The story of the Flaherty Seminar
review by Bill Stamets
Patricia R. Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald, The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2017.
The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema traces an institutional and intellectual history of the Flaherty Seminar, a storied enclave for discoursing cineastes. Yearly gatherings, typically in upstate New York, devote several intense days and nights to screenings and discussions. Longtime participants Patricia R. Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald craft a loyal insiders’ reading that alloys scholarly documentation with allegiance to Robert and Frances Flaherty’s humanist agenda. Both authors have served as programmers.
Robert Flaherty—best known for his 1922 film Nanook of the North—died in 1951. The following year Frances Flaherty—his wife and key collaborator—attended the International Edinburgh Festival. She later traveled to Chicago for the American Film Assembly, where the Film Society Caucus listed the one-time suffragette society secretary as Mrs. Robert J. Flaherty. Frances and Robert’s brother David initially launched The Flaherty Foundation to circulate Robert’s oeuvre.
Promulgating her own vision of alternative, artisanal cinema antithetical to Hollywood arose as a parallel mission for Frances Flaherty, who articulated a sort of ciné-ethos of unscripted “nonpreconception.” Serendipity and epiphany were touchstones. “You are a means to let the camera act,” she instructed filmmakers in a 1952 article titled ”The Flaherty Way” in The Saturday Review. “What you have to do is to let go, let go of every thought of your own, wipe your mind clean, fresh, innocent, newborn, become as sensitive as unexposed film in order to take up the impressions around you, and then let what will, come in,” she stated at the 1963 seminar.
“The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar is one of the oldest, continuously functioning organizations in the world dedicated to an exploration of independent cinema,” writes Zimmermann. “It began in 1955 on the Flaherty farm in Vermont at the height of the civil rights movement, the Cold War, the Eisenhower era, and the Red Scare as a place to think through cinema as an art form rather than as a business.” She notes that was the same year Edward Steichen’s “Family of Man” photography exhibition opened at Museum of Modern Art.
The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema thoroughly details aesthetic debates and cultural politics of The Flaherty (in the shorthand of devotees) as well as the organizational trajectory of the nonprofit group that manages it. Covering seven decades, this 341-page book is preceded by the very similarly titled “The Flaherty: Four Decades in the Cause of Independent Film,” a 465-page special volume of the journal Wide Angle: A Quarterly Journal of Film History, Theory, Criticism, and Practice. For the 40th anniversary of the Flaherty Seminars in 1995, co-editors Erik Barnouw and Patricia R. Zimmermann enlisted 20 writers. Zimmerman, a film prof at Ithaca College, and MacDonald, then at Utica College and now at Hamilton College, contributed pieces too.
“Barnouw argued,” Zimmermann recalls, “the Flaherty Seminars deserved a scholarly book so its history could be recovered, analyzed, taught, and argued about.” She also points out that Frances Flaherty—the subject of her first chapter—“criticized virtually every book written about Robert Flaherty.”
In between Zimmerman’s decade-by-decade chapters (writing “turning point” at five junctures), MacDonald places interludes sampling verbal exchanges between filmmakers, moderators and mostly anonymous attendees. MacDonald names himself and Zimmerman on the handful of occasions their own words are transcribed. Whenever their roles enter Zimmerman’s narrative, each is identified in a third-person voice. The co-authors affect no vantage as ethnographers of “its clique-ish and almost cultish mentality,” notwithstanding the seminar’s original sympathy for personal ethnographic filmmaking.
MacDonald brings a longstanding regard for independent filmmakers and film groups. He compiled dossiers of documents about the Art in Cinema and Cinema 16 film societies, and the alternative film distributor Canyon Cinema launched in 1946, 1947 and 1967, respectively. In the third of his five book series, “A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers,” he excerpted five Flaherty discussions. MacDonald explains his method:
“I have transcribed the discussions very carefully but then have treated each transcription as raw material from which to fabricate a `reading’ of the original discussion… while doing my best to remain true to what has seemed to me the spirit and idea content of the discussion.”
Wording and word choices recur as a theme. Zimmermann writes of David Flaherty calling attendees “participants” rather than “students.” “Film maker” was used in the seminar’s early years, not “filmmaker.” At the 1994 seminar Filipino director Nick Deocampo reflected:
“During the time of Marcos, there was heavy censorship, so we had to go underground. That term appealed to us, more than `experimental,’ more than `independent,’ more than `abstract.’ We identified with `underground’ because we really were running from authority.”
