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“We Can Nourish Each Other”: A Conversation with the Fall Flaherty NYC 2023 Programmers

By Edward Frumkin

Still from 'Nowhere Near,' depicting the upper half of a Filipino man's head in front of a blue background. Courtesy of the Flaherty.

Still from Nowhere Near, depicting the upper half of a Filipino man's head in front of a blue background. Courtesy of the Flaherty.

This year’s Flaherty NYC Series, MAKA: Many Eyed Vessel, will mark the 25th edition of the Flaherty Seminar’s annual fall program in New York City. Featuring films and multi-media works from artists that include Miko Revereza, João Vieira Torres, Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, the creative nonfiction “offerings” examine recalling memories and histories, enduring colonized societies, and developing identities. MAKA: Many Eyed Vessel is curated by filmmakers Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker and Raven Two Feathers and programmers Emily Abi-Kheirs and Isabel Rojas. For the series, the quartet responded to their attendance as 2022 Flaherty fellows at the 67th Flaherty Seminar, Continents of Drifting Clouds, during which programming paused while attendees wrestled with the meaning of the Flaherty’s tenet of “non-preconception,” which manifests as attendees not knowing anything about what films will be shown. With MAKA: Many Eyed Vessel, the programmers started with pieces of Drifting Clouds that resonated with them to create a new and distinct program. Screenings occurred from November 17 to 19 at Metrograph, DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema, and online.

Ahead of the symposium, Documentary met up virtually with Abi-Kheirs, Auwae-Dekker, Two Feathers, and Rojas to discuss their time at the 2022 Flaherty Seminar, curatorial philosophy, and the meaning of home. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


DOCUMENTARY: What were some takeaways during your time at the 2022 Flaherty Seminar that you incorporated in your curatorial and art practices, and your curation for this series?

ISABEL ROJAS: In Continents of Drifting Clouds, aside from greatly appreciating the program curated by Almudena Escobar López and Sky Hopinka, I was interested in learning about the mediation and facilitation strategies implemented and observing how these strategies affect, or don't affect, the relationships that form and expand between the films, invited artists, and attendees. I learned that Flaherty is not just a specialized film program—it is a powerful space for encounter, dialogue, and dissent where reaching points of affinity can be complex. I participated online, and it was a generous, revealing, and demanding experience. I've reflected a lot on the relevance of attention and presence in our lives, whether physical or virtual.

During the curatorial process of MAKA: Many Eyed Vessel, we asked ourselves: How can we create a fluid and thoughtful program that allows for open horizontal conversations with attendees and between the films? What characteristics should a space have to host and share the selected films and pieces? Through what other activities could we activate the space?

We decided to work from what resonated with each of us last year, and from there, the notion came to me that the program I would want to share would take the form of an ofrenda, or offering, that attendees could embrace and contribute to with their affections and thoughts. We hope it turns out that way.

HA’AHEO AUWAE-DEKKER: I had just graduated with my bachelor's at Seattle University. It was deeply intimidating. I was a curatorial fellow. I didn't know about the Nia Tero fellows at the time. While I wasn’t the only Indigenous person at the seminar, I was the only Pacific Islander there. It was a lonely experience making that journey to upstate New York. Then, I met the Nia Tero fellows on the first day. Raven and Emily were there. They were like, “Oh, where are you from?” And I was like, “I'm from Seattle, Washington.” And they’re like, “Oh, you’re also a Pacific Islander and Indigenous, you’re a Nia Tero fellow, right?” And I was like, “No, I'm not. I came here alone.” They told me, “You’re family now.” 

There were a lot of moments where I felt unprepared for the kind of experience I was coming into. The notion of the Flaherty’s non-preconceptions doesn’t equip you for the emotional whiplash that can happen, and so it was good, in that sense, to have the fellows who later became my friends. What I’ve learned from the Flaherty is to center community at the heart of it, how to hold each other dearly, and how not just to hold the art but also everyone responsible.

RAVEN TWO FEATHERS: There are ways to do non-preconception in an informed consent way. But we decided collectively, as with all our decisions, to announce the names of the films and filmmakers. It came out of the deep consideration of whether non-preconception would really positively affect engagement in the program. We decided to lean into providing everyone attending the agency to choose when they wish to engage. Similarly, we have shaped how we want to hold one another and reflect on the impact that, not only these works, but how the environment that we are creating will be reflected on by everyone. This stemmed from the harms that were done within the 2022 seminar’s systemic structure, not the programmers. That has affected how we have interacted not only with the Flaherty but with one another.

EMILY ABI-KHEIRS: At the beginning of this process, it was really important for us as a collective to spend some time thinking about whether or not we wanted to engage in this process. We began with multiple narrative practice sessions with Poh Lin Lee to work through our 2022 experiences, and ultimately, think through the pillars and guiding stars we wanted to bring into this program. I think that is how we arrived at MAKA

D: You described this program as the opening of a net. What gravitated you toward this analogy?

HAD: This came from our narrative practice sessions in the beginning. It was something that came from queer, Kānaka scholar Jamaica Osorio. Specifically, in her book Remembering Our Intimacies: Mo'olelo, Aloha ʻĀina, and Ea, she posits that for our Iāhui, which refers to our big group of Kānaka, to strengthen our connections to each other as a community is to strengthen our resolve for sovereignty. We must understand ourselves as a net because the idea that to love the earth is to love each other deeply. It comes from a queer understanding of, for example, “I'm this knot and I love Raven. Because I love Raven, I love every knot that Raven loves, because we are connected in some way.” It's a different way than the Western world may think of love. It is what grounds us in loving the land, in aloha ʻāina. When we apply this idea of the net to our films, it means these films can love each other and be in a relationship with each other without having to conflict with one another.

