Flaherty NYC’s Fall 2012 Series Takes an Irreverent View on the Political Documentary

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An image from OCCUPY CUNY, a documentary short by Alex Mallis & Jay Sterrenberg screening at Flaherty NYC's fall 2012 series

Image from Occupy CUNY, a documentary short by Alex Mallis and Jay Sterrenberg screening as part of Flaherty NYC’s fall 2012 series (October 3 to November 14, 2012).

Film programmers are using the election cycle as the thrust of their fall documentary series this year. There’s Paley DocFest, which has a slate of nothing but election and campaign docs among their offerings, and the fall series of Flaherty NYC (an offshoot of The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar), on now at 92YTribeca in New York City, is no exception.

This season’s films were programmed by guest curator Jon Dieringer of the NYC film newsletter Screen Slate and it’s been a very rich series indeed. The films selected all illustrate the issues currently polarizing our country. I recently spoke with Jon and asked him what went into the undertaking.

What excites you about the films this season?

Though its often thought of a documentary film organization, Flaherty has a rich, progressive history of other forms of non-narrative critical cinema and feature films as well. Two selections that reference that are Mr. Freedom, by the photographer and filmmaker William Klein, who has made several brilliant, progressive social documentaries. Mr. Freedom is a fictional feature film made in Paris circa 1968 as Klein was an expatriate. It’s a farcical, expressionistic and totally incendiary and venomous satire of American empire about a right-wing super hero. This is a rare 35mm screening personally approved by Klein, who seems happy to have it shown during an election season.

I’m very happy to be presenting the New York City premiere of Zero Killed, the debut feature of international artist (Polish-born, most active in Austria, currently Berlin-based) Michal Kosakowski.

The other is the final program, Decompose the Universe! which is all video, including work by the artist Mike Kelley, Bradley Eros & Tim Geraghty, rarely seen, mind-blowing television work by New German Cinema filmmaker Alexander Kluge, and a playful, cerebral post-mortem on the media spectacle surrounding the Kennedy assassination, Ant Farm‘s The Eternal Frame. I interpret Flaherty to be about critical, independent work in all it’s forms, so we’re projecting from formats ranging from 35mm and 16mm to HD and BetaSP — everything is shown on its intended native format, and 92Y’s projectionist is a true hero.

I know this season was originally going to be about finance and our economy. Can you talk about tomorrow evening’s event, Occupy Flaherty NYC? It appears to be a program oriented around where finance and politics converge.

The Occupy Flaherty NYC program — a perhaps misleading temporary name that just seemed to stick — is guest curated by Nick Shimkin, whom I had known as an itinerant, independent programmer and tireless activist. So when Occupy began he was very much in Zuccotti involved in everything from serving meals to working with cultural initiatives, and we are both part of Occupy Cinema, which had shown films in the park. (Additionally so are Bradley Eros and Tim Geraghty, whose work is part of the final program, and Rebecca Cleman, who will be moderating. Several other folks from Occupy Cinema have been instrumental with programming suggestions and other support.)

He has been exhaustively cataloging grassroots independent media emerging from international uprisings and occupations while making contact with the creators. So I wanted to do a program that would show how people have their voices heard through technology-enhanced cinematic forms, and I knew Nick and the filmmakers would put something brilliant together.

Tell us about your approach to curating the fall season at Flaherty NYC.

For the fall Flaherty NYC program, I was prompted to assemble something that corresponds to election season by engaging with the supposed “issues.” There are a whole host of social issue films that reduce complex, interrelated problems to single terms. For this series, I wanted to avoid that. I instead chose films that allow the audience to consider issues through various entry points and perspectives, some even a bit irreverent or obtuse, with the idea that a holistic approach recognizes the richness and complexity of the current state of things.

And what was the biggest challenge you faced in putting this series together?

There was only one film that had dropped out, our closing night piece, which was in fact the first title we had confirmed. It is a major studio documentary released in 1976 and remained virtually, if not literally, unseen. The director thought it no longer existed. In fact, we were able to secure the promise of an archival print from the studio—until an alarm went off somewhere in their bureaucracy, and we found out there was a legal reason this film hasn’t been shown. Fortunately, the replacement is much stronger.

The Flaherty NYC fall film series runs Wednesday nights from October 3 to November 14, 2012. Tickets for the remaining events are available at 92y.org.

Adam Schartoff
Adam Schartoff
Guest blogger Adam Schartoff is a freelance film journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. He's the founder and programmer of the Brooklyn-based film series Filmwax.