After screening his film about Adolf Eichmann, Israeli director Eyal pushed back against an adjective he kept hearing at 2013’s seminar: “There is nothing brave about what I do; it’s hard work, that’s all. The word brave shouldn’t be banalized; not everything is brave.”
As self-conscious and self-critical as its subject, The Flaherty sports the expressions “metadrama,” “metastrategy,” “metaexperience of cinema” and “ongoing metadiscourse about what reality-based cinema has been, can be, and should be.” Intellectually, the transcripts are inspired. After screening his radically reflexive Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, William Greaves brought up the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In 1994 projectionist Michael Grillo engaged Indian director Mani Kaul:
“I’d like to ask about the innate cultural implications of basically a Western technology: cinema. I don’t mean simply the traditional history of cinema but rather its language: the optical system inherited from the Italian Renaissance and the narrative system based on nineteenth-century English and French novels. Given your cultural background and the nature of what you are making, where do you run up against the limitations of these culturally loaded technologies? And how do you resist them?”
Films and filmmakers alike were “interrogated,” to deploy a risibly militant term of art among humanities profs. Michael Snow, though, was at a loss for words when asked: “Philosophically, does it [Wavelength] say anything about the universe, or time, or the human condition?” The Canadian artist could not say much more than: “I do think that it says certain things and is concerned with certain things.” More pragmatic inquiries concerned production details, like Barbara Kopple’s 357 Magnum when shooting Harlan County USA: “[W]e carried weapons—only at night. We didn’t want to be caught with weapons during the day since that would give them an excuse to kill us.”
Frederick Wiseman brought Titicut Follies in 1967 prior to its first public screening in New York City. He perplexed some at the seminar: ”But what use will you make of it in Massachusetts?” Wiseman: “It’ll be shown to whoever has a dollar and a half.” MacDonald transcribes what followed: “Why are everyone’s questions so hostile? [Many voices talking at once].”
A selection of objections from various years: “Now, can anybody tell us what we’re missing? I mean this as an open question, not as an accusation.” … “but for me it was just this male gaze thing for two hours. And that’s something we have to live with every day!” … “I’m not being mean when I say this, just brutally real—please understand that. I liken your film to radical surgery with a rusty knife without anesthesia.”
Trinh T. Minh-ha screened her unsubtitled Reassemblage in 1983. “I wanted to alleviate the tyranny of the camera,” she submitted. “I don’t want to control how you understand the film.” An audience member did not buy it: “No, no, that won’t work.” Three years later Victor Masayesva projected his Hopi video “without subtitles to assert the dominance of indigenous language.”
The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema contains no still frames from works screened at the seminar. There are nine photos, group shots from various years, that are unanalyzed. Zimmermann, however, subjects a new Flaherty icon to a close reading. “By 2000,” she writes, Flaherty’s
“logo of the lone hunter stood as a metaphor for the continuing auteurist orientation of seminar programming… With the background removed, the image evoked the seminar’s isolation, a week-long retreat from daily life with the outside shut out. As Nanook hunted fox, seal, and walrus, seminar participants hunted documentary, experimental, fiction, and hybrid forms, spearing works that inspired or broke new ground.”
Zimmermann’s ekphrasis appears in her last chapter, titled “The Brand, 2000–2015.” Here she diligently chronicles the professionalization of the board and staff of International Film Seminars. President Patti Bruck (2002-2009) in particular gets credit for her efforts. Zimmermann—serving as vice-president (1990-1993) with two stints as a trustee (1989-1994)—could be seen as practicing Action Anthropology on behalf of Flaherty natives and their way of life, life of the mind, and love of film. Potential funders of this nonprofit will find the equivalent of an on-site assessment of a worthy cultural institution. Historians and sociologists of arts organizations, however, may be surprised to see no numbers about Flaherty budgets.
“The Flaherty brand” has evolved, Zimmermann observes: “From 2001 to 2015, seminar programming increasingly dismantled the binaries of commercial versus independent and documentary versus avant-garde. It shifted toward more polyversal, transnational media practices.” She concludes: “Most everyone seems to disagree about what `the Flaherty’ was, is, or should be. And these debates, for which there are no easy resolutions, are, in the end, most likely what keeps `the Flaherty’ pulsing with life, thriving.”
MacDonald impishly punctuates his contribution by quoting a discursive filmmaker in 2016: “I grew up in the fifties, when the films of the great European and American directors—Buñuel, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, Bergman, Dreyer… Am I talking too much?” The moderator kindly answers: “No, no, but we do have to wrap things up and move on.”