Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “The Flaherty Seminar”
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.
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.
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.
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
“There won’t be any time,” said the hazel-eyed woman standing next to me at the check-in desk.
She was smiling warmly, but I tensed up.
I had just arrived at Colgate University after a seven-hour drive in my tiny car from Oberlin, Ohio. I was exhausted, and more than a bit anxious. I’d recently finished an intense but rewarding year as a visiting professor at the University of Toronto. It was my first job teaching film, so I’d meticulously prepared every lecture, planning into the wee hours of the night.
I’d left Canada for a postdoctoral fellowship in the Cinema Studies Program at Oberlin College, but I was second-guessing my decision. I knew that Oberlin had launched some careers, sunk others. Things would eventually work themselves out for me, but back then I didn’t know that.
My life felt very unstable. My spouse and I had been apart for three long years, and I was nervous about my professional choices. Still, I was about to dive into a crowd of scholars, filmmakers, curators, and programmers gathered together by their passion for experimental documentary.
I had studied documentary with the late George Stoney at New York University, and had written a short article on the films of Francesco Pasinetti, a Venetian documentarian active in the first half of the 20th century. That was the extent of my knowledge. I felt more than a bit intimidated. Impostor syndrome, they call it. Commonly reported among graduate students and early career academics. No surprise there.
The group stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, hosted by Brazil, were in full swing. The much-favored home team was about to be humiliated by Germany with a crushing 1-7 defeat, the worst in the tournament’s history.
A loyal supporter of my own national team (Italy), I was apprehensive about not finding a place to watch the two matches that coincided with the seminar’s opening and closing screenings. “Is there a TV on campus where I could watch the World Cup Games?” – I queried at the check-in desk.
Later, I learned that the woman who intercepted the question was Ruth Somalo, a Spanish filmmaker, future NYC Flaherty programmer (“Broken Senses,” 2017), and one of the nicest people on the planet. She was clearly aware that this was my first seminar. And of course, she was right. There was no time.
Luckily, I was not the only soccer fan in this erudite crowd. Filmmaker and programmer Jason Fox, who was then pursuing an MFA at Hunter College, worked his considerable charm with the projection staff. He cajoled them to beam snippets of matches onto the same theatrical screen where during that week we watched works by Eric Baudelaire, Duncan Campbell, Cao Guimarães, Johan Grimonprez, and Hito Steyerl, among others.
Italy won the first match, lost the second. And then the third. Better luck in 2018, I thought. Things didn’t work out for them: in 2018 the team didn’t even make it through the qualifying rounds.
I’d become aware of the Flaherty seminar in 2010, when my then-roommate Robert Sweeney traveled upstate to attend what sounded like a film-nerd boot camp, programmed by Dennis Lim, a critic he had always admired. Rob and I were friends from graduate school, beginning to shape our respective careers out of our shared passion for film. He was already working at Kino Lorber and slowly working his way up the ranks of the New York film critics circle; I was writing a Ph.D. dissertation on migration in Italian cinema, a topic that was as vast and complex as it was personal.
Rob was always the more intellectual one, an omnivorous cinephile scurrying off to screenings of obscure films in musty basements throughout the city. He would carefully study all the schedules, organizing his week accordingly. Sometimes I would tag along, trusting his taste and hoping to learn something new. I often did.
That 2014 Flaherty felt a bit like those New York evenings watching films carefully selected by my friend. Except that the seminar took place in an air-conditioned auditorium with comfortable seating, pristine image quality, and an expert projectionist. There was even a piece projected in the campus planetarium.
I sat back and relaxed as much as I could, trying to overcome the awkwardness of forgotten names and shared bathrooms, of damp dorm rooms and sleep deprivation. The presence of my friend Ohad Landesman, a documentary film scholar I knew from graduate school, comforted me. He became my social buoy throughout the week.
I let Gabriela Monroy and Caspar Strake, the programmers of “Turning the Inside Out,” take me on a journey. I learned by watching and listening, rarely taking part in the group conversations that followed the screenings. I forced myself to ask a question on the last day. I felt like the child who spends the day talking himself into finally riding the rollercoaster when the park is about to close, when most of the people have already gone home.
I made my one and only comment on the last day of my second Flaherty, too: the 2016 seminar, “Play.” I suggested smugly that the morning program be renamed “The Michelangelo Antonioni Memorial Program: The Genius of David Pendleton.”
Probably rather pedantically, I proceeded to compare the films we’d just viewed to different periods in the long career of the Italian maestro. It was meant to be a heartfelt compliment to both the filmmakers and to David, whose programming savvy I had quietly admired all week.
