Wednesday, July 16, 2008
The 54th edition of the notorious Flaherty Film Seminar (June 21-27) kicked off with some steamy words from president Patti Bruck. “We’re not here to discuss film,” she insinuated; “we’re here to argue about film.” Begun in 1955 when Robert Flaherty’s widow Frances gathered filmmakers, critics, and musicians to discuss the potential of the moving image, the Seminar has evolved into one of the more idiosyncratic and invigorating stops in the film world, with an almost Nietzschean will for conflict. No titles or filmmakers are announced beforehand; all screenings, meals, and discussions are mandatory; filmmaker/audience hierarchies are abandoned in favor of a vast (and at times unwieldy) meritocracy, and argument is treasured as much as agreement. A dream scenario to some (and a nightmare to others), the result is an immersive group-think experience unlike any other, where ideas and debates about film’s past, present, and potential take precedent over usual festival conversations like “Why can’t my badge get me into this party?”
This year’s model, located on a leafy, suitably impossible-to-escape Colgate University campus, gathered approximately 150 filmmakers, academics, curators, and students for a week already pressed free of outside diversions: three screenings, three two-hour discussions, three communal meals, and one communal “happy hour” a day, all mandatory and enjoyed from the institutional comforts of “home,” a communal dormitory (of course). A group experience this intense can only lead to either total immersion or reverse alienation, but either way it’s memorable, if only to prove that even if you watched the same things with 150 people, at exactly the same time, then ate the same food, slept in the same dorms, drank the same beer, had the same discussions, etc, you’d still have little in common with about 140 of them.
At times unwieldy and unfocused (unavoidable in such a large seminar), the large-group discussions were divided between meandering and insightful, but at least served as seeds for more focused, intense conversations among smaller groups afterwards. “Somehow I was expecting the discussions to be more rigorous and critical in general,” filmmaker and attendee Sylvia Schedelbauer told Filmmaker. “Most of the time, there was too little dialectical discourse, but rather a display and collection of perceptions, ideas, associations and questions, or even parallel monologues.”
While it took awhile for the attendees to get going, the festival’s rowdy paramilitary wing soon got their wish for argument, with early discussions more befitting sleepy undergraduate seminars giving way to those dreams of conflict. Even with calls for “a new paradigm” to capture just how supposedly unique and epoch-changing our particular era is (a refrain undoubtedly repeated every seminar since 1954), this year’s most spirited discussions showed how little times had changed, with debates over such eternal questions of “intellectual” and “popular” aesthetics, art versus journalism, the human story versus a systemic approach, and issues of representation all at the forefront.
“The Age of Migration” was the seminar’s theme, thoughtfully curated and graciously hosted by Chi-hui Yang of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and within “the relationship between conflict, movement and transmission” lurked all manner of approaches and forms. Migration was tackled in ways both poetic (the impressionist videos of Laura Waddington) and highly personal (Thavi Phrasavath and Ellen Kuras’ portrait of Thavi’s Burmese family in the U.S., The Betrayal (pictured above); Renee Tajima-Pena’s roadtrip through her husband’s family history, Calavera Highway). Forms included the straight-forward, hard-hitting journalism of New Yorker Lee Wang (her provocative documentary on Filipino contract workers in Iraq, God Is My Safest Bunker), the multi-channel video-art chronicles of Austrian artist Ursula Biemann (Contained Mobility, The Black Sea Chronicles, and Trans-Sahara Diaries), photographer-turned-filmmaker Allan Sekula’s intellectual cine-essays (the sprawling The Lottery and the Sea), and epic documentary/narrative hybrids from Pedro Costa and Bahman Ghobadi. Young filmmakers seized the stage alongside such established artists, with the emotionally charged found-footage essays of Sylvia Schedelbauer, the bemused identity-satires of Alison Kobayashi, Lonnie Van Brummelen’s rigorous 35mm border-landscapes and James T. Hong’s kino-fist provocations all pointing a way forward both aesthetically and ideologically from the rut several of the works appeared stuck in.
To merely list films and filmmakers gives readers some idea of who and what was there, but Flaherty’s unique charm and devilish charge comes from the more undefinable, random dynamic between artist and audience, artist and artist, and even among the audience. Attacks and retreats, engagements and withdrawals ebbed and flowed through the seminar, mirroring the waves of Sekula’s seabound works. Early sessions involved a feeling-out process, where those who spoke tended to be veterans comfortable in the environment, but by the third or fourth day a (dis)comfort zone was reached and a peak was hit, thanks in particular to the challenging work of Biemann and Sekula. The critiques then ebbed, either from exhaustion or propriety or from the becalmed, impassioned presence of Phrasavath, who spoke from the heart about his relationship with Kuras and the filmmaking process after his screening.
