see Frances up there, “hawk-like.” Always my sense was that some people discussing Bob’s work did not know the truth as she and Bob himself knew it, and she would silently correct them.
Excellent examples of this “correcting” mode are documented in the remarkable Louisiana Story Study Film , made years back at the University of Minnesota (and, stupidly, never shown at any of the many seminars I attended—since it is so very helpful to understanding the Flaherty approach). How often in that film does she correct Bob’s cameraman, Ricky Leacock, by saying “You know…” As if the cameraman did not know!
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.
Thursday, February 1, 2018
I was asked by Mary Kerr to film a trailer for the seminar, something that could be used for “propaganda” purposes.
The filming was to take place during the 2010 seminar, “WORK,” programmed by Dennis Lim. The idea was to give viewers the visceral sensation of being in the thick of it, as if they were taking part in the screenings, discussions, and the extra-curricular activities.
I’d been a Flaherty filmmaker the year before. The 2009 Seminar, “MONUMENTS, WITNESSES, RUINS,” programmed by Irina Leimbacher, was my first, and it was love at first sight. I was happy to help promote the cult of Flaherty.
I was delighted to find out that my friend Josh Solondz would be participating in the project as assistant director. Josh and I were born on the same day (December 11). The stars were definitely aligning in our favor.
Our producer was Mary Kerr herself; Lucila Moctezuma was associate producer. We enlisted the help of Gerry Hooper, a frequent Flaherty participant and an experienced DP, who had worked in Bollywood on the breakthrough gangster film Satya .
From the start, the idea was to conduct interviews with the Seminar filmmakers. This would be a way for us to get to know them, learn from them, poke fun at them and, perhaps, to abuse them a bit. Our team got a boost from Daniela Alatorre, who helped us with the interviews, and from Eva Weber, who worked as general assistant.
Our dual role made the Seminar experience exhilarating for me—and a constant challenge. But because of our special situation, we could see more than an average participant, and we could enjoy the comic aspect of this gathering of film lovers who brought their various preconceived notions and prejudices to a place where non-preconception was the official rule.
We’d been asked to make a trailer, something on the level of a brief commercial, but somehow we were inspired to approach the task as a serious film project. Surrounded by brilliant seminar filmmakers, academics, and other outstanding participants, I felt we had to try for the highest level of excellence.
The problem was, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d hardly ever filmed human beings, except for dead ones!—in Nascentes Morimur . I’d filmed pigs and naked mole rats, and sewage!
I tried to place the interviewed filmmakers in environments corresponding to the atmosphere of their films. Michael Glawogger’s Megacities  and Workingman’s Death  put viewers in the midst of perilous workplaces: a slaughterhouse in Nigeria, a do-it-yourself coal mine in the Ukraine, sulphur collection inside an Indonesian volcano... We interviewed Michael in the Flaherty kitchen, in the midst of the clamor, with workers passing in front of the camera.
I would start each interview asking about the idea of non-preconception. Michael asserted that there was no such thing, but that it was a nice idea to entertain.
We shot two great Mexican filmmakers, friends and rivals, Eugenio Polgovsky and Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, in the swimming pool, a location suggested by Pedro’s Alamar .
For Lisandro Alonso, we tried a Hitchcockian Vertigo zoom—suggested by Lisandro’s film Los Muertos . As Lisandro and Dennis Lim walked up a ramp towards the camera, which had been placed on a rug, we attempted, at first without success, to pull the rug and camera backwards as I zoomed in. Lisandro was amused, and said that our clumsiness reminded him of shooting Los Muertos in the midst of the jungle. We enlisted the filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad to help us, and the rug began to move.
We filmed the artist Mika Rottenberg at the local gym, using exercise machines and lifting weights as she spoke—a fabulous location full of reflections in the mirrors and different types of bodies in motion. At some point my conversation with Mika veered toward sex. That part was later excised from the online interview. Flaherty censorship! The official version is posted below.
We also interviewed Uruphong, Lucy Raven, Benj Gerdes and Jennifer Hayashida, Akosua Adoma Owusu, Alex Rivera, Kazuhiro Soda, Zhao Dayong, and Naomi Uman. The interviews were exhaustive. We’d set no limit to how long the conversations should be.
We began to spread the word that this would be a feature film about the seminar. We quickly produced a meta-trailer for that fictitious feature, while working on the trailer proper. In our meta-trailer Bill Brand, using the small, waterproof Kodak camera Mary Kerr had loaned us, filmed underwater shots of Lucy Raven doing laps in the pool. Dennis agreed to show the meta-trailer as part of a regular screening. I wonder if this was the first time that a film made during the seminar was shown at the seminar?
After “WORK” was finished, Josh and I began editing our many hours of footage. We loved the material and had endless fun with it. During particularly hot summer days we’d strip and edit au naturel. Many versions were created, representing the various modes of experimental filmmaking. Six months later we had a 2 ½-hour feature.
We’d have continued, had Mary not come by to bring us back to reality: the Flaherty, she reminded us, had requested only a 2-minute piece.
Josh and I are still entertaining the idea of making the feature. After all, there’s entire archive of interview footage, as well as discussion tapes that could be tapped. The feature could be endless, a Flaherty film that continues to grow longer, like the Flaherty experience itself, which feeds us and through which we continue to grow.
The official Flaherty Trailer: https://vimeo.com/18136767
Michael Glawogger interview: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=3EsqC6I7Hm0
Mika Rottenberg interview: https://vimeo.com/23155242
(Thanks to Josh Solondz and Jim Supanick for reviewing and adding valuable points to this piece.)
Thursday, February 1, 2018
Yes! I programmed the Flaherty Seminar, in 2012. We were young and wild. Well, more wild than young.
[From here on, you can read the whole text in a linear way, paragraph after paragraph, or choose your own way. I’ll try to help you with some indications. If you’re just interested in my Open Wounds seminar, you can read #3, #5, #10 & #12, and skip the rest]
Since then, I’ve been wanting to return. I didn’t try to come back in 2013—I needed a rest after 3 seminars in a row, and being in the center of the storm during the last one. Anyway for one reason or another, I haven’t been back. And yes, I miss you, Flaherty Seminar.
[More about the earlier seminars I attended in #4, #5]
I think 2012 was a good year for the seminar. At least, people looked happy at the end and most of the anonymous surveys confirmed this. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the nice comments I received; I read them to myself when I’m feeling down.
[If you think this is too corny you can find some wilder anecdotes in #5, but if you’re really enjoying it, you might want to jump to #10]
I participated in my first seminar in 2010. I’d arrived in New York that year on a grant from NYU’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese Literature. The year before, I had agreed to be artistic director of the Punto de Vista film festival. Former executive director of the Flaherty, Margarita de la Vega Hurtado, was my contact in America for Punto de Vista, so, being in New York and given my new programming position, there was no excuse: I had to go.
[If you would like to program the Flaherty, you’ll find more about how I was selected to program in #6 & #7]
The 2010 seminar, WORK, was programmed by Denis Lim. I remember meeting Dennis the day before the seminar. He looked extremely nervous. I have great memories of that year. Carlos Gutiérrez has also shared this in his “Flaherty Story”: 2010 was the year of World Cup in South Africa (yes, the one won by Spain!). Most of the Latinos at the Flaherty, including Lisandro Alonso, Pedro González Rubio and Eugenio Polgovsky, were soccer fans, so when there was a match (and there were matches all the time) we skipped screenings. I remember Lisandro saying to us in low voice, “Hey guys, the next film is one of mine; let’s watch the game!” The problem was that Lisandro’s films are short and we couldn’t see the whole match before the discussion.
In 2012 there was no World Cup, but someone knew about a lake near Colgate University where people could swim. At the end of the seminar there were two kinds of participants: those who had gone to the lake and those who hadn’t.
[Is this too frivolous? Maybe you can find something more transcendental in #7 or #11.]
