Flaherty NYC, an annual screening series started in 2008, strives to present innovative films while facilitating conversations between filmmakers and the audience. Meet this year’s Flaherty NYC Winter/Spring programmers, Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill, crafters of the theme “That Obscure Object of Desire”.
Pettengill, whose documentary work includes Town Hall, Cutie and the Boxer and Teenage, and Velez, co-director of Manakamana, met at the Art of the Real film series. They bonded over an intense interest in Ronald Reagan: Velez had hours of archival footage; Pettengill had six biographies on the 40th President of the United States. The result was The Reagan Years, a 2015 film directed by Velez and produced by Pettengill, their first collaboration. From that collaboration, born from considering new ways to approach nonfiction filmmaking, came a more extensive partnership.
On Tuesday, January 20, 2015 at Anthology Film Archives, Flaherty NYC’s 10th annual screening series begins, featuring films programmed by Pettengill and Velez. Some are as short as five minutes and some are built completely from archival and found footage. All settle into “That Obscure Object of Desire”, which investigates the relationship between artists and objects in the digital age. POV sat down with Pettengill and Velez to discuss the process of choosing a theme for the series and pieces to fit that theme — or, alternatively, constructing a theme to encompass the pieces they were inspired to program.
POV: What’s your relationship to Flaherty?
Pacho Velez: I was [at Flaherty] as a fellow in 2013. I’d heard about it a number of times before that — it was always on my radar as an exciting thing to do. In 2013, I got a fellowship to go to the Flaherty seminar through the Film Studies Center at Harvard, so I jumped at the opportunity to finally go and see what Flaherty was all about. And it was great — I met a lot of people and spent about a week just talking film.
Sierra Pettengill: And I’ve just been to the Flaherty NYC events.
POV: How did you choose the theme for the program that you spearheaded and developed, “That Obscure Object of Desire”?
Sierra Pettengill: I had actually been talking about that general topic a lot — the emotional resonance of objects and the physical world.
Pacho Velez: We were interested in the mysterious power of objects — the ways in which an object can mean more than it should, or more than it does in and of itself. The aura or mystique that cinema can apply to objects and the ways that you can watch objects gain and lose that mystique through a process of transformation on screen in the cinema.
One of the clearest examples of this is in Il Castello (directed by Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti). In that film, there are all these goods passing into the EU through the Milan airport. For instance, you see fish coming in from somewhere — North Africa, maybe. If the fish passes inspection, it’s going to be sold for 20 dollars a pound, and if it doesn’t pass inspection, it just rots. What interests me are the ways that it gains value as the inspector looks at it and makes a judgement on it. You see that on the screen. It’s the same fish before it passes the checkpoint and after it passes the checkpoint. The object itself hasn’t changed at all, but its value has been drastically altered through this interaction.
Sierra Pettengill: Another good example is in At the House of Mr. X by Elizabeth Price, which is part of our first screening. It’s set in a home that was built by a cosmetics mogul and then filled with art and high-end design objects, and then never actually lived in. So the whole thing is a lights-off, quiet wander through this house with information about the objects and the context of the owner sort of interspersed, but never in a way that allows you to solve the mystery. So the objects take on a bizarre meaning — or non-meaning.
Pacho Velez: They don’t ever fully become a meaningful set of objects, which is ironic. They’re being treated as artwork — a lamp and a couch and a chair — they’re being elevated to this other kind of status.
Sierra Pettengill: Right, and what happens to an artwork when it’s in a home and then never seen, as opposed to an artwork in a studio or a museum.
POV: Can you describe the process of choosing films that encompass this theme?
Sierra Pettengill: In some cases, we started with films that we really wanted to show that resonated with that theme, or were sort of formative. The Simon Martin piece. Louis Ghost Chair, helped start an initial conversation. Some themes began with a piece and then we kind of built the night’s programming around it, and other themes evolved because we really wanted to explore an idea — like the idea of borders and boundaries. Il Castello and Brett Story’s Clear and No Screws went together really well from the beginning. It was a mix of being drawn to films and programming around them and having broader concepts that we tried to find works to fit.
Pacho Velez: It’s a highly contingent activity. I have to like the films, Sierra has to like the films, Flaherty has to like the films –and we have to be able to get in touch with the director. Then, it has to have not shown in New York too many times in the recent past and it needs to fit on the right day…
Sierra Pettengill: And each day has to add up to 90 minutes total. Maybe this is all obvious if you program all the time…
Pacho Velez: But for us, it was new. It’s always this funny combination of high-minded idealism and abstract goals, and also this nitty-gritty wheeling and dealing.
Sierra Pettengill: We had a lot of films we really loved that we tried to put in the program, and then one would sort of boot itself out thematically, and we’d put it somewhere else, and that would boot someone else out. Trying to keep the consistency within each evening was really, I think, the most challenging part in the end. Pacho and I have both been on the film festival circuit the past few years. There were a lot of filmmakers we met whose films that were wonderful but didn’t fit this programming, so we wrote them emails to ask if they had anything that no one had seen. That was a wonderful part of the process — contacting filmmakers whose work we liked and seeing if they had anything that they wanted to premiere with us. Jean-François Caissy’s film was one of those. Brett Story’s film also came out of that process.
Pacho Velez: Right now is a really wonderful time for cinema in New York. There are so many great new festivals and so much great programming that we found ourselves competing with programs like BAM’s Migrating Forms and the Art of the Real and all these different places for films. Including the MET — we were competing with the MET [for a film]. They got it.
Sierra Pettengill: The MET always wins.
POV: What do you hope that the attendees take away from Flaherty NYC this year?
Pacho Velez: One thing I really love about the Flaherty audience is that they come to be challenged in the theater. Everybody comes to the theater to be delighted, and it’s great when that happens, but the Flaherty audience is prepared to be challenged. I think that part of it is that they know that at the end of the film, they’re going to have a chance to have a conversation with the director, and so they’re there for that conversation. They’re there for the give and take.
Sierra Pettengill: Which is a really rare. You see a lot of [festivals and programs] moderating Q&A panels, but you don’t see one that’s so directly, overtly focused on a conversation between the audience and the filmmakers, which I’m really excited about. It seems like there’s some alchemy that’s going to work out between who the directors are, who is moderating each session and who is in the audience. It seems like a very unique one-time event rather than a Q&A, which can kind of get redundant.
Pacho Velez: And it’s also part of what helped us to program as many exciting works as we did. Directors generally love to be part of a conversation about what they’re doing — a deep conversation, something that’s not the same five questions that they always get linked to their films.
POV: One of Flaherty’s objectives is to nurture the production, distribution, exhibition and preservation of humanistic works. How does this year’s lineup achieves that?
Pacho Velez: I think our program does that through helping to build community around contemporary documentary work. So much of those aims that you’ve described are the function of a group of people thinking that it’s important to keep making work and to keep preserving this work. It’s not about having a mass audience, but a committed audience: a group of engaged people who think this is important. That’s how you keep a culture vital –through participation.
Sierra Pettengill: And our program is a very solid mix of much older works and brand new works, and the filmmakers scan many generations. I think our youngest is about 28, and Robert Gardner, who passed away last year, was the godfather of American documentary. So, by pairing films from multiple generations that are all speaking to this theme, we can present a new and rare context for all the work.
This year’s Winter/Spring Flaherty NYC series runs every other Tuesday at 7 PM, beginning on January 20, 2015 and running until March 31, 2015. Tickets are available at the door on the day of each event. The screenings will take place at Anthology Film Archives. Some filmmakers will be present for a dialogue with audience members at the end of each evening.