Loaded Viewpoins and Outsider Films: It’s All Part of the Mix at Flaherty Seminar
In a world increasingly crowded with film festivals, the 48th Flaherty Film Seminar was an odd bird. More like a cult indoctrination session than a pleasant film experience, the seminar is organized around a few simple and obsessive ideas.
The first idea is that all of the attendees—filmmakers, students, film programmers, curators, academics and a few film-lovers—are required to attend all 20 sessions, each of which consists of a screening and an hour-long discussion. The second important facet is that none of the attendees is allowed to know the schedule, order or nature of the films before they screen.
Established by the wife of groundbreaking documentarian Robert Flaherty, the seminar celebrates and enhances the art of filmmaking in an intense, week-long session of exploration. The cult-like feeling comes from many directions, but my first experience with it came at the check-in desk when a woman in her 50s asked me if this was my first seminar. When I answered in the affirmative, she took my arm and stared deep into my eyes: “Well, aren’t you in for a treat.”
The entire event took place in a limited number of buildings on the Vassar College campus. The schedule was so tight that there was little time for anything other than watching, talking, eating, drinking and passing out. We heard quite a few folks comment on the unusually high number of newcomers, several of whom took the plunge because they were curious as to what this year’s programmer, New York Underground Film Festival impresario Ed Halter, would bring to the table.
On the first evening, the excited but wary group trudged over to the screening room for the first film, Horns and Halos, which happens to be my and my wife Suki Hawley’s new feature. While not mainstream, Horns and Halos can’t be classified as experimental and isn’t overly challenging in an aesthetic way. However, our decision to focus on raising questions, rather than zeroing in on answers, was the basis for some discussion about context, media, point of view and propaganda.
While the filmmakers at this year’s seminar came from backgrounds in experimental and underground film, the seminar was not simply a “Best of the Underground.” In fact, Halter selected the films for the questions they raised about how and why we bring loaded viewpoints to the theater when viewing films. Horns and Halos opened the seminar because it dealt with ideas and the role of political thought in underground culture in general.
The following morning we watched a film by Erik Barnouw—an important figure in the life of the seminar—about Hiroshima and Nagasaki that used footage shot days after the atomic blasts. There was little or no discussion about the negative implications of such a film. Perhaps its gruesomeness was distilled significantly through the lenses of history, otherness and lack of color to allow us to interpret it through a critical distance. Placing this work early in the program helped to establish a link between the more current films in the program and those that preceded them. The afternoon program consisted of works from two filmmakers who work in decidedly different styles. The clean, cold video of Kevin Everson was contrasted with the hand-processed and lovingly distressed films of Naomi Uman. The aesthetic differences and strengths of Everson’s and Uman’s work cleverly laid the groundwork for discussing the importance of stylistic intention in later discussions.
The issue at hand with Uman’s film centered around a soured relationship with her subjects: a Mexican-American family living in dairy country in central California. One of Uman’s previous films shown during this session, Leche, is a romantic ode to peasant farming in rural Mexico. A disarmingly beautiful film, Leche makes Uman’s feelings of empathy for her subjects very clear. Mala Leche, the follow-up work-in-progress, is also beautifully shot and well-constructed. Uman discussed her difficulties in finishing the film because of some deeply disturbing experiences while living with the family. The questions raised allowed the group to explore issues of subjectivity, point of view and power.
The pairing of Everson, an African-American who deals subtly with issues of race and work in America, and Uman, a white woman documenting the lives of Mexican-Americans, created a basis for discussing deeper issues concerning point of view. In this seminar setting, the films built on each other and a myriad of major themes were developed throughout the course of the week. Race was not one of these themes, but point of view was, and this pairing was important in focusing our attention on the role of point of view for both the filmmaker and the audience.
The evening session provided a much-needed humorous respite with “The Obsessive World of Jeff Krulik.” Krulik’s work simultaneously pokes fun at and empathizes with his subjects, who range from a serious collector of pornography to a man obsessed with the success of Jews. Humor became an important topic of discussion, especially in relation to point of view. While many of Krulik’s subjects are odd and atypical film characters, the films celebrate and humanize them for the viewer.
