The Flaherty Experience: a personal report


by Klaus W. Eisenlohr

NYC, June 22, 2002. After participating in the Flaherty Seminar in Poughkeepsie, I still feel somehow dizzy and not prepared to swing into the nights and days of the Big Apple. I have only three days but I don't care, I have to sit down and start to clear my mind with writing a few reflective notes about my experience during my stay on the green and scenic campus of Vassar College.

Ed Halter, the director of the New York Underground Film Festival was the curator of this year's Flaherty seminar. He programmed a very interesting and wide range of different approaches to film and video, though he claimed he had chosen more documentary related works. For the 48th time, the Flaherty seminar brought filmmakers, video makers, curators and scholars together to discuss innovative and engaged work. However, the program is only part of what former participants call "the Flaherty Experience." Besides the feature length screening three times a day, there was a discussion of equal length among the whole group of participants and guests, followed by individual discussions during breaks, meals and bar time.

The theme this year was to look back at beginnings of independent filmmaking and by watching recent work to think about what the future of independent film, video and media could be, 'where will grand work come from in the sprawling mass of self-made media makers?' In fact, we did not discuss these questions broadly, and luckily, as it seems almost impossible to do this without being trapped in far-fetched speculations and fancy talk of New Media awe. Over the course of the program, and with the discussions of seen work did result some kind of answer, though.

A good starting point that directly addressed the question would possibly have been to talk about the artist's different (and maybe diverse) motivations. Why do people start making films or videos, and furthermore, why do they continue although their productions are often largely expensive, difficult to finance and not widely recognized? What became clear throughout the seminar is that there are quite different audiences out there and a number of the guests were 'stars' or 'heroes' of one or the other distinct 'scene.' However, during the seminar discussion there seemed to be the presumption that there existed a general platform from which it may be possible to evaluate any kind of media production. This is astonishing as documentary filmmakers themselves reach specific audiences only, even if they work with traditional methods or if their work is shown on TV. I may assume that a great number of controversies in the discussion resulted from a disregard of different audiences, scenes and traditions connected with the work.

On the other hand, does not every one taking up a camera to do something different (than keeping a memory of family or peers) dream of producing something for the largest possible audience? Is this dream not already implied in the making of film or video, more than in any other media? On the other hand, is it not true, and this was part of the discussion, that the artist is but a construction of promoters and receptions? The Flaherty is one of the places where artists are constructed through reception and multiplication (a special one though, as unlike most other places, it is not a market place). Consequently, there are reasons to talk about work from a larger or, better, different platform such as the Flaherty. However, I would have liked to see more discussion about the context or background of the artists, especially as the invited artists all had largely gained credit in one or other part of society.

The audience at the seminar consisted of (mostly documentary) film and media makers, programmers and curators, some students and a few people from different professions. Most of the participants were also teachers at universities or at art schools. Only few people came from abroad and the large majority was Caucasian. It was interesting to me, however, how the academic background of the majority of participants impacted the discussion. The expression "being a teacher…" was quite a common pretext for a statement of approval or disapproval. This observation may come from a perspective of cultural difference (in Germany most people would rather argue 'as artist' than 'as teacher' if occupying both functions), but the point of view of "as a teacher" to me seems to be confined through values of morality and the perspective of looking for models. However, the discussion was vivid and controversial but not really hostile or aggressive.

