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Notes on the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar

Posted on July 24, 2013

The 59th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar took place at Colgate University in beautiful Hamilton, New York, this past June. Toronto’s own Pablo de Ocampo, artistic director of the Images Festival, curated this edition: History Is What’s Happening. (I had attended “The Flaherty” [as everyone calls is] once before, in 2005, when California-based scholar Michael Renov and filmmaker Jesse Lerner programmed the similarly themed Cinema & History: Piling Wreckage Upon Wreckage at the Claremont Colleges near LA.) The structure of this venerable annual gathering for considering the relationship between non-fiction and the moving image is akin to a boot camp for cinephiles and cultural studies wonks: up at 8 AM and in bed after midnight, you attend three curated screenings per day, fifteen over roughly six days. Each of these screenings is followed by lengthy discussions about the program, and the Flaherty is unique in that the majority of artists/filmmakers whose works are selected are present (usually about 10–12 guests of great generational and cultural diversity). You also eat all of your meals together with the 150 or so other attendees (academics, filmmakers, students, and curators/programmers, primarily) in the school cafeteria, and spend your nights in modest dorms. The Flaherty is based on a philosophy of “non-preconception,” which means you have no idea what you are going to watch until the credits roll, and program notes are distributed afterward. From my own experience and from what others have reported, the discussions can get quite heated, but also tend to return to the same debates session after session, sometimes hitting a wall rather than productively evolving as the week unfolds.

De Ocampo’s curation was intelligent, stimulating and sensitive, expertly sculpting a trajectory through a minefield of questions around how historical events and figures are reanimated in the present day through various media, and the many thorny ethical and aesthetic issues that arise in this process. His programming centered on the contested geographic site of Palestine/Israel (four of the artists present were from the region) and reached out towards other latitudes and longitudes. There were numerous films treating the anti-colonial struggle and post-colonial legacies in Africa and Asia, for example, and de Ocampo’s globe-trotting journey also brought us to Fukushima, Japan and the aftermath of its nuclear disaster; to the United States of America and its histories of racism and imperialism, and all points in-between. The curated programs also investigated land, labour, broadcast, and other themes.

The broadest possible audience participation is sought out during the discussions, but an odd structural decision that contradicts these efforts is that the artists sit on a slightly elevated stage with a moderator following their screenings (the position of authority), rather than being seated among the unwashed masses. Inevitably, therefore, questions tend to be aimed from audience members to artists (ie. a Q&A) rather than taking a more circular direction (ie. a discussion). However, one factor that made these oft-lengthy and occasionally overly academic sessions so powerful and memorable this year was the presence of two compelling orators and dazzling intellects: radical Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan, and Kodwo Eshun of British-based artist duo The Otolith Group (his partner Anjalika Sagar was absent). While normally male grandstanding would raise my hackles, I decided to go along for the ride, and found their insights and provocations to be fascinating and valuable.

One of the three films Sivan presented was The Specialist, which used and abused the many hours of video footage shot of the 1961 Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem. The trial had been a TV event, but according to Sivan, the focus had been primarily on the victims, where as he was more interested in Eichmann himself, as Hannah Arendt had been. His sound and image editing was disjunctive and cacophonous, as he heavily manipulated the footage into an expressionist spectacle. Discussing the film afterwards, Sivan said something to the effect that the cinema is a space akin to a church, where in lieu of a crucified Christ, we raptly look up at narratives – whether in fiction or documentary – of suffering and victimization. Instead of a cinema of victims, he proposed instead a cinema of perpetrators. While this statement merits extensive unpacking, Sivan’s words resonated loudly during the most contentious session of the entire seminar, when Julie Wyman and Sarah Lewison of the group BLW earnestly initiated a participatory workshop about the politics and affect of respeaking.

BLW first came to de Ocampo’s attention via documentation of a performance where they respoke the words of Black liberation activist Queen Mother Moore addressing prisoners in Greenhaven, CT, in 1973 – a video that was key to de Ocampo’s conceptualizing of the seminar. At the Flaherty, their workshop asked attendees to re-speak the words of Tahrir Square activist Asmaa Mafouz in small groups and then to answer questions reflecting on our feelings in the process. Many people vociferously opposed the exercise (and were heavily critical of the artists in the discussion); most resented being pressed to appropriate and embody others’ words. At first, I just found that no respeaking could be as compelling or impactful as the original speeches, – the speaker’s charisma becomes neutered. While I was willing to go along, I soon realized my discomfort with the whole exercise – which BLW also awkwardly dubbed “media calisthenics” – lay in how safe it was to parrot the words of “our” (ie. politically progressive) heroes. How might the exercise have gone differently if they had asked us to re-speak Adolf Eichmann’s words instead?

A prominent, larger-than-life figure in our current era is that of the whistleblower, and Eichmann is her shadow: the archetype for all those thousands who don’t blow the whistle, who continue to follow orders and silently obey despite knowing they are witnessing and/or perpetuating evil. If we are surrounded by thousands of “little Eichmanns” embedded in government and corporate bureaucracies – our friends, family and neighbours; ourselves – might it not be more fruitful to give voice to, and consequently wrestle with, the Eichmann inside of us? This seems to be where the real “working through” that de Ocampo urged us to do with his program should take place, rather than to recite the words of those whom we support and agree with.

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Jon Davies

Based in Toronto, Jon Davies is a widely published writer and curator, and a board member of Gallery TPW. His exhibitions include People Like Us: The Gossip of Colin Campbell (2008), Where I Lived, and What I Lived For (2012–13) and Kelly Jazvac: PARK (forthcoming, 2013) for Oakville Galleries, where he is Associate Curator, as well as Ryan Trecartin: Any Ever (2010, with Helena Reckitt), To What Earth Does This Sweet Cold Belong? (2011) and Coming After (2011–12) for The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery.

Read the full Flaherty Film Seminar programme notes here.