Having flown the coop of the Flaherty family farm in Dummerston, VT, back in 1958, the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar has been migrating ceaselessly through a succession of deserted college campuses, mostly in the far reaches of New York State. This year, at Colgate University in Hamilton, approximately 150 people are in attendance. Two other summer perennials – a writers’ congress and a musicians’ pow-wow – are here as well, and one must use the stylised silhouette of a harpooning Nanook – the intrepid logo hung about our necks – to navigate the common cafeteria.

From the cafeteria everyone is ushered into the screening room, from the screening room into the discussion room, from the discussion room back into the cafeteria, and so it goes – with three meals, three screenings and three discussions per day. Nearly all the guests here are filmmakers in one form or another, but “featured filmmakers” – i.e. those with films in the program – are not about to give themselves away. “There is Les Blank,” says a very young man at my table. “Sometimes we have very high-profile people here,” retorts one of the veterans “and they just come as guests.” “And what do you do there, in Montreal,” I turn to a new acquaintance. “Oh, lots of things,” she says. After a short time I learn to suspect such divagations as definitive clues.

One must be initiated into the ways of the Flaherty, and about thirty fellows arrive on campus a day in advance to brush up on Seminar history and protocol. The fellowship program – essentially a generous discount of registration costs, offered to students and struggling filmmakers – is traced back for us to the time when Michel Brault took a bus to the Flaherty farm with not a nickel in his pocket. A spontaneous round of donations financed his stay, and that was how he met Jean Rouch, who invited him to make Chronicle of a Summer. Legacy stories of this sort circulate in abundance and serve as historical foils to some otherwise peculiar practices.

First of all, the program is not made public. Pre-screening announcements are typically limited to the number of films to be shown and some vague indication of duration (e.g. “this morning we will see four films, the longest of which is 60 minutes”). Titles and their makers are kept secret until the lights are turned out and credits begin to roll. Many of the films are fragments, works-in-progress, alternative versions, special “Flaherty versions” re-cut the night before, etc., and often there are no credits at all. On the other side of the ledger: long-standing regulations dictate that seminar filmmakers must appear in person, and that each must bring no fewer than three distinct works.

In consequence, the program unfolds like a thickly spun tapestry of mini-retrospectives, full of echoes and overlaps, unlikely – often provocative, occasionally brilliant – juxtapositions, thematic threads and archipelagos. Because there is no telling what unique piece of cinematic history will surface next – and because each session is woven skillfully into the whole – the audience is essentially held captive. Stripped of the typical festival goer’s curatorial right, herded from room to room, and exposed to a relentless battery of films, one begins to feel distinctly cultish. The conspiratorial secrecy of Flaherty staffers and the regular emergence of the “featured filmmaker” from within the mass of mere mortals do nothing to dispel the sensation.

The peculiar code of secrecy is said to serve the cause of “non-preconception” – promulgated by Frances Flaherty, wife of Robert and founder of the seminar, now in its 58th year. The term and the principle behind it – used by Frances to characterise Flaherty’s working methods – had been borrowed from eastern philosophy. Like any vaguely mystical and little worked-out notion, non-preconception has petrified into an object of veneration and mockery. At any point in the discussion an earnest adept might stand up and complain of “a whole lot of preconception in this room.” Some of the more prosaically minded guests with little patience for Zen-tinged rigmarole dismiss all such utterances with a great roll of the eyes. The majority prefer to sit out these occasional flare-ups over non-preconception – or the Flaherty legacy.

Indeed, Flaherty is not entirely safe at the Flaherty Seminar. With his white-male gaze and extramarital affairs, his romantic fantasies and decidedly un-verité ways, he is subject to a host of provisos and “correctives”: so-called father of the documentary; undisputed genius and seminal figure to some people here, etc. In an early discussion I had naively invoked the master’s authority on some matter, hoping, I think, to score some easy points. Confronted instead with a few seconds of polite silence, I promptly learned another Flaherty lesson.

Despite general ambivalence toward the eponym, seminar rules still dictate that at least one Flaherty work must be programmed. Dan Streible of NYU – this year’s wondrously serene guest programmer, who gradually unveiled a subtle talent for mischief and dead-pan provocation – satisfied the requirement with precisely 8 seconds of Nanook: a test 4k scan of a 35mm nitrate print made at the Library of Congress “for possible use in an upcoming IMAX production about the Arctic.”

Further Flaherty “subversions” (and seminar exclusives) included two poor relations of Nanook: a 1927 explorer’s film-diary, photographed and narrated rather artlessly by an Argentine meteorologist conducting research in Antarctica (he had seen Nanook and thought Flaherty had got it all wrong); and Kivalina of the Ice Lands (1925), a fairy-tale romance drama, wherein village beauty Kivalina cannot marry brave huntsman Aguvaluk until the witch doctor is paid off with forty seals and one silver fox. In the course of his quest Aguvaluk is caught in a storm: he must build an igloo in a hurry, track down his reindeer, who had wandered off during the night, butcher one of them for sustenance, and finally make a sled from its hide. Besides the dramatic episodes there are relatively charming scenes of domestic life and public ritual among the Eskimos. The film ends with a traditional wedding celebration, which apparently includes a sort of “line dance” with somewhat comical flailing of the hands.

Kivalina was made much of, because it is – at least very superficially – a female rival of Nanook (though the film mostly follows the exploits of the handsome fiancé). The film’s general conceit – to cast natives in a scripted drama with some documentary elements – is arguably close to Flaherty’s, though it is executed with a much heavier hand. Unlike Nanook, however, Kivalina has been cruelly forgotten by history. The sole surviving print of the film was only recently unearthed in the archives of Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires (alongside the more sensational “director’s cut” of Metropolis). Paula Félix-Didier, the Museum’s director, traveled to Colgate from Buenos Aires to present Kivalina and a host of other rarities from the collection, and – since partial stays are frowned upon – she dutifully stayed the week.

Another sign of Flaherty extravagance: silent Kivalina was accompanied live on the Martenot (!) by the Quebecois marteniste Suzanne Binet-Audet, who had come to the Flaherty to present a separate film about the instrument and its creator (directed by the demurring Montrealer Caroline Martel). The post-screening announcement that we had just seen a film made by an American (Earl Rossman), distributed in its day by Pathé, rediscovered in Argentina, scored live by a Canadian and narrated by a Singaporean (Tan Pin Pin, reading the English translation of the Spanish intertitles) – elicited a round of enthusiastic applause.

In general, I found a sizeable contingent of the audience entirely too susceptible to certain modish notions. Anything identified as multi-layered, problematising, gender-role-reversing, etc. sends ripples of pleasure through the auditorium. Throughout the week there are intermittent calls (as there are every year, I imagine) to rechristen the Seminar after Frances Flaherty. Messy audio or shaky camerawork of some of the more recent “handycam” films are lauded as bold and liberating; shapeless, rambling films are restyled as free-form and anti-narrative. Post Kivalina, a marked absence of “native voices” in the audience – who might have explained to us the true significance of the comical “line dance” – is noted and lamented.

Overall, post-screening discussions are the most disappointing part of the Flaherty. With over a hundred people in the hall and a handful of filmmakers on the podium – it is a fine setting for a Q&A, but not for a genuine discussion. Moreover, the strain of the intensive schedule quickly begins to take its toll: herded from room to room and forced to take in dozens of films per day – films one has not consented to and that are not always to one’s liking – the masses begin to push back. Frustrations mount and must be vented; the temptation to stand up from the crushing herd and say one’s piece is too great. People jump, make their cry, and are heard no more.

Every Flaherty is programmed around a general theme – and this year’s putative theme was “Sonic Truth.” The title is evidently another one of Streible’s provocations – a pun, derived from a rumored documentary by the frontman of Sonic Youth, which never materialised, and would not be admitted anyway under the “three film” rule. Evidently Streible had initially proposed an entirely different theme, which was rejected by the programming board, and subsequently came up with Sonic Truth – because “one could program virtually any film (sound or silent) under that heading.” Be that as it may, there were many music documentaries on the program, several films accompanied with a live musical performance, a couple of “music videos” from 1930, some absolutely silent films, and one film about “everyday sounds”.

Along with several of his better-known works documenting vernacular music in the American South, Les Blank brought his first feature-length film A Poem is a Naked Person (1974) – a verité-style portrait of country-rocker Leon Russell, then at the height of his popularity and creative powers. The film is shot through with Blank’s (and Russell’s) wit and intelligence, visual and aural echoes and puns, and full of superb musicianship and marvelous digressions (hippy rants, tractor pulls). Apparently Les stayed at Russell’s studio/compound in rural Oklahoma for some two years and shot “whatever looked interesting”. The resulting film is clearly in love with the music and fascinated with Russell’s persona, his talent and his milieu. It was promptly blocked by Russell on completion, and has languished in film purgatory for nearly thirty years. (Blank is permitted to screen his copy at non-profit sponsored events, and only when present.) Poem was by far the best of Flaherty “exclusives” – and perhaps one of the best films on the program – and something ought to be done to make it available to the general public.

On the opposite side of the cultural spectrum, veteran Dutch filmmaker Frank Scheffer brought a series of works documenting the creative processes of such experimental music luminaries as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. From Zero – not a single film, but a series of proliferating versions – was re-cut the night before the screening using chance-variation technique that Scheffer learned directly from the master: i.e. shots were quite out of order. Helicopter String Quartet (1996), which documents Stockhausen’s rehearsals of the piece and fragments of its subsequent performance – in four separate helicopters – was given the dubious honour of occupying the traditional voluntary (!) midnight screening slot.

Between Les and Frank – with six films apiece – there was a rich selection of music-centered films. The same could not be said of films with innovative or original sound design: most of the non-music films were fairly conventional (read: “direct”) in that respect. Nevertheless, post-screening comments almost invariably devolved to questions of whether this or that soundtrack was undermining the truth of the image: “Sonic Truth” proved to be a prescient joke. Of course there was also plenty of discussion about whether this or that image was undermining the truth of the image. Finally, all discussions about truth arrived eventually at the assertion that there was no truth, only “truth” – and that one could never know anything with any certainty. Like Pin Pin said.

Tan Pin Pin, a one-time recipient of the Student Academy Award, had brought one of her latest works – The Impossibility of Knowing (2010). The twelve-minute video – direct heir of Harun Farocki and Straub-Huillet – was made up of a series of long static shots of rather austere and perfectly depopulated locations around Singapore; a voice belonging to a popular host of a local true-crime TV series read off accounts of murders, suicides and tragic accidents that had evidently transpired there. I assume the title was meant to suggest that bare facts could never afford truly relevant information about human tragedy; and – perhaps – that they even efface it, in the same way that landscapes eventually efface all traces of events that took place there.

Impossibility was included in a screening session composed loosely around the theme of “landscape”, alongside A Trip Down Market Street: a single-take trucking shot, hand-cranked, taken from a trolley progressing down the main street of San Francisco. Evidently Trip was shot just a few days before the devastating earthquake of 1906. To my mind, the pairing of the two films was a bit of inspired programming: not simply because one caught a landscape in anticipation of catastrophe, and the other in its aftermath, but because together they illustrated so perfectly Straub-Huillet’s thesis that the filmmaker always arrives too early or too late – to witness, to understand, to document.

Oddly enough, the greatest success of this year’s Flaherty – at least as far as the audience was concerned – had nothing to do with truth or knowing or documenting. Following a series of particularly explosive and virulent debates in the past decades – for some reason almost always involving Ken Jacobs – the Flaherty had become especially accommodating to experimental film. This year, the experimental sidebar included a selection of early computer animation films, produced throughout the ‘70s at the legendary Bell Labs by Lillian Schwartz.

Schwartz’s films are orchestrations of pulsating shapes, patterns, fonts, randomised motion, colour inversions, transitions, etc. belonging squarely and unmistakably in the Atari age. In what is perhaps her best and best-known work, Pixillation (1970), these are intercut with striking red and black organic abstractions, reminiscent of popular science films of the era (of the “chick embryo development” sort).

Lillian’s films were paired with a very different kind of animation work, produced by the far younger Jodie Mack. Mack’s stop-motion films are also made up of rapidly shifting abstractions, vivid colours and textures – but this time collaged by hand from scraps and cut-ups of glossy magazines, (physical) junk mail, old stationary, etc., etc. Although Mack could reasonably claim Lillian as a direct influence – the title of one of the films, Glitch Envy (2010), reveals something of her interest in chance visual by-products of computerised processes – these films seem to me to reside in enemy camps.

Lillian belongs to a generation of artists who sincerely believed in the unique artistic possibilities of machines. Her collaborators included some of the original giants of computer music: Max Mathews, Jean-Claude Risset, F. Richard Moore – all of whom worked at Bell Labs. Artists of Schwartz’s generation could not wait to get their hands on new machines – including video cameras. Jodie Mack continues to work exclusively on celluloid, and her films are plainly advocating for a return to a pre-computer age of strictly hand-made art. The fact that her cut-out animations occasionally mimic early computer graphics – with their peculiar angular shapes and limited motion range – only underscores their mission to neutralise the malignant spread of technology by way of travesty.

Whether the Flaherty audience proved insensible to the DIY battle cry, or for some other reason, Schwartz’s films carried the day. In fact, they were cheered wildly. The difference in the quality and volume of the applause that followed the “duelling” films of Schwartz and Mack was striking and I think wholly unexpected. Some received standing ovations.

Lillian was rather puzzled by her own success. At the fellows’ lunch with the filmmakers she repeatedly asked why we thought people liked her films so much. I think the simple answer is that they contain genuine artistry – and the Flaherty audience remains sensitive to that elusive quality. Lillian also had the advantage of superb musical scores. And it may also be that her films seemed to afford a much-needed respite from the ceaseless debate: “I want the truth! / There’s no such thing as truth!”

The fellows arriving on campus ahead of the general crowd receive a packet with four articles: two deal with the use of sound in direct cinema; the other two – with the history of public confrontation at the Flaherty. Over meals there is intermittent mention of past scuffles, of filmmakers who refuse to return, of particularly volatile topics that invariably send discussions into a fatal tailspin. At first all talk of fierce and furious debate – directed largely at the neophytes – seems like so much damage control. Until someone at my table says: “They really haven’t had a good fight here in about a decade.”

Some of the programming does fall under suspicion of pure provocation. This year the clear odd-man-out was NYU film professor and long time Spike Lee collaborator Sam Pollard, who brought a section of Lee’s Hurricane Katrina “epic” When the Levees Broke (2006), and Martin Scorsese’s Feel Like Going Home (2003), the lead episode in the PBS documentary series The Blues. Both films, produced by Pollard, were paired with Les Blank’s films: Levees with Spend It All (1971), a revue of Cajun traditional music and life in the bayous of Louisiana, and Going Home with The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1968).

It seems that nearly no one liked Pollard’s made-for-HBO/PBS behemoths, though it was not clear if everyone could agree on why. Next to Blank’s homegrown and subtly crafted portraits they did appear bloated and vacuous. The bombastic soundtrack of Levees was attacked on the usual grounds of emotional manipulation; so were its rhetoric of blame (in place of balanced coverage) and its gut-punching litany of victimhood (in place of an uplifting message). Pollard was not there to defend Levees – he arrived a few days late and left soon after. The general sentiment – vague, and largely unspoken – was that “such films” (especially with names Spike Lee and Scorsese attached to them) did not belong at the Flaherty. I believe this is just the sentiment the programmer wished to dredge up to the surface.

It would not be reasonable for a complete neophyte to attempt any sort of assessment of what does or does not belong at the Flaherty. Still, it seems to me that traditionally the Flaherty has been especially partial to cinema-verité (or direct cinema), and that the real patron saint of the seminar is not Robert – nor Frances, pace revisionistas – but Ricky Leacock.

Leacock is lamentably well suited for the job: he had died in March, and this Flaherty was one of several canonisation ceremonies that took place around the world in the past few months. Moreover, as a young man he had worked with Robert and Frances on Louisiana Story (1946), and though he remained a fervent Flaherty apologist throughout his life, he also readily and frequently acknowledged his teacher’s vulnerabilities and failures.