The works that caused the most controversy were the films and videos by Naomi Uman, James Fotopoulos, Kenji Onishi and Helen Stickler. Naomi Uman caused an engaged discussion about her work-in-progress "Mala Leche". This piece is about a family of Mexican emigrants in New Mexico, relatives of a family in Aguacaliente, whom Naomi had portrayed in her previous film "Leche." The biggest questions were if and how the video maker can stay honest to her subject if she has problems with their demeanor and ends, and if she is not possibly affirming stereotypes by her critical portrayal. James Fotopoulos' undisguised male point of view of sexual fantasies caused almost a rage in the audience (not only between women; men seemed to be even more strongly engaged). It was difficult to arrive at the following point in the discussion: neither does a male perspective mean to be uncritical nor that the objectification (of women) cannot be a painful process in male subjectivity. Of course, James is showing fantasy in the most enlarged (sic!) way, but his style is also a very mediated one, using a number of historical forms and citations. Kenji Onishi received similar reactions to some of his short work although he first had a very positive response to A Burning Star (1995). It was with this work, as I understood, that he had expected more opposing comments. At least, he said that he would not usually show it publicly, but in similar special occasions only. A Burning Star evolved from the attempt to document the funeral of his father, but its exploration does go a lot further. The body of his father becomes the subject after a long dreamlike journey of domestic and landscape visions. The corpse is being touched including its most intimate parts, and then shown burning in the crematory oven in close ups.This is followed by a steady shot of the artist standing lonely in the landscape outside of the crematory. The pictures are all almost hypnotic in their repetition, length and beauty. The rendering from a video master to 16mm print (shot on single 8) adds another distancing layer between viewer and picture. Kenji's particular stance of just following his curiosity, has precedents in the American avantgarde (Brakhage, Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes). He is approaching his subject in a very personal subjective manner on one hand, and on the other, he is putting/staging his subjects in the most artificial and amoral situations. However, the subject of sexual encounter and his use of the more traditional forms of (soft) porn in two of the shorts seemed to cause more negative reactions than the amoral but empathetic exploration of his father's corpse.

Helen Stickler evoked strong and emphatic emotional reactions in the audience during the screening of Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator especially from the female viewers. Her video tells a pop history of the skater "Gator," a former superstar in the skating scene as well as in the skate show and apparel business. He not only fits perfectly in the role of the star with his charming, elusive and attractive character, body and performance, but he becomes trapped and isolated in his own quick success. When the 'skating scene' turns to the less commercial street skating, the newly established industry has to turn to different features and promotions to catch up with their potential customers.

Stickler perfectly shows the intermingling of youth rebellion and young pop culture with a quickly evolving clothing, fashion, sport article and entertainment industry, which has been created by people that are part of the scene (rather than being embraced by major corporations). Also, she shows the stereotypical roles that girls in the scene are being put in or have chosen to take up. Gator, though, seems lost. He is looking for guidance and he only finds an obscure Christian group to follow. In his excesses he finally rapes and kills a girl he has known only briefly (apparently in place of punishing his girlfriend who has turned against him). Through interviews, H. Stickler shows that Gator's friends, peers and business partners could not have cared less about him. Thus she makes clear, in my opinion, in what strange melange of rebellion, youth ideals, primitive capitalism and egoism this youth culture operates.

Helen Stickler, who has been involved with the skater scene for a long time, is able to show both the fascination and downside of American youth culture. This is even more astonishing as she started the project only after Gator had been jailed for his brutal crime of rape and murder. Thus she had to use video footage of friends, peers and commercials for the documentation of his becoming "Gator." In the discussion Stickler was widely criticized for giving this criminal a voice - she uses telephone interviews with him - and not giving the female victim a character and story. However, I had the feeling that, although she shows Gator in a sexy and appealing light as an uprising skate star, Helen rather characterizes a whole scene using the drive and sex appeal adjoined to its glamour. Further, she shows the cold rules and cruelties on the backstages of the business. This heartless business in conjunction with his egomania may have finally led to his isolation and violence.

In contrast, I was surprised how well the work of Sam Green and Garret Scott was received. Their work, to me, seemed to be commercially designed as well as not really critical, although they provide a social and political context. Especially Garrett Scott in his video Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story. A man from a badly doing suburban neighborhood one day gets a tank and drives it down the streets cutting through cars and other vehicles until he gets stuck and is shot by a policeman, who has entered the tank from the top. In Rainbow Man Sam Green portrays a man who becomes well known for the rainbow colored wig he wears on sports events making victory and other signs towards the news cameras if captured. At some point he turns viciously Christian and commits a violent crime (he takes a hotel maid hostage to demand a press conference), for which he is convicted and receives a life sentence. Both videos seem exploitative in certain ways as they create their protagonists as rebellious heroes although their subjects only acted from desperate dispositions. In addition, the entertainment value (of riding a tank, or being the clown for the media) seems to be the main purpose for the work. To me it is somehow astonishing that these very conventional approaches gained applause, with their fairly uninventive editing, the mono-linear story and the exploitation of the spectacle overweighing the attempts of understanding or analysis. It seemed that there is a general affirmation to TV/video aesthetics even at this seminar. These were the only two films, though, of which I wondered why they were chosen for the seminar.

