Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tagged as “University of Rochester”
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.
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.