Flaherty NYC, an offshoot of The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, is a screening series that prides itself with rich discussions about work by groundbreaking documentary filmmakers. This season was programmed by guest curator Jason Fox, a filmmaker and teacher based in New York City. He is currently finishing his first feature-length project, Paltik Families, an observational documentary that highlights many of the lingering legacies of the Philippine–American War in the Philippines. Jason has taught at Vassar College and at CUNY Hunter College, where he is completing a MFA in the Integrated Media Arts Program. He also serves on the Board of Organization for Visual Progression, an organization that partners with social justice organizations to provide training on using visual media in their advocacy efforts.
Starting this Monday, January 20, 2014, Fox will be bringing rarely seen films, video, video game, and augmented reality works to New York audiences that challenge our ability to make sense of the world around us, and each of the works on display questions the ways that the sensorial effects of consumption disrupt or augment our political bodies. EAT! A 60th Anniversary Feast, includes work programmed throughout the history of the seminar in addition to new work, archival excavations of seminar discussions, special guests, and new frontiers in documentary forms. Presenting work from Cuba, France, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mozambique, The Netherlands, Russia, Thailand and the United States.
If you’re in New York, join the conversation every other Monday nights until March 31 at the Anthology Film Archives. Fox explained to us what went into curating the series and much more.
POV: How did you personally become involved as the programmer for this event?
Jason Fox: Our primary inspiration emerged from living in Brooklyn and watching the supporting role that food, restaurants, boutique and organic grocery stores have played in the remaking of the urban landscape over the past decade. For me, there seems to be a link between notions of connoisseurship and the erasure of the longstanding shape of certain neighborhoods in New York City, and the re-inscription of history, or of provenance, to the food we are eating, as well as the shops in which we purchase them.
I think of it as living in this moment of aspirational eating and shopping in an aspirational city. I find myself caught up at times and unable to avoid it. Just as I find myself laughing at the histrionics of the pour-over coffee ritual I also find myself coughing up the absurd $4-or-so for a cup of single-origin coffee. It seems, by living in New York, we are all participants to some degree in these kinds of narratives.
Thinking about the idea of connoisseurship and the search for authenticity or purity in our food, these are narratives that externalize contradictory and compulsive eating habits into an ideal vision of the world. But those sorts of narratives have very little to do with the really exciting, contradictory and messy sensations that come with the actual act of eating. That moment is what I became interested in for this series — the disorientation of the senses that comes with eating, the sometimes literal and sometimes allegorical disruption of the status quo. I wanted the series to investigate food politics through the lens of how our physical engagements with food orient ourselves to the world, as well as how our production of food, the sharing of a communal meal and shared palettes either tie us in or liberate us from larger social orders and obligations.
This seems to be the a really timely question as there are many food documentaries being released that do well but reduce complex social and environmental issues into very simple ideas and political outlook. I felt like once we introduce our own bodies back into the mix things get a lot more complicated. For most of us our politics may seem rational but our consumption habits are far from it. That was the driving force of how I put the program together. The films and videos relate to all our messy relationships to food.
Speaking as a Flaherty programmer, what was your philosophy behind putting together this slate of projects?
Jason Fox: I felt this approach was appropriate in particular because the Flaherty has a long, important history of discussion and critical dialogue between audience members and filmmakers. They have engaged audiences who resist the anonymity of watching films in dark theaters. My thinking was, with the Flaherty format we are not just here to consume but also to talk back. I wanted that philosophy to mirror in the films I was picking. These are films that do not just look out into the world but really think about how our own bodies are incorporated, involved and implicated in all of the choices we are making.
Aside from that, I would say the series is designed to be critically engaging and asks audiences to think and reflect upon our consumption habits. The nice thing about food and eating as a topic is that it has the potential to be a lot of fun!
What did you find to be the most difficult part in curating this series?
Jason Fox: With this series I found the most difficult part to be pairing down. In part because all living things must consume or die, so consumption becomes a universal truth. The convivium associated with the meal is a universal concept so there is an exceptional quantity of work for me to choose from. We could have filled several series with really exciting projects from filmmakers across the world who are developing new vocabularies to depict personal and social engagements with eating and consumption. It was difficult to distill all this down into a 6-program series that has a trajectory to it yet also capture the complexity of our relationships with food.
Currently, the other major challenge in front of me is an interactive aspect to the program where we will be trying something very new for the screening series. This will be an augmented reality walk. We use software to geolocate videos across the East Village for screening attendees to find and watch on their smart devices. They will be walking through the neighborhood and watching videos depicting how food as played a role in the changing of that neighborhood. It is a major challenge to pull this of but should be very exciting!
Specific to this lineup, are there any projects you are particularly keen on presenting to the audience? Perhaps something that may fly under the radar, so to speak.
Jason Fox: We are incredibly lucky to have Lonnie van Brummelen who made the film Monument of Sugar: How to Use Artistic Means to Elude Trade Barriers with Siebren De Haan. She will be traveling from Amsterdam to participate in the February 3rd screening. This film is one that is very rarely screened, especially in the United States. It is mostly shown as part of a larger gallery or museum installation piece. It is a film that depicts, in ingenious and playful ways, European sugar policy. It shows how a seemingly benign food policy can have potentially dramatic affects on other parts of the world. In the case of the film it is about how European Union sugar policy has detrimental affects on parts of Africa. This will be a rare opportunity to see a remarkable film and to engage with one of the artists who made it.
Another series and artist who I am excited to have the opportunity to show is curator of the gallery Participant Inc on the Lower East Side, Lia Gangitano. She will be presenting the under seen animations and video-game work of Theresa Duncan in the March 3rd program. Theresa’s work really captures the heart of the series. She often used food as an intoxicant that completely alters the perceptual reality of her games. This is a central theme of the series.
Finally, as we see media hybridity becoming more evident than ever, how do you see this affecting this and future Flaherty programs in keeping with its documentary specific philosophy?
Jason Fox: That is a very timely question. My short answer is, in showing film work meant for a theater along with other media aspects like animation and the augmented reality walk, I have to admit, I am posing the series as question rather than as an answer. A lot of filmmakers are trying to figure out how documentary can continue to bare witness to the social and political landscape, while trying to synthesize all the new genre’s and platforms emerging. For me, through experimentation we will figure out what works.
Flaherty NYC’s Winter/Spring 2014 series runs Monday evenings at 7PM, January 20 – March 31, 2014. For more information about tickets, visit the Anthology Film Archives. Find out more about the series at flahertyseminar.org.