History in the present tense

I’ve written in the past on this site of my rewarding experiences at the Flaherty Film Seminar. This intense week of experimental media art and documentary film reliably delivers on its promise of thought-provoking and hotly debated film programming. In 2013, the seminar was programmed by Pablo de Ocampo, currently Exhibitions Curator at Vancouver’s Western Front. It was a fantastic week of film and video, and I wrote an extensive review of it for volume 3 issue 1 of MIRAJ, the Moving Image Review & Art Journal. An excerpt here:

A film still from the finale of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) was the Seminar’s leitmotif, featuring prominently in publicity materials as a representation of the conceptual work to be accomplished at the gathering. In the wild joy of mutinous seamen greeting another battleship in solidarity with their uprising, de Ocampo indicated his intentions for the kind of history and the kind of happenings on which the week would focus. It was a history that film was continually heralding, retrieving and revising; a history of collectivities both utopian (insurgent groups and jazz collectives) and dystopian (occupied territories and people’s militias); a history of ecstatic or transgressive affect; and a history of films that struggle on two fronts, politicizing the form in which they convey political subject matter.

Queen Mother Moore’s Speech at Greenhaven Prison, a video made in 1973 by the community collective, the People’s
Communication Network opened and closed the Flaherty. It operated in the Seminar as a conceptual reverse shot to Eisenstein’s seamen, a response across the decades to their call of brotherhood and revolution. In it, civil rights activist Queen Mother Moore stands at a microphone set up outside of the walls of the Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Connecticut. She recounts a moment of armed resistance from her youth, in which a black audience who had gathered to hear Marcus Garvey in New Orleans successfully forced white officials to rescind their ban on his scheduled speech.

Moore asks, ‘How do you go, determined to keep the powers
that be from preventing your leader from speaking to you?’. In Moore’s Jim Crow-era South, the answer was to arrive at the lecture with guns and satchels of ammunition. Her question lingers throughout the seventeen-minute address, posed to the unseen men in the prison behind her, the group of fellow activists assembled in front of her, and to the contemporary viewers who encounter this video.

In her question is embedded the belief that the act of speaking and securing speech may be the only retribution possible in a society that does not see its own systemic crime in the histories of its individual criminals. Thieves like the ones that both Queen Mother Moore and the seamen on the Battleship Potemkin call ‘brothers’ are the product of centuries of social, political and economic theft. Speech, de Ocampo’s programming suggested, is symbolic reparation. It cannot promise actual reparation, but it is the only thing that actualizes its potential.

Flaherting, part 2

Like many of the films at the Flaherty this year, the narratives of Odds of Recovery and 48 squared perfectly with the chosen thematic of “open wounds”-one literally, the other metaphorically. But perhaps the most challenging form of wound or laceration that surfaced in the films and debates was conceptual. I’ll say that conceptual wound was representation and its formal ethics.

Fearless and preternaturally good-humored programmer Josetxo Cerdán aimed right at it, organizing a line-up of films and filmmakers that suggested (at least in broad terms) an already well-developed gap in experimental documentary. This gap could be depicted as generational and even gendered, with queer women filmmakers Lourdes Portillo and Su Friedrich on one end and “young turk” men filmmakers under 40 like Ben Rivers and Ben Russell on the other, but that wouldn’t be accurate.

After all, there were plenty of Flaherty participants critiquing, praising and/or questioning these filmmakers who didn’t necessarily “match” them in gender orientation, age, nationality or anything else. (Sometimes Ben Rivers’ and Ben Russell’s films were assumed to be totally of a kind, which seemed very wrong. They are collaborators and friends, but their processes, styles and finished products struck me as quite distinct.)

However those on either side of this division might be described, the division itself was this: if a film attempts to refuse to represent its subject in one manner or another, is it being unethical to its subject–i.e., taking agency away from him, her or them? And if (some would say when) a film fails at refusing to represent, is this failure a merit or a demerit?

I found myself vigorously supporting these attempts at the refusal of representation, even when the refusal was complicated by the class, race, gender or cultural difference of those being “non-represented.” I thought and still think the films doing this were some of the freshest and most vital in the seminar. For me, they continue the project of working with filmic means against the conventional conditions of cinema, a project that I am obviously deeply invested in researching and teaching.

A couple of discoveries that did this, and that I got excited about:

Ben Russell Trypps #7 (Badlands), 10 min, 16mm, color, sound, 2010

There were a couple of other films from the Trypps series shown, and I missed them, dammit (my inability to take time off and commit 100% to the Flaherty when it is held just two floors away from my office). This one was excellent, a dizzying, vicarious acid drop made up of beauty, landscape, the tolling of bells, a mirror, and a prominent crack in it all.

Four stills from Sack Barrow,Ben Rivers, 21 minutes, 16mm, color, sound, 2011

Was this film my favorite of the entire festival? Yes, although one shouldn’t play favorites. It has certainly stayed with me the longest. While driving, or brushing my teeth, I can’t stop thinking back on these glimpses of the fantastical and abject. There were so many lovely and strange sequences of grotto-like mineral deposit and steam baths and industrial paint color (in the inter-leaders, too, or whatever you call them). It was like a fairyland of the Western, post-industrial economy. The middle-aged, almost-redundant workers moved slowly through it all, at home amongst the beautiful grossness like deep sea creatures. You must realize/smoke gets in your eyes…

Excerpts from many of Rivers’ works are viewable on his gallery’s Vimeo page–I look forward to going through them all soon.

Ah, Liberty, Ben Rivers, 2008, 20 minutes, 16mm, sound, black and white

Gorgeously framed messiness and play in the countryside, shot in Cinemascope. There is a case to be made that an unproblematized romanticism of the working class is present here and in Sack Barrow, but I’ve thought a lot about it, and I’m not interested in making that case. I think it’s a preliminary reaction that is actually discounted with enough careful looking and reflection.

Many thought Buñuel’s Las Hurdes (1933) was documentary when it was actually something that displaced documentary because they weren’t doing the work of taking the strangeness to the next level as spectators. I think Rivers’ films operate similarly, and I argued so in the discussion after an ingeniously-programmed double feature of his The Creation As We Saw It (work in progress, 16 minutes, HQ file) and Robert and Frances Flaherty’s Moana (1926, 96 minutes, 16mm) newly scored with traditional Samoan music in the late 1970s by Monica Flaherty. A GREAT session!

Moana, Robert and Frances Flaherty, 1926, 96 minutes, 16mm, sound by Monica Flaherty, 1981

I’m still reflecting on my stances on these and other “refusal of representation” films, wondering if, on a very basic and selfish level, I am shooting myself in the foot as a woman and a feminist. Since we at the Flaherty were all human (some preternaturally good-humored and others not), personae inevitably influenced this debate about filmic representation and the liberties that can or can’t be taken with it. I missed some screenings and tone-setting debates early on, and was therefore unsure what all had influenced some filmmakers’ and participants’ attitudes and behaviors.

In any case, it seemed clear we all have a lot more cinematic, subjectival and theoretical wound-exploring to do. What does it mean to support projects that may risk returning to an objectification of women, people of color, or non-Western cultures en route to doing damage to representation? I don’t have a response for myself yet. I’m thankful for the films and people who are prompting that thinking.