Robert Flaherty Film Seminar came with a familiar proposition— a small campus full of filmmakers, writers, professors, students and film professionals brought together for a week of utopian discourse structured around the deliberate intellectual provocation of a designated curator. At the helm of this years edition was Dennis Lim, former film editor of the Village Voice, who sought to explore the concept of 'Work' by exploring its practice at the margins of society.
While, like all past seminars, this year's edition acquired a unique identity by virtue of its participants and the films presented, we at Cinema Tropical were struck by the predominant presence of Spanish, Latin American and Latino participants. Among the featured filmmakers were Pedro González-Rubio, Alex Rivera, Eugenio Polgovsky and Lisandro Alonso –all of whose work has figured prominently in the efforts of Cinema Tropical over the last decade— while journalists, students and other professionals from the diverse Ibero-American community contributed their insight to the often intense debate surrounding the featured works.
In an effort to contribute something to the ongoing and venerable work of the Flaherty, Cinema Tropical has collected a small dossier of observations, criticism and praise from the Ibero-American attendees at Flaherty 2010. Of those who were able to contribute, reactions range from glowing to auto-critical, but in the end we hope to reflect the dynamism and vanguard spirit of the Seminar and ensure that all involved continue the important process of reflection and self-criticism that sets the Flaherty apart from any other event of its sort.
Margarita de la Vega Hurtado
Independent Film Curator
Each Flaherty seminar is a unique experience and this year confirmed the rule. The 56th edition was WORK, intense and energetic for all of its participants. This year’s gathering featured a large contingent of Ibero-American guests, participants and fellows, who brought their individual expertise, enthusiasm, and knowledge to the seminar; some of them have summarized their views on the TropicalFRONT.
Carlos Gutiérrez has called our attention to the opportunity that the Flaherty seminar gives to leave aside the usual business of festivals and other gatherings to explore issues of capital importance to the film community. It is a safe space for a conceptual discussion around how we view cinema and video, its creativity, its production, its programming and the impact on spectatorship. In academia, criticism, and programming we continue to focus on films as individual works (auteur cinema), representatives of a nation or region, or a particular theoretical perspective, instead of trying to search for new ways of presenting, seeing and analyzing cinema.
For the Flaherty program Dennis Lim selected works with a common thematic strand related to human labor in diverse settings, which also shared some stylistic qualities, astride between fictional and documentary representation. Lim delineated his interest in an article published this past weekend in The New York Times (8/22/10), pointing to the blurring of the lines between fiction and nonfiction, noticeable amongst a group of young filmmakers such as Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, Lisandro Alonso, Naomi Uman, Alex Rivera and others. In the early days of cinema the borders between these two representational styles did not exist and Robert Flaherty’s realistic narratives are great examples exemplary of the fluid possibilities for depicting daily life.
The freedom of representation invoked by the title of Lisandro Alonso’s first film La Libertad set the tone for the program but unfortunately never became the focus of the general discussions throughout the week. The reemergence of hybridity in contemporary film and video did become a salient feature of the program and it is evoked in the reactions from the previous writers on this blog. It has provoked my reflections since the seminar, making me look differently at other films since then. Hopefully, many are going through a similar process, resulting in new ways of programming, of talking and of viewing the array of contemporary visual production. Dennis Lim’s Flaherty program has brought about these ideas, emerging from the interstices between the films, rather than the discussions. The results, hopefully, will contribute to change and new developments in programming and writing about the blurring differences between fiction and documentary.
My experience in the Flaherty Film Seminar has been memorable in many ways, the first of which is undoubtedly the extraordinary encounters and friendships that come from sharing an intense cinematic intimacy.
This particular intimacy is born from sharing the complete works of each director in a perfect and state-of-the-art projection room. The extremely intensive environment transforms this into a ritual practice, a ritual-cinematic exercise, highly emotional and fueled by the element of surprise, one of the aspects of the Flaherty that make it completely unique. I enjoy not knowing what one is going to see, that the program discourages preconceptions; one plunges into the depths of the work and later has the pleasure of meeting the producer and sharing ideas and drinks. Without a doubt, every year will be a journey through a distinct galaxy depending on the curator. I feel that the formula this year was extraordinary: scholars, writers, directors, etc... finally a plethora of specialists that transform this seminar into a tradition that is unique in the world, a sort of cinematic pilgrimage in memory of the great master Robert Flaherty.