Krulik has been making films for over 15 years and has been frustrated on one level by his inability to get his films seen outside the very limiting underground festival circuit. We saw a good deal of work that was ghettoized either in the underground or academic worlds. Discussion around this issue allowed us to focus on the intense pressure that filmmakers feel to create work that will be seen beyond a very limited audience.
Kenji Onishi, an important figure in Japanese underground cinema, presented an almost ridiculously meditative feature in the afternoon slot. Images of trees were followed by clouds were followed by shoes; and at 50 minutes into the film someone unwrapped a dead body and started to feel it. A 30-minute scene of the body being cremated followed this. The slow pace and point of view filmmaking allowed me to relate to the filmmaker’s own sense of distance from the proceedings.
The following morning Onishi screened Light Forms, a time-lapse Super-8 piece that tracks clouds, shadows and lights as they morph in the Japanese sky. A darker sexual film followed this film, in which a man and a woman have questionably consensual sex repeatedly. One attendee, who has a long history in documentary, as well as the seminar, commented that he knew hundreds of Japanese filmmakers who make beautiful work and he couldn’t understand why we were subjected to such ugly films. Some of Kenji’s “diary” films were the most sexually provocative works screened at the seminar, and it felt as if Halter were stirring the waters a bit. This became even more clear with the last clip he showed: a propaganda clip that included the beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl.
The first comment went something along the lines of, “In ten years of coming to Flaherty I’ve never seen a program as horrific and awful as the one I just saw.” Halter demurred that it might not have been a good idea to show the clip, but he was moved to do so by its relevance to the entire program as well as it’s relationship to Barnouw’s film on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It took a while to calm everybody down, and the group broke for dinner clearly shaken. The seminar had truly begun.
The next morning the group heaved a collective sigh of relief as Jem Cohen and Pete Sillen’s intricately constructed Benjamin Smoke unspooled. In the context of the seminar, the film raised subtle questions about the types of pressures filmmakers are under to create clarity for their viewers. There was little room in its tight construction for the viewer to interpret the film in any way other than the filmmakers had intended, which caused me to question my own assumptions about the dialectic nature of “good” and “bad” that I bring to my own viewing and filmmaking.
The morning respite was sorely needed because the afternoon screening of Sam Green’s The Weather Underground was extremely heavy; it coalesced many of the personal and larger political issues we’d been discussing. The film was a fairly straightforward documentary about the Weather Underground, the radical ‘60s group that broke from Students for a Democratic Society when it became clear to them that non-violence with respect to opposition to the Vietnam War equaled non-action.
I was deeply moved by the film, largely due to my own issues with political accountability. I broke down during the discussion, not necessarily because of images from the film, but because of the rawness of spirit I was feeling. Having been inspired by much of the work I had seen all week, I was nonetheless feeling a deep sense of hopelessness about many subjects: political, artistic and philosophical. As distressing as it was to think about getting difficult work seen, challenging work about political subjects seems even more difficult to find a place.
The following morning, much to our surprise, was a screening of Emile de Antonio’s Underground (1976), footage from which Green had used in his film. As opposed to The Weather Underground, de Antonio’s film was openly an advocacy film, made in conjunction with the group that it documented. Once again, the role of the filmmaker in politics was illuminated through several different lenses.
“Outsiders making films about outsiders” was the unstated theme of a later program—and in many ways the entire seminar. Garret Scott’s Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story (2002) examines the relationship between media and the outsider. The film tells the story of a man who stole a tank from an armory outside San Diego and drove it destructively before he got caught on a highway divider and was executed by police. Scott deftly weaves police and news footage with interviews with the tank driver’s brother and friends, as well as combining post-World War II footage of the growth of San Diego with interviews with urban planners.
Considering that one of the issues discussed in relation to several of the films was appropriation, in a sense Halter had appropriated our films, weaving disparate themes, aesthetics and methodologies into a larger, coherent whole. This allowed attendees to discuss these themes in a robust, and at times, heated manner. I feel enlightened by the experience, and in 20 years I’ll be the crazed older gentleman asking the young whippersnapper if this is his first seminar.
Michael Galinsky is a filmmaker, photographer, musician and new father who has made three feature films with his partner, Suki Hawley. Portions of this article originally appeared in IndieWire.…