Now in its 51st year, the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar is regarded as one of the premiere experiences for international documentary exploration. Film aficionados and filmmakers are immersed in days of screenings and in-depth discussions. Paul Arthur in Film Comment describes it as “Outward Bound for anti-Hollywood apostles.”
Independent filmmaker Christian Bruno attended his first Flaherty Seminar in June.
This is a picture from the 2005 Flaherty Seminar >>>
Where were we going? To a screening, from a screening, to a discussion? Maybe on our way to Bill’s Bar for a drink before dinner, before the screening before the post-screening discussion before heading back to Bill’s Bar for a nightcap?
This formerly unremarkable campus says a lot to me now: 175 folks submerged in dozens of hours of amazing nonfiction cinema, eating and sleeping and discussing, has no visual representation. Bodies barely moving, heads generously swimming. How do you describe total immersion, cinematic saturation?
Cinematic Summer Camp
A yearly institution for educators, curators and filmmakers, the Flaherty Seminar is also a coming together, a summer camp, under the aegis of documentary film and its current forms. Not long after Robert Flaherty, the granddaddy of the documentary, passed away, his widow and his protégés founded the Seminar. For more than 50 years, it has created an intensely immersive environment where participants spend every waking moment of one week watching a wide swath of nonfiction filmmaking. When not watching, they are discussing. The precious remaining hours are spent eating and sleeping, in that order of priority.
Each year, a designated curator programs the entire seven-day conference, which includes three screenings a day plus discussions. Disorienting to many is that the program is never announced in advance: in fact, attendees do not know what they are seeing until immediately before a screening. The idea is to prevent preconceptions and allow films to be viewed in the context of the moment. If programmers want to rearrange sequencing to respond to the flow of the week, they can also do so without much disruption.
Most years, the Seminar takes place on the campus of New York’s Vassar College. This year’s decision for a Southern Californian locale made my attendance an affordable possibility. In its amazing disorientation, Claremont College is actually a collection of colleges. Aside from a clock tower reminiscent of an Antonioni set piece, the place seemed to have no center. You trusted the folks in front of you to know the next destination.
Similarly, I took everything I watched at Flaherty with equal proportion, whether short or feature, whether abstract, obtuse, or smooth-edged. As when I first became exposed to film in college, I felt the need to consider everything we watched, to disregard nothing. All of it had a purpose. The week would unfold and make sense in the end. They were assembling pieces to a macroscopic puzzle.
I had ended up at Flaherty on a mission: open myself wide to the range of documentary filmmaking practices, and meet those working in the field. I have been producing a feature-length documentary on the history of the movie theatres of San Francisco entitled Strand: A Natural History of Cinema, and needed to rejuvenate my perspective. I live in San Francisco, a supposed hot bed of the American documentary, yet everything there felt like it was TV journalism. If I am this excited and hopeful for documentaries, I thought, where are the contemporary examples to back up my passion?
Like everybody, I’ve rallied against the “talking heads plus B-roll equals documentary” formula. But I have begun to see this tendency in my own footage. How can one integrate the necessary voices and words, with image, motion and sound? Flaherty seemed like the kind of nourishment for my vision.
Wreckage Upon Wreckage Upon Wreckage
Film scholars Michael Renov (University of Southern California) and Jesse Lerner (Claremont College) assembled this year’s Flaherty program around the theme of Cinema and History. Between personal experiences and the larger contexts, the films predominantly looked at some of the greater tragedies of the 20th century, with a few exceptions.
The Flaherty “puzzle” included some pretty stunning parts. Hungarian director Péter Forgács, well known for the use of home movie collections in his Private Hungary series, was in attendance with one of his newest films, The Black Dog. Forgács approaches his historical subjects with a cooler, distanced style; in this case, families involved in the Spanish Civil War. Though his exclusive reliance upon amateur footage feels incredibly personal, Forgács constructs a pretty objective narrative flow.
Less concerned with the 20th century’s big scars, Juan Carlos Rulfo explored the shadow of certain family members on the arid land far outside Mexico City. Films like Grandfather Cheno, Other Stories and the feature-length I Forget, I Don’t Remember were equal parts humorous and ghostly. Southern California maker and scholar Alexandra Juhasz used a failed “video will” of a deceased friend to simultaneously examine the current state of AIDS awareness and the confounding nature of the “bad interview” subject.
One need only to look at the subtitle of this year’s seminar, excerpted from a quote by cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, to know just how heavy it was all going to be: Piling Wreckage Upon Wreckage. And by the time I met Arine Kerstein after one of Jean Marie Teno’s films, we were pretty far down the pile.
