FESTIVALS: The Flaherty Experience, Part III: Construction of Images, Race and Technology
by James Kreul
By the conclusion of the 45th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar at Duke University last Thursday, I had seen many of the elements traditionally associated with the “Flaherty Experience,” including controversy. I also left with a desire to return, as the seminar synthesized many issues crucial to independent film as well as energizing filmmakers to return to the important task of creating meaningful images.
I found the films of David Williams (IFP/West‘s Movado One to Watch Award Winner of ’99), including his most recent film “Thirteen” (1997), to be affectionate and insightful portraits of an African-American family in Virginia. These dramatic films draw upon Williams’ longtime friendship with Lillian Folley and young Nina Dickens, who also appear in the film with other non-actors. Lillian and Nina’s presence in the films, with their unconventional but genuine performance styles, help convey a near-documentary credibility within a clearly fictionalized framework. The fictional status of the films, and their improvised scenes that give an impression of immediacy, led to questions about racial representation in both narrative and documentary films. The debate sometimes became quite emotional and went on past midnight at the Monday night session.
Williams found himself in a twin-horned dilemma as the debate developed. As the films are fiction, some questioned the “creation” of Lillian in relation to images of African-American women in cinema. As Williams pointed out, he drew on the real Lillian in his portrait. Documentary filmmakers questioned Williams’ right to construct and shape her character in the film, despite Lillian’s participation in the creative process. Of course, these issues are as old as the films of Robert Flaherty (“Nanook of the North“), but they are important questions for filmmakers to ask themselves as the images they create take on different meanings for different communities.
During the formal and informal discussions through the week, attendees examined crosscurrents in the wide ranging material programmed by Orlando Bagwell and Richard Herskowitz. Documentary filmmakers such as Jacquie Jones, (“Africans in America,” 1998), talked about the need to weave a “space for the viewer” instead of simply present information via talking heads. A means of talking about ways to create those spaces and textures was provided by Mark McElhatten’s program of found footage films, including Bruce Conner’s “A Movie” (1959). The Conner film prompted Jon Else to comment on the relationship it has to compilation documentaries for broadcast television, such as his episode of “Cadillac Desert” (1997), which screened last Tuesday. Else also mentioned his early involvement with Canyon Cinema (which distributes “A Movie”), and suggested that his most recent film “Sing Faster” (1998), which screened Thursday morning, was a way for him to return to the spirit of his Canyon days.
Several presentations and discussions turned to the relationship between new technologies and the creative process. Some attendees expressed anxiety over non-linear editing, because the speed with which images can be manipulated has altered the time for reflection in the creative process. But some artists also pointed to new forms taking shape, which are possible only with the new technology. Philip Mallory Jones presented “Mirrors and Smoke: A Non-Linear Performance in Virtual Space,” a collaboration with dancer Ralph Lemon and interactive software author Katherine Milton. Jennifer and Kevin McCoy previewed their brilliantly innovative “AIRWORLD” Internet project, which will mimic corporate and commercial websites, including banner ads placed on other sites with links to AIRWORLD. The site itself will be an example of “algorithmic montage,” in which the texts and images will be taken randomly from other corporate sites around the world, much in the same manner as William Burroughs’ cut-up techniques and the work of John Cage.
One of many highlights late in the week was Casper Stracke’s “Circle’s Short Circuit” (1999), which consists of five separate reel-long episodes designed to be looped together without a specific beginning or end (we only saw the cycle once, but the cycle can, and should, be repeated). There was a great deal of positive energy in the discussion room after the screening — the audience viewers inspired by the film’s innovative shifts between narrative, documentary, and experimental forms and its use of new digital technologies in ways that really synthesized many of the ideas circulating throughout the week. For one, the power of editing to broaden our palette and make all kinds of films, from docs to narrative to avant-garde, more innovative and striking.
[James Kreul is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is writing his dissertation on avant-garde film distribution and exhibition.]