D: The series is composed not only of three programs and the opening night pairing of Endless Land Acknowledgement and Nowhere Near, but also the exhibition Remembering Our Futures, Now. How do you employ different storytelling modes in the venues you’re using?

RTFEndless Land Acknowledgement and Nowhere Near are not meant to be a pairing. It is programmed as a nod to Sky and Almundena, who intended to use the short film as the land acknowledgment for the seminar. Land acknowledgments are endless, and when will we move on from saying something to doing something? 

For Remembering Our Futures, Now, I wanted a way to encapsulate all of the different feelings that came up during the 2022 seminar. I decided to include the works that reminded me to reflect, validate anger, or let me feel loose and be myself. All those different feelings paralleling my experiences at the ’22 seminar were folded into creating one space that held everything together, and came about in the exhibition space. It’s a pan-Native idea nowadays of the four directions and each direction having different seasons and ages associated with them. Times within your life, whether you’re a youth or moving into the last phases of your physical life, all of these different aspects are wrapped within the people that we have chosen to include in the exhibit.

IRConjuros y Ofrendas Para Un Futuro Contingente is the specific program that I proposed, bringing together five films from collectives and filmmakers in Mexico, Peru, and Puerto Rico. It was important for me to include works from artists in Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition to the film programs at DCTV, we will have the exhibition Remembering Our Futures, Now and an ofrenda altar where attendees can also contribute their hopes and affections. With MAKA: Many Eyed Vessel, we aim to create a common space that allows us to come together, think collectively, and imagine other possible futures.

D: On the series poster, the Hawaiian phrase “ike maka o ka wehe ʻupena” roughly translates in English to “o reveal in the light, as of something long hidden.” It makes me think of some filmmakers like Torres and Miko Revereza who use the medium to heal from generational trauma. In your opinion, how does one nourish the personal and the institutional?

HAD: It’s not just a Hawaiian phrase. The same with the net; what came from the net was the title of the program MAKA: Many Eyed Vessel. I thought MAKA would be a good title. In ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi, “maka” means eye, the eye of a camera, and the meshing of a net, depending on how you use it. When you take all those meanings together, it makes the vessel for this program. This little sentence was one that my mom and I created when I was working on the program’s curatorial statement. Film, for me, is a means of understanding trauma. I don’t know if it does or doesn’t heal, but it helps me better understand the problems and how to find solutions. I don't know if you can nourish an institution. What matters at the end of the day isn’t the institution; it’s the community that this institution always seeks out. We can talk all we want about the harm that the Flaherty did, or we can talk about the things where BIPOC filmmakers are consistently harmed in art and film communities. We’re the innovators that they’re seeking out because we’re the ones that are making the art and the things that they want. To that end, what nourishes an institution are the things that kill us. We can’t nourish an institution; we can nourish each other.

EAK: There’s something to be said about the way we are taking power back from the institution in this collective practice. We have asked for many things from the institution… it’s been encouraging to see that new systems and ways of working with one another are possible. ​​

RTF: As programmers, we can decide what the program looks like, but we can’t necessarily affect how the institution operates. We have our self-agency within the bounds of the work. Only the people that govern an institution can choose to take different paths and evolve itself beyond its current structure. But this is what we will do—we will show the incredible possibilities that come from being within and working for the community.

D: During this ongoing period of settler colonialism, some protagonists and filmmakers show how a home is spiritual and ancestral while being systemically displaced. What does home mean to you?

RTF: I find a home within a net of the connections that I have formed. I lived for five years in Hawaiʻi. From that time there and nurturing from Kānaka Maoli, I had transitioned into having this consistent interconnection and feeling of community that has positively impacted my relationships with [Indigenous] people the world over. I think that home can extend far beyond a place. It’s not only about the place but the culture and the people that continue to hold what it means to be within a place, even if you are not physically there.

IR: For me, home is the territory where I live, the place that nourishes me. The territory supports me and holds me, allowing me to be alive and be part of a community. The territory is not just the nature around me or the landscape; it is a whole, traversed by the past, present, and future of generations of humans and non-humans. Home/territory is also a contested space and a site of resistance.

HAD: Home is complicated for me as someone of the Kānaka diaspora. I was born in Hawaiʻi, but I did not grow up in Hawaiʻi. If you are in a diaspora, there is often this feeling that you aren't good enough for this community. I think being Hawaiian, this idea of home is intrinsically tied to sovereignty. Being from a place grants you a right to the sovereignty that we're fighting for. I recently heard this from Hawaiian scholar Dr. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui. She has written about the Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement, and we talked about diaspora during my summer in Oahu. She told me that for us Hawaiians, we are Kānaka people. We are people of the water. 

We were never meant to always be put in one spot. Hearing that has been a constant reminder to rethink diaspora for myself. Do I think being in a diaspora hurts? Yes, I am homesick constantly. Do I agree with Raven and Isabel that home is the people in our lives? Absolutely. But that does not deny the intrinsic feeling of home I get when I’m back home in Hawaii and when I’m in the place that I know that I belong to. Home feels like the other side of the coin, and that coin is grief. Home and grief feel the same to me because of all the things that are often lost in this feeling of home.

Edward Frumkin is a Brooklyn-based writer and programmer. He is a features programmer for the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and has written for IndieWire, Frieze, the Daily Beast, BOMB magazine, the Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere.