For almost half a century, 100 people who work in the independent media world, from academics to underground filmmakers, have gathered each year to passionately discuss and often argue about cinema in all its forms at the Robert Flaherty Seminar. The seminar eschews film festival markets, film school academicism, production training instrumentality, art cinema elitist consumerism. It’s a confluence of people, works, film movements, and differences that ignite new thinking.
Many filmmakers consider an invitation to screen at the Flaherty a great honor. Others dread going. Programmers perceive it as the ultimate curatorial challenge. “It was retreat, think tank, pit stop, lucid interval, revival tent, i.e. a seminar,” wrote Erik Barnouw, the media historian involved in the seminar for over forty years.
A good Flaherty takes what is “boiling up in film culture” and provides space for meaningful discussion to erupt, Barnouw once observed. He and filmmaker George Stoney always advocated for letting ideas work themselves out democratically, rather than with academics or trained facilitators. “Without conflict, there can be no change,” was their mantra.
Robert Flaherty is often credited as the father of documentary, a moniker film historians, feminists, and post-colonialists endlessly criticize and debate. His 1922 landmark film Nanook of the North changed the contours of cinema with its Inuit-inspired cinematography, collaborative filmmaking process, and independence from the studios. Although it had product tie-ins, such as Nanook ice cream bars, and a commercial release, the European cine club movement in the 1920’s hailed as it a groundbreaking experimental film.
Flaherty himself was a hard-drinking raconteur who loved to share filmmaking stories with younger makers. His wife, Frances Flaherty, more intellectual and well-read, transformed his penchant for exploration, conviviality, argument, and filmmaking into the Robert Flaherty Seminar after he died in 1951. Robert never attended a seminar.
After his death, film festivals and universities invited Frances to screen her husband’s films. At the sixth International Edinburgh Festival in 1952, Frances reacted so negatively to a claim that visual sensibility was innate that she formed the Robert Flaherty Foundation. She believed seeing could be learned.
In August 1955, at the Flaherty home in Dummerston, Vermont, the first Flaherty Seminar commenced. Richard Griffith, the Museum of Modern Art Film Library director, explained to eight students that the seminar was designed for “inquiry and discussion and controversy.” Seminarians examined Flaherty films, ideas, and techniques with presenters Ricky Leacock, Helen Van Dongen, Robert Fine, and Frances. George Stoney’s landmark All My Babies (1953) and student works were also screened.
During the Cold War, with the emergence of art cinemas, film societies, and 16mm, the Flaherty brought together disparate communities. The seminars mixed filmmakers and viewers of every type: humanist scholars, television producers, librarians, museum curators, writers, regional film society programmers. It also mingled documentaries, experimental films, science, educational, training films, Canadian animation, British Free cinema, French cinema verité, Indian cinema, narrative features, classics.
The seminars immersed young filmmakers in intensive exploration of the aesthetics, theory, politics, philosophy, social context, and techniques of cinema with more experienced makers and thinkers. This multigenerational environment has persisted for five decades. Robert Flaherty wrote that, “all art is a kind of exploring. To discover and reveal is the way every artist sets about his business.” Instead of assessing content (who and what), like many critics in the fifties and sixties, the seminars focused on the how’s and why’s of cinema.
Frances aggressively advocated for “nonpreconception,” a concept Robert himself never articulated. Frances watched Robert abandon scripted filmmaking and open up himself and his camera to people, terrains, and cultures. She read Zen texts, Tielhard de Chardin, and philosophy to hone her observations into a model. Exploration and nonpreconception eventually concretized as programming traditions.
Nonpreconception propelled one of the most controversial, unusual seminar strategies: Films are not announced in advance. Each screening is a surprise. This tactic distinguishes the Flaherty Seminar from university film studies classes or film festivals.
The history of the Flaherty Seminar exceeds distillation because it is so multiple, vast, and changeable. It adheres to traditions and legacies yet also embraces virtually every new development in independent media arts. The Flaherty Seminar is perhaps less of a place to discover new talent—although it does indeed launch careers—as it is a place where emerging movements and changes in the media arts are scrutinized and debated.
Over the last five decades, the Flaherty has been a hothouse, germinating and nurturing media developments from new distribution models to aesthetic breakthroughs. In the fifties, film society programmers and educational film distributors met there as the nontheatrical market was developing. In the same decade and place, Jean Rouch (France), Robert Drew (US), and Michel Brault (Canada) realized that an international movement using lightweight film technology to capture life—cinema verité and direct cinema—was converging.
In the seventies, feminist filmmakers, recovering from attacks from Willard Van Dyke, organized the New Day Films distribution collective. The seminar was among the first arts organizations to show work from political filmmaking collectives like California Newsreel. It explored video art and reel-to-reel; it featured live performances by visionaries like Shirley Clarke and Steina Vasulka. And when President Nixon vetoed the appropriations for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1971, the Flaherty organized the Arden House Seminars where, for the next ten years, independent producers met to screen work and argue with public TV program managers and executives. The seventies also saw the Flaherty Seminar produce one of the first
Third World cinema seminars in the United States.
Later, in 1989, Pearl Bowser programmed a breakthrough seminar on African diasporan cinema. In that same decade, programmer Erik Barnouw infiltrated video into this much-heralded film event. In the nineties, the Flaherty sponsored summits in Riga, Latvia with Glasnost documentary filmmakers, and in Israel with Middle Eastern makers. Middle Eastern and Mahgreb filmmakers, and Latin American feminist cinema, were also featured at the seminar in the US. And in 2001, it ran an adjunct Digital Flaherty.
The seminar presents a history of layers, detours, and juxtapositions rather than a neat, linear progression. It’s also a history whose roster features master filmmakers across virtually every genre from all over the globe, including Satyajit Ray (India), Johann Van Der Keuken (The Netherlands), Susumu Hani (Japan), William Greaves (US), George Kuchar (US), Artavazk Peleshyan (Armenia), Agnes Varda (France), Barbara Kopple (US), Kidlat Tahimik (Philippines), Cheick Omar Sissoko (Mali), and Marta Rodriquez (Colombia), to name only a few.
Like most democratic utopias, the Flaherty is not without enormous combativeness when all these different constituencies crash together—the renowned and notorious “filmmaker bashings,” which are not as frequent nor as ferocious as is commonly assumed. Everyone disagrees about what the Flaherty was, is, or should be. While the Flaherty defies any facile historical explanation, it does have a defining zeitgeist—argument. The almost infinite, cantankerous debates are, in the end, most likely what keeps the Flaherty pulsing with life and always moving, as Erik Barnouw used to say, “onward.”