Work in Progress

Nicolas Rapold on the 56th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar

Left: Mika Rottenberg, Squeeze, 2010, stills from a single channel video, 20 minutes. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery / Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery. Right: Michael Glawogger, Workingman’s Death, 2005, still from a color film in 35 mm, 122 minutes.

“WORK” WAS THE THEME of the fifty-sixth annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar—the what, when, where, who, and sometimes why of activity that’s often unseen or unrecognized on-screen. The 150-plus pool of attendees, including the featured filmmakers, watched and discussed a globe-trotting program of films showing drunken bullfighters, toddler water bearers, tyro politicians, fake pimps, expat diarists, open-air butchers, bankrupt farmers, and fantastical cheese manufacturers, among others. The program, curated by critic and editor Dennis Lim, was of course not a matter of “work” as mere occupation; instead it traced the diverse paths filmmakers take in interpreting works and days—spanning Michael Glawogger’s spectacular travelogues, Uruphong Raksasad’s melancholy Thai pastorals, Mika Rottenberg’s fanciful trope-loaded factories, Lisandro Alonso’s temps mort journeys through the Argentine outback, and Akosua Adoma Owusu’s deftly wrought films on craftsmanship and culture.

Two documentaries by Mexican filmmaker Eugenio Polgovsky found the hallucinatory in vérité, parachuting into his country’s impoverished hinterlands for close-up, carnivalesque chronicles of labor that is by turns mundane and macabre. Set in the isolated desert of San Luis Potosi province, Tropic of Cancer (2004) tags along for the hunting and trapping of sundry birds, snakes, and rodents (much of it done by a diabolically focused child of eleven or twelve). The film climaxed, in one of the seminar’s periodic reflexive moments, with roadside sales to tourists (as well as an extraordinary Donald Cammell–esque cut from an eagle’s eye to a snake). Polgovsky’s The Inheritors (2008) is just as unnerving, with unrelenting sequences of rural children shoveling, toting, and picking—a Seven-Dwarfs-gone-wrong world of pint-size workers, spiked with circus-y local music.

Like Polgovsky’s work, Zhao Dayong’s lauded Ghost Town (2009) conjures a marginal community in the provinces—a former Communist workers’ village perched in the mountains. Its unification of artistry (Zhao trained as an oil painter) with social portraiture made the centrally placed film a capstone to the week’s percolating dialogue on how work forges identity. Accordingly, Zhao’s embedded look at the Shanghai homeless, Street Life (2006), offered a fascinating vision of unmade man: a prolonged finale showing one of the subjects (recently beaten by police) engaged in demented Situationist crumping in a public square under a Jumbotron. The seminar’s most ironic statement on disenfranchisement, however, might have been Kazuhiro Soda’s tragicomic Campaign (2008), which follows a clumsy candidate in liberal Kawasaki through to the ultimate end: absorption and integration into the conservative party machine.

The Flaherty is not “about” premieres, but a presentation of Mika Rottenberg’s latest work preceded its unveiling this week at SF MoMA. Partly inspired by build-your-own salad bars, Squeeze (2010) showcases another tightly but mysteriously constructed whatzit-box of components—a disembodied tongue, a black Buddha, bare bottoms, lettuce, Indian rubber extraction—that defamiliarizes the ritual of work. Rottenberg’s use of montage in Squeeze and earlier works acquired new dimensions when seen in the context of the conversation on technique and distance that was running through the programs. An early short by Glawogger, Haiku (1987), becomes virtually indistinguishable from ads in setting metalworking and domestic routine to a pounding factory beat. Glawogger’s stunning world tours (from Bombay to Moscow to Mexico City to New York) in Megacities (1998) deploy restaging (a simulated Times Square hustle, a minimusical of babushkas singing), city-specific color schemes, and the impression of angelically ubiquitous access. Portraying dazzling beauty at the margins, Megacities and the better-known Workingman’s Death (2005) could evoke comparisons to National Geographic: Extreme voyeurism or, as one attendee put it, the sublime wonder/horror of Turner’s burning boats.

Perhaps most striking across the program was the tug of the rural—upon documentary subjects and filmmakers alike. Alonso saw the solitude of the urban young in the lone woodsman of La Libertad (2001); Pedro González-Rubio (director of soon-to-be-released Alamar) recounted fleeing soulless Mexico City TV production to make Toro Negro, a 2005 portrait of a wife-beating bullfighter weaned on soap operas; and Naomi Uman presented 16-mm diaristic and present-tense-nostalgic works on her (re)adopted Ukrainian homeland (one of which was wonderfully programmed with Uruphong’s 2009 Agrarian Utopia). In such crossing and bridging of boundaries there arises an ecumenical sense of documentary as not simply filmmaking but also a kind of shared experience.

The 56th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, programmed by Dennis Lim, ran June 19–25 at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY. To see the full seminar schedule, click here.