Teno, a Cameroon-born filmmaker, billowed into our consciousness like fresh air, firstly because it seems that few in the United States have heard of this prolific director, secondly because his powerful films have a breezy style that included great doses of sarcasm. I particularly loved his first feature, Afrique, Je Te Plumaerai (Africa, I Will Fleece You), a seat-of-the-pants expose on the necessary role of (il)literacy in colonization. The blank expressions on our faces in the photograph we snapped certainly don’t belie the relief from a heavy week and our constant engagement in a weeklong dialogue.
The presence of Patricio Guzman, the author of The Battle of Chile film trilogy and a hero of mine, dominated the first few days of the Seminar. In exile since the optimism of the popular Salvador Allende government was crushed by the Augusto Pinochet coup in 1973, Guzman has spent his career revisiting and recontextualizing this pivotal moment in time.
Among the things Guzman brought to the table was the sense of ambiguity. Example: in Chile, Obstinate Memory, a woman is shown footage from a 1972 rally with the hope she will identify herself. She watches the TV screen, “I don’t know, that might be me.” As we watch her reflection in the TV monitor, our own certainty begins to dissolve, maybe it isn’t her. Are we comparing who she was then to whom she is now? Guzman, as director, doesn’t push her, rather he allows this moment to linger; the viewer must wrestle with these questions of memory and certainty.
“We are not scientists, we are poets,” Guzman quietly declared at a post-screening discussion, which resonated with me well beyond that week. After screening her Resisting Paradise, Barbara Hammer elaborated this theme when she criticized mainstream documentaries: “These films allow no openness. They lead you along.” For me, these statements cut to the heart of concern in documentary filmmaking, that is, journalism in the guise of cinematic practice.
Filmmaker Rebecca Baron’s film okay bye bye also adopted an amount of ambiguity. Ostensibly a study of U.S. aggression in Southeast Asia and the rise of the Khmer Rouge, Baron filtered it through her own observations as a collector of images and words, two decades after the fall of Saigon. She dwells on a strip of film found on the street in California, endlessly replaying and examining it. Was it shot, coincidentally, in Cambodia? Raising a further question: how authentic does the artifact need to be in order to decode its meaning and its resonance?
So Guzman brought us crushed hopes of a better world, Hammer honed in on the fallibility of artists in the face of Fascism, and Baron brought us the slaughter of countless numbers in Vietnam and Cambodia. We were excited and invigorated by these and other amazing films. Simultaneously, we were going through a collective breakdown. We reached the bottom of it with Oh! Uomo.
Film artists Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi created Oh! Uomo (Oh! Man) as the third in a meditative trilogy on the First World War. In a sanitized climate that substitutes computer game graphics and rhetoric for the real inhumanity of war, the Italian makers presented an unflinching look.
Without any commentative music, except for sparse, oblique musical figures punctuating the predominantly silent feature, the audience must confront the seemingly endless images of starvation and facial disfigurements, one after the other. Powerful, uncompromising and unbearable, these moving images photographed 90 years ago bear even more relevance now as the occupation of Iraq stretches onward without end, the countless surviving civilians and soldiers enduring the scars of battle for life.
The Flaherty audience had been through the wringer. But we did it together.
The Shared Pleasures
In making a film about movie theatres, I have become preoccupied with this notion of the collective experience. As movie-going moves away from a public to a private experience (as so many modern activities), we lose the unique, cinematic occurrence. That private, dreamlike state in that very public atmosphere. Douglas Gomery entitled his landmark historical study of movie-going Shared Pleasures. Looking at the faces of the participants, not just after ìOh! Uomo but after every screening, in the discussions over dinner or on the long walk between daily events, we were all in the same frame of mind from having this common experience to be known as the Flaherty Experience, the shared pleasure.
For a few days following the Seminar, I kicked around Los Angeles. Though anxious to get back home, I felt my Flaherty experience raised way more questions than answers. Any certainty I felt about my project instantly exploded, the pieces didn’t seem to fit any longer. Over dinner the following week, I related this to filmmaker Bill Siegal, who eased me: “That sounds like a good thing. It shows how inspiring it was.”
Christian Bruno is a San Francisco-based independent filmmaker and cinematographer. His short documentary, Pie Fight '69, made with Sam Green (The Weather Underground), received several awards including at Sundance and Black Maria Film Festivals, and continues to play worldwide. His latest film, Strand: A Natural History of Cinema, explores the rise and demise of San Francisco's movie theatre culture.
(An Inside Indies exclusive posted August 9, 2005.)
Arine Kirstein, Kiki Allgeier and Christian Bruno
Robert Flaherty, “the granddaddy of the documentary”
Filmmaker Péter Forgács
Scene from Private Hungary by
Filmmaker Jean Marie Teno
Still from Patricio Guzman’s
Scene from Guzman’s Chile, Obstinate Memory
Angela Ricci Luchi, Barbara Hammer and Yervant Gianikian
Frame from Rebecca Baron’s
okay bye bye
Flaherty Film Seminar 2005 photos
by Jeff Silva