This year’s attendees were indeed surprisingly accepting of the more populist, accessible styles of Calavera Highway or The Betrayal, with little questions asked about such traditional, P.O.V.-type modes of filmmaking. Meanwhile, Biemann and Sekula garnered the most critique and discussion. Was it indicative of a certain anti-intellectualism in the air (as the latter insinuated), with audiences merely not familiar with the kind of “artschool” European film aesthetics that fostered more difficult work? (Certainly, Sekula was more than happy to reel off his influences.) Possibly, but critiques can arise from individuals well-versed in such genres and aesthetics; they can arise not because the films are too challenging or “too rigorous,” but because they are not challenging enough, and not rigorous enough. Indeed, several of the so-called “challenging” works on display were in fact safely ensconced in the kind of museum-installation or cine-essay traditions that have existed just as long as first-person television-ready documentaries, and are just as refreshing as the wilted iceberg salads the campus cafeteria served each day.
By the final day all decorum vanished, with a previous discussion on the issue of representation (in particular, whether Laura Waddington’s impressionist and impassioned portrait of refugees in Border, complete with the director’s voice-over intoning “It was all so sad and lonely,” was truly capturing the lives of these refugees) boiling over into a filmmaker-on-filmmaker match that caught even the moderator (the same person who insisted we were all here to argue, ironically) a bit off guard. Some filmmakers took a defensive approach (“Who are you to tell us what we can and cannot film?,” etc), while others lept to defend the integrity of the original question. One artist began a more antagonistic, prickly monologue (“You say we’re all artschool zombies here! Well, I’d like to know, who’s the artschool zombie here?!?”), while others looked on bemused (“I like zombies,” Pedro Costa chimed in). The original question, the responsibility of the filmer to the filmed (especially when one is from a more priviliged background), seemed strangely, almost willfully disregarded. “That discussion has happened for two decades now,” noted one attendee dismissively, which may be true, but what’s depressing is that it still evidently needs to be discussed.
Artschool zombies and television rubes apart, it was emerging filmmakers like Hong, Kobayashi, Schedelbauer and van Brummelen that gave the seminar energy and hope. Refusing boundaries like intellectual and populist and the staid traditions and genres of prior generations, their works pointed towards a new kind of filmmaking. van Brummelen’s landscape film Grossraum, which slowly pans over four different borders in four serenely long takes, may owe a debt to James Benning, but her 16mm silent film essay Monument of Sugar is all her own, part investigative report into European sugar tariffs and trade laws, satire on artistic commodification, revisitation of colonialism, and philosophical comedy of human and social errors all wrapped into an experimental silent film. Mixing family photos with found-footage and even found-sound, Schedelbauer’s films turn historical documents into private poems, and public images into personal worlds. Mining her own remarkable family trove of images (jackbooted National Socialist pictures from her German grandfather; some lurid Tokyo nightclub scenes from her German father and Japanese mother), she turns the found-footage traditions of Bruce Conner and Craig Baldwin into something far more private, with secretly whispered narratives that feel as alive as any newly filmed image.
Similarly constructing new meanings from found items, Alison Kobayashi gave the seminar a different concept of migration, in terms of how stories and narratives can migrate from one person to another, from the teller to the told. Reimagining herself as every person who left messages on an answering machine in the remarkable Dan Carter, or as the teenagers from a love letter she found on a suburban bridge (From Alex to Alex), Kobayashi brings someone else’s personal world into her own. Through empathy (or narcissism), we all imagine ourselves in every story we hear or read, so it makes perfect sense that Kobayashi literally sees herself as every character. Satiric, comedic, and utterly bizarre, her films are created in a private interior world as rich and strange as the original found items that she works from, and form some of the most idiosyncratic, individualistic works in recent memory.
Smart enough to question the very idea of “intellectual” cinema, James T. Hong pulls the cinematic form through the wringer, and not a moment too soon. Hong knows the power of cinema to sway and convince, and he’s out to expose it, and you for ever believing it. His films question not just how cinema approaches truth (through manipulation, he argues), but the very concept of truth itself. “Why do we feel the need to prove what we already believe,” he wonders in his This Shall Be A Sign.” It’s an appropriate musing for not only that film (an interpretation of the Israel/Palestine conflict), but for all filmmaking, and indeed for life outside of it.
“I doubt many minds were changed,” he notes about the seminar, “and I think many world views, predilections, prejudices, and biases were reinforced rather than changed for the better or for the worse.” “Why make movies that just support the status quo, progressive or otherwise?” he continues. “Is it enough to say that at least some people care about documentary and experimental film? I don't know.” There are no answers to this, of course, but the glory of the Flaherty Seminar is that it calls up such discourse, and forces attendees to address it.
