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Flaherty Film Seminar at 50: Remembering the Past But Moving “Onward!”

Flaherty Film Seminar at 50: Remembering the Past But Moving "Onward!"

Flaherty Film Seminar at 50: Remembering the Past But Moving “Onward!”

by Hugo Perez

A scene from Jennifer Reeves’ “The Time We Killed,” one of the films that screened at the 50th Flaherty Film Seminar. Photo courtesy of Sparky Pictures.

“Hi I’m Ricky and I was at the very first Flaherty in 1955.” “Hi I’m Bill and I’ve been to the Flaherty most years since the early ’60s.” “Hi I’m David and I came to my first Flaherty in 1984.” Like members of an Alcoholics Anonymous group, the VFW (Veterans of Flaherty Workshops, as they refer to themselves) stood up and introduced themselves to the fresh inductees into the Flaherty “family” such as myself who were attending the mythic Flaherty Film Seminar for the first time. I knew that if any Kool-aid was offered later I would refrain from drinking it.

The Flaherty Film Seminar (which ran June 12-19) has always been hard to describe to the uninitiated. It’s not exactly a festival, not quite a conference, but films are screened and discussions are held. It is often spoken of as a cult, but is actually imbued with just a touch of healthy fanaticism. A large part of the Flaherty mystique is due the fact that attendees are not told in advance what they will be screening and will not know until the lights dim in the auditorium and the credits begin to roll. “No Preconception” is the prevailing theme for Flaherty today is the same as it was 50 years ago when Frances Flaherty created the seminar to honor the legacy of her late husband, documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty. Since then there have been yearly documentary pow-wows that provoke dialogue, debate, argument, and insight into the possibilities of the documentary medium. In the most memorable years, the Flaherty also provokes a certain amount of rage and outrage. Everyone, even the presenting filmmakers, are required to attend all of the screenings and discussions.

This year’s 50th Flaherty brought a seminar record 160 filmmakers, curators, academics, filmlovers, and other interested parties to the Vassar College campus in scenic Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for “Inspired Filmmaking: 50 Years of the Flaherty,” organized by guest programmer Susan Oxtoby, director of the Cinemateque Ontario-Toronto. While considered a mellow year by the 25 VFWs in attendance, Oxtoby’s programming provoked some frustration at what many saw as a program overly laden with avant garde film. But as one fellow attendee was quick to point out, one of the recurring trends of the Flaherty over the years is that the programming is always attacked. A program would be considered a failure at Flaherty if it did not provoke the attendees to react against it in some way. In short, “No pain, no gain.”

Patricia Zimmerman and Ritsu Katsumata‘s haunting “Arctic Requiem: a duet for electric violin and silent film” inaugurated the week of screenings and discussions. Billed as a “multimedia and musical reconception in three parts of ‘Nanook of the North,’” the program was more memorable for the thrilling experimental live score accompanying the film than for the performance art inspired by theory that book-ended the film.

The following days produced the highlight of the seminar for many, programs celebrating the work of verité pioneers Ricky Leacock and Michel Brault, both of whom attended the very first Flaherty in 1955. Impish and spry at 86, the inimitable Leacock when asked if he ever imagined he would be attending the 50th meeting of the Flaherty, replied, “I thought I’d be dead by now.” Very much alive and still making films, Leacock treated the conference to a rough-cut sequence from his work-in-progress “A Musical Adventure in Siberia,” which focuses on acclaimed symphony conductor Sarah Caldwell’s efforts to conduct a previously unknown symphonic drama by Prokofiev which had been censored by Stalin. The short taste of the hour-long documentary demonstrated that after 70 years of filmmaking, Leacock is still as strong a filmmaker today as he ever was.

Another elder statesman was in attendance: Quebecois director of photography and filmmaker Michel Brault. Brault presided over screenings of his rarely seen verité classics “Les Raquetteurs” and “Of Whales, Men, and the Moon,” which are almost totally unknown to contemporary audiences unless you happen to be a verité aficionado. Brault was also present for a late night screening of Jean Rouch‘s verité classic “Chronicle of a Summer,” which he photographed. Brault told the audience how he met Rouch at the Flaherty in the late ’50s, and how Rouch after seeing Brault’s film “Les Raquetteurs” asked him to come to Paris to shoot “Chronicle of a Summer.”