If Margarita de la Vega Hurtado was the one to bring me to my first seminar, Lucila Moctezuma, then a Flaherty Trustee, first made me think about the possibility of programming a Flaherty. I have a clear memory of her innocent smile when she asked me, during the 2010 seminar, “Would you like to program a seminar?” During my holidays I drew up a proposal, and at the end of 2011, when my Flaherty experience was a distant midsummer night’s dream, I received a call from Mary Kerr.
[You’ll learn about the curatorial process in #7 and #9.]
I learned a lot working on my Flaherty for almost a year and a half. I remember a crisis with Mary Kerr. It happened eight or ten weeks before the seminar. I sent Mary a first draft of the program, and then, after a long, sleepless night, changed everything. She was really mad, and Lucila needed to mediate. Finally Mary accepted my changes, and I agreed not to work during sleepless nights. My seminar was the last one for Mary as executive producer—no connection I hope! By the end of the seminar Mary and I were like two old pals after a dangerous mission. The title for my seminar (“Open Wounds”) was Mary’s idea. I wanted it to be “Bleeding Wounds.” Dennis suggested “There Will Be Blood.” I liked them all.
[Now I need to summarize; if you feel you didn’t read anything remarkable in the previous paragraphs, maybe you’d better stop reading, because you won’t in the next five either!]
Steve Holmgren was, at least for me, another key person during those years: he ran the bar my year and was the one who introduced me to the Flaherty Skull Ceremony. If you haven’t heard about this, either you know little about the Flaherty, or you’re not interested in nightlife!
[A lot of partying goes on during the Flaherty. There are some other words about sleepless nights in #12]
I do have bittersweet memories too. Debating my ideas with the Advisory Board on the phone was sometimes painful. I thought I was the programmer, but everybody had something to critique or something to propose.
On the good side, I remember the conversation with Kathy Geritz about Sun Xun, and how she opened my mind—and Sun became part of the program. I have a special memory of a couple of conversations about seminar dynamics with John Gianvito at the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival. And Maria Campaña, a Flaherty Fellow my year, helped me after the seminar: she made possible our having Eduardo Coutinho at Punto de Vista in 2013. I also remember Mar Cabra, a young Spanish woman who didn’t enjoy the experimental part of my program. Now she’s a well-known investigative journalist in Spain.
[In #11 I try to develop some controversial thoughts on the seminar dynamics.]
I loved having Lourdes Portillo and Su Friedrich heading my filmmaker team. Now, almost six years later, I think even the collisions between filmmakers during the discussions allowed us to go further into how we think about film, history, and humanity.
[Do not read the next one if you haven’t read #3, #5 & #9.]
There is always something repetitive about the Flaherty. Not because of the regular structure of the event, but because of the dynamics of the discussions. It doesn’t matter what the topic of the seminar is; at a certain point, particular issues will arise again and again. I was astonished during the WORK seminar that there was no discussion about class struggle at all. At some point the discussion went back to gender issues right away.
And in between discussions, there is always an underground battle going between two groups: the academics on one hand (too pretentious and theoretical for the others) and the filmmakers and people from the industry (often identified as the old timers). Of course, neither group believes in the principle of “non-preconception,” and part of the programmer’s work is to deal with the preconceptions of both groups. I faced it in a confrontational way, by playing a song before every screening to create a particular mood.
[Last paragraph: I hope your journey through my text has been worthy of your time.]
The morning after my seminar, I remember a small group of sleepless people crossing the campus, heading down into the town of Hamilton to have breakfast. I was walking with a Flaherty newcomer, David Pendleton, the programmer at the Harvard Film Archive. He was completely enthusiastic about the seminar. Later, he had his own (PLAY, 2016). David was one of the three now-dead friends I’ve mentioned in my text, along with Eugenio and Eduardo. If documentary is about something, it’s human beings, and the passing of these loved ones has left us all with bleeding wounds.
Monday, January 22, 2018
I have been asked to tell my Flaherty story, to recover a few impressions from my first time at the seminar.
But my first-person voice, particularly when narrative and recollection are involved, tends to be weirdly “away” and about itself. I rarely remember much. At least, nothing in continuity.
Away and yet a way. Because I talk about forgetting. So, here we go.
Irina Leimbacher, who championed our work in the 1990s as a programmer for the San Francisco Cinematheque, invited my longtime collaborator Jeanne C. Finley and me to present at her 2009 Flaherty Seminar entitled Witnesses, Monuments, Ruins.
We screened our single-channel works: At the Museum: A Pilgrimage of Vanquished Objects , Based on a Story , and The Adventures of Blacky . We also installed a two-channel installation entitled Guarded , and presented an artist’s talk about other installation works.
I do remember Guarded, or rather I remember what it looked like, having consulted my photographs, but not the single channel works. Fortunately, the screening notes tell me what else we showed, otherwise I would have to guess.
That is to say, I cannot remember a single story, a specific conversation, or a telling word from that seminar. Instead, there are a few images.
I remember standing next to Jeanne at the podium at the front of the packed Golden Auditorium, waiting to present our artist’s talk.
I remember chatting at the bar with Roger Hallas, a documentary scholar, writer, and professor from Syracuse University, though these descriptors do not form part of my recollection. And was that chat before or after our talk? I forget.
In subsequent years, I’ve tended to greet Roger as “Bruce.” Sorry, Roger!
I remember that John Knecht, Professor of Art and Art History and Film and Media Studies at Colgate—I just looked up his title online—greeted us the first evening.
Wearing jeans, and sporting a grey ponytail and a mustache, Knecht was affable, warm, positive, encouraging. He must have oriented us to the space where Guarded was to be mounted and to the equipment available. We must have arrived early to set up.
One final image: after one of our post-screening panels, I know I talked to someone, maybe it was Lucien Castaing-Taylor, a documentary filmmaker from the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard. But maybe I’m just wishing it had been him. Irina doubts my recollection. I trust her.
My Lucien said he was irritated because we handled the Iraq War so flippantly in our installation Flat Land , a work we described during our artist’s talk but did not install.
He didn’t say “flippant.” That is the impression that persists though. I remember Jeanne and I saying to each other afterwards, “We will never present that piece in a talk again.” Of course, we did subsequently, because we learned to trust our own ironies and handle them more delicately.
Over the years, I’ve shared many of my Flaherty photographs with friends and seminarians via social media. Yes, I photograph everything. As mentioned before, I documented Guarded. These pictures include me, Jeanne, and Warren Wheeler, but there are a few that someone else must have taken. Who? Strangely, aside from these, I took only three pictures.
All three are of Jeanne and my wife, Vicky Funari, the documentary filmmaker featured at the 2000 Flaherty, at dinner in the Colgate cafeteria. Jeanne talks. Vicky listens and smiles. I know it is dinner. The metadata tells me it is 7:15pm.
(Kafka’s line in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida rings true and false. Yes, I photograph things to forget them, but I cannot forget the things I have not photographed. It is as though these latter things never existed and so cannot even be forgotten.)
As I look at these three photographs now, they seem strong documents because they’re filled with particulars and with people I love.
But they are also weak. They give me nothing to help me frame events that I know I lived through, but cannot recall.
Fortunately, I have other ways to remember.
In a June 24, 2009 Facebook reply to a friend who wanted to know more about the 2009 Seminar, I posted the following:
It was grueling. And amazing. Irina Leimbacher curated this year; and she’s wicked smart and has wide ranging and eclectic tastes. For the first time, there are installation works at Flaherty. I didn’t know how huge and intense this event was; now I do…
The schedule produces just enough exhaustion that folks finally say all the things they shouldn’t, which makes for lively conversations. I like the secrecy and the saturation. The inevitable tension: academics versus makers versus non-profit denizens versus representatives of NGO's versus cinephiles.
And let me combine two emails I sent to Irina soon after the Seminar:
Irina, thanks so much for the adventure. The week was a feast, both intellectual and sensual; and we’re grateful that you thought and think enough of us to put us in the same league with the filmmakers and artists on the program…
It was really exciting and strangely fulfilling: Guarded looked great, and I feel better about the work, even At the Museum (and I take back my own objection: the work doesn’t dictate the destruction of all museological habits, otherwise the interviews would make no sense.)— I and we feel better about the work for having shown it there and survived.
