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Dispatches from The Flaherty: A Review of 'Flash Flaherty'

By Cynthia Close

Cover Image of Flash Flaherty: Tales from a Film Seminar Edited by Scott MacDonald; co-editors: Patricia Zimmerman with Julia Tulke Indiana University Press, 2021After The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema was published in 2017 (and reviewed here in Documentary) authors Scott MacDonald and Patricia Zimmermann thought they had successfully written the definitive history of this legendary film seminar. The book filled a void. They had done what they set out to do and could now put The Flaherty behind them. In the days and weeks that followed, however, they came to a different conclusion. 

While a chronology of significant dates and events described through the lens of history has scholarly value, it lacked what vérité pioneer Ricky Leacock famously described as "a sense of being there." Leacock’s goal was to provide a depth of knowing the truth of a thing that he tried to achieve in every film he made. As I pointed out in my 2017 review, "The transcripts of actual discussions among filmmakers, programmers and attendees at various seminars are interspersed between chapters and are most revealing. These sections are where the Flaherty Seminars come alive."

The overwhelming interest in the first Flaherty book and the comments received by MacDonald andZimmermann from those who had actually "been there" painted a much fuller picture of the impact The Flaherty Seminar had made on them. After some discussion it became apparent to the authors that their​ goal of providing a complete understanding of The Flaherty had not included what the actual experience was like for the participants. This potential pool of contributors was deep. Literally thousands of filmmakers and invited guests had come to Vermont, and later to Hamilton, New York, when the seminars were hosted at Colgate University, over the organization’s 60-plus years, some of whom continued to return year after year. 

Once MacDonald and Zimmermann decided to answer the challenge of including the voices of experience from the trenches of filmmaking, they faced the dilemma of structure. Could they convince these current and former graduates of The Flaherty to put their anecdotal thoughts and remembrances into a cohesive written statement? Then, how should these reflections be presented? Initially their efforts took the form of a blog hosted at Ithaca College, under the umbrella Flaherty Stories. It was managed by Zimmermann, who coincidentally was an inveterate blogger. As news of the blog spread, more stories were submitted, with the caveat that they be relatively short—approximately 1,000 words—and cover aspects of The Flaherty experience that had been meaningful to them. Thinking the blog would satisfy the need to bring these individual stories to light, MacDonald and Zimmermann were surprised that submissions kept coming. Soon they realized they had enough interest and demand to publish these previously untold stories in a book that would serve as a companion piece to The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema. 

In order to cover as much of the full history of The Flaherty, from its first inculcation at the Flaherty farm in Dummerston, Vermont, in 1955 to the 2017 seminar attended by over 200 film enthusiasts and practitioners, the authors reached out and solicited responses from a wide swath of Flaherty veterans who had been impacted by what they saw and learned in that week-long series of screenings and discussions. Not all of the experiences were positive or flattering to the organization. The fact that these less-than-enthusiastic points of view were included makes this new book far more truthful and interesting.

The descriptive term "flash" seems to have exploded like a literary weed, spread by the demands of social media for condensed storytelling. The authors have applied this short-form, first-person, creative nonfiction approach to construct a mosaic of 107 impressions that integrate memoir, anecdote, titillating gossip and journalism. The essays are listed chronologically according to the year of the seminar that the writer attended, but there is no demand that they be read in order. Each piece went through a rather lengthy editing process and was crafted to stand on its own. In some cases, repeat Flaherty seminarians combined several years of experience within one essay. A photo and brief biography of each contributor precedes every essay, a decision that adds to the feeling of intimacy and connection with the words that follow.

Having never attended a Flaherty Seminar, I was under the impression that only filmmakers or those working within the film industry were welcomed. This wildly diverse selection of essays puts that mistaken idea to rest. Decidedly international, multicultural and multiethnic, a veritable human stew of ideas and reflections seems to demonstrate the Flaherty’s function as a petri dish within which lives were transformed. One of the most frequent attendees over the seminar’s 60+ year history was Sheafe Satterthwaite, an educator who taught landscape history and design at Williams College. He is one of the few remaining people who attended the earliest gatherings at the Flaherty’s Black Mountain Farm, and is the only contributor with two essays included in this collection. 

Satterthwaite’s opening observations, triggered by memories of a 1957 seminar during which he worked as an 18-year-old gofer, present an unvarnished view of Frances Flaherty, co-founder, with husband Robert Flaherty, of the Seminars. "And I should say, it was always difficult, however often in her later years I saw Frances…to know what she was thinking. There was about her an air of superiority, and maybe that air has wafted through subsequent Seminars over the years: Here is a film that, on the whole, is not a blockbuster…" In his other essay, Satterthwaite documents his disappointments and final Flaherty leave-taking: "The Seminars have become demonstrations of how ideologically trendy or up-to-date the programmers are, as if they were showing a new line on a fashion runway. The Flaherty now seems more a projection of programmer prejudices, proclivities and current political interests than a selection of the year’s best and most interesting work." But these are only the opinions of one man over time. In between Satterwaithe’s first and last rather devastating pronouncements are stories that reflect very different experiences.

Jonas Mekas (1922-2019), one of the most influential figures in the world of experimental and independent film, relates a humorous tale of his attempted 1964 screening of Jack Smith’s controversial film Flaming Creatures (1964) at that year’s Flaherty. The writings on ethnographic film by Jay Ruby, a cantankerous Emeritus Professor from Temple University, are required reading in most visual anthropology courses. There are few people better equipped than he to program a seminar on Indigenous film, but Ruby tells how the Flaherty board rejected the proposal he, along with his esteemed colleague Faye Ginsburg, made in 1991. The board’s rejection was based on the fact that neither he nor Ginsburg was an Indigenous person. 

Most of the essays focus on the individual films that a particular person saw during the seminars and how those films impacted them long after the screenings ended. Positive notes are struck by many, including Amalie R. Rothschild, the co-founder of New Day Films, who titled her piece "I Was Taken Seriously as a Filmmaker. " Film researcher Linda Lilienfeld leaves no doubt about her feelings as she opens her essay: 

Dear Flaherty Seminar: 

I love you! 

I love you! 

I love you! 

There, I’ve said it.

As the essays move through time and space, we are left with the knowledge that The Flaherty was and remains a complex, meaningful and often confounding event that could only be experienced by being there. 

Cynthia Close is the former president of Documentary Educational Resources. She currently resides in Burlington, Vermont, where she consults on the business of film and serves on the advisory board of the Vermont International Film Foundation.