Report | Flaherty 2012: Open Wounds. PART 1
The yearly Flaherty Seminar is an unusual & immersive event - six days of getting swept out to sea, tumbled under the depths, buoyed, & then gently placed upon the shore to drain on the hot sand amongst your detritus. My maiden voyage last year was quite charging - filling me with ideas, inspirations, & approaches that discharged through both my work here at the library & my own creative practices in the months since. I made feeble efforts in this blog to report back daily, which proved to be somewhat taxing. This year, i decided I’d deposit a single report back - a similarly ridiculous notion, as writing does not come easy for me and the task of coherently encapsulating this experience is made no less daunting. So, following are a few observations & highlights about this year’s program, as well as the short video I threw together above. Although the Flaherty is really about collectively watching & processing existing work, I chose to at least cursorily collect a few short moments & share the faintest puff of the experience. If i were more attentive to my shooting, i’d probably be slightly prouder of the video, but at least we now have an unfocused video AND this rambling post!
In all the reading I’ve done about the Flaherty over the years, I’ve yet to come across any text that really gives one a sense of the schedule or what constraints the programmer must operate under. Maybe this is another closely-guarded secret of the institution, but I think it helps to know how a week at the Flaherty goes down. Here’s what I’ve observed / figured out: One programmer has been chosen a year earlier, he or she assembles all of the screenings for the whole week. This is usually around 17 - 20 screenings. Every work shown is accompanied either by its maker or caretaker, who is present for a facilitated group discussion following each screening. There are no double-booked events, so you never have to choose between one event over another - it is one screening at a time, in succession, for six days. The daily schedule is very regimented: meal-screening-discussion-, meal-screening-discussion-afternoon break-, meal-screening-discussion-evening socialize, and then repeat. If you’re outgoing & very excited to attempt to get to know all of the 170 participants from around the world, then sleep doesn’t even factor into the schedule. I’m that foolish, and no, I still didn’t get to meet everyone.
There’s a pleasant lack of hierarchy to the seminar with rotating facilitators, new students, seasoned practitioners, & featured artists all stirred up into one mass. Everyone is expected to see all of the work & participate in all of the discussions, building up a collective “conversation” about the unfolding program. With folks from so many backgrounds & levels of experience the large group discussions can, for some, be very unsatisfying, even infuriating. My experience has been that these talks with the full group simply scratch the surface and help seed the smaller, deeper, impromptu discussions that occur over meals, during breaks, or in the spaces walking between. The filmmakers are usually always very approachable and quite excited to “go deep” geeking-out about their work. Plus, many of my fellow participants prefer a more intimate scale of discussion and more comfortably drop the critical science one-on-one or in small informal groups. I suspect that an ‘elevated’ collective conversation is the utopia to strive for, but rarely if ever, attained. This is ok, given it’s such a large group of people going through a huge collection of material in a very short period of time. The best strategy I’ve found is to get saturated, make connections, & decompress later.
Another Flaherty tradition is about being an active, open audience member. This requires making the best effort to come at every work with as little preconceptions as possible. This is obviously easier said than done, but the sentiment is a noble goal reinforced by the way the seminar controls the context. No information is ever given about any of the work or filmmakers before a program. Participants enter the theater, the programmer will tell the total running time, maybe how many films we will watch in the program, and then the lights go down. Usually, the only thing advertised ahead of time with the Flaherty is the programmer’s name, where they come from, and what loose theme they might’ve chosen to riff on for the program. This clearly hobbles any type of marketing and I’d be hard-pressed to get as excited for any other event or festival that refuses to tell me who/what I will be seeing. However, it’s precisely this type of effort to foster openness to exploration & earnest dialogue that i feel makes this thing most rewarding. I may not love all the work seen, but I gave it my fullest responsive attention and forced myself to consider it some more afterward.
There are other less-known seminar-specific customs, such as the programmer including some work by or relating-to Robert & Francis Flaherty, or that there is some room left in the schedule for some tributes to important artists or scholars who have contributed to the medium. Other traditions have emerged such as the BBQ international soccer game or drinking clear blood from a crystal skull but they are more recent innovations that may or may not continue. This thing has been going on for some 58 years, I’d love to know if there ever was a secret handshake or some crude hazing ritual lost to time.
This year’s program was called Open Wounds and was assembled by Punto de Vista Documentary Festival artistic director Josetxo Cerdán. Compared to last year’s rather anarchic & improvisational (yet no less fun) seminar programmed by wild man Dan Striebel, I found Cerdán’s programming to be equally varied, but flowing with subtle twists full of epiphanies. Rather than at hard angles, his programs introduced new themes in gentle cross fades, even across differing aesthetic strategies. For instance, the tone setting opening “Overture” session gave us the week-in-a-thumbnail, beginning with a gritty black & white 16mm sound film by Ben Rivers depicting a primordial misty mountainous landscape where an ahistorical stream of figures that clamber like ants up & down a rocky path. This film was followed by a somewhat crudely shot, pale-shaded portrait of a geometrically-fixated, ostensibly mentally-ill woman who invisibly performs curious mapping rituals with plastic protractors & chalk on some square in a European city. That which is repulsive & voyeuristic in Andres Duque’s video became more endearing as we spent more time with his subject. His camera becomes more fixed & confident, while her obtuse choregraphies reveal a more ecstatic logic. Duque’s rough-edges gave way to Laila Pakalnina’s particularly controlled observation of figures & mobility in the crumbling infrastructure of post-communist transportation. More color bloomed into the overall program, as we saw more verdant suburban parks & bike paths. Pakalnina posts her static frame as a snare to capture & examine some body’s movements in an overgrown postindustrial rust garden & her match-on-action/match-on-sound editing highlighted one understated comedy or tragedy after the next. From this we flowed to Lourdes Portillo’s hyper-vibrant exploration of Chicano culture’s relationship with death in La Ofrenda. The first film in the session to have any voice overs or more conventional narrative impulses, this film collapsed her personal experience with that of her people for a celebratory autobio-ethno-graphy. The “Overture” ended with an equally obtuse but no less enjoyable coda of another Ben Rivers B/W 16mm short simply called “We The People” - whereby we are subjected to the indistinct grumblings of angry men over the absurdly cheesy models of what could be any 18th century colonial town, devoid of any distinguishing figures or context that might allude to scale. A dry, but very funny play of precision and vagueness that had me imagining just what terrible documentary could this have been lifted from.
Subsequent screenings were all titled, each carrying their own internal logic that was both singular, while cleverly contributing to the larger body of the week. Programs like “Traces,” “Ghosts,” “Anti-Anthropologist,” and “In the Air” were particularly successful with sophisticated arrangements of constituent films, whether picking at themes from different angles, echoing sentiments, or introducing novelty. Cerdán even went as far as selecting a song for each program, which played on a loop over a projected title card in the theater as the audience filled the room. Although an interesting tone-setting strategy, the audience was collectively unwilling to cede their sacred pre-screening socializing & settling to listen deeply. This didn’t seem to bother Cerdán, who simply wanted to create a mood. I found it had the aural effect of somebody feebly trying to get the crowd to rally around their jam bumping on the stereo at a party. In spite of that, I found the program to be quite masterfully mixed and find new details revealing themselves as churn the material over & over.
Late one night, Cerdán revealed to me his programming secrets: a blank wall, many many post-it notes, patience, & flexibility. Noted!
HANG IN THERE - PART 2 COMING SOON