The “enchiladas” (Vicky’s word for academic intellectuals) were lukewarm but warm. Which, given the power of most of the work, is good enough for me.
For me, remembering is simply the process I’m undertaking right now as I write this piece.
I scour social media. I talk to friends. I fill in a few gaps and leave others to their enigmas. I talk about how I do this “remembering” while I do it.
The “I” that narrates its labors and the “I” found in memory and lost in forgetting coincide nowhere but here.
Thursday, January 18, 2018
EH: Do you remember when exactly we met at Flaherty? I realize I don't remember. I know it was at the 2001 seminar.
MW: We met the first night. You were with Sam Green and I introduced myself to you guys, and we started hanging out post-screenings and at night
EH: Oh, okay! So Sam was there too. Interesting. I didn't remember that. Did you already know Sam?
MW: I didn’t know anybody. I was 19 years old. I’m not even sure how I had heard about the Flaherty Seminar. Maybe my professor George Stoney at NYU had said something, or through my internship with Sandi DuBowski on Trembling Before G-D .
EH: Do you have any special memories of that year? I remember seeing a lot of movies with you.
MW: I remember the first movie we saw. It was about a blind boy, and I believe he was listening to a go-cart race, but I might be remembering it incorrectly. Sight and its relationship to sound were a big theme that year. But of course the theme wasn’t sketched out in advance. It gradually revealed itself.
EH: Yes, I think that was called Hermann Slobbe/Blind Child II  by Johan Van Der Keuken?
MW: Yeah that was it. I was very young so I had seen very little documentary or avant-garde film work. And when I saw that film, I felt like I had entered a special place where my mind would be cracked open. The other highlights of the seminar related to that theme of seeing.
EH: That's incredible. That film stuck with me as well over the years, and I think they showed an Arne Sucksdorff film about seagulls [Trut (“Seahawk”), 1944], which also stuck with me.
MW: Derek Jarman’s Blue , The Heddy Honigmann film about military vets listening to music [Crazy, 1999], the blind photographers collective [the Seeing with Photography Collective gave a slide presentation with live narration entitled Shooting Blind]…they made me think about what it means to represent something you can’t see, which is still something I think about a lot.
EH: Honigmann’s work was also revelatory for me. I've loved it ever since and have watched a bootleg I have of Crazy many times.
MW: It’s incredible to watch people’s faces as they listen to a song that was meaningful to them during war, especially faces of veterans who you might expect to be fairly repressed or stoic.
EH: Yes and especially Dutch soldiers, who are only on supposedly humanitarian missions, but still have to live through wars. I’d forgotten about the Blind Photographers Collective. Derek Jarman's Blue—I remember I hadn't seen that film since it was brand new; I went to a preview screening in San Francisco. I remember that seeing the film print so distressed, with scratches and specks from the intervening decade, actually made me cry. I was thinking of friends I had lost.
MW: Yeah, I remember seeing you cry, and that was a consciousness-raising thing for me, for lack of a better word. I’ve seen Blue a number of times as a digital projection and it’s so much less powerful. There’s a kind of entropy to the print that seems appropriate.
EH: I've never watched Blue in its entirety as a digital copy.
MW: Nowadays museums loop it on video but it’s so flat that way. Remember, they did a secret advanced screening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch  too?
EH: Oh yes, that's right. That was fun. Emily Hubley's animations are the only thing I remember about that movie now.
MW: Did Emily and Faith Hubley show work that year too? It’s funny when you see so many films they start to blur together. I can say that every film I saw there was a revelation to me.
EH: I honestly don't recall, but I think you’re right. For me the big revelation was more the “Flaherty world”—that particularly eclectic crowd that Flaherty attracts. It wasn't exactly what I was used to in NYC film culture.
MW: At that time, my film culture was the MIX Experimental Gay and Lesbian film festival or NYU film school. Flaherty was interesting because it was this place where experimental and documentary film intersected, and the discourse there was academic, but not in the basic film-school sense. There were these ethnographic-film anthropologist types, more theory-driven film studies professors, filmmakers, and students. And those distinctions were really flattened; it was a level playing field for everybody to discuss the films.
EH: Yes that was super interesting. Also I remember getting a strong sense of the “old days” a lot from members. And by that they meant the really old days, because people like George Stoney were still around and in attendance.
MW: Yes, he was my professor at the time. It was exciting for me to be in such close proximity to real filmmakers. I gained access to information and ideas that I just wasn’t going to encounter at film school, particularly a traditional film school like NYU. And you were a big part of that. I remember a specific conversation we had between screenings.
EH: There was a lot of chatter about the controversies of the past too. Before I went, I recall many people in the Anthology crowd relating the story of George Kuchar getting attacked. They were like—those Flaherty people are crazy! Who would attack dear loveable George??
MW: Well attacking filmmakers is part of the culture there, and I’m not into that.
I guess people are worn down and tired and lose track of the typical decorum of speaking to a filmmaker in a Q&A setting. There’s something weird about people talking about the filmmaker while he or she is sitting there. And some people don’t just talk, they wax on and on about the films and the filmmaker in a way that I think is odd.
There’s a breaking down of boundaries I guess you could say.
EH: Maybe that's the price of the “anything goes” discourse at the Flaherty. It's not limited in any way, really.
MW: I think good stuff comes out of that though, and I think because it is such a horizontal, open forum, people get an opportunity to speak who ordinarily might not be allowed to respond openly to a film. They’re not film critics or professors; they’re students like me. And I probably said some stupid shit to a filmmaker...
EH: Oh yes, always there’s something really amazing or fascinating. It’s also just fascinating to hear everyone’s different perspectives and issues and positions.
MW: Yeah, it becomes less about the film and more about the different approaches to looking at films in general. The thing that you told me that was really transformative was that you can’t just analyze or interpret a film, you have to analyze it within the context of a particular historical moment. I guess on some level that idea seems basic, but it was radical to me at that time. It’s interesting because so much of the present critique of young students is that they look at things ahistorically and “problematize” them.
EH: That’s interesting. I'm not sure I would express that same sentiment in the exact same way today, but I can imagine myself saying that then.
MW: Well, in the context of Derek Jarman’s Blue, that was really meaningful. You’re not just responding to a blue screen right now, you’re responding to a blue screen as a spectacle experienced by people dying of AIDS and the people around them, and the scratches on the print are artifacts of the passage of time. That’s a way of representing something that can’t be seen.
EH: Yes. I think it’s about how all films happen in their own time, but they also happen again and again. For me, that 2001 screening of Blue was qualitatively different from when I saw it on its release.
MW: Yeah, that’s a more nuanced way to put it. I guess what I mean is that I wasn’t an adult during the height of the AIDS epidemic and seeing how you were reacting to that film in the theater helped me understand something that I couldn’t see. That was my biggest takeaway from the Seminar.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sunday, December 17, 2017
My recollections of the Flaherty are closely tied to one courageous friend and witness and to one revolution witnessed through social media.
I first came to the Flaherty in 2003 as a guest for the “Witnessing the World” seminar, programmed by John Gianvito. My dear friend and comrade-in-arms, Joey Lozano, attended in conjunction with the screening of Peter Wintonick and Kat Cizek's Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights, And The News , a prescient feature documenting the impact of video on the world.
Seeing Is Believing surveyed the use of video for human rights. It featured the organization I work for, WITNESS, which focuses on how to enable anyone anywhere to use video technology to advance human rights, and works closely with citizens and human rights movements around the world. One of the film’s central characters is Joey Lozano, a pint-sized activist who with zest and tremendous moral and physical courage documented the resistance of indigenous rights activists on his home island of Mindanao in the Philippines.