Translated from the original Spanish
Latin American Program Manager, Film + Video Center, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and Flaherty Film Seminar Board member.
The Flaherty Film Seminar is a unique gathering of the film community, distinctly different from a film festival or an academic film conference, of both regional and international reach. At a time when Latin American film is bursting with new expressions and circulating more freely, I was thrilled to see so many young Latin American/Latino directors present their work at the Flaherty: Lisandro Alonso, Eugenio Polgovsky, Mika Rottenberg, Alex Rivera and Pedro González-Rubio.
The seminar´s programmer Dennis Lim surprised the seminar with his choice of directors and films, whose take on “work” was mainly embodied by solitary struggles of the “man against nature” variety, or stories of characters searching to find their humanity from within the globalizing machinery of cities and progress. A few films stood a bit outside this frame, such as Benj Gerdes and Jennifer Hayashida's poetically-driven works, and the more experimental threads woven by the few women directors in attendance: Akosua Adoma Owusu, Naomi Uman, and Mika Rottenberg.
Discussions were somewhat circular, returning to similar questions of ethics, aesthetics and process throughout the week. Director Alex Rivera offered provocative statements on class which remained unaddressed for a great part of the seminar, and overarching gender/representation concerns became a polarizing factor that loomed over particular programs instead of becoming a full-blown discussion. If these issues had been tackled as soon as they came up, there might have been space to move the discussion forward a bit. Nonetheless, I was impressed with the willingness of most of the filmmakers to respond to the discussion topics, without becoming entrenched. Their engagement with each other´s work and responses to each other´s comments was also a great contribution to the discussion.
Artistic Director, Punto de Vista International Documentary Film Festival
After hearing about the Flaherty Seminar for several years, in 2010 I lost—as someone put it—my Flaherty virginity. And the seminar is, as we say in Spain, un chute, something to which you have to commit yourself entirely for a week’s time. There are no shades of gray: it’s all or nothing. At least this is the atmosphere that was palpable in the last edition of the seminar and it’s my impression that nearly 100% of the participants opted to take it in its totality.
The Flaherty walks a line between academic conference and film festival, taking on elements of both without being entirely one or the other. At the Flaherty, films and their makers are fundamental, but not (only) for being revelations; the debates are indispensible, but not because they bring anything radically new or innovative to the table. Films, filmmakers, programmers, academics, film students and documentary aficionados come together in an experience of coexistence that is, perhaps, the principal characteristic of Flaherty, that which makes the experience most affective (beyond—or perhaps closer to—the films themselves).
The Flaherty has a slogan: no preconceptions. The proposition is that we allow ourselves to be carried away by the work of the curator that is selected each year to program the seminar. This year Dennis Lim had been very concrete in his proposal: Work. And we threw ourselves headfirst into the work of seeing work, thinking about work and discussing work. The program was ultimately very stimulating and if I had to make any criticism it would fall on the side of the participants. It was us who often held preconceptions, employing (correct) political agendas and (Western) cultural positions when the time came to judge films and filmmakers who in fact required different criteria… But perhaps it doesn’t make sense to situate oneself at a distance, like a detached observer, from a reality in which one has participated so intensely. Perhaps what is most appropriate for Flaherty isn’t so much criticism, but action. For that reason, I will have to return in the future, not to see how it evolves, but rather to try, as participants, to be part of that very evolution.
Translated from the original Spanish
Associate Producer, HITN
Not that I’ve been to Flaherty before, but I’m pretty certain this year was the perfect introduction.
The anxious expectations I brought with me to the seminar were quickly dispelled by the sudden realization of an unexpected synchronicity between the work and filmmakers being featured in the program and the place I find myself at personally and creatively. As a young, developing Puerto Rican filmmaker still tuning my instrument and articulating my artistic approach, I was immediately captured and pleasantly surprised by the number of rising Latin American voices showcased and the different perspectives through which they all explored both medium and content; questioning the boundaries of cinema and the representation of their own culture and identity in the same breath.
