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A Film Festival Like No Other: The Flaherty Explores Ways of Seeing

By Richard Shpuntoff

If you've ever been to a film festival and been disappointed by the excessive emphasis on awards, deal-making and pitching, and the all-too-rare opportunities to discuss approaches to and issues of filmmaking, you should consider attending The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar.

An intensive, mostly documentary, film event, "The Flaherty," as most veterans call it, is a category unto itself. One hundred and fifty filmmakers, academics, critics, students, activists, artists, programmers, professors and the like come together for one week to view around 35 hours of film, video and installation work--all connected by a common theme--and then discuss, argue and debate every and any aspect of the work. The trick is that only the curator and the Flaherty board members know beforehand what films will be shown, so when the lights go out in the theater, participants have no preconception of what they are going to see.

In fact, when attending The Flaherty, the only things one can be sure of are the identity of the curator, the theme of the seminar--The Age of Migration in 2008 and 2007's South of the Other, for example--and the three Flaherty rules that have remained consistent since the seminar's beginning in 1955: non-preconception, exploration and the spirit of radical democracy. Frances Flaherty, collaborator and wife of the legendary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, founded the seminar in honor of her late husband with the aim of fostering an approach to filmmaking as well as, in the words of Flaherty historian Patricia Zimmerman, "an episteme of how one can learn to see." Zimmerman further notes that Frances Flaherty actually created the Robert Flaherty Foundation in direct opposition to the claim by Scottish novelist Sir Compton MacKenzie that one is either "born with a visual sense or not."

Very much in this spirit of exploring ways of seeing, this year's curator, Irina Leimbacher, a San Francisco-based independent curator whose academic work focuses on forms of testimony and interviews in nonfiction film, offered a very deliberate and profoundly challenging program to the theme of Witnesses, Monuments and Ruins. "My initial impetus was as much about geo-political and formal diversity as it was about the idea of witnessing," she explains. "I wanted to include filmmakers from parts of the world that had not been well represented during The Flaherty's last decade, and I wanted to acknowledge what I consider to be the highly significant imbrication of documentary work with installation art."

Invited guests came to screen work from Colombia (Juan Manuel Echaarría), Finland (Susanna Helke), India (Amar Kanwar), Iraq (Kasim Abid), Mauritania (Abderrahmane Sissako, who participated via Skype), Palestine (Kamal Aljafari), Poland (Pawel Wojtaski), Russia (Pavel Medvedev) and Syria (Omar Amiralay), as well as a number of US installation/multi-channel video artists: Jeanne C. Finley, John Muse and Beryl Korot.

One of Leimbacher's biggest surprises was opening the week dramatically, with no introductions and, before the official welcome, by screening Chick Strand's Kristallnacht, a film whose visual beauty is disturbingly underscored by a title that references the Nazi pogrom that marked the beginning of the Holocaust. "It was presented the opening night before any introductions were made as a way of bringing our attention to the act of seeing attentively," Leimbacher explains. "It was my attempt to get the participants to let go of the anxiety of needing to understand everything, and instead giving oneself over to the multi-faceted and sensuous experience of film."

One of the testaments to her program, and to The Flaherty in general, was the ability with which participants were able to strongly disagree with each other while maintaining constructive debates. The Cave, a video opera by Beryl Korot and Steve Reich, explores the relationships between Judaism, Islam and the US through the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah and its contemporary relationship to the town of Hebron, where Jews and Muslims worship in the same place, but at different times. Filmmaker Aljafari argued that the piece was questionable as it only represented the views of religious people and didn't represent in any way his personal experience as someone raised in Jaffa who did not view the current conflict as truly religious in nature. Korot responded that the piece wasn't really about the current conflict but was more about the common religious roots of these cultures, which opened up a larger discussion about the objectives and responsibilities of a documentary or documentary-based work, a discussion which, like all Flaherty discussions, carried on even after the session was officially over.

Another very Flaherty moment was when Finley and Muse were broadly criticized for what some felt was a lack of a political stance on the Iraq War in their piece Flat Land, which uses publicly available images of "Flat Daddies" (life-size cut-outs of soldiers that are carried through daily activities by families and friends back home) and "Flat Stanleys" (small cut-outs of a cartoon boy, sent by American school children on adventures around the world, sometimes to war zones). After some back and forth in the debate, Finley mused that maybe they should not have done the piece or maybe needed to rethink it. Not the kind of bold, honest consideration that most artists are willing to make in public, but that is the kind of creative, thinking space that The Flaherty and its participants try to build together.

Certainly, The Flaherty is not for everyone. It's not necessarily about seeing great films or about reaffirming one's ideas about cinema; in fact, sometimes the films that one questions the most or finds the most disturbing can lead participants to the most fruitful reconsiderations of their own ideas and ways of seeing. Margarita de la Vega Hurtado, former executive director of The Flaherty and now its fellows coordinator, notes that The Flaherty is like "yeast in your bread or seeds in the ground, and sometimes it takes a while to see what comes up."

For further information on The Flaherty Seminar and other Flaherty programs, go to


Richard Shpuntoff is a filmmaker, translator and journalist living in Buenos Aires. He would like to thank Flaherty executive director Mary Kerr, program manager Farihah Zaman, and the rest of the Flaherty Board and Seminar staff for their great assistance during the seminar and in the writing of this article.