In Seeing is Believing, Kat and Peter’s exploration of the question of who gets to tell the story of witnessed reality ranged from the members of Nakamata, an indigenous land rights movement that Joey taught to film for themselves, to anti-extremist activists in Europe, and people fighting human trafficking.
Because I attended only that one session of the 2003 seminar, my memories are tied up with the emotion of seeing my dear friend Joey and celebrating him on the big screen. The subsequent loss of both Joey and Peter to early deaths from illness tinges that memory, particularly poignant for me since I believe this screening was the only time we were ever all together in the same place.
My next opportunity to come to the Seminar was in June 20-26, 2009, for “Witnesses, Monuments, Ruins,” programmed by Irina Leimbacher (hmm, I spot a magnet-like attraction to “witness” in Flaherty Seminar titles). It was during this seminar that I witnessed a revolution on social media.
Some of my memories of the 2009 seminar are the classic Flaherty kind: kindred spirits meeting across a lunch table or after a discussion, amazing audiovisual experiences watched without regard for the time and in blissful ignorance of what would come next. I recall some manic dancing late at night to Michael Jackson music following the news of his death on June 25th during the seminar.
As someone who lives and works in the constant crisis mode of global activism and often watches videos as evidentiary material, sometimes on double-speed, the experience of the seminar’s screenings and gatherings embodied a refreshing change of pace.
The films that most powerfully spoke to me were the works of Omar Amiralay, as well as Lisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass  and Amar Kanwar's multi-channel video installation, The Lightning Testimonies . I had recently returned from Syria, which at that time was caught in the artificial passivity of an ossified authoritarian state whose pre-history Omar caught in his courageous, subtle films. Omar's Film-Essay on the Euphrates Dam  and The Chickens  spoke simply, directly, and powerfully to human rights issues.
Sweetgrass offered an amazing sensory experience quite different from my usual filmmaking tastes. Together with Sensory Ethnography Lab films I was to see later, this film set my mind thinking about what immersive experience could mean in a film and how one can really feel an alternate reality.
Shortly after the seminar, I began exploring how storytelling arcs of immersive livestreaming and virtual reality experiences that capture both the mundane moments and the crisis moments in frontline activism can help engage viewers to move from being passive spectators to immersed, engaged witnesses. This process has now evolved into a livestreaming-and-action project at WITNESS, called Mobil-Eyes Us.
However, frustration also infuses my memories of the 2009 seminar.
I was powerfully aware that a new form of witnessing was being enacted in Iran at the very moment we were enjoying the seminar. The events known as the Green Movement were entering their second week of massive global attention.
This political struggle mobilized images on social media to engage Iranian and global publics. On the first day of the seminar, Neda Agha-Soltan, a student protesting the Iranian election, was murdered on the streets of Tehran. Her death, captured horribly yet cinematically on camera, was then shared on YouTube for so many to see.
Nevertheless, the structure of the seminar, which insisted on privileging the program that had been curated, seemed to exclude this on-the-ground, amateur-produced witnessing. I remember a powerful sense that we seminarians were staying inside our box talking about witnessing while the world outside the seminar was changing and being witnessed in real time.
Of course, after eight years of continued work with movements and activists using digital media to witness so many variants of opportunity, failure, frustration, and success, the revelatory sense of that particular moment has dulled for me.
But I still remember that those of us engaged in human rights media practices occupied a moment of discovery in 2009. Yet, paradoxically, in the midst of a Flaherty seminar exploring the act of witnessing, we chose not to witness in real-time.
I'm waiting for my next Flaherty. Surely, now is the time for a curator to include witnessing not only within another seminar title, but also to reflect during the seminar the diverse ways witnessing occurs in social and real-time media.
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.”
Thursday, September 28, 2017
I was honored to be invited to program the 2000 Flaherty Seminar. I had attended a seminar in 1994, which featured an eye- and mind-opening array of works selected by Somi Roy and, as part of a 40th anniversary series, by Erik Barnouw and Patty Zimmermann. That was enough to intimidate me.
Like others before me, I decided that my programming for the seminar would not focus just on “documentary” but explore “non-fiction” films.
In addition to documentary, this strategy allowed me to consider animation—including documentary animation—and avant-garde work. I wanted to feature artists working within these different realms whose films looked at the world, history, or social and political issues in radical or innovative ways, or explored ideas, even cinema itself, in an experimental or essay form.
The title of my seminar, "Essays, Experiments, and Excavations," reflected this conceptualization.
I began by thinking about artists whose work pushed these boundaries, such as Peggy Ahwesh, Travis Wilkerson, Harun Farocki, Zoe Beloff, Abraham Ravett, Tran Kim-Trang, and Chris Sullivan.
Once I had confirmed five or six filmmakers, I started to look at relationships between their works. As I did, other filmmakers came to mind, as did earlier, historical films, sometimes suggested directly by a particular film of one of these artists.
I allowed myself the freedom to interweave films from the past—the Lumière Brothers, Jean Painlevé, Santiago Alvarez—with contemporary films. I wanted to create a provocative array of resonances, a challenging dialog between the films themselves as well as between participants.
It was natural for me to bring my experience programming experimental films at Pacific Film Archive (now BAMPFA) to the Flaherty. There is a lot of creativity in curating programs of experimental shorts, but also a lot of pleasure for the audience. They come to understand filmic and intellectual ideas imbedded in a work through seeing it in relation to other films. The programming itself can help bring out ideas that an artist is exploring.
Unusual for the Flaherty, the majority of my seminar programs consisted of short films and videos. I relished mixing together works with different stylistic approaches that linked on multiple levels of theme, idea, or mood.
Such juxtapositions create sparks between works, allowing further readings to arise. Today the term "curating" is in common use, but back in 2000, I think it was surprising and stimulating for participants at that Flaherty to see programs of shorts and to understand that somebody carefully curated not only each program but also the overall flow throughout the week of the seminar.
I wanted those attending the seminar to see several pieces by each filmmaker in order to better understand the artist's concerns and aesthetic approach. My goal was to generate a deeper audience engagement. Setting this up over a week-long seminar can be challenging; even the best laid plans can go awry.
After a screening that included one of Tran T. Kim-Trang’s early videos, someone stood up and attacked her work. The person asserted that Tran's video was little more than an intellectual exercise. She would never show Tran’s videos to her students.
As the days went by, as they do at the Flaherty, several of Tran’s other videos were screened. Toward the end of the seminar, this same woman, now having viewed many of Tran’s works, spoke out again. As I recall, she said, “I have an apology to make,” then offered a beautiful tribute to Tran's Blindness Series [1992-2006].
These moments of revelation are very particular to the Flaherty Seminar, where viewers can immerse themselves in an artist's work over a period of days, hear the invited filmmakers and others speak about cinema, and have time to reflect and reconsider.
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
Like everyone else in graduate school for film and media, I had heard many stories and rumors about the Flaherty.
The post-screening seminar discussions with filmmakers I idolized like Trinh T. Minh-ha, George Kuchar, and Ken Jacobs constituted the stuff of legend. As colleagues in film and media recounted numerous Flaherty intensities and flare-ups to me, I must admit that I assumed that these oral histories had blossomed into exaggerations as they passed from person to person.
However, as I read lively discussion transcripts edited by Scott MacDonald in Patty Zimmermann and Erik Barnouw’s epic quadruple issue of Wide Angle , it became clear these stories were not exaggerated. The Flaherty loomed larger than life.
Years later in the autumn of 2001, I started my new faculty job as an assistant professor of cinema production at Ithaca College. I learned about an event happening in November at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY, only three hours northeast of Ithaca. It was advertised as Digital Flaherty. I was intrigued.
In that period, attaching the word “digital” to any concept, practice, or event signaled an attempt at transformation. This seminar would adhere to the longstanding Flaherty ethos—an intense, shared engagement with works, makers, and participants. But it would be shorter in duration and focus on work that was, for lack of a better term, “digital.” In this context, “digital” meant artworks existing only within a digital framework (video games, VR, code art) rather than using digital tools to facilitate analog workflows such as a digital editor or digital effects.