This encounter with a larger film movement of which I could aspire to become a part and learn from is the great residual of the week-long retreat for me. Of course, beyond the cultural and linguistic ties that bind me, I was also provoked by other works screened. The difference was mostly evident to me in the discussion of the films, once interpretation and critique became cultural as well, and I felt a disconnect between the reading of the pieces according to the backgrounds of the attendees. Not to simplify our debates with this distinction; our nationalities are as influential as our education, trades or ideologies. What stifles the free exchange of these differences is the repetition of analytical filters or philosophies, which at times seemed to fly above the films, casting a shadow without ever touching down and grabbing at the pieces themselves.
Thus, the processing of what we were watching was shared in parts; the broken cycle of the group discussions leading usually to deeper debate amongst smaller groups, new friends and allies that gravitated towards each other to communicate what couldn’t be articulated elsewhere. In this inevitable fragmentation, the critical and social intermingle, forming bonds and memories. Those that inspire also become those with which one watches the World Cup, cementing a future of references to the seminar that could only have happened this year.
Film Curator, Contemporary Art Museum of the Basque Country
Of late, I’m not sure what’s going on as I can’t write about anything other than the Flaherty Seminar, a fact which I believe says quite a bit about the event itself. This edition has been my second year and if the first was decisive –it literally changed my life and inspired me to move to California to follow in the footsteps of the founders of the Pacific Film Archive—the 2010 edition has also brought many remarkable things.
For those who are unfamiliar, The Flaherty is a remote island in which for one week you blindly give yourself up to the criteria of a prestigious curator. You come in knowing practically nothing beforehand. Unaware, only experiencing – what a treat! – and if possible, perceiving without any bias. They are days that bring together cinema lovers, challenging films, and similarly challenging guest filmmakers with whom you live, discuss, and change the world.
If I have to emphasize one aspect of the seminar, it would be the increasingly recognizable work of the person behind the scenes: the curator. Knowing that it’s not solely the films that makes us feel and think, but rather it is the curator who takes us by the hand and leads us down a path—a path that is sometimes not the one that our mind initially wants to take.
What is ultimately so stimulating about this journey are the multiple readings that are made throughout. One day you’re lost, you lose sight of the trail and suddenly you see the light. Depending on where you are in the week, and where you place yourself, you find new questions along with an infinite amount of possible responses, which is what makes the trip most fascinating. For this reason, I believe that the Flaherty is the perfect exercise to expand our perspectives on both cinema and the world, and that we as participants must push ourselves more rigorously, if possible: departing from no-preconceptions, applying a little more self-criticism and trying to place ourselves well outside of our comfort zones; for that is the true challenge. This is the knowledge that I’ve gained from this year’s seminar, as a spectator and as a curator. I also take with me a pile of soccer photos and memories of late-night dance parties, but that’s another story.
Translated from the original Spanish
I could mention so many things about the Flaherty Film Seminar that make it a unique experience. And it was so nice for me to see that the Latin and Spanish documentary film communities had such a strong presence this year, with many works shown and many perspectives shared.
The Flaherty allows you to have much more direct access to filmmakers (and others working in the film and video art world) than if you were attending a traditional film festival, where the time allowed for interacting with people is so limited (and stressful.) The Flaherty is a real “living together” experience, a week of intense dialogue and networking that creates the space to think, to consider alternate perspectives, to explore new questions, and to get “activated” to put all that energy, inspiration, and insight back into your own projects. After the Flaherty, you see the process of making films in a more human (and more complex) way.
Two things make this experience so different every year: the chemistry of the group of people who attend the seminar, and the selection of films made by the curator, who this year was Dennis Lim. The theme that unifies each seminar (this time it was “Work”) is not an end in itself, but an excuse to analyze filmmaking from a variety of multiple perspectives. Also, the Flaherty is exceptional since it shows several films made by the same filmmaker, allowing the audience (whether they have previous experience or not) to learn and appreciate how these works communicate amongst themselves. The participants also end up having a better sense of how a director develops his or her projects, and how the processes and filmmaking challenges they face are so different as they move from one film to another. It was an amazing experience, and I look forward to next year.