The presence of Leacock and Brault underscored one of the elements that has made the Flaherty a must-attend event for so many filmmakers over the years. This is a place where filmmakers are inspired and challenged to rethink their conceptions of form and push the envelope, where filmmakers meet and decide to collaborate. The Flaherty is where Robert Drew first met and decided to work with Ricky Leacock, a collaboration that would shortly lead to the American verité classic “Primary.” The illustrious meetings of Rouch and Brault, Leacock and Drew at Flaherty are just a few of the many collaborations the Flaherty has produced over the years.

Also in attendance this year was VFW Charles Burnett bringing his recently restored first feature “Killer of Sheep” back to the Flaherty and joining attendees for discussions in the Vassar dining hall throughout the week.

Among the other highlights this year were Gregorio Rocha‘s “The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa,” one of the strongest documentaries to come out of Latin American Cinema in the last few years. Inspired by the fact that in 1914 Pancho Villa signed with the Mutual Film Company to stage real battles for and play himself in the film “The Life of Pancho Villa,” Rocha’s documentary with wit and dry humor chronicles his own efforts to find these lost reels of Pancho Villa and explores the murky terrain between staged documentaries and reality. Rocha’s film, which began a festival run last fall, still lacks distribution. In a brilliant programming decision, Rocha’s film was double-billed with “La Venganza de Pancho Villa,” a recently discovered and restored film collage of early Pancho Villa films by Felix and Edmundo Padilla, which may prove to be the first Chicano film, screened for the first time since 1937 with live musical accompaniment.

In attendance at the Flaherty this year were a bevy of well-known and emerging avant garde and experimental filmmakers such as Morgan Fisher, Jennifer Reeves, Ulrike Ottinger, Phil Solomon, Eve Heller, Robert Breer, Peter Hutton, Luis Valdovino, Julia Meltzer, and David Thorne. The avant garde and experimental programming ranged from classics such as Bruce Connor‘s “Crossroads,” constructed from footage of the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb test, and Morgan Fisher’s wryly humorous and personal rumination on his fascination with 35mm film “Standard Gauge” to Julia Meltzer and David Thorne’s recent “It’s Not My Memory of It — Three Recollected Documents,” a documentary about secrecy, memory, and documents that incorporates the mind-bending CIA produced film “Burial at Sea” into a discussion which challenges the primacy of documents as the arbiter of history. Other exciting new work included “The Time We Killed,” Jen Reeves’ first narrative feature, a stylistically beautiful and emotionally wrenching portrait of depression.

The avant garde programs were counterpointed by a series of historic programs, which through the use of clips sought to give the attendees a quick overview of certain periods in documentary film and Flaherty history from the last five decades. Programmed by Ruth Bradley, Richard Herskowitz, Louis Massiah, William Sloan, and Patricia Zimmerman, the programs gave excruciatingly brief looks at some of the great films, documentary and otherwise, that have played at Flaherty over the years. One highlight of the historic programs was the screening of Marlon Riggs groundbreaking personal essay on gay black male identity, “Tongues Untied,” which has lost none of its power in the 15 years since it was first made and which brought more than one attendee to tears.

But programming in the end is almost beside the point at the Flaherty, which some attendees consider programmer-proof. It’s the continuation of a dialogue on film that began 50 years ago that many see as the core of the Flaherty and why so many attendees come back year and year. The sense of continuity and passing on the tradition from generation to generation could be seen through a group that this year ranged in age from 20 to 90. If one theme or idea can best be said to encapsulate this year’s Flaherty experience it is — to quote the last shot of “Arctic Requiem” — “Onward!” I know that within a few years I will be back at the Flaherty and stand up in front of the group and say, “Hi I’m Hugo. This is my second Flaherty.”

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