Named after renowned filmmaker Robert Flaherty, The Flaherty is an organization dedicated to independent media and the exploration of the constantly changing world of the moving image. Flaherty NYC introduces new programmers each season, continuously finding creative and innovative minds to choose the theme of the organization’s screening series. This season’s programmers, Lana Lin and Cauleen Smith, are no exception. Both dynamic artists whose work stretches over several mediums, Lin and Smith are presenting the theme “Transforming Provocations.”
A professor in the School of Media Studies at The New School, Lana Lin is best known for her innovative multi-disciplinary projects Lin+Lam and thought-provoking films. Many of her works focus on themes of identity, culture and collective memory. Her work has been featured in museums and festivals such as The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum, the Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival and the Oberhausen Short Film Festival.
Interdisciplinary artist Cauleen Smith has directed several films, and creates drawings and other 2-dimensional artwork. Taking inspiration from mid-twentieth century experimental films, her work often centers around themes of structuralism, third world cinema and science fiction. Her films and artwork have been featured at the New Museum, The Kitchen and MCA Chicago. Smith serves as faculty for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program.
Starting Tuesday, January 19, Flaherty NYC will feature rarely-seen films about transformation at the Anthology Film Archives every other Tuesday through March 29. Over the six evenings, audience members will explore the concept of transformation through several short films and discussions facilitated by filmmakers.
This interview has been edited.
While Smith was traveling abroad in Kenya, POV spoke with Lin about her experience as co-programmer of the Winter/Spring 2016 season of Flaherty NYC.
How did you become involved with Flaherty as a programmer?
I was a fan of the Flaherty for a long time and really respected their seminars. Flaherty contributes to the sustenance of non-mainstream, non-commercial films that aren’t widely known and seen, and aren’t driven by motives of profit or even primarily entertainment. It’s so difficult for filmmakers who are pushing the boundaries of the form — whether documentary or experimental or hybrid — to find opportunities to share their work. I know this from my own experience as a filmmaker, and Cauleen and I have discussed this issue. We both find this kind of work vital and wanted to support it, and to participate in the building of a community less focused on industry practices.
Why was the theme “Transforming Provocations” selected?
I noticed that “transition” has been all the rage — from Obama calling for change to gender transition becoming so much more visible within mainstream media representations of transgender people. At the same time, I was thinking about the term “transition” as a time in which an infant transitions from being at one with the world, so to speak, to comprehending its distinctions as a separate entity from the world at large. I come to this notion of transition through psychoanalyst and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott, who named the blanket or teddy bear that facilitates such a transition a “transitional object.” Jennifer Montgomery’s film, Transitional Objects, which will launch the series, is directly inspired by this concept.
Then, there has been the mounting problem of refugees who suffer the rupture from their former lives, who are forced to transition into a new way of life. There is also the ever present and growing threat of climate change. All of these instances of transition were on my mind and seemed to speak to a condition of precariousness and vulnerability, but also one of aspiration and liberation. This is a condition that I think we all occupy and are occupied by to different degrees and with more or less agency. I reached out to Cauleen, whom I suspected or hoped might share some of these interests and convictions, and was thrilled when she agreed to collaborate.
While all of the films in the series deal with transformation of sorts, there is a wide range of topics from ‘queer transitions’ to ‘ecologies & other Earthly movements.’ What prompted you to select these specific topics?
There were actually a lot more that we could have addressed. These rose to the surface partly because we were interested in works that could gel together under their rubrics. Each of these angles of thinking about transformation is very relevant to pressing concerns of the day, but there actually might have been another set of topics, to my mind. We selected topics that were broad and rich and complicated enough to intersect with the others. It was important to me, and I think to Cauleen as well, to demonstrate the intersectionality of issues of gender, race, politics, ecology, materiality, and spirituality.
You suggest that these films will help viewers imagine a future dealing with ecological and political transformations. What societal changes do you foresee occurring in light of these future transformations?
I wouldn’t claim that our programs will implement societal change, but I believe that art can visualize things that have yet to be seen; it can offer models for thinking about what hasn’t been actualized. So in the face of terrible and seemingly intransigent problems such as racism, sexism, and transphobia, films have the potential to illuminate either imaginative utopias or dystopias that can stir a critical response. I think that art works together with activism and criticism to provoke transformation, to reference our series title.
How do you hope these films will challenge viewers?
One of the pleasures and challenges of this program for me is obliging people to make connections between films and also ideas that they wouldn’t without our urging. Sometimes these connections are made elegantly and sometimes they are more labored, and this is intentional. We could have programmed works that explicitly dealt with specific issues, but instead, each night’s program has a kind of looseness and we put these works into play in what we hope will be unpredictable and demanding ways. Transition itself is never easy. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to move from a situation of familiarity to unfamiliarity, although, of course, it is also exciting and sometimes life-saving. We wanted the viewing experience to mimic this sense of going from the known to unknown or vice versa, and to see what new knowledge might emerge from those unexpected juxtapositions.
For instance, the closing night brings together a narrative featurette that represents Black independent cinema at its finest (The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy), a stunningly photographed conceptual piece that was conceived of as an art installation and has been exhibited at the Venice Biennial (A Família do Capitão Gervásio), and an ethnographic performative documentary structured as an exquisite corpse game (Madame Mae Nang Nak). Typically, these works might be showcased in different kinds of venues. The projects originate from around the globe — rural New York, a small village in Brazil, and Northern Thailand — but they all speak to the transitional space between commonplace everyday life and the otherworldly or paranormal.
What have you enjoyed most about your experience as Winter/Spring 2016 programmer so far?
It’s been a real learning experience for me, as an artist. I had not done much curation before, and now I recognize it as an art form in itself, something I had known only intellectually. It’s been eye-opening to witness how the bits and pieces of a program can be shaped, not unlike how a film is put together. Our programs are not geared toward celebrating the new — although we sought out opportunities to premiere work — as much as they are about igniting a conversation amongst works, some of which have had a historical impact (whether recognized or not), and some of which are just entering the discourse.
I’ve done a considerable amount of collaboration in the past, but primarily with one person, my art and life-partner. It’s been instructive to work with others, not only my co-programmer, but also The Flaherty and all the filmmakers. I feel fortunate to have been introduced to films I wouldn’t have necessarily been exposed to through working with Cauleen. When you brush up against work and ways of working that differs from your own, it actually helps you identify what your own stakes are as well as pushes you to grow.
The 2016 Winter/Spring Flaherty NYC Series runs every other Tuesday at 7 PM beginning January 19 through March 29. 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 discussion with audience members at the end of each event.