My anxiety mounted as the seminar approached.
Digital Flaherty seemed like a great opportunity. The stories I had heard of intellectual battle royales invaded in my psyche. I feared that I would be discovered as a fraud. Or worse, identified as Just Not That Smart.
I rode to the seminar with Patty Zimmermann, my colleague in my new Department of Cinema and Photography. I was nervous about driving with her as well. We ended up talking so much about the upcoming event that we hardly ate the salt and vinegar potato chips we acquired for the road.
September 11 was fresh in everyone’s memories. It cast a pall over nearly everything in that post 9/11 period. However, the intellectual and artistic electricity of the Digital Flaherty seemed to dissolve all those the social and political uncertainties by gathering people together to explore the unknown through conversation.
The imagined combativeness of the seminar was nowhere to be found. We did not just discuss media, we talked tactics with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! and Graham Harwood from the British new media collective Mongrel, which specialized in digitally-based artists projects with low income and marginalized groups.. We initiated pranks and were deliberately provocative while playing Eric Zimmerman’s Sissyfight 2000 . Afterwards, we spent hours discussing and arguing in small groups trying to figure out why.
My transformative moments came from two guests at that Flaherty: video artist and activist Alex Rivera, who was in a residency at RPI that coincided with the seminar; and VJ and activist Art Jones.
One evening at the seminar, Rivera’s class had taken over a large open space in downtown Troy. They transformed it into a chaotic maze of surveillance with huge movable projection surfaces that continually destroyed and rebuilt while impossibly loud drum-and-bass vibrated the building.
As I navigated the show (Or was it an installation? Or an immersive experience?) trying to establish my bearings, I entered an ad hoc atrium built into the art space. A ring of data projectors aimed at the surrounding temporary white walls, pointing out like spokes on a wheel.
I recognized the projected images from Flaherty’s Louisiana Story . A bank of computers and projectors distorted and recontextualized the images. At the center of this technological confluence stood Jones, manipulating madly on a couple of laptops like a wizard or a shaman. It took me a few moments to understand that everything I was experiencing was being made and remade live in the moment—the space, the sound, the video, myself, everything.
When I returned to Ithaca, I started experimenting with live VJ performance. I even had the good fortune to perform with Art Jones a few times at special music and projection events mounted in the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College: Within Our Gates Revisited  and Tet Vu Lan: Dismantling Empire .
I ended up mostly leaving experimental analog filmmaking. As an artist, I transitioned almost completely into expanded cinema and live performative media, using computers with mobile and haptic interfaces to create immersive visual experiences in real time in front of audiences.
This new work led to collaborations that I could not have foreseen in my previous artistic life. I designed and performed media for plays at 3LD Art and Technology Center with the Talking Band Theater Company, the American Composers Orchestra, and composer Dan Visconti at Carnegie Hall. I created solo live cinema experiences such as my current touring show, Blood Lust of the Wolf (http://quarknova.com/blood). For this show, I take Flaherty’s Nanook of the North  and remix it into a fugue state about race, ethnicity, and exploitation. While performing the show live, I detect audience reactions, sensing their level of engagement and even their resistance. I modulate my performance to enter into conversation with the audience, provoke them, and generate more substantive dialogue.
Before the Digital Flaherty, I gave only cursory lip service to moving between and across disciplines. Afterwards, I realized that connections across different ideas, modes, and technologies galvanize everything I make, think, and do. The spark from a few days in Troy, NY ignited fundamental changes in my thinking. In some ways, my unusual mid-career-acquired PhD in information science traces back to those explosive cross-disciplinary connections started at Digital Flaherty.
Revelations are hard to come by. Those artists and thinkers I interacted with at Digital Flaherty long ago in Troy afforded me a privilege beyond a mere technological awakening. They redirected my artistic practice and opened up a new space of epiphany.
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.
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.
Sunday, September 10, 2017
When I was at Columbia Journalism School, Willard Van Dyke, then curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), told me to stay connected to the independent film community by joining the New York Film/Video Council (NYFVC)—I was headed toward a career in television. Why didn’t he suggest that I attend the Flaherty Film Seminars? I don't know, but he was involved with both.
So were others I came to know, like Bill Sloan (Bill’s Bar is still a Flaherty mainstay) and George Stoney, whose All My Babies  had been shown at the first Flaherty Seminar.
I’d seen All My Babies in a documentary course that George taught at Columbia University before he went to Canada, then came back to become a legendary professor at NYU. Both Bill and George were past presidents of the New York Film/Video Council of which I was a board member for seventeen years and president for eight.
The NYFVC was a non-profit that had been serving the independent media community since 1946. It programmed all forms of visual media. I never thought of TV and film as separate pursuits but many did. Other distinctions abounded: narrative vs. documentary; film vs. video; and one that always disturbed me, journalism vs. documentary. Often at Flaherty I heard filmmakers say, “I’m not a journalist.”
The first informal continuing professional education I experienced before Flaherty was at INPUT: the International Public Television Producers Conference in 1992 in Baltimore when I was Executive Producer of Listening to America with Bill Moyers [1992: 26-part TV series] on PBS. I would go on to other INPUTS in Fort Worth, Halifax, Rotterdam, Aarhus, Barcelona, San Francisco, and Lugano.
Law, medicine and many other professions have continuing education requirements; journalism and documentary filmmaking have none—though within each area non-profit organizations like the Flaherty informally make continuing education possible.
For me the Flaherty Seminar has been a condensed form of graduate school with a diverse group of students who share similar interests. Lifelong friendships are formed.
In 2003, the year I went to INPUT in Aarhus, Denmark, I attended my first Flaherty Seminar, at Vassar College. It was curated brilliantly by John Gianvito. Lucy Kostelanetz, a neighbor and member of the NYFVC and the Flaherty Board, had recommended that I go because the topic was “Witnessing the World.”
Two films by Canadian filmmakers fascinated me: Zyklon Portrait  by Elida Schogt and Seeing Is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights, and the News  by Peter Wintonick and Katerina Cizek.
Avi Mograbi’s Israeli films were incisive and humorous, especially Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi . The entire audience at Vassar seemed appalled by Holly Fisher's Kalama Sutta  because she’d made an experimental, artistic film in Burma — a place and subject that cried out for documentary reporting. I’d never before seen an audience erupt in such disapproval.
Tran Van Thuy’s Vietnam documentaries were a special gift. The British filmmaker Franny Armstrong showed McLibel: Two Worlds Collide ; it was critical of McDonald’s before Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me .
Franny also showed an impressive film she’d made in India, Drowned Out . I recommended it to Thirteen/WNET’s new international series Wide Angle, which commissioned her to make a shorter, more journalistic version for broadcast. Marlo Poras’s Mai’s America  stayed with me and I screened it for documentary students years later at Columbia.
At my first Flaherty, Marcia Rock, who runs the NYU journalism documentary program, asked me if I’d like to teach Documentary History and Strategy. For the next three Spring semesters, I taught at NYU and then, after raising enough money to complete production on my work-in-progress, Nam June Paik & TV Lab: License To Create, I co-taught and mentored students at Columbia Journalism School. A student filmmaker I met at Flaherty, Alana Kakoyiannis, shot second camera when I interviewed Paik’s widow Shigeko Kubota, a video artist in her own right.
In 2007 I saw two versions of Natalia Almada’s Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side), one at INPUT in Lugano, the other at the 53rd Flaherty Seminar, “South of the Other,” programmed by Mahen Bonetti and Carlos Gutierrez, at Vassar. Almada’s film focuses on drug trafficking and illegal migration between Mexico and the United States and highlights narco corrido music. I subsequently went to MoMA to see her next film El General [ 2009]
Dan Streible, of Orphan Film Symposium fame, superbly curated the last Flaherty seminar I attended in 2011, "Sonic Truth.". George Stoney showed A Reunion of All My Babies  and we saw the 1906 film A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire. Most powerful for me was Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore Gaga . I’ve followed her films since.
