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Robert Flaherty Film Seminar

June 26, 2009

(Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media's new Media Database.)

Flaherty_seminar Documentary filmmakers, teachers, librarians, students, film critics, and festival programmers from around the globe are participating in the 55th annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, thanks in part to fellowships provided by the New England-based Lef Foundation and the Philadelphia Foundation. The weeklong marathon of documentaries brings the films’ makers (this year from the U.S., Russia, Iraq, India, Israel, Syria, Colombia, Finland, Mali, and Poland) together with other film professionals to see and discuss a range of films. More than forty short or feature-length film or video works will be presented this year.

Founded in 1954 by Frances Flaherty, the widow of pioneering documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North), the seminar began as a small group of friends discussing Flaherty's works. Now with an office in New York City, the organization's main program remains the seminar, held this year at Colgate University in upstate New York and programmed by independent curator Irina Leimbacher. Ten presenting filmmakers and another 160 participants have been watching six or more hours of film/video each day and engaging in vigorous debate about documentary structure, intent, look, sound, and impact -- all off it somehow related to the theme "Witnesses, Monuments, Ruins."

"Flaherty is unique," said program director Mary Kerr. "It's an opportunity to see incredible work and exchange ideas, but without the marketplace element of film festivals."

In addition to the seminar in June, a monthly screening at Anthology Film Archives in New York City was launched last fall to introduce some of the films previewed at the seminar. "Flaherty on the Road" brings selected films to other institutions around the city, including BAM and the Museum of Modern Art, and plans are on the drawing board for an additional seminar in Spain next year in collaboration with Barcelona-based Pragda.

Newcomers and regulars — including Bill Pence, who attended his first Flaherty in 1962 and went on to found the Telluride Film Festival in 1974 with wife Stella — are extending the dialogue this year with a blog and Twitter.

Of course, one of the pleasures of a good Flaherty "retreat" is that even casual conversations elicit a story, either already told or in the making — from Temple University MFA student Phally Chroy’s planned thesis film on squatters in Cambodia (in the making) to Juan Mandelbaum’s extensive filmography, which includes Our Disappeared, his recent feature film investigating the fate of childhood friends who were "disappeared" by the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

The fellowship program -- thirty-four fellows this year, including several from Russia -- is coordinated by long-time Flaherty supporter Margarita de la Vega-Hurtado. "I had heard about the Flaherty seminar in Colombia, where I was a film critic and involved with the early wave of Latin American documentary. Flaherty had a mystique about it. After moving to the U.S., despite having a family and teaching film at the University of Michigan, my present to myself every year has been to attend the seminar." She first came as a participant in 1985 and went on to be a presenter, curator, and executive director (from 2002 to 2006).

Attending the seminar for the first time, LEF Foundation director Lyda Kuth sees the fellowships as a way to carry out the foundation's priorities for the New England region. Most of LEF's $250,000 in annual grants to documentary filmmakers are awarded through its Moving Image Fund, which provides support from the early risk-taking stage through a film's completion. "Providing continuity and ongoing support is important to us; we're always open to 'If it's good, come back!' We want to help exemplary films get finished," said Kuth. "Support for artists is first, but Flaherty fits nicely into our second priority: raising the visibility and value of New England filmmakers. The seminar accomplishes both, really, as the second priority serves the first."

For Iraqi filmmaker Kasim Abid, the opportunity to attend Flaherty has been a mix of excitement and struggle. "It's quite an experience, to present my work to such an informed audience," says Abid. "At the same time, I cannot completely forget my commitments in Iraq." A cameraman on documentaries for the BBC, Channel 4, and other British satellite TV stations (he has lived in London since 1982), Abid has also worked for Arab satellite TV and directed several films about the Middle East. Most recently he produced Life After the Fall, a trilogy about the experiences of his extended family in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. With support from the Open Society Institute, Kasim co-founded the Independent Film and TV College in Baghdad in 2003, where he teaches media production. In the midst of a besieged city, students have managed to produce eleven short documentary films so far, including several prize-winners at international film festivals.

Mirroring some of the discussion at this year's seminar, media funders are increasingly concerned about how documentary films not only treat social issues but how they contribute to social change -- all while being engaging and well made. In a future post, I'll discuss a few of the films presented at this year's seminar and how they’re encompassing those concerns.

-- Kathryn Pyle

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