The question, or the questioning, of mono-linear narrative actually came up only once during the seminar and was not really taken up in the discussion. Is it because most of us, including documentary filmmakers still (or again?) see the world this way? Or is it because the majority of media distribution does not accept and is nowadays less willing to accept different ways of interpreting the world? For me, the dynamics of mono-linear story telling became most visible in the discussions of two works about the "Weathermen."

First, we saw a documentary, Weatherman Underground by Sam Green. This fairly conventional documentary looks at history from the point of view of the violent leftist group "The Weathermen" using historical documents. The group, like Baader-Meinhof in Germany, tried to lead the left movements with her violent actions. Unlike its German sister, however, the group achieved not to kill anybody during their roughly two dozen bomb attacks on state and military institutions. These attacks were predicated by their major slogan "Bring the (Vietnam) war back home." However, the video also looks back from the present, as it is interwoven and finishes with recent interviews of former members of the group: some of them prisoners, some professors and some living an ordinary middle-class life. The project received quite some criticism for not having a historically wide enough view, for being too easy with linking historical facts with the group's activism, and for ridiculing them by telling at the end that one of the former weathermen had just won a fortune in a TV quiz show.

In the next session, then, we were shown Antonio's Underground from 1975. In this 'guerilla' documentary Antonio brought the 'Weathermen' in front of the camera without revealing their face but giving voice to them. Immediately, I felt a movement going through the audience of "now, we see the real thing." Of course, Antonio's film was less easy to be consumed, having a more dry and less polished style. Long parts were shot with the cameraman in front of the group actually shooting their and his reflection in a mirror placed behind the group, thus showing his front but their backs. For me, the most stunning detail in the film was the simple way the 'Weathermen' were talking - only little of the heavy ideological theory and nothing of the distorted language of Marcusean talk or autistic political formulas of the German underground. Still, I needed some of the information of the previous video in order to understand some of the content.

Most interesting to me was how the discussion went on after seeing the 'real thing,' Antonio's historical documentary, and the 'real heroes,' the 'Weathermen' in their days of underground activism. (An emphatic comment I heard during the 'pilgrimage' from the screening to the discussion room was: "we really should show more films and documents from the 60's movements in college!") The auditorium seemed almost paralyzed, though, no heated (political) discussion but a lamento of how difficult it was nowadays to undertake any political activism, and how little support film and video makers were given by organizations or by the society. I was surprised to see how strong the identification with the political 'radical left' still is, and at the same time how much the romanticism about '68 can narrow our view of the present. I had the impression that I experienced the best example of impact from mono-linear narration, not from Antonio's or Green's stories, but just the effect on the whole group of consecutively watching two films about the 'foremost' avantgarde of the radical left.

Fortunately, the ice was broken again by the engaging work of Jem Cohen, Elizabeth Subrin and Hellen Stickler's Andre the Giant has a Posse. (Although I am not sure about the chronology at this point. My notes became fragmented over the course of the seminar, mainly because I sneaked out over lunch a few times to go to the pool and returned without a notebook.) Jem Cohen, also romantic and politically engaged, is more interested in the meager heroes of subculture, namely of music scenes. His anti-hero Benjamin Smoke, singer of a locally known band whose life is shattered by drugs, solitude and AIDS, is remembered and dignified by intense Super-8 pictures taken over the course of years, and the interviews and portraits taken on 16mm and DV through the 6 months before his death. Jem Cohen and Pete Sullen, the directors, give homage to his struggle, his life as a homosexual and transvestite in the derelict mill town 'Cabbagetown' outside of Atlanta and his commitment to his art. It is mostly the music that seems to give his life dignity. ("But you're finally making such beautiful music with people you don't hang out so much at all" - this from a member of the band who kept playing with Benjamin as long he was capable to sing publicly.)