Caroline Martel’s Wavemakers  was an intriguing work-in-progress and I later went to the Museum of the Moving Image to see a completed version.
Sam Pollard showed some of his work with Spike Lee, and I was introduced to the animated films of Jodie Mack, whom I later ran into on Main Street in Hanover, NH during a fall mini-reunion at Dartmouth.
I met Lillian Schwartz and learned that she had worked at the TV LAB at Thirteen/WNET, the subject of my nearly finished documentary. Dan showed her earlier experimental work at Bell Labs.
For me the highlight of “Sonic Truth” was my friend Jane Weiner, who came from Paris to show her documentary On Being There with Richard Leacock . I later drove her to interview Robert Drew in Sharon, CT.
When organized well, there’s no better introduction to remarkable films and significant filmmakers than the Flaherty Seminar.
Friday, September 8, 2017
Breakfast, screening, discussion, lunch, screening, discussion, dinner, screening, discussion, dancing, repeat.
The more I read about the Flaherty Seminar, the more I was reminded of the description I’d heard applied to my BFA conservatory: hippie bootcamp. I applied for a graduate-student fellowship, cobbled together the remaining half of the subsidized registration fee and bus fare from my university, and found myself in June, 2013, at Colgate for the 59th Flaherty.
I soon learned that following the seminar organizers’ egalitarian intentions, everyone was provided with the same dormitory rooms and cafeteria meals, along with an experiment in cinephilic endurance and sleep deprivation that forced a confrontation with the art and ethics of film curation.
Upon reflection, I feel fortunate to have had my first Flaherty experience at Pablo de Ocampo’s “History is What’s Happening.” This challenging confrontation became emblematic of the struggle to talk seriously about documentary ideas, as a group, that I’ve experienced every time I’ve returned to the Flaherty—four times so far.
From Queen Mother Moore Speech at Greenhaven Prison  by the People's Communication Network, which opened de Ocampo’s program, to its repetition at the very end, so much has stayed with me: Basma Alsharif’s Home Movies Gaza , The Otolith Group’s People to be Resembling (2012), Deborah Stratman’s O'er the Land , and Joyce Wieland’s Solidarity .
I won’t forget sitting down for the first afternoon screening with no idea it would be Eyal Sivan and Michel Khleifi’s 272-minute Route 181 . The discussion of Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s Ca va, ca va on continue [It is ok, it is ok, we go on, 2012-13] led me to Édouard Glissant’s life-changing book Poètique de la Relation [Poetics of Relation, 1990]. And Jean-Paul Kelly’s Service of the Goods  forever marked my thoughts on Frederick Wiseman's documentaries from the 1960s and 1970s about social safety nets and institutions.
After Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga , I can never see Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil  the same way again, an experience that was repeated with Sana Na N’Hada’s O Regresso de Amílcar Cabral [The Return of Amílcar Cabral, 1976] at the 2017 seminar.
More retreat than a conference or festival with overlapping panels and screenings, the Flaherty’s medium is the program assembled by the curator. As the week continues, the burden is on “captive” participants to take control of the seminar through discussion sessions and make it their own. Tension builds amidst interstitial coffee breaks, happy hours, late night conversations, and small group breakout sessions, demanding some form of response in the large discussion forum. This often results in a midweek bloodletting.
In 2013, this came with a performance by the BLW collective (Rozalinda Borcila, Sarah Lewison, and Julie Wyman): A Call to the Square . Lewison and Wyman read Queen Mother Moore’s speech, then invited participants to recite Asmaa Mahfouz’s January 18, 2011, call to join the January 25 protests in Tahrir Square, demanding an end to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak regime.
Participants were invited to re-perform Mahfouz’s address in small groups, writing down their reactions. Intended or not, the exercise rehearsed the documentary proposition of re-presenting another’s physical performance or speech and re-locating its site of communication, necessitating confrontation with this new space of reassembly. The discussion that followed voiced important criticisms about how the exercise defined the seminar participant as white colonizing subject.
The problems brought to the surface by the performance reflected a central conceit of the seminar: the principle of non-preconception, originally instituted by Frances Flaherty at the earliest seminars. Revealing the nature of each film only as the projector’s light hits the screen (program notes are supplied later) is a constitutive feature of the seminar, which recruits its audience based entirely on the desire to return to its cinematic well and on the qualifications/theme of the announced programmer.
The principle reveals two diverging understandings: the notion that one can dispose of preconceptions versus a recognition that stripping typical curatorial pre-conditioning necessitates a different kind of controlled environment and requires that the group deal with different ways of preconceiving. This challenges the group to deconstruct habitual modes of preconceiving and embrace a shared yet always uneven vulnerability in imagining a more equitable space.
More often than not, the discursive spaces generated by the Flaherty remain embattled with normative power structures and defenses scraped down to blunt candor by cycles of sleeplessness, inebriation, and waking dreams in the cinema. This leads to moments of generosity, embarrassment, cruelty, and epiphany from veterans and first-timers alike.
The yearly exercise is a reminder of what it takes to honestly approach an art object, others’ reactions, and the ramifications of refining lines of separation and/or coalescing into general consensus.
Thursday, September 7, 2017
It was late September when two quite colorful groups of people descended on the charming resort town of Jūrmala in Soviet-occupied Latvia.
The groups spoke two different languages and there were just two interpreters to facilitate communication.
One group was Soviet documentary filmmakers and scholars, and the other, American documentary filmmakers and scholars. That was the first and only Soviet-American Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.
Rather than a hotel, we all checked into a sanatorium of the Union of Soviet Composers, a spacious structure just two steps away from a beach on the Baltic Sea. This was where Soviet composers were supposed to rest from the daily grind and soak in the musical inspiration carried by the salty Baltic air.
The year was 1990. The Soviet Union would be dead by the end of next year, but few in the world sensed the unforeseeable.
For seven days, we explored each other’s films. And, inevitably, we explored each other.
To start, the Americans said a few kind words about Gorbachev. We winced. In turn, the Soviets made a few kind remarks about Ronald Reagan, whose stature for a brief period in the Soviet Union was not unlike Simon Bolivar in South America. American filmmaker Steve Roszell then stood up and ripped Reagan apart to the enthusiastic cheering of his fellow Americans.
We all took note and dove back into films.
The screenings began with the obvious and the sacred: Nanook of the North  and The Man with a Movie Camera  and progressed to then current American and perestroika films. Although it seems unbelievable now, most of us so-called Soviets had never seen Nanook until that seminar. And most of the Americans had never seen Dziga Vertov’s masterpiece.
That September we saw a great number of excellent films. I personally made three major discoveries: The Thin Blue Line  by Errol Morris, The Seasons  by Artavazd Peleshyan, and Sherman’s March  by Ross McElwee. Of the three filmmakers, only Ross was present. I fell in love with his film and its brave, intricate self-irony.
Michael Moore’s blockbuster Roger and Me  was also screened. Its showmanship struck me with its chutzpah and subtle card stacking. After the screening, some American filmmakers were quick to explain to the uninitiated that not all aspects of capitalism were as bad as painted in Michael’s film. Those were kind and reassuring sentiments.
Another important discovery was Tongues Untied  and its gentle, amiable author, Marlon Riggs, who passed away so young.
Our two interpreters were in high demand. Not one of the Americans spoke any Russian. A handful of the Soviets spoke some basic English. Outside of the theater, our professional interactions were rather limited, although everyone generously compensated with hand gestures. We were genuinely interested in understanding each other.
No matter how free spirited, the Soviets were more or less part of the State system of filmmaking. There were no independent film studios. Everything we did, no matter how subversive (remember, perestroika?) was financed by the State. We worked with set budgets and as a rule tight production schedules.
Unlike us, the Americans were truly independent. They often assumed considerable personal and financial risk when they embarked on a project.
