Patricia Zimmermann

Patricia Zimmermann

Professor, Media Arts, Sciences and Studies
Faculty, Culture and Communication
Faculty, Cinema and Photography
Faculty, Documentary Studies and Production

Flaherty Stories

Flaherty Stories

Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 5:46PM   |  Add a comment
jay ruby

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.


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