One morning at breakfast David approached me to talk about one of his passions, Pier Paolo Pasolini, a filmmaker whose work I was never truly able to appreciate. At least not as much as David. He looked fatigued, but at the time I was not aware that he was already fighting the disease that eventually took his life in 2017. I’m grateful for that short conversation.
I felt validated by David’s gesture, which he performed so gracefully. I will watch more Pasolini, who, coincidentally, was also a soccer fan, and I will think of David, who taught me so much in so little time.
The Flaherty Seminar will never be a comfortable experience for me, but it will always be a deep one. It has exposed me to things I would not otherwise have had access to. It has introduced me to films I now teach regularly. And it’s made me feel connected to a great community, even if only for brief moments. It is also a humbling experience. A room overflowing with talent and history can have that effect.
I will return. I will make a comment on the last day, voice quivering and palms sweating, but it will be a good moment for me. A small victory.
Thursday, January 4, 2018
In 1991, Faye Ginsburg proposed a Flaherty Film Seminar that was devoted to films produced by indigenous filmmakers.
She submitted the proposal to the International Film Seminar (IFS) board, the organization that at that time ran the annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, and it was approved. Both Faye and I were serving as board members at that time.
Shortly after obtaining approval, Faye asked me to co-program the seminar. I agreed. We met with Tom Johnson, IFS president at the time. He approved the idea.
Shortly after that, IFS sent out a press release announcing the seminar and an open call for films. And Fay and I began a list of potential films we already knew. As far as I was aware, Faye was the most knowledgeable person on indigenous filmmaking in the country.
Soon thereafter, two board members circulated a memo via fax to other board members. I never received a copy.
Apparently, Pearl Bowser, a programmer, and Louis Massiah, a filmmaker, objected to having two White academics organize the seminar. They felt this perpetuated the domination of the West over underrepresented minorities. They felt the seminar should be programmed by an indigenous person or at least co-programmed by Ginsburg and an indigenous programmer.
The board discussed the problem. If a meeting was called, I never received an invitation.
While I was never directly told, it appears that the board supported Bowser and Massiah’s objections. In addition, the question of cost was raised. Someone suggested that the cost of transporting the indigenous filmmakers, some from a great distance, was beyond the budget the organization had allotted for the seminar.
It is unclear why the issue raised by Bowser and Massiah, along with the question of excessive costs, was not discussed when Faye’s proposal was under consideration.
I learned of these matters indirectly when Faye called me. She had come to feel that the situation was hopeless and that her only option was to resign as programmer. I agreed and did the same.
No other board member or the president or the executive secretary showed me the courtesy of calling to discuss the situation. As the old cliché goes, “I knew when I was not wanted” and resigned as a trustee. I never again attended a Flaherty seminar.
It is crucial to remember that the Bowser/Massiah memo provided no names of qualified programmers from indigenous communities, nor, so far as I know, did any board member or the president or the executive secretary offer any suggestions.
No one asked Faye or myself or anyone else for a list of names. The reason for this is simple: at the time there were, so far as I knew, no qualified indigenous programmers. The board’s demand simply displayed a lack of knowledge of this field. While their stance appeared to be ideologically correct, it resulted in a demand impossible to meet.
The Bowser/Massiah memo made impossible what might have been a positive outcome: the mounting of an indigenous seminar where the growing number of Native-American filmmakers like Larry Littlebird might have had a chance to meet people who could have helped to find a wider public, as well as an opportunity to get to know other indigenous filmmakers. To my knowledge, in the subsequent decades, the Flaherty has never been able to produce such a seminar.
During this time in the late 1980s and early 1990s anthropologists were wrestling with what was called “the crisis of representation.” Both Faye and I had published articles that dealt with the profound problem of who has the right to represent another.
I am fairly certain none of the people involved with IFS were aware of how thoroughly these issues were being discussed in anthropology and in other scholarly fields.
Had we been allowed to program the seminar, there could have been useful discussions about how to deal with the thorny question of who gets to program whom, and whether the only way to correct the wrongs of the past was to restrict the programming of events like the Flaherty Seminar to programmers from the same community as the filmmakers whose films are being shown.
It is difficult for me to understand why Massiah and Bowser waited to voice their concerns until an announcement of the seminar was publicly circulated. This embarrassed the Flaherty organization and damaged its reputation.
Had they expressed their reservations at the meeting where Ginsburg’s proposal was discussed, a decision could have been made in private, thus avoiding the negative public impact of the memo.
The indigenous seminar could have been postponed or the board could have acknowledged the lack of experienced programmers among the underrepresented. They could have tried to develop some sort of apprentice program where people from these communities could acquire the experience needed to be film programmers.
This was an unfortunate episode in the history of the seminar. It could easily have been avoided. I have never understood why it was not.
Thursday, 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.
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…
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.”