My experience at the Flaherty has been very positive in many ways. During the six days spent at Colgate I was able to see projects from other peers which make me understand better where we stand nowadays in the language of realistic and documentary filmmaking. To be able to see works from diverse backgrounds in terms of themes, style, language, cultures, ages was inspiring. This seminar gave us the opportunity to discuss profoundly on the subjects, from a different point of view that we are used to as filmmakers or as a general audience. In that sense it was refreshing and cathartic at the same time. Intense discussions would follow every screening, where the participants at the seminar engaged in a dynamic of analyzing the film beyond judgment and really focused on the whole spectrum that each story contained. By the end of the seminar no conclusions are forced, instead we are able to appreciate the different voices which express a same concept, the sustainability of our species: work. I think if we put all the films we saw into one, it would be a very precise anatomy of our present history.
Mar Cabra Valero
Journalist, 2010 Student Fellow from Columbia University School of Journalism
Going to a Flaherty seminar means that you have no clue about what you’re going to see. You get into the movie theater... and surprise! They call it “non-preconception” and in a world in which we google even the names of the people we’re dating before we meet them, it’s a bit of a weird concept. All we knew about the films was that the programmer Dennis Lim had chosen them because they somehow were related to the theme “work.”
Being Spanish and a journalist (so a bit of a foreigner to the usual suspects in the Flaherty) my level of non-preconception was very high... and I expected my impressions to be very different from the rest of the attendants. But I was wrong. There were surprisingly many connections!
I found that the films we watched in the seminar were very interesting because they opened my eyes to new worlds and new realities in “known” worlds (like Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s and Eugenio Polgovky’s visions on Mexico). But on the other hand, they also raised the question in the discussions of what stories we can’t tell because of access (such as those of the very rich - Alex Rivera recommended in this regard the book "Ricas y famosas" by Daniela Rosell).
In that sense, it’s Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer film that struck me the most. He called it “a documentary of the future” -the audience laughed. But he had a point. His science-fiction movie spoke more clearly about the reality of immigration in the U.S. -and what could happen with it in the near future- than many of the other so-called observational documentaries I've seen on the subject. And his film posed a difficult question to me: how much of “real life” do we need as storytellers to speak about “reality”?
And that’s the good thing about the Flaherty: it shakes you inside, gives you many new and inspirational ideas... for the years to come. They say it takes around six months to process all the information. We should speak then!
Carlos A. Gutiérrez
Co-founding Director, Cinema Tropical
The Flaherty Film Seminar is more relevant than ever. Needless to say, cinema is going through a major transformation and under this context, the Flaherty—being one of the oldest film institutions in this country and having convened filmmakers, programmers, scholars and film professionals in general for over 63 years—becomes a key player in this transition.
As a film professional, I sense a deep feeling of disenfranchisement all around that I think can only be overcome by empowering our film community. Based on its history and experience, few organizations are in as unique a position to bring people together as the Flaherty, and in this sense I believe the organization should take a more leading and proactive role.
Another key aspect of the seminar that is as critical as ever is its focus on the programming. I personally believe film programming is also going through a major yet unacknowledged crisis, so the fact that the seminar centers so much around the guest programmers every year is such a crucial one.
I’ve been attending the seminar on and off since 2002, and unfortunately this year –even though I thought it was comprised of a particularly solid group of participants and guest filmmakers, I failed to see the sense of urgency that I get from the every day in my professional work and the regular conversations you hear all around with my colleagues.
Unfortunately most of the discussions were business as usual –projecting the limitations of our own imperfect frameworks onto the films and blaming the filmmakers for our shortsightedness. I was surprised that there was very little discussion on the crisis that we’re all facing, and how we can take this opportunity to rethink a lot of things that have become completely obsolete in our practice.
Carlos Gutiérrez co-programmed with Mahen Bonetti the 2007 Flaherty Film Seminar “South of the Other.”