Nonfiction Powwow in Poughkeepsie: The Flaherty Seminar at Fifty

Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsArthur, Paul
SourceFilm Comment, Film Society of Lincoln Center, NY, NY (2004)
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            Neither a film festival nor a scholarly conference, the annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, held at bucolic Vassar College, has been called everything from summer camp for documentary mavens to an activist think tank to a cult-tinged revival tent. But given its week-long regimen of grueling screenings and intrinsic, often contentious public and small-group discussionsヨsparking up during drowsy cafeteria breakfasts and continuing into the wee hours at "Bill's Bar" (a tradition launched by ace archivist William Sloan)ヨa more fitting characterization might be Outward Bound for anti-Hollywood apostles. Founded in 1955 by Flaherty's widow and prime collaborator Frances, this year's incredibly diverse gathering of filmmakers, museum programmers, writers, students, and distributors celebrated a half-century of achievement in independent cinema with an array of new and classic work ranging from cinema verite social tracts to avant-garde explorations of personal memory. While several Flaherty veterans agreed that the commemorative mandate, in combination with a national climate of political solidarity on the left, made for a "tamer" event, there were plenty of inflamed cine-frictions operating just below the surface.

            Originally convened to study and perpetuate the Flaherty legend, from the beginning the Seminar has served as a breeding ground for what is new and challenging on the nonfiction scene. Despite a reputation as a citadel of orthodox documentary, initial sessions  introduced American audiences to the films of Satyajit Rayヨand more recently nurtured narrative mavericks like Dusan Makavejev and Mani Kaulヨprovided a forum for eclectic impressario Amos Vogel of Cinema 16, and gave early support to community-access and guerrilla TV production. The great ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch claims that a felicitous meeting in 1957 with French Canadian verite godfather Michel Brault inspired the groundbreaking Chronicle of a Summer (61). A decade later, a gathering of American visual anthropologists charted bold alternatives to what was threatening to become a dormant practice. Around the same time, Flaherty hosted a group of disgruntled women who used the occasion to hammer out principles for a feminist doc movement and initiate the New Day distribution collective. Maintaining its cutting-edge perspective, the Seminar has attempted to reclaim buried histories of black and Latino nonfiction makers, addressed serious consideration to work from the African diaspora and the Middle East, and took their show on the road to Riga, Latvia, for a summit with Glasnost media artists.

            Early sessions filtered in an occasional "formalist" avant-garde exercise yet the presence of that other wing of nonfiction cinema has proved a persistentヨalbeit often productiveヨsource of contention. Perhaps most famously, in 1963 Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs hauled newly-minted prints of Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures and Jacobs's Blonde Cobra to the Flaherty site in Vermont, only to be turned away as interlopersヨan episode hilariously documented in Mekas's sublime Lost Lost Lost (76). Nearly thirty years later, Jacobs, invited to perform a "Nervous System" piece employing footage from a silent French porn film, occasioned an unusually bitter and fractious exchange over charges of sexism and elitism. No such fireworks accompanied the gala 50th reunion although an undercurrent of frustration was voiced at the near-parity between docs and experimental films, a consequence of selecting Susan Oxtoby of Cinematheque Ontario as this year's chief programmer. Besides juxtaposing genres and productions from ten different countries, Oxtoby had an additional task of paying tribute to the gnarly legacy of past Flaherty screenings. Unfortunately, given the increasingly urgent pressures of national and world affairs, at least a few of her more recondite avant-garde selections seemed like luxuries, visually fortifying if somehow irrelevant, even for a career-long booster like myself.

            On the other hand, there were plenty of gems from both camps unearthed by the Seminar's retrospective survey. Brault and Pierre Perrault's little-known 1963 Pour la Suite du Monde (Of Whales, Men, and the Moon) plays like a less portentous, communal version of Flaherty's own Man of Aran (34). Shot on an small island in the St. Lawrence river, the film helped revive  an abandoned local custom in which beluga whales are trapped in a fence-like weir then sold to aquariums. A French-speaking trio of charming old rogues recite tall tales about the good old days amid a boisterous medley of folk tunes and dances. With Brault as a featured guest, recognition of Canadian contributions to the storied development of verite in the Sixties and Seventies emerged as one of the week's resonant subtexts. In a similar vein, a healthy chunk of Taiga (92), a nine-hour Mongolian epic of quotidian observation by Ulrike Ottingerヨalso in attendanceヨraised  anew issues around the camera's social control over its subjects, a problem especially germane to the recent wave of first-person documentary polemics. This dynamic was hashed out again after a screening of George Stoney's Getting Out, a bracing work-in-progress centered on a prisoner-run theater and writing project at Sing Sing.

