AN ANNUAL WEEKLONG MARATHON of thematically connected screenings and discussions, the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, which held its 55th edition at Colgate University from June 20 to 26, has a long and storied history as a testing ground for filmmakers and a battle zone for ideas about their work. But it is also not what most people think it is. Despite its namesake, the seminar is not devoted solely to documentaries (Flaherty, best known for Nanook of the North , is generally considered the father of documentary filmmaking); narrative filmmakers have been spotlighted over the years, even though the emphasis is on nonfiction and experimental work. Despite the intensive screening schedule, it differs from almost all film festivals in privileging ideas and debate over novelty and buzz. And despite the abundance of academics, it’s more rambunctious—and less removed from the real world—than the average scholarly conference.
Founded in 1955 by Frances Flaherty, Robert’s widow and collaborator, who used to host the event at her farm in Vermont, the seminar adheres to a cardinal precept of “non-preconception.” Although some guest artists are announced ahead of time, program details are withheld from the 150 or so participants, a mix of scholars, programmers, critics, and filmmakers (some of whom are presenting work), all housed in university dorms. Each highly regimented day features six or seven hours of screenings and four or five hours of discussions (much more if you count the conversations over cafeteria meals and late-night drinks). At the seminar’s beginning, discussions tend to meander and sputter, but hot spots and fault lines eventually emerge. Alternately invigorating and infuriating, the Flaherty is, above all, a truly collective experience. By midweek, you realize that the group, as if by some alchemical process, has become its own living, breathing (and increasingly sleep-deprived) organism.
This year’s guest programmer, Irina Leimbacher, the former artistic director of the San Francisco Cinematheque, brought together more than forty works, ranging from shorts to features to installations (and even documentations of those installations), under the rubric “Witnesses, Monuments, Ruins.” (Full disclosure: I will be serving as the guest programmer for the 2010 seminar.) Leimbacher’s charged theme ensured that historical trauma was a constant. All week, questions surfaced about the responsibility and reliability of the filmmaker as witness; the power and pitfalls of direct address and the first-person form; the loaded notions of culpability, victimhood, and forgiveness. Many works revolved around what often remains unseen and unheard: the joys and trials of daily life in occupied Baghdad (Kasim Abid’s moving, if somewhat shapeless, two-part domestic chronicle Life After the Fall); the Indian subcontinent’s history of sexual violence against women (Amar Kanwar’s immersive eight-channel video installation The Lightning Testimonies); the hidden recesses of the human body (Pawel Wojtasik’s wondrous, Brakhage-referencing memento mori Autopsy).
Heavy on overlooked and underappreciated artists, this year’s seminar afforded plenty of opportunities for discovery and rediscovery. It was a treat to see the all too rarely screened film-poems of the veteran avant-gardist Chick Strand (suffering from terminal cancer and unable to attend) and the lyric documentaries of Saint Petersburg’s Pavel Medvedev, whose almost Tarkovsky-esque sensibility would likely have made him a festival darling by now if he worked in the feature-length format. At the Flaherty, of course, discovery means not just new films but also new connections, sparks that come from provocative juxtapositions and from encountering relatively familiar and established filmmakers, like the Paris-based, Mali-born Abderrahmane Sissako, in an unexpected context. Sissako’s 2006 feature, Bamako, a fantastical polemic that puts the World Bank and the IMF on trial for Africa’s economic woes, crystallized many of the seminar’s bubbling concerns. An act of testimony and of symbolic justice, here was a film that affirmed the power of the spoken word even as it revealed the limits of language.
“Flaherty at MoMA: The Films of Abderrahmane Sissako” runs at the Museum of Modern Art through July 2. The monthly Flaherty NYC series, featuring selections from this year’s seminar, begins in September; for more details, click here.