FESTIVAL: Simple, But Obsessive; Flaherty Offers Intense Forum for Cinephiles
by Mike Galinsky
(indieWIRE/ 07.17.02) -- 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 of the 20 sessions, each consisting of a screening and a substantial 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. There is only a general idea about the kinds of films to be shown, as the programmer (this year it was Ed Halter from the New York Underground Film Festival), and some of the filmmakers, are announced in advance of the seminar.
Established by the sister of groundbreaking documentarian Robert Flaherty ("Nanook of the North," among others), the seminar celebrates and enhances the art of filmmaking by bringing together filmmakers, students, and curators in an intense weeklong 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 early 50s asked me if this was my first Seminar. When I answered in the affirmative, she took my arm, stared deep into my eyes and said, "Well aren't you in for a treat."
The entire event took place in a limited number of buildings on the Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie, NY, and our little group was cloistered and secluded from the outside world. The schedule was so tight that there was little time for anything other than watching, talking, eating, drinking, and passing out.
On the first evening, the excited but wary group trudged to the screening room for the first film, which happened to be "Horns and Halos," the latest feature from myself and my filmmaking partner Suki Hawley. The film documents the efforts of Soft Skull Press to republish the discredited George W, Bush campaign bio, "Fortunate Son." It appears that "Horns and Halos" was chosen as the first film because it laid the foundation for a program that dealt with idea and the role of political thought in our generation of underground filmmakers and underground culture in general.
The following morning we watched several short films including a film by long-time seminar attendee (and recently deceased) Erich Barnouw, "Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945" (1970) which used footage shot just days after the nuclear blasts. During the discussion it was clear that everyone was emotionally moved by this film. There were little or no remarks about the negative implications of such a film. Perhaps its gruesomeness was distilled significantly enough through the lenses of history, otherness, and lack of color to allow us to interpret it through a digestible amount of critical distance.
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. Kevin's work wasn't discussed too heatedly because much of the energy was focused on the socio-political implications of a work in progress presented by Uman.
The issue at hand with Naomi's film centered around a soured relationship with her subjects: a Mexican-American family living in the hinterlands of dairy country in the middle of California. Uman led off the discussion by talking about her difficulties in finding a way to finish 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. It's very difficult for any filmmaker to show works in progress, but as these films are still "open," it can often lead to very productive dialogue.
The evening session provided a much-needed humorous respite with the "Obsessive World of Jeff Krulik." For those of you not familiar with "Heavy Metal Parking Lot," Krulik's hilarious collaboration with Jeff Heyn, Jeff is a documentarian whose work simultaneously pokes fun at and empathizes with his subjects. These subjects range from a serious collector of pornography to a man intensely interested in the success of Jews. Humor became an important topic of discussion during the seminar, 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.
Day three started off with a pairing of films by Robert Banks and Roddy Bogawa. While their work is stylistically dissimilar, the pairing was very interesting because in many ways both artists deal with veiled issues of race. In other words, while race is certainly central to their work it is by no means the main subject of it. Roddy showed a rough-cut of "I Was Born But . . . ," a feature in which he explores his relationship to both punk rock and Asian culture. Using long meditative shots of former hangouts, which allow the viewer to sit with their own emotions, Roddy's work was strongly contrasted with Robert's chaotic short films that take on subjects like the commodification of race in "X The Baby Cinema" (1992-1993).
Kenji Onishi and James Fotopolous woke us up the following morning. Kenji, an important figure in Japanese underground cinema, showed several shorts. "Light Point" (1998) is a time-lapsed super 8 piece which tracks clouds, shadows, and lights as they morph in the Japanese sky. A darker sexual film followed this film where a man and a woman have questionably consensual sex repeatedly. Kenji's work was followed by a series of short films by underground misanthrope Fotopolous. He showed nine shorts including five films in the "Consumed" series (2001). In these films color fields and naked women share the screen with doll parts and plant life. In the discussion he was attacked for being boring and misogynistic. James doesn't like to talk about his work, which got people more upset. Kenji's more sexual "diary" films were definitely the most sexually provocative works we were to see during the week and it felt as if Ed was taking the opportunity to stir up the waters a bit. This became even clearer with the last clip he showed. The worst abuse was singled out for programmer Halter, because at the last moment he threw in an extra film: a propaganda clip that had been raging through the Internet that included the beheading of Daniel Pearl.
The first comment went something along the lines of, "In 10 years of coming to Flaherty I've never seen a program as horrific and awful as the one I just saw." This was followed by, "I feel like I've been raped." Ed handled the flurry of activity with aplomb. He demurred that it might not have been a good idea to have shown the clip, but he was moved to do so by its relevance to the entire program as well as its relationship to Erich Barnouw's film on the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It took a while to calm everybody down, but while the group broke for lunch clearly shaken, the consensus was that Flaherty had truly begun for the year.
That afternoon the group gave a collective sigh of relief as Jem Cohen and Pete Sillen's intricately constructed "Benjamin Smoke" unspooled. This film was unquestionably the most perfectly formed of the films chosen for the seminar and it was placed smack in the middle, raising interesting questions about form.
After a morning off we were pulled back into the seminar with Sam Green and Bill Siegel's documentary "The Weather Underground." This film really coalesced many of the personal and larger political issues we'd been discussing. The film was a fairly straightforward documentary about the Weather Underground, a splinter group from the Student's For A Democratic Society in the late '60s who broke off when it became clear to them that non-violence equaled non-action.
When trying to discuss the film I found myself unable to speak as emotions I wasn't aware of swept over me. I remember choking back tears during the film as were treated to images like the American massacre of the people of Mai Lai and the familiar image of a soldier being summarily shot in the head.
The reason I broke down during the discussion had less to do with these images than the rawness of spirit I was feeling to begin with. As distressing as it was to think about getting difficult work seen, difficult work about politically challenging subjects seem even more difficult to find a place for in this world.
We were also treated to the eye candy of Helen Stickler's documentary about the late '80s vertical skate star Gator Rogowski, "Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator." Helen was taken to task for the fast cutting and concessions to a commercial style that some participants felt undercut the strength of her film. However Helen strongly defended her right and need to make a film that would reach an audience. She had no intention of having the film get lost in the underground.
The evening screening raised the ante even further as the audience was confounded by Fotopolous' slow and murky feature "Migrating Forms"(1999). Several people were upset much less by the film than the level of discussion, which often hovered in the area of personal attack. One woman went so far as to suggest that the entire idea of showing Jim's film was an attempt to trick the audience into believing that Jim was actually a filmmaker. The discussion got heated and Flaherty was beginning to wind down.
It's interesting to think about the fact that one of the issues discussed in relation to several of the programmed films was that of appropriation. In a sense, programmer Ed Halter appropriated our films, weaving many disparate themes, aesthetics, and methodologies into a larger, coherent whole. This allowed the attendees to delve into discussions concerning these themes in a robust and, at times, heated manner.
After another day of screenings and heated arguments we had our final discussion and we all wandered off to our respective lives. I, for one, feel enlightened by the experience and in 20 years I hope to be the crazed older gentleman asking the young whippersnapper if this is his first seminar.