It is well known that Leacock spent much of his extensive career in filmmaking trying to wrest cinema from the grips of cumbersome production practices and equally cumbersome financial and institutional dependencies – all in the cause of spontaneity, immediacy, and “the feeling of being there.” He perpetually sought out and personally developed increasingly more portable and more accessible filming equipment, and later in life made ready use of consumer-grade camcorders.

Among the films screened on the opening night of this year’s Flaherty was Jazz Dance (1954), directed by Roger Tilton and photographed by Leacock with a pair of hand-held 35mm Eyemos, at that time the standard newsreel and combat camera – Leacock had been a combat cameraman in WWII. The film is ostensibly a record of an ordinary evening of music and dancing at an East Village club. It is full of rapid cuts (the Eyemo held only one minute’s worth of film and the spring motor had an 18 second limit), well matched to the varying rhythms of the musical numbers, and countless close-ups of smug-ecstatic-dazed faces and flailing limbs – all shot hand-held, directly from the dance floor. “No big studio cameras, no boom poles, no clap sticks” – in his later writings Leacock called it his first steps toward “de-professionalisation”, presumably referring to his “professional training” with Robert Flaherty (who loved a good heavy tripod).

Leacock had been a close friend, teacher or mentor to many of the Flaherty veterans, and I think his ideals of “de-professionalisation” still hold firm sway over the hearts and minds of Flaherty audiences. But somewhere along the way the shedding of logistical and financial shackles got tangled up with ideological interests – with unfortunate results.

Some of today’s independent documentary makers who claim Leacock’s legacy by working with minimal crews, minimal budgets and relatively inexpensive equipment have also shed the “shackles” of technique and technical know-how; of quick wit and personal insight; of mastery of and innovation within the medium. Presumably all of these have been found guilty of “untruth” and replaced with a clear socio-economic-political agenda – which rarely makes for good filmmaking.

This trend could be readily detected in the work of Laura Kissel, who heads the Film and Media Studies program at University of South Carolina. Kissel brought to the Flaherty a 30-minute fragment of Cotton Road, a work-in-progress, which will eventually document the journey of cotton fibre from the fields of the American South to textile factories and sweatshops in China and back to the American consumer.

By her own account, Kissel wanted to “insert [her]self” into the “production cycle of a global agricultural commodity” – perhaps an intriguing idea, but also unequivocal commentary on the role of the filmmaker. Kissel’s films are deliberately emptied of nearly all traces of the filmmaker’s hand – presumably because their aim is not to speak but to “give voice.” (Cotton Road does contain some lovely images and sounds of wondrously swift hands and bewildering machinery – which were promptly attacked for aestheticising the plight of the worker.)

It is doubtless true that sweatshop workers in Cotton Road are seldom heard from. But what they end up saying in this film is largely superficial, offering almost no information about their practical lives, let alone their inner lives. Hampered by a language barrier and – to my mind – a misguided understanding of “de-professionalisation”, Kissel can neither “give voice” to her subjects nor speak in her own voice. The result is a film – and a whole class of films – lacking passion, sincerity, inventiveness: a state of affairs Jean Painlevé once characterised as “the castration of the documentary.” Ricky Leacock would probably agree.

In the brief moments of respite between screening and discussion, between discussion and meal, in small conspiratorial groups bunched on pristine lawns, one is perpetually spying and plotting – what will come next? Who will emerge? What cunning combination of films and filmmakers will be thrown into the arena, and who will remain standing? First-timers keep a quick eye on the veterans: where has the seminar been? And where is it headed? Rumours course through the morning coffee lines and die down long past midnight near the emptied ice tubs.

By Flaherty tradition, next year’s guest programmer emerges from the name-tagged masses on the final night of the seminar. Flaherty 2012 will be headed by Josetxo Cerdán, Catalan documentary producer, festival programmer, university lecturer – the first guest programmer in Flaherty history to come from abroad. This may bode well for the future. On the other side of the ledger, Cerdán was the one who chided Laura Kissel for “aestheticising” the “truth” – which bodes less well. One way or another, the Flaherty has enough arcane mechanisms, built into it over the course of many decades, to survive slump and upheaval, and keep itself running, relevant, exhilarating, exhausting, full of obscure film jewels and a number of very lovely people – for some years to come.

The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
18-24 June 2011
Website: http://flahertyseminar.org/