WORDS: Vibeke Bryld

“What is a human being?”

This is not a question that comes up very often at documentary film festivals. But it did at the Flaherty Film Seminar, again and again. The President of the Board of Trustees, Chi-hui Yang, asked me jokingly if I was aware that being at the Flaherty I was participating in a social experiment. Later in the week, it didn’t feel like a joke. The Flaherty Film Seminar is a unique experience in the sense that, as a participant, you are completely at the mercy of the curators. The participants are all from the creative industry: visual artists, filmmakers, programmers, researchers, and students. No one knows what they sign up for because the Flaherty is a double-blind experiment: the participants do not know what cinematic tincture the programmers have concocted, and the programmers do not know what reactions the participants will have to said concoction. The selected programmers are known, but the film program is kept under wraps, not just before the seminar takes place, but during the seminar itself. Until the lights are out in the cinema, one has no clue what to expect. Everyone watches the same thing, nobody may miss a screening because you don’t know what you might miss. You truly are in a curated experience.

Frances Flaherty founded the seminar in 1955 as a tribute to her late husband, renowned filmmaker Robert Flaherty. This year marked the 60th anniversary of the seminar and that makes it the longest running film event in North America. From the outset, the seminar was meant to be a place of discussion, exploration of and immersion in the documentary genre, both inside and outside the cinema. The first three years the films were programmed by Frances and her son David Flaherty. Over the years, participants have included Robert Drew, Jonas Mekas, Pedro Costa, and many more significant figures of the American and international documentary scene.

To Frances Flaherty it was crucial that the audiences meet the films with open minds and without any preconceptions – a notion crucial to documentary itself, where we have to be open to the fact that the reality we meet might surprise us, confuse and complicate our preconceptions and herein lies the beauty. This is how the program of secrecy came about. And how rare it is to watch a film without any pre given context – to watch a film raw. This doesn’t just have the benefit of leaving the audience open, but makes it possible to experience a film for what it can do on its own, as film only. With three screenings per day, each followed by discussion sessions our senses and intellectual capacity was overloaded with story lines, characters, and symbols entangled. The many films one sees turn into one huge monstrous piece. It may sound like a nightmare – and it might be – but the monster is both incredibly valuable and generous.

The reason that a question such as “What is a human being?” can become the object of discussion at Flaherty is that the seminar is pure documentary science. It offers the time, focus and framework to deal with the fundamentals, the basic questions of documentary: ethics, aesthetics, activism, historical and cultural paradigms, storytelling, love, and the state of the human being. These discussions at the level of basic science revealed some very fundamental structures in our understanding of what is good and what is right(eous), an understanding deeply linked to the identity and self understanding of documentary filmmaking.

This year, at the 60th Flaherty, the theme was “Turning the Inside Out.” The curators were Gabriela Monroy a video artist and curator from Mexico and Caspar Strack, an interdisciplinary artis, filmmaker and curator from Germany. They started off our journey Saturday night with Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y from 1997 directed by Johan Grimonprez an artist who moves between the art and documentary scenes. The film consists of news footage of hijackings and pop culture imagery from the 60s through the 90s, mocking the fast-paced information stream and entertainment driven consumption of disasters. A work of art most poignant and almost prodigal of 9/11 at the time of its making, the film underlines the importance of effective storytelling. In the post-screening discussion, director Grimonprez remarked on the cult of fear, that “terrorists strike where novelists fail to be dangerous” and confronted with the notion that man is by nature a violent creature, he opposed the infamous scene in Planet of the Apes, where the apes rise on their feet to fight. Apparently recent studies suggest that we rose to our feet so as to better communicate – essentially to share stories.

Retracing the curatorial monster, our journey began in a highly politicized arena, a place where ideologies are questioned, where critical theory is appropriated, and where there is a strong awareness about what paradigms, the artwork and films are or – more importantly – are not inscribing themselves into. The screenings that followed over the next days were, amongst others, the film Les Stautues meurent aussi from 1953 by Alan Resnais and Chris Marker. A film that – from the privileged point of view of present time – feels like a slightly misguided appraisal of African artwork and – here comes the misguidedness – mourns its loss of authenticity due to the Western commercialism of African art, which has turned it kitch, mass-produced.

I never found that either guilt or  shame serves as a good tool for filmmaking, storytelling or the creation of art. Les stautues meurent aussi has as its focus a very typical object of documentary: the impoverished, the innocent, the native, and it subscribes to the misguided idea that there is such a thing as purity, authenticit and that a culture can become kitsch by the mere touch of our dirty, Western hands.

Now in our cinematic journey the concept of “the Other,” was in play. As an artist dealing with “the Other”, we have to be extremely careful not to inscribe ourselves into a structure that repeats the pattern of, what some at Flaherty in rather old-school fashion, referred to as the gaze of “white, male supremacy.” In Johan Grimonprez’ Kobarweng or Where is your helicopter? from 1992, an experimental video piece about the meeting between Papuans in Irian Jaya, former Dutch New Guinea, and a group of Western anthropologists, he avoids this gaze through the statements of the Papuans. Statements that reveal how they are highly aware of the desires of the visiting anthropologists, and how they dose out information to them in a manner as to always have “something new for the next one.” This is a wonderful example of a reality that surprises. The natives don’t conform to the univocal identity of unsuspecting victims of intrusion. The reality of who’s in the know and who’s not turns out to be more complex.