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Monday, July 7, 2008
Canada’s Patricia Rozema has had an eclectic career, spanning films as diverse as her 1987 debut Cannes feature, I've Heard the Mermaids Singing to her Yo Yo Ma feature, Six Gestures: Suite No. 6 for Unaccompanied Cello to her 1999 Jane Austen adaptation, Mansfield Park. The themes and approaches of these films — Rozema’s concentration on adult eroticism, feminism, religious skepticism, and social revolution — would not seem to be the kind of interests which would speak to the upright members of the American Girl enterprise, protectorate of the indomitable Kit Kittredge and her wholesome doll sisters. Yet, the sweetly toned Kit Kittredge: An Amerian Girl — which is about the value of love and loyalty, is set in the Great Depression, and stars the wonderful Abigail Breslin in the title role — has proven to be a bright, happy coupling, especially for the director.
TOP OF PAGE: ABIGAIL BRESLIN IN KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL. PHOTO BY: CYLLA VON TIEDEMANN. ABOVE: KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL DIRECTOR PATRICIA ROZEMA. PHOTO BY: CYLLA VON TIEDEMANN.
FILMMAKER: Given your arthouse reputation, you’d seem an unlikely prospect to direct a project as mainstream as this.
ROZEMA: I had shot [the relationship drama] Tell Me That You Love Me for HBO, which I think convinced everyone I was not crazy and could do all the things a “mainstream” director could do. [laughs] At any rate, previously I had called Julie Goldstein at HBO, who I had known and loved since my days with Miramax and Mansfield Park, to let her know I was open for business. I was stuck on my own script, called How To Be Unbearably Happy — it’s this mock self-help program love story — and she contacted me not long after with Kit Kittredge. It really hit a chord in me.
FILMMAKER: You must have appreciated the story’s political and social awareness.
ROZEMA: They are close to my heart. After all my work in news, I still have a great hankering for fact-based work. And the script has children banding together, working hard and taking care of the weak during the Great Depression. They are told that poverty is nothing of which to be ashamed, and the only thing that can take you away from the “good” is not getting out there and trying to do your best.
FILMMAKER: Given the popularity of the franchise, were you pressured to conform to the company’s idea of the characters?
ROZEMA: I do prefer to be the Queen of the Castle in all situations, but we were all unified in being accurate, and the story is so rich with history and detail that there wasn’t much issue there. What bonded us was Kit. She is a leader, a smart girl and I am known for having a facility towards strong female characters. So, I think they knew I could handle drama and comedy, that I could talk to kids... and that the film wouldn’t end of being an air bubbled-head thing, which was important to everyone. And that this project would be additionally affirming if a woman would be chosen to direct it is a mild [rebuke] of sexism. And at the core of the film, tonally, there is my own personality, in that it is infused with a real tenderness, a sense of humor, and I hope a bit of wisdom.
FILMMAKER: Even so, were you surprised to be directing a children’s movie?
ROZEMA: It would be more unexpected of me to do an action film. First off, I cannot do a film if I cannot love it, or else the audience will not feel the story. And then there are my own children. I have two girls, four and twelve years old who have changed my life. They have no idea how deeply they have nourished me. Through them, I’d become very open to doing a children's movie. I wanted to show them what skills I had picked up, to involve them in what it takes to make a film and I wanted them to be a part of the process. And this is where I have gotten my chance.
FILMMAKER: You have said you feel somewhat “out of step” with a normal filmmaking career. What do you mean by that?
ROZEMA: I try not to think of what I am doing as a career. It feels like a reduction to view it that way. I have had no strategy at all. I just respond to what has come before me, create what comes from within, and work with people who let me explore in that way. I am of my time though. But on the other hand there are whole [other] streaks of my artistic personality that I can’t seem to get funding for!
FILMMAKER: Back in the ‘80s you worked as an a.d. for David Cronenberg on The Fly. What did you learn from him?
ROZEMA: Most importantly I learned how to control a set without being a jerk, and that by using civility and graciousness you can still explore strange corners of your mind. Also, he says he does not have a precise plan shooting plan, and in the beginning I used to have a document with a rigid shot list. Taking in his approach loosened up my work, helped me be alive to the moment. My work became more fluid, not so obsessive about “here is where we move towards the window for the three-shot.” It was also when I learned I didn’t want to do horror!
FILMMAKER: Do you think the success of this film will lead you to more Hollywood ventures?
ROZEMA: Probably not. I just finished a script for the [dramatic version of the Maysles’ documentary] Grey Gardens. And most of projects I want to make, are… well, let us say no one will give me money to make those things. Which is part of the reason I continue to make short films for 10 cents. I shot one a short while ago, cut it on iMovie — it’s going out to festivals. It’s called Suspect, and it’s about life, the ordered structures of mystery stories, and how that relates to our own unordered world. Purposely, it has a very, very unsatisfying ending.
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