            Although several straightforward social docs were among the best received and emotionally stirring entries, Oxtoby, aided by a team of auxiliary curators, placed special emphasis on the historical trajectory of crossover or hybrid docs. Marlon Riggs's lyrical evocation of African-American queer subjectivity, Tongues Untied (89), lost none of its sting while the British Black Audio Film Collective's Handsworth Songs (86), directed by John Akomfrah, demonstrated once again how effective political statements need not be divorced from radical formal concerns. Of a newer crop of poetic docs, the devastating Bocas de Ceniza (Mouths of Ash) (04), by Juan Manuel Echavarria, was head-and-shoulders the find of the Seminar. Literally. In tight long-take close-ups framed against a neutral background, a series of rural Columbian peasants forcibly displaced from their homes by military operations sing simple, mournful songs of their own devising about oppression and, especially, a massacre of unarmed civilians by government troops. In Echavarria's eloquent trope, the CU's isolate singers from their spatial contexts while their collected songs speak to an unquenchable spirit of collective struggle. Only slightly less adventurous in method, Jean-Marie Teno's A Trip to the Country (00) adopts a sly first-person essayistic voice to pump upヨas its subvertsヨa seemingly dreary travelogue of throttled modernity in backwater Cameroon villages. Teno's inventory of Western consumer prizes awarded for a tribal festival of athletic contests acts as a pitch-perfect metaphor for the economic plight of developing countries.

            On the avant-garde side of the ledger, Bruce Conner's neglected Crossroads (76), a compilation of government-produced footage of atomic testing in the Bikini Atollsヨpublically denounced by fellow filmmaker Morgan Fisher as a "fascist" workヨbrilliantly exploits a strategy of duration, exhausting our smug contemplation of gorgeous super-slow-mo mushroom clouds in order to trigger an ontological horror of blank eternity and of nuclear proliferation without end.  In a related apocalyptic register, Phil Solomon's Twilight Psalm III: "Night of the Meek" (02) re-photographs clips from Lang's M and other Weimar and Nazi-era classics in a manner that encrusts images of looming catastrophe, and their historical accretions in personal memory, in a thick visual glaze of hoarfrost and molten metal. The effect is a spine-chilling spin on theorist Siegfried Kracauer's famous thesis, in From Caligari to Hitler, about the premonitory thrust of German movie-making. A less satisfying example of exerimentalism at the service of political anatomy is the ultra-hip Speculative Archive's (aka Julia Meltzer and David Thorne) It's Not My Memory of ItヨThree Recollected Documents (03), a "counter-intelligence" video pairing the highly mediated story of a CIA "source" in Iran, laboriously pieced together from shredded U.S. Embassy documents, against two bizarre telephone interviews with CIA information officers. Despite great material and a trenchant theme of Orwellian language, It's Not My Memory paradoxically shares with unreflective veriteヨa style whose implicit truth claims are anathema to postmodernistsヨan unwillingness to expose, to say nothing interrogate, its own methods of information gathering and discursive construction.

            For me, the biggest surprise of the week was a palpable lack of excitement over documentary's recent invasion of popular culture. Of course the majority of these folks have been in it for the long haul, thus perhaps they know how quickly the public's taste for nonfiction can shift. In this regard, an intriguing discussion session vented problems of media circulation, particularly the prospects for a national Arte-style TV network devoted to nonfiction work versus less grandiose strategies such as straight-to-DVD production and distribution via the internet. Needless to say, there was no consensus. According to Patty Zimmerman, a stalwart chronicler and theorist of noncommercial cinema, the Seminar's strongest quality is in fact an insistent heterogeneity, commingling different technological formats, genres, and national movements in an environment that nurtures intergenerational, as well as aesthetic and ethical, skirmishes. In deference to its guiding spirit, let's hoist a glass to the conclave's next half-century.             

Film Comment  Sept/Oct 2004