To borrow a phrase from Pulp Fiction , “the little things” stood out. We shot 35mm stock, whereas the Americans shot mostly 16mm and with a few exceptions, on video. None of us Soviets had ever worked with video. “U-Matic” was a word we heard at that seminar. Steve Roszell, who directed the documentary Writing on Water  on video, patiently explained “U-Matic” to all of us. With his thumb and index finger he had us imagine ¾-inch tape. The “U” sounded exotic and foreign, maybe because it reminded us all of a U-boat.
“It took me four years to complete Sherman’s March,” Ross McElwee told me over our evening glass of kefir. I shook my head in awe and disbelief. In 1989, I completed my first feature documentary Interpretation of Dreams in under ten months. Little did I know that it would take me sixteen years to complete a feature documentary when I relocated to the US.
My film was rather well-received by this binational crowd. No small part of this favorable reception was due to the simple fact that Freud and his books were on the forbidden list in the Soviet Union. Our American friends were just beginning to discover the Soviet realities. “The little things” were very often shocking to them. Impressed with my film, video scholar Deirdre Boyle brought a tape of Interpretation of Dreams to Richard Pena. The next year, he invited me to the New Directors/New Films series. That invitation was a transformative event in my life.
I offer one final memory about that September.
The seminar coincided with the Jewish High Holidays. One day, several American filmmakers expressed interest in visiting the only synagogue in Riga. Some of us Soviets joined them. We arrived in the city. We met a number of old men praying outside the synagogue. One of them asked who we were. I began to explain, of course, in Russian. Then British–Israeli scholar and filmmaker Alan Rosenthal
We stepped aside and watched Alan and several of these men converse in a once dead and now revived ancient tongue. Two worlds connected without any external help.
In a way, this connection across divides is exactly what happened during that 1990 Flaherty Seminar. Half of us did not speak Russian, the other half did not speak English. Certainly, almost none of us spoke Hebrew. But we all spoke film. And we connected. We all got some sense of each other, and maybe even a better sense of the world.
Where this “better sense of the world” took us all is a whole different story.
P.S. The former Soviet Republic of Latvia is now an independent country and a member of the European Union. The sanatorium that once belonged to the Union of the Soviet Composers has long been converted to luxury condominiums. A three-bedroom apartment currently lists for 650K Euros. Long live capitalism! I guess…
Saturday, August 26, 2017
It was a week of many firsts for me.
My first film seminar. My first time staying in college dormitories. My first summer not leaving Upstate New York the moment the semester at University of Rochester ended. My first time moderating in a theater (thanks to Laura U. Marks, Steve Reinke, and Khalil Joreige).
More significantly, it was my first time immersed in week-long experience dedicated to experimental film from the Arab world within a US context. I’m still unsure how to describe the seminar: summer camp for sleep-deprived filmmakers and academics; daily intense conversations after multiple screenings; and one too many caffeinated beverages.
I had heard of the Flaherty Seminar through the Film and Media Studies program at University of Rochester, which offers two annual fellowships that support the attendance of two doctoral students from different departments. At that time, I had just completed my coursework. I wasn’t sure I was going to commit to film. Logistically, it seemed very unlikely that I would have access to contemporary Arab or Middle Eastern cinema.
My hesitation immediately dissipated when I saw the announcement for Laura U. Marks’ program for the 61st seminar, “The Scent of Places عطر الأماكن.”
I had met Laura U. Marks in the spring of 2013. My advisor and director of the Film and Media Studies program Jason Middleton had invited her to screen her curated series “Arab Glitch.” With a continuous adrenaline rush of anticipation, I designed the poster for the event: an image of Souad Hosni juxtaposed with the text “Hubbell Auditorium, University of Rochester.” Arab cinema, experimental Arab cinema, was coming to Rochester, New York!
Only two years later it was back again—at the Flaherty.
I was especially intrigued by Marks’ program because of my own interest in Arab cinematic practices that shift away from mass-mediated trauma and politics. After spending so many years in the United States, I found myself yearning for alternatives that would cut through the homogeneity of images circulating around me.
Despite the constant influx of images from the Arab world, certain voices were painfully missing.
Where were the voices of those on the peripheries, the disabled communities, and the LGBT communities outside the project of the homonationalist other? Where are the women Lila Abu-Lughod has written about in her essay "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?"
Where were they?
And what were people cooking nowadays in Syria? Who supplied medical equipment? How much does a wheelchair cost? What kinds of pets did people in Yemen have? When will we confront anti-blackness in our communities? Are people still buying Coca-Cola in crates? What parts of the lamb were the khalas and ammos cooking these days?
What does Baghdad smell like today?
“The Scent of Places” answered many of these questions for me.
In Rawane’s Song, Lebanese filmmaker Mounira Al Solh states that after trying—and failing— to make art about the war, she probably has “nothing to say about the war!” Though she stages a refusal to engage with geopolitics, Al Solh deftly works through her own conflicting identity politics, art clichés, gender restraints, and pregnancy woes in her films.
Similarly, in Sometime/Somewhere Else Egyptian filmmaker Hassan Khan refuses categorical identification through his use of irony and the absurd. Hala Lotfy’s arresting Coming Forth By Day captures one exceedingly long day in the lives of a mother and daughter, providing around the clock care for their disabled father/husband confined to his bed. They, too, are confined. Without any governmental or social support, the women’s lives are suspended.
These films impacted me in ways that continue, even now.
The program also included filmmakers who were not from the Arab world such as Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Arthur Jafa, Ulrike Ottinger, Steve Reinke, Juan Manuel Sepúlveda, and Ramon Zürcher who provided an interesting array of perspectives.
“The Scent of Places” was a profoundly moving and thought-provoking experience. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to participate as a fellow, especially during a time when images from the Arab world continue to occupy hollowed out binaries.
If I ask you to conjure three images from the Arab world or the Middle East, what enters your mind?
My guess is that those imagined phantasmagorias might not feature a 1960s Rocket Society, protestors on Second Life, or a man elaborating his dedication to winning a sunbathing championship.
These much more expansive and quotidian imagescapes emerging from the seminar’s programming are why “The Scent of Places” was an absolutely essential viewing experience.
Many thanks to Patricia R. Zimmermann for inviting me to write this post. Shukran to Laura U. Marks, Anita Reher, Sarie Horowitz, Toby Lee, and everyone whose labor contributed to such a wonderful week.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
When I think back on the experience of programming the 2003 Flaherty Seminar, now fourteen years on, many memories readily surface.
I found myself unexpectedly unemployed in the year leading up to the seminar.
My efforts to research and review what had to have been literally hundreds of films in the lead up to the program consumed me.
I recall the regular spirited conversations and stalwart support I received from the Flaherty Executive Director Margarita de la Vega Hurtado and her assistant Brian Coffey.
I recall the countless email exchanges with curatorial colleagues around the country.
I recall the challenges of securing travel commitments from filmmakers whose production schedules were tentative at best.
As the program began to take shape, I remember actually sleeping with the schedule blueprint alongside me. I often awoke to jot down new ways to best orchestrate the sequencing.
I also remember the setbacks.
There was the filmmaker whose work I had hoped to showcase on opening night who informed me two months before the Seminar that he was likely going to be in Afghanistan working on a new film. He was unable to secure manageable transportation back and forth to the US for that week. So there was a push to quickly identify an equally strong and appropriate opening night film.
The Board decided to reduce the length of the seminar by one full day. I was informed late in the process and it discomfited me. This reduced length led to some memorable, hardly ideal, late-night Flaherty screenings. The midnight screening of Glauber Rocha’s two and a half-hour hallucinatory final masterwork, The Age of the Earth was for many seminariarns an even more powerful experience, intensified by the lateness of the hour.
Hours after arriving at Vassar College, the site of the 2003 seminar, I learned that one of my guests, Travis Wilkerson, was suddenly unable to attend.
While I harbor many behind-the-scenes stories about the preliminaries leading up to the 2003 Flaherty, for me, recollections of the ideas and camaraderie exchanged throughout that special week stand as far more consequential.
From Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Japan, the Philippines, the US, the UK, and Vietnam, that week’s guests possessed a core commitment to confronting social and political injustice across many arenas and in many forms.
