December 1, 1998

The 44th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar

Clockwise, top-left: <em>Lousiana Story, Without Memory</em>, Peter Forgács, On the Edge of Peace

The 44th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, like those proceeding it, was neither a film festival nor a film conference, although it mixed essential aspects of both into its own unique week-long schedule of screenings and discussions for its ninety three participants. Its August 7-13 setting was the secluded and bucolic campus of Wells College, which fronts Cayuga Lake in the upstate village of Aurora, New York. In the August heat, the College's swimming pier was the frequent venue for continuing discussions and cooling off.

The Flaherty Seminar's uniqueness is a mixture of elements: participants are expected to stay on the campus for the entire week (unless they've come just for the beginning weekend, because of other commitments); the films' titles are not announced until the moment of screening; the screenings are always followed immediately by group discussion with the filmmaker(s); the screening schedule manifests an implicit logic (but just what this logic might be occasions much discussion); and each year's seminar screens a Flaherty film, as a reminder of the cinematic vision the seminar was founded to honor and pass on.

This year's programmers were Barbara Abrash, associate director of NYU's Center for Media, Culture and History, and Linda Blackaby, who works for the National Asian American Telecommunications Association and the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Given the seminar's necessarily volatile mixture of filmmakers, exhibitors, academic faculty and students, placed—as it were—in a sealed container, some past programmers have felt the heat of dissatisfaction expressed from one perspective or another: for example, social activists railing against the programming of personal filmmaking. A phenomenon of protest well-known to group therapists, leading to the "killing" of the programmers, didn't occur this year, to the relief of some, the disappointment of others, and surely to the credit of Abrash and Blackaby, who served up a schedule of twenty-five films by turns profound, entertaining and disturbing. Among those films were the following.

The last quality-"disturbing"­ characterized the seminar's first film, Jay Rosenblatt's Human Remains (U.S., 30 min., 1998). In faux first-person narration, we hear Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, and Mao tell us details of their personal lives, yielding the very disturbing irony suggested in the film's title: in the intimate lives of these monstrous producers of human remains, the human remains.

Four films screened by the Hungarian filmmaker/video maker/sociological researcher, Peter Forgács, used home movies shot during the European '30s and '40s in a stunningly original form. The description by Hungarian critics of two of them—Free Fall (Hungary, 52 min., 1994) and Maelstrom (Hungary, 60 min., 1996)—as "video operas" points to their originality, but does not fully encompass it. Those two and Meanwhile Somewhere (Hungary, 52 min., 1994) are simultane­ously: 1) investigations of private and domestic life during the public traumas occasioned by the rise and fall of Nazism, 2) filmic constructions whose use of repetition, parallelism, motifs and other formal devices suggests musical structures, and 3) imagistic and auditory surfaces whose manifest meanings seem always to suggest deeper and traumatic latent ones—along the lines of classical Freudian dream theory. The results defeat easy ideological readings, delivering instead a tense mixture of aesthetic pleasure and psychological unrest. The fourth, Wittgenstein Tractatus (Hungary, 30 min., 1992), uses home movies and an original music score by Tibot Szenso to engage the concepts of the Austrian philosopher's seminal Tractatus Logico­ Philosophicus (1922), attempting in this way to make film a form of philosophical discourse.

Sienna McLean's Still Revolutionaries (U.S., 16 min., 1998) takes up the theme of private and public spheres in the lives of two women Black Panther Party members, mixing archival footage with present-day interviews. While intimating the shadow side of the internal dynamics of the Party, as experienced by these two women, the film fails to push the irony in the lack of personal freedom within an organization devoted to freeing blacks from oppression.

The title of Carlos Marcovich's Who the Hell is Juliette? (Cuba/Mexico/U.S., 90 min., 1997) expresses the filmmaker's exasperation in recording the life of this utterly uncontainable young Cuban prostitute. Mixing fictional film techniques, MTV and cinema vérité, the film tests the limits of vérité's strategy of interactive documentary.

Ning Ying, who served as assistant director for Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, was represented by two films in which she clearly comes into her own voice: Minjing Gushi/On the Beat (China, 102 min., 1995) and Zhao Le/For Fun (China, 95 min., 1992). The former is an "anthropological fiction" which wryly plots the fall within the Chinese communist revolution from idealism to violence against the "masses" in whose name the revolution was ostensibly carried out. The part that stands for the whole here is a Peking police precinct's daily rounds of enforcement. For Fun was one of the seminar's deepest delights. In the film, an old man, retiring from a backstage life in the operatic theatre, finds that he can neither live alone nor without music. Joining a "Peking Opera Club" peopled by other retired men (including gays, a taboo notion in China), he tips the balance against their joyful amateurishness with his heavy-handed rules, and finds himself banned. The emotional spectrum in this anthropological fiction is mature, broad and nuanced. Why "anthropological fictions"? The filmmaker was very emphatic: in China, one cannot get at the truth using "documentary."

Screened appropriately outdoors on a hot night, Flaherty's Louisiana Story (U.S., 77 min., 1948), picking up the theme of man and machine more central to Grierson's tradition, tells the story of bayou oil exploration through the eyes of a young boy who lives there. In today's environment, a filmmaker of Flaherty's stature would be throttled for delivering such a bright picture of corporate activity, but the film's undeniable charm and aesthetic pleasures resist easy dismissal. And Flaherty's profound lesson about learning how to see remains as relevant today as ever.

A collection of five rarely seen Jewish films made in Palestine prior to the estab­lishment of Israel in 1948, and shortly after, was presented by the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive and Hillel Tryster. The collection included Murray Rosenberg's First Film of Palestine (Palestine, 29 min., 1911), showing in newsreel style the progress of Jewish settlers in the areas of agriculture, housing, education and religious life.

Closer to the present, and hopefully a harbinger of the future, was On the Edge of Peace (Israel/Palestine, 103 min., 1995), the first Israeli-Palestinian co-production, shot during the first year following the signing of the 1993 peace accords. While Ilan Ziv is ostensibly the film's director, and indeed edited the footage in New York City, the shooting was done by three Israeli and three Palestinian video diarists. There are echoes of the National Film Board of Canada's Challenge for Change program here, in the fact that people are given the freedom to generate and govern their own self-images, an especially important event for the Palestinians. In the process, taboo images are given a disturbing, albeit necessary, airing—for example, the filming by a Palestinian woman of the ransacking of her family's home by Israeli soldiers.

Three films by the Japanese documentarist Koreeda Hirokazu were screened, of which Kioku Ga Ushinawareta Toki / Without Memory (Japan, 84 min., 1996) was perhaps the most poignant. The film's subject is a relatively young husband and father, who, through medical malpractice resulting in a small but profound brain damage, cannot acquire new memories. His awareness that he is trapped in the moment—the memory of much he loses in the next moment­ yields heart—rending scenes of his always having to start over with his family and the filmmakers. The way in which memory gives meaning to self-identity and as a basis for social intercourse was perhaps never more sadly portrayed than in this film about its absence. Next year, the Flaherty Film Seminar moves to the campus of Duke University. Future venues have not yet been determined.

 

DON FREDERICKSEN has taught film at Cornell University since 1971, with a special interest in the documentary. In 1998, he served on the jury of the Krakow International Short Film Festival, and was a symposium speaker al the CAMERIMAGE '98 Festival in Torun, Poland.

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