Lessons learned: SF artist James T. Hong's 'Lessons of the Blood' played the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, this year curated by Center for Asian American Media's Chi-hui Yang. (Photo by Jill Orschel, courtesy Chi-hui Yang)

A Week at Flaherty

Chi-hui Yang July 18, 2008

Curating the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar is, in a lot of ways, a film programmer’s dream—an invitation to spend a year building a week-long documentary and experimental film program with complete creative freedom, for a venerable institution, backed by an impossibly supportive staff and board. The Semi nar is also a kind of social Petri dish that annually brings together a different programmer, a captive and engaged audience, and filmmakers to present and talk about their works, all in a secluded upstate New York setting where, for that week, everyone eats, lives, talks and breaths cinema. What happens during this period is the stuff of legend and lore and never what one expects.

 The Flaherty is a place to explore—and explode—ideas, which is exactly what took place June 21-27, 2008, at Colgate College when I unveiled 40 films and videos to a ready, trusting, but critical audience. The theme: The Age of Migration. The filmmakers: 13 from all around the world. The participants: 150 academics, critics, curators, filmmakers and students. The results: an intense week of debates, provocations, arguments and revelations; an exploration of the global moment and how media makers are responding to it.

An institution that has become one of the last outposts for committed, rigorous discussion of cinema, the Flaherty was founded in 1955 by Frances Flaherty, in memory of her husband, the pioneering documentary filmmaker, Robert Flaherty. Hundreds of filmmakers have attended over the years—Leacock to Rouch, Satyajit Ray to Agnes Varda, Heddy Honigmann to Marlon Riggs. The Seminar is legendary for its infamous battles and stir-ups; count Ken Jacobs in 1992 and Trinh T. Minh-Ha in 1983.

Central to the Seminar is its philosophy of "non-preconception," where no schedules are announced in advance, and participants come based on the themes alone. Viewers discover what they are seeing as the works unfold before them. (One very memorable moment from this year was Pedro Costa’s murmur "best introduction to my film ever" when the only preface to his monumental and very difficult three-hour junkie-documentary/fiction hybrid In Vanda’s Room was, "This afternoon you will see one film. It is 178 minutes longâ.") Lengthy and often contentious discussions follow each screening, where instead of festival-style Q&As, a decentralized conversation is held, where comments trump questions and filmmakers are only participants in wider-ranging sessions.

Each filmmaker I invited presented two to four films over the course of the week, all of which probed in myriad ways, ideas of migration in the global moment; the massive movement of individuals around the globe (exiles, refugees, economic migrants, soldiers, tourists), the forces compelling their movements (global capital, conflict, technology, culture), and how migrations are understood as lived experience.

This year’s filmmakers included: Ursula Biemann (Switzerland), Pedro Costa (Portugal), Bahman Ghobadi (Iran), James T. Hong (US), Oliver Husain (Canada), Alison Kobayashi (Canada), Thavisouk Phravasath (US), Sylvia Schedelbauer (US/Germany), Allan Sekula (US), Renee Tajima-Pena (US), Lonnie van Brummelen & Siebren de Haan (Netherlands), Laura Waddington (UK), Lee Wang (US).

The range of works presented was expansive and inspired, and charted a voyage through contemporary non-fiction strategies as well as how filmmakers are mapping out new visual language to respond to the complex reality we find ourselves in. From Costa’s exquisite, durational portraits of Lisbon’s Cape Verdean community to the cut and paste, identity swapping, pop masterpieces of videomaker Alison Kobayashi, each screening revealed new entry points into a set of ideas that grew increasingly complex. The week’s schedule was carefully planned to unfold in an arc balancing rigor with joy, theoretical with the lived, local with the global. Meanwhile, sub-themes percolated beneath the surface: the sea as a timeless, globalizing force, race and identity, the construction of histories, borders and geography, performance, and the role of the artist.

James T. Hong’s brilliant, densely constructed essays on war and historical revisionism used both contemporary Jerusalem and WWII era Japan to mine ideas of truth and power while Lee Wang’s powerful God is my Safest Bunker examined the wartime political economy of humans through the stories of Filipino migrant workers in Iraq. Sylvia Schedelbauer’s deeply personal, found-footage collages probed the composition of memory and family histories and the nightmares of hybrid identity, while Lonnie van Brummelen’s majestic, silent films showcased her unerring eye and fascination with borders; her Monument of Sugar is an artistic intervention into the sugar economy, post-colonial dependency and EU’s increasingly tight-drawn borders.