Hellen Stickler takes the story of the inventor of the sticker Andre the Giant has a Posse as an almost unwilling political statement in its counter concept to the emptiness of both commodified political slogans and commercial identity creations of youth culture. The black and white video stays without hero over its passage of places. It shows how the designer had started something that became a legend by itself and he, more astonished than controlling, keeps feeding the impact of Andre images in the public only as one of many.

Elizabeth Subrin has a very different approach. She deconstructs the documentary narrative even in her more recent work where she uses not a fractured image and editing (like in her video Swallow) but a documentary style. With Shuly, she remade a film by Shulamith Firestone that had been filmed 25 years earlier, before S. Firestone became well known as an outright feminist writer. The remake is as close as possible in hairstyle, clothes, gestures and locations. It shows Shulamith not in the best of her time but already dealing with questions of place, art and gender. In The Fancy, Subrin makes a documentary about the artist photographer Francesca Woodman (who astonishingly seems to be better known in Europe than in the US) without ever showing a single photograph of her. The photographs are being described or enacted by different people (the acting seems amateurish, the only flaw in her video), or her 'belongings' are shown - the camera travels several times over a pile of items that could have been Woodman's personal belongings enclosed in plastic bags. The quality of Subrin's work, still, is not to be found in the deconstructive concept, but in the sensitivity and love for the detail that goes with it. Thus, any reading of the narrative becomes complicated as the viewer is never sure on which level to follow the flow of images and texts.

Very different from a single-lined narrative was Roddy Bogawa's work I Was Born But… The video he showed was a work-in-progress of a 16mm film. On the occasion of the death of a friend, Roddy goes back to L.A. to visit friends and clubs of the punk scene. Intercut with concert footage, he visits punk clubs and places where clubs used to be during daylight, using a computer-powered street navigator in his car. Long shots of club fronts stay in my mind - as if trying to create monuments or searching for a time past. In an associative manner Roddy adds things and occasions to his film that evoke his memories - or history. He includes home movie footage of himself as a small boy, he visits his retired father at the golf arena, he talks about his father's and grandfather's memories of war and his own resulting dreams. He talks about the friends that all died of AIDS. He confronts war footage, war propaganda and punk cartoons or ads. He reflects on how people in different times use very similar graphics.What strikes me most in his assemblage is his attempt to create a memorial of ephemeral events and places of a culture that heaved as protest against the mainstream and that was generated for the moment. Having become the hub in the life of those people, how much have these places and event become historical? This is not a questioning of Roddy's work or of punk as part of history (others have written punk histories earlier), but it is interesting to me that his work, on one side inquisitive and on the other loosely associative, evokes the question of history and the places of history.

Following the question of where the future of independent work could be located, I was impressed by how many of the works use the traditions of 'experimental' or 'American avantgarde' cinema. Naomi Uman, Elizabeth Subrin, James Fotopoulos, Kenji Onishi, all showed work that would fit into this category even in a very narrow sense. At the same time all of them use this form of collage, image manipulation and flat dramaturgy as only one of the possible forms available to them. Moreover, Robert Banks stays and believes in direct manipulation of 16mm film. He sees the rhythmical and visual montage as similar to Black music, and expresses personal and political opinions with the medium. In conversation with a child, he reflects on the television screen - My First Drug the Idiot Box; he criticizes in a film of stunning rhythm and drive the commodification of Malcom X through Spike Lee - X the Baby Cinema; or he looks with irony, sympathy, criticism and wit at beauty dictates and girl's rages - Outlet. Together and in montage with the picture he labors with appropriated and recorded sounds.

