Cinema Professor Patricia Zimmermann has been named to the Robert Flaherty Seminar 50th Anniversary Curatorial Team.
International Film Seminars, Inc, has named Zimmermann, professor of cinema and photography and coordinator of the culture and communication program, Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies, to the national curatorial team to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the prestigious Robert Flaherty Film Seminar in 2004.
Other members of the curatorial team include Ruth Bradley, director, Athens Film Festival; Richard Herskowitz, director, Virginia Film Festival; Louis Massiah, director, Scribe Video Center and Eyes on the Prize; and William Sloan, Museum of Modern Art.
The curatorial team will create a special tribute program reflecting on the convergence of experimental, documentary, narrative, performance, new technologies, hybrid, and installation to redefine cinemas. These programs will celebrate and interrogate the seminar's impact on the development of international independent cinema. This program will premiere at the 50th seminar to be held on the Vassar College campus in June 2004. The team will also curate a multi-program touring exhibition that will screen internationally at film and media festivals, museums, and universities during 2004-5.
"I remembered that he had always said that the motion picture was still an unknown continent, that no one had yet scratched the surface of its potentialities," recalled Frances Flaherty. She was relating ideas from her husband and collaborator, legendary documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. To continue his filmmaking vision of exploration and to create an incubation area for new filmmakers and new ideas about cinema as an independent art, Frances inaugurated the Robert Flaherty Seminars in 1954.
For almost half a century, the 100-person, week-long seminars screening various media with their makers from across the globe have taken place each summer. "The Flaherty" is among the oldest and most important organizations in the United States continuously supporting independent media work of heart, guts and vision. The Flaherty Seminar remains unique in the media arts world.
"It was retreat, think-tank, pit-stop, lucid interval, revival tent, i.e. a seminar," wrote Erik Barnouw, media historian and a central figure in the history of the seminar. Barnouw once observed that at good "Flaherty" ideas and arguments should constantly erupt: it should, claimed Barnouw, take what is "boiling up in film culture" and give it space for meaningful discussion. Barnouw and George Stoney argued that "without conflict, there can be no change." Commercial culture, they maintained, silences debate; the Flaherty liberates it and invigorates ideas.
Robert Flaherty is often credited as "the father of documentary," a moniker endlessly criticized by film historians, feminists, and post-colonialists. His legacy is just about as contentious and contradictory as a good Flaherty. His landmark film, Nanook of the North (1922) changed the contours of cinema with its Inuit-inspired cinematography, collaborative filmmaking process with its subjects, and independence from the studios. Yet it was a documentary with product tie-ins (Nanook ice cream bars) and commercial release that also was hailed as art cinema in Europe by the experimental cine club movement.
Flaherty was known as a hard-drinking raconteur who loved to share tales of filmmaking triumphs and woes with younger makers. Frances, the more intellectual and well-read of the duo, transformed his legacy of exploration, conviviality, argument, and careful filmmaking into the Robert Flaherty Foundation, and, later, the Robert Flaherty Seminar after he died in 1951. He never attended a seminar.
At the sixth International Edinburgh Festival in 1952, she listened to Sir Compton MacKenzie, expound that one was either "born with a visual sense or not." Frances reacted negatively to this claim; she believed "seeing" could be learned. In response, she formed the Robert Flaherty Foundation in 1952 "whose prime purpose is to help new talent to explore further and further into the possibilities of a medium so immense and unknown." According to Erik Barnouw, the term "filmmaker" was first tossed around at the seminars in the 1950s as a way to denote work that was produced without the hierarchies of commercial productions.
Although it seems focused on films, the seminar has always been equally about the participants and their ideas and response to the films. The multi-generational structure of the seminar, with its dedication to passing the torch for a committed, exploratory, brave, independent, and international cinema community, continued for five decades and influenced hundreds of media artists and media movements across the globe.
Contributed by Patricia R. Zimmermann