A special screening of Kent MacKenzie’s underseen 1961 masterpiece The Exiles (which is finally being properly released now by Milestone Films) was presented mid-way through the Seminar, providing a perspective on domestic displacement, that of urban Native American exiles. An unplanned, unofficial side-bar event turned out to be the EuroCup, which attracted many of the Europeans and Russians away from the screening room (migration politics in a microcosm: 2008 EuroCup Semifinal: Germany vs. Turkey).

A major question going into the Seminar was how each film would be received, through its own merits as well as the haze of increasing sleep deprivation as the week went on. Some films were adulated, while others put up to fierce scrutiny, a dynamic which was at once specific to this particular group but at the same time, reflective of larger debates going on within documentary filmmaking.

Ursula Biemann and Allan Sekula’s films perhaps engendered the greatest discussion and resistance; the two bravely are staking out new territory in how to represent the complex dynamics of labor, global capital and mobility—dominant forces in a constantly shifting world. Their films opened up a debate which would last all week—the validity of a systemic approach to understanding global processes, one which does not visit personal experiences or the individual, but instead one that looks at broader patterns which control the world around us. Biemann’s video essays are impersonal, technologic works which examine mobility and migration primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. Black Sea Files, which makes generous use of split screens and text, assesses the oil geography of the Caucasus and the trail of prostitutes, workers, and displaced families which follow its pipelines. Sekula’s three-hour essay Lottery to the Sea is a dense rumination on the maritime, and its complicity in global capital, conflict, and activism. Broad, unafraid of duration and shot with an intentional casualness, Lottery provoked an outcry of imprecision, amateurism and impossibility; a major jolt of opinion and heat which dramatically shifted the dynamic midway through the week.

The screening which followed Sekula’s, Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phravasath’s The Betrayal (Nerakoun) provided an opportunity for group reconciliation through its emotion and personal story. An account of the Phravasath family’s survival as Lao refugees displaced to Brooklyn in the 1980s, film achieves a remarkable intimacy matched only by its exquisite cinematography.

Not granted a visa to attend the Seminar, Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi participated virtually via webcam, a fitting interaction for a filmmaker whose body of works deal with the destructive nature and im/permeability of borders, and at a Seminar examining the forces compelling or restricting movement. After a screening of his celebrated first feature A Time for Drunken Horses, which chronicles a young boy forced into smuggling goods across the Iran-Iraq border in order to survive, Ghobadi dug deep to discuss his lived experience as a Kurdish filmmaker in Iran, the always present border, as well as his increasing disenchantment with making films in Iran.

If part of the Seminar’s quest was to find a new language to deal with an interconnected, globally-flattened reality, it was perhaps Oliver Husain who had the most coherent form. A mixed Indian/Polish German citizen residing in Canada, his fantastic short films captured the moment in an altogether natural, almost effortless way that was perhaps reflective of his own worldview and experience. Surreal, romantic, disorienting and whimsical, his videos are experiential and almost undescribeable. In Green Dolphin, time, diasporic place, fiction, and reality converge as a seamless continuum is opened between Kuala Lumpur and Toronto and Lana Turner is channeled through a Filipino Canadian dancer.

In the end, the Seminar’s overall intent was not to offer conclusion or resolution; the idea of migration is far too large for any kind of summary or master narrative. Instead, its goal was to provoke and disrupt, to stir up ideas. The films offered new ways to understand and look at the world around us, where vestiges of migrations are impossible to not encounter at almost every turn. Cumulatively, the week left an impression for what perhaps cannot be summed up or accurately captured (besides perhaps in emotion): what kind of logic and patterns govern a world where individuals, some by their own volition, some with no agency, are literally circling the globe, pushed and pulled by forces that are completely outside of their control.

The Seminar memorably concluded on an explosive note—a messy end to a very messy topic, actually quite appropriate. What was meant to be a group wrap-up discussion to comment on the week erupted into a fierce debate on the politics of representation. Building off of a critique of Laura Waddington’s personal, poetic video Border, in which she recounts her experience living with Iraqi and Afghani refugees attempting to smuggle themselves into the UK, Sekula, and Renee Tajima-Pena entered into a heated volley over the necessity of hearing and seeing the subjects themselves. Appropriately the two come from vastly different approaches to filmmaking, Tajima-Pena’s humorous, personal narratives to Sekula’s more removed video essays. It was a timeless debate in a new context, where ideas of documentary ethics are reassessed in an overwhelmingly mediated and fractured world, when it is unclear whether the old rules still apply.

_For more information on the Flaherty, visit its website www.flahertyseminar.org

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