Kevin Everson and Reynold Reynolds both use actors and scripting in a more conventional way but both with very loose not easily to grasp narratives. Kevin Everson mostly uses locations in his videos and films in which he enacts daily situations that seem to be pure documentary slices of life; in the backyard (Eleven Eighty Two), in a sweatshop (A week in the Hole), in a correctional institution, in the booth of a telephone shop. He thus responds to the 'normality' of people of African decent, but he also references art and art making. In Eleven Positions he introduces an art object, a 'head stand', into an autopsy laboratory - eleven positions are being enacted with the head of a body. This might have been his most disturbing work shown, as it uses a seemingly documentary subjective camera in a weird situation where nothing is clear but the real location, the body and the artificiality of the operation.

Reynold Reynolds, on the other hand, uses in Burn and The Drowning Room, typical settings and camera positions of story telling cinema but in stunning and unusual situations and without a real or readable story line. Burn shows a man and several couples in different rooms that all burn. The people are seemingly unimpressed or just completely in agony about the burning. The man flaps the flames on his arm off in a gesture of annoyance as if a fly is bothering him. In The Drowning Room very normal acts and gestures are being played out, however everything happens under water and, still very understated, the simple act of eating a fish is alienating as parts of the fish keep floating out of the mouth and in front of the face. The whole setting in either work is not filled with a narrative but evokes one. The result is a tension of assumptions of what could happen or what could have happened.

As I write and try to remember, I realize that my memory seems to be more congruent with the more simple forms and structures. A lot of the above mentioned more complex or experimental work I would have to see again in order to describe or to discuss in better detail. Giving the plentitude of work that is being produced, this is of course a problem for the maker as well. Thus, during the course of the seminar it was also interesting to see how many shades and different solutions any film or video maker found between accessibility and radical form or art. In respect to my memory response I have to say that my experience, on the other hand, has been that if I have the chance to see one or the other film again in other circumstances, I will be able to puzzle together the pieces of previous viewings and understanding, sometimes almost as if I have seen the film just recently. Thus, there are other trails of memory or consciousness that can be equally effected. (The story line that I am so sure of often proves to be wrong at second viewing - the image memory, rather, is fragmented, only.)

More highlights of the seminar included the visit of Kenneth Anger with a program of his older films and two of his new works in progress; also, Horns and Halos by Suki Haley and Michael Galinski; a whole program by Jeff Krulik, off-scene television hero; a program of excerpts of Ela Tryano; and finally, Hiroshima Nagasaki by Eric Barnouw (rarely shown in the U.S. it seems) who was lauded for his life and work by Ruth Bradley; and Twenty-Four Dollar Island by Robert Flaherty.

The most amazing experience about the Flaherty seminar, though, is the atmosphere of respect between the people, both participants and guests. One did not get the impression of anybody feeling more expert than anybody else. There was very little grouping behavior and there was definitively no exclusiveness. Every one took everybody else seriously. Despite the sleep deprivation and visual over-stimulation, nobody got tired of talking about… film, video or what we just had seen. The most interesting discussions happened on the 'pilgrimage' from the film theater to the discussion room, or from there to the cafeteria, or in the short breaks. It was hard to sneak out, one might miss something. The content of the screenings were not announced, but the discussions were not to be missed either. However, there is one thing I feel miserable - or angry - about: the 16mm projections were disrespectfully bad. I think it should have been possible to check the projection facilities in advance and make adjustments ahead of time. Also, the projectionist wasn't able to focus on soft, grainy or abstract images. Both problems caused sometimes bluntly unsharp, sometimes awful partially out of focus (center of interest) images. Someone more familiar with abstract or experimental work would possibly have been able to do a better job.

The overall experience was great and overwhelming. And one last thing: from the number of filmmaker, video artists, documentarists, programmers and curators from very different places in the U.S., it is obvious that there is a lot more going on than just New York and L.A. This is encouraging and makes me want to come back and explore more: the East Coast, the Heartland, the South and the West Coast.


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