In June 2013, I was among 160 filmmakers, programmers, academics and film enthusiasts who convened at the pastoral campus of Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, for The 59th Annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. This year’s seminar was programmed by Pablo de Ocampo, a Toronto-based curator and artistic director of the Images Festival, around the theme “History Is What’s Happening Now.”
I attended the seminar as a Fellow with a group of 31 graduate students, emerging and mid-career filmmakers, and media professionals. During the seminar, we investigated the form and function of history in cinema through the works of a dozen featured filmmakers and video artists. In addition to the regular seminar events, we benefited from mentorship, lunch sessions with the featured artists, a filmmaker and curator masterclass, and an informal screening of our own work. Established filmmakers were connected with emerging media producers that provided a strong sense of “passing the torch.” As Fellows, we were set to return home with creative inspiration, experiences and connections, aiding us in furthering our own careers and artistic endeavors.
The schedule was rigorous — the daily screenings and discussions would begin at 9AM and often last until midnight. For each block of screenings, a discussion of near equal length would follow it. The featured artist’s films were shown non-sequentially and with no announcement beforehand, lending surprise. The trajectory of the seminar’s arc unfolded over the course of the week, exploring ideas about the transmission of personal and historical memory and the embodiment of historical material. Through the work of the featured artists, who were all present at the seminar, topics traversed from the contested histories of Palestine and Israel, post-colonial legacies in Africa and Asia to histories of racism and imperialism in the United States.
Started in 1955 before film programs were developed at major universities, the Flaherty Seminar is the longest continuously running film event in North America. The seminar was started in celebration of the work of Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran, Louisiana Story), who is considered by many to be the father of documentary film. His wife, Frances, spearheaded the event after his death to explore theories of non-preconception in documentary filmmaking. Rather than imposing a pre-set script onto the material being filmed, she championed filmmakers to open themselves to new ideas and perceptions of the world.
Anita Reher, the Executive Director of The Flaherty joined in 2012 after 14 years of working at the European Documentary Network (EDN).
It’s such a rare occasion that one spends a whole week concentrating on the content only and form, where you discuss it with people from all over the world; and you get so exhausted that your mind is open for new ideas and breaking boundaries that way. And it’s also really important to nurture talent, because maybe you’re an European you’re coming from a different system where there is a lot of grant money to nurture young talent. Having this meeting of people from different fields helps that.
The main thing is that we spend as much time on discussion as we do screening films, and the discussions are key. And by the discussions, I mean the discussions that are both organized in the discussion room, and the discussions that occur over mealtime, late night at the bar, under the tree, on the grass…
I hope participants have a mind-blowing experience that will resonate long after you’ve been here and that will make you think and hopefully inspire in ways that they didn’t think possible, to use in your work. Also, importantly, you get a network of people that you can make new work with in the future, or at least consult with for life. Participants go through such an ordeal, you survive, so you have that together.
Next year’s 60th Seminar will be a celebration, but as the Flaherty has always been about looking forward, we will still be doing that, so I think you should expect not so much history, as you celebrating being on the foreground, always. It’s the oldest seminar in the United States, and next year I hope to bring in an even more international mix.
Pablo de Ocampo dedicated a year and a half to programming the Flaherty.
Even if you work at a film festival where you try to think through a larger arc that people can think about and look at, you know that most people won’t go to everything. The [Flaherty] Seminar is different in that it’s been focused on specific people rather than films. There’s an expectation that all participants see all of the work.
Coming from an unconventional cinema background, I feel subscribed to not care how many people a work affects. I don’t think anyone at the seminar should love everything they saw, but if you leave and you have one revelatory experience, that’s what’s important.
For Ocampo, one of the most rewarding aspects of The Flaherty will be connections between the featured artists — many of whom are not well known in North America — with the programmers and academics in the audience to screen work at their institutions. Featured artists from the seminar have already landed screenings in the United States, including Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga at New York City’s Light Industry. Made in 1972, with the film Maldoror became one the first women to direct a feature in Africa.
At the Flaherty Seminar, the discussions — at times heated debates — were as important as the films themselves. Stories from previous seminars were shared and often elevated to myth-like status, from marriages being formed and dissolved to careers being launched to the infamous breakthroughs and breakdowns during discussion sessions. The bucolic campus of Colgate University provided a serene backdrop to the daily happy hours, outdoor BBQs and dancing that would often last until the early morning.
In all the films we watched and discussed, the struggle of how experiences are transmitted across time and place through media brought to the forefront how we receive, internalize, create meaning from documentary film. Whether working in new media, as myself, or as a feature-length filmmaker, these questions struck an essential chord of how we experience an event, connect with others across generations and inspire action.
To attend the next Flaherty Seminar (programmed by Gabriela Monroy and Caspar Stracke, directors of video_dumbo), visit flahertyseminar.org. The Fall 2013 Flaherty NYC series, “Global Revolt: Cinematic Ammunition,” programmed by Sherry Millner and Ernie Larsen, begins on October 1, 2013.
Support for this project was provided in part by the Media Arts Technical Assistance Fund of NYSCA Electronic Media and Film.