Some possessed a lifetime’s body of work. Some had only made one or two films. Despite differences in language, culture, age, and experience, I suspect the feeling for many of us Flaherty seminarians was that we were among our tribe. None of us needed to be convinced that mighty problems everywhere needed to be faced. Our concern was how to face these problems with our cameras.
One central thread of discussion focused on the eternal debate over the role that form and aesthetics play in engendering political efficacy.
During one discussion, I remember a remark by filmmaker Franny Armstrong, whose workmanlike journalistic approach to documentary stood far afield from the overtly impressionistic approach of Holly Fisher, the DIY in-your-face aesthetics of Matt McDaniel, and the hallucinatory epic-didactic poetics of Glauber Rocha.
Franny contended that it doesn’t matter what happens during a film, only what happens once it’s over. Armstrong claimed that results, not reviews, count. Her own very first film, McLibel: Two Worlds Collide (1998), seen by an estimated twenty-five million viewers on television and the Internet, contributed to the global crusade against McDonald’s business practices.
During that seminar, I remember being profoundly moved and inspired by the sheer courage and tenacity of the filmmakers. Directors such as Raymundo Gleyzer and Joey Lozano openly risked their lives to make their work.
The under-recognized Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Van Thuy recounted how his own family turned against his making the extraordinary documentary The Story of Kindness. Thuy’s wife claimed that he was possessed by spirits!
Despite experiencing the hardship of his previous film, Hanoi in One’s Eyes, which the Vietnamese government had banned for five years, Thuy persevered despite many obstacles to produce The Story of Kindness. This essay film was propelled into being by a dying friend’s request to make a film on the subject of tu-te, a Vietnamese term that roughly translates as human relations, fraternity, or simply kindness.
Again, Thuy found his film banned, but following the personal intervention of Communist Party leader Nguyen van Linh, Thuy’s film was not only released but rapidly became a popular and influential work.
The practice and person of Noriaki Tsuchimoto occupied the heart of the week’s dialogue.
At seventy-four years of age, Tsuchimoto wrote to me in advance that while genuinely honored and excited about the prospect of attending the Flaherty, complications from diabetes might slow his participation and his ability to sit through the week-long program. I assured Tsuchimoto that he and his wife and collaborator, Motoko, need only attend their own programs.
As soon as the seminar got underway, it was clear that Tsuchimoto was drawn in by the experience. He attended every program.
Widely regarded as one of the two pre-eminent documentarians of Japanese cinema alongside his colleague Shinsuke Ogawa, Noriaki Tsuchimoto is most renowned for an extensive series of eighteen plus documentary films made over a thirty-five-year period on the impacts of toxic poisoning on residents of the fishing community of Minamata.
Among the earlier and later works of Tsuchimoto screened, the highlights were the screenings of his Minamata—The Victims and Their World (1971) and his Shiranui Sea (1975).
Tsuchimoto offered deep lessons about what being a committed filmmaker means.
He discussed his ongoing auto-criticism in the pursuit of pushing his work further.
Before home video or digital downloads, Tsuchimoto spoke about how he circumvented the traditional avenues of art house and television exhibition. He traveled widely around Japan and elsewhere, screening his films in nontraditional venues in small villages and community centers. He periodically stopped the films and discussed them with audiences, much like Octavio Gettino and Fernando Solanas did with their Hour of the Furnaces (Argentina, 1968)
Tsuchimoto discussed how much he had learned from the spiritual values of the Minamata victims, and he shared the difficulties and challenges of depicting their story well.
Tsuchimoto gave the seminarians the powerful maxim: Remembrance is Strength. He contended that this maxim constituted a fundamental belief of the documentary filmmaker.
The ongoing sustenance I draw from that one week in June of 2003 continues, I suspect, to prove Tsuchimoto’s point.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
I first heard about the Flaherty Seminar from an avant-garde filmmaker friend (who will go unnamed here) who had been an invited artist a few years prior.
“It was the most frustrating experience of my life,” he said. “But you should go. You’ll love it.”
He was right.
Six months after attending my first Flaherty Seminar, “The Age of Migration,” programmed by Chi-hui Yang in 2008, I sent a note to the Flaherty office to see if I could listen to the audio recording from the opening night’s post-screening discussion.
I wanted to try to make sense of a series of exchanges between the audience and Laura Waddington, a Britain-born video maker invited to share her short works Border (2004) and CARGO (2001) [editor: only CARGO was shown on that opening evening].
I wondered if my recollection had yielded to hyperbole. Or if my very first Flaherty discussion experience truly was as hostile and rancorous as I remembered.
I listened to the recording, quickly jotting down the withering rebukes.
- “I wonder if there is a contradiction between reality and art in your work?”
- “What came up today is a tension because you don’t hear from these men (in the video). I don’t need to hear what it is like to be another privileged white woman ... what I’m coming away with is the tension of your gaze.”
- “The last thing we need to hear is you and your goddamned Jane Austen voice over. Let the people speak!”
Here is the context. In both of Laura’s videos, she trains her consumer digital video camera on people suspended in states of exception. In Border, night scenes of migrants moving furtively through the fields near Calais, hunted by the French police. In CARGO, Romanian and Filipino sailors trapped for lack of papers on the freighters that employ them.
In both, she records at night with a slow shutter speed and very high gain, rendering painterly streaks of imagery whose subjects are often made distant and illegible. In both, her Cambridge elocution speaks over the silent images in a tone at once testimonial and plaintive, alternately romantic and repulsed by her subjects’ conditions. In both, we hear the arrestingly minimalist scores of Simon Fisher Turner.
From where I sat in the theater that night, I thought there was an explicit intent in her videos to register an incommensurability of positions between filmmaker and subjects.
Images were nearly opaque and individuals remained anonymous, most immediately for reasons of safety but also in order to reflect the failure of political vision and will that continues to allow the perpetuation of such abject conditions.
Intentionally and provocatively Eurocentric in their outlook, each video renders the space of Western liberal concern into an aesthetic, transforming viewers into the real subject of her work and undermining the if we only knew logic of so much humanitarian documentary.
But many others disagreed.
It would have been much easier to retreat into my own self-satisfaction, convinced that my view was the proper view, if only those hostile assertions towards Laura did not stem from what I perceived to be many audience members’ deeply felt and long-standing commitments to social justice, a relationship I too was trying to sort out through documentary images.
So there I was, frozen, unable to decide if I wanted my position to be validated or dismissed. And it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that I’ve spent the better part of the last decade attempting to sort through the tectonic collisions I encountered on that first Flaherty night.
The antagonisms that I was suddenly immersed in reflect much longer-standing tensions between the politics of form and content, ethics and aesthetics, and between the (still) predominantly white and institutionally supported seminar attendees and the often neither/nor subjects on screen.
And so in the following years I kept returning to the original scene of the crime whenever I could in order to re-engage these questions.
What I learned from Chi-hui and what I witnessed in subsequent seminar programmers such as Dennis Lim, Josetxo Cerdán, Gabriela Monroy and Caspar Stracke who took their seminar programs in very different directions were strong political commitments wedded with adventurous curatorial approaches.
Our politics are always also a question of form.
In short, it’s at the Flaherty that I learned that thinking historically and politically is always a project of thinking formally. Form enables our political imaginations. It can also constrain us.
How to tell the difference?
I’m still not sure. But I recently started a new, critical journal of documentary, World Records, to assemble voices to interrogate these questions.
Five years after my first encounter with Laura’s work, I was asked to moderate a post-screening discussion following a program that Border was featured in.
Outside the auditorium, I asked Laura about her current video projects.
“I don’t make videos anymore,” she replied. When I asked her why, she answered, matter-of-factly, that she never made a video again after her Flaherty experience.
Laura Waddington: “It’s my belief in a world full of people claiming to ‘represent’ everyone but themselves, the small, the fragile, the unfinished voice – that which searches and refuses to be anything but that – is a kind of resistance.”
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.”