Highly political and aware of their own form were the works presented by Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, Hito Steyel, and Raqs Media Collective. Their works revolve around power relations and the gaze – the privileged as well as the non-privileged. In a subversive movement, they attempt to reveal, challenge, and put into play these various power constructions and cultural codes. Many of the works, which both included video installation and film, were dense and sometimes the insistence of “never surrendering your complexities”, a quote by Mirza, made them difficult to read. Although I completely sympathise with the necessity to challenge traditional forms of storytelling and thereby our understanding, I sometimes found it hard to figure out, who the readers of the work were supposed to be. Who are the initiated?

The work by the collective called CAMP stood out against the rest here. Their work also spoke to the initiated, but here the initiated are the subjects: the sailors who can read the seas, or the Palestinians who can read the old city of Jerusalem, not the academics so well versed in film theory.

Many of the works challenged the authoritative gaze, and made a play for the oppressed and those who rise up. I say this in very general terms and herein lies the difficulty. Often the works made use of what one of the participants in the discussion referred to as “the black box for research.” The question is: how far can you go when placing fragments of historical and political information in a black box, leaving it to the audience to create connections?

This ability to create both vertical and horizontal connections across time and place in history is incredibly valuable, but like all parables, they are also dangerously seductive and suggestive.

There is a great responsibility in the suggestions we make as documentary filmmakers. We belong to a community that has typically accepted the following dynamics of good and bad, right(eous) and wrong. On the negative side, we have the state/man, the rich, the powerful. On the positive side, we have the poor, the working class, and the minorities. But we know that all struggles are not the same and just as there is truth inherent in the specific, there is a risk of indifference in the generic.

Our assumptions on good and bad are often followed by another, which is that politics are bad and activism is good. But who is it that needs the proud working class? And what happened to art and cinema that speaks to the body, the heart, and the soul rather than setting the brain on overload?

As these issues are being discussed and certain frustrations are building , the feeling of being entirely ensconced in a curated experience creeps up on me. My questions are being answered and frustrations mirrored by the films that follow, and my desire for emotion and sensuality are met just as my capacity for intellectual reading is about to quit entirely.

This is when Scottish artist Duncan Campbell’s films, Benadette, about Bernadette Devlin, a very young Irish dissident and political activist and Make it New John, 2009 about the rise and fall of car manufacturer and prodigy of the American dream, John De Lorean, appears and plays with the fictional elements of documentary and complicates the notions of working class hero and capitalist villain. Campbell plays with authentic archival footage as well as fictional footage with great affect. Thus he also plays with our expectations and our notions of sensuality. The reason I fell in love with his working class heroine Bernadette is not just because she is bright and bold, but more because she has (or seems to have) crooked teeth and the most beautiful hands I’ve ever seen.

Who needs the heroic working class? Jill Godmilow’s brilliant Far From Poland from 1984 plays with the liberal Left’s desire to engage in a cathartic struggle, the desire to fight someone else’s fight, a righteous fight. The documentary is intercepted with fictional, reflective moments in her nightly phone conversations with Fidel Castro, who is not entirely convinced of the revolutionary potential of her project. We all desire a simple fight between good and evil. It is in our DNA. And despite all the complexity, this naïve desire for fighting the good cause drives many a storytellers.

Flaherty brought us from the coldness of theoretical criticism, over to the more humorous irony aimed at ourmedia, ideologies, politicians, and ourselves. Then the senses come back into play with the beautiful, fun films by Cao Guimarães. In Ex Isto from 2010, the great thinker Descartes goes off to Brazil where his rational thought dissolves in the heat and he becomes all body and sensuality. As Cao says: “Film has a lot more to do with sleep and sex than critical theory.” And “A good architect doesn’t build an idea for people to live in, he builds homes. A good filmmaker doesn’t build an idea for people to endure, but a sensual experience to digest with the body, mind, and soul.”

For me, the last film we saw answered the question of what a human being is. The film called Costa da Morte (2013) by Lois Patiño delves shamelessly into sublime imagery of the nature of the coast where he lets the local mythologies of the place and the people spin a web of connections between people and landscape, nature and culture. As for the question of what a human being is, a participant concluded: “We are people, not robots. We don’t need data. We need stories.”

The curated experience ended where stories came back into play. The density started to unfold as an emotional journey. Of course, each individual journey was different, but some works posed questions which were answered, if not satisfied, by later films in the programme. Descartes gave up on logical thinking on the night, when I really needed to laugh and let my brain rest.

There is a risk this may have a slight tone of coltishness to it, but the immersive experience that is Flaherty does have a kind of cultish power. So if you go, remember what Frances Flaherty said: “Be open to magic, without preconceptions.”

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