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Unknown Continents: A Conversation with authors Patricia Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald

Unknown Continents:
A Conversation with Patricia Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald,
authors of The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema

Genevieve Yue

from Film Quarterly Fall 2017, Volume 71, Number 1

There are many Flaherty Film Seminars. The one I first encountered was the image of a staid, cliquish institution, as shared by Jonas Mekas in his Lost Lost Lost (1976). In one extended sequence, recorded in 1963, Mekas, Ken Jacobs, and several of their friends try to crash the week-long gathering in rural Vermont with the hopes of screening Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) and Jacobs’s Blonde Cobra (1963). They’re turned away, but no bother: the group sleeps outside in their truck and film themselves rising with the sun. Mekas becomes a self-described “monk of cinema,” a rebel proudly rejected by the gatekeepers of the documentary film world. On this morning, running with his camera low among the dewy grass and dandelion stalks, he discovers the staccato, lyrical mode that would become his signature film style.

The rejoinder to this fateful visit came much later, in 1992. Ken Jacobs, by then a leading figure within the avant-garde community, was invited to the seminar by programmer Scott MacDonald to show one of his live projection pieces. This moment was not the vindication that some might have hoped. XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX (Cherries) (1980) was met with one of the most infamous exchanges in Flaherty history. One viewer, apparently conveying the mood of the room, objected strongly to the pornography film that Jacobs had appropriated for his own work: “For me to watch this is like watching a rape. Pornographic imagery has to do with women and power” (233). To this and other remarks, Jacobs defended himself vehemently: “I hear a kind of sneering from some of you, as if art is some dumb, trivial thing to bring up!” (233). After a few more volleys, he cursed, and walked out of the room.

This would seem like mere lore, were it not for the contribution of The Flaherty, Scott MacDonald and Patricia Zimmermann’s new volume on the history of this singular institution that has indelibly shaped independent and documentary filmmaking, as well as its critical reception, both in the United States and internationally. The Flaherty features numerous transcripts of the seminar’s post-screening discussions, including, as the Jacobs exchange indicates, some of its most incendiary moments.

Since at least 1958, the Flaherty has kept audio recordings of its discussions, which, as Zimmermann and MacDonald note, is an especially rare finding in film historical research. In keeping with the many transcripts featured in an earlier published volume on the Flaherty (a special four-issue edition of Wide Angle edited by Zimmermann and Erik Barnouw on the occasion of the organization’s fortieth anniversary), The Flaherty contains several transcriptions from each decade of the seminar, interspersed with summary histories that chart the major figures, crises, and key debates that shaped the seminar.

The seminar itself is difficult to convey; I’ve heard it described as summer camp for adults, an alternative film festival, or a film cult, but none of these fully expresses the breadth of experiences typical of any year’s seminar. Richard Herskowitz, programmer of the Flaherty’s 1987 edition, gets a bit closer to the truth, even as his description remains elusive: “an upsetting, yet exhilarating, explosive heterogeneity” (153). I’ve attended twice, and I can attest that the rollercoaster ride Herskowitz describes can and does happen, often over the course of a single day. Each time I’ve ended up speaking to almost all of the 160 or so participants, and that’s not because I am an exceptionally outgoing person. Rather it’s due to the intensive structure of the seminar—three screenings, each followed by an hour-long discussion, plus meals and late-night drinks and dancing, all of which take place in a remote, rural setting free of other distractions. Not all of this is pleasant (participants are usually sleep-deprived and the food is terrible), but like any family, or group of reality TV contestants, there’s a sense of shared experience that overrides any friction, including the infamous fight that typically occurs at the seminar’s halfway point.

Though the book is grounded in the experience of the seminar, especially in its transcribed discussions, it is less interested in examining the contours of this complex social ecology than charting the struggles the organization faced throughout its 60-year history. Many of these challenges arise from outside, whether the civil rights era in the 1960s or the conservative backlash against the so-called “culture wars” of the 1990s. The main story here is how the Flaherty grappled with itself. From what essentially began as a family operation—Frances Flaherty’s promotion of her husband Robert’s pioneering documentaries and her enshrinement of the “Flaherty Way,” a romantic ideal of film as a means of exploration, guided by an attitude of “nonpreconception” toward the films encountered at the seminar—the organization grew larger, less homogenous, more unwieldy, and in many respects, more professional throughout the years.

The Flaherty certainly has had its share of critics including many seminar attendees. The tenets of the “Flaherty Way,” for example, were challenged by successive generations of participants for not being sufficiently radical, aesthetically expansive, intellectual, or adequate to the cultural upheaval of the day. Never as explicitly political as some have desired, the Flaherty has been at times charged with being out of touch, as when Bruce Jenkins criticized the 1980 seminar for being “not all that fresh,” or when, in 1963, Mekas and Jacobs sensed and rejected its cliquishness.

But just as often, the Flaherty has been well ahead of the curve. It was the place where Fredrick Wiseman first showed Titicut Follies (1967), and where William Greaves’s Simbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1972) was unearthed twenty years after it was made. Barbara Kopple’s harrowing Harlan County, USA (1976) was immediately received by the Flaherty audience as a masterpiece, while Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Reassemblage (1983), now considered a classic of experimental ethnography, was in its moment met with a mixed reception that included praise for its formal innovation along with charges of both amateurism and exploitation. At other times, the Flaherty was instrumental in the shaping of the U.S. reception of such major figures as Satyajit Ray and Hara Kazuo. The Flaherty reveals a less noticed influence in the figure of Bill Pence, who was so deeply impressed by his experiences of the 1962 and 1963 seminars in his early twenties that he went on to apply its model of not announcing the lineup in advance to the festival he started in 1974: the Telluride Film Festival.

The best way to approach this book is as a resource for further study; nearly every year in the organization’s history is discussed, sometimes at length. The book’s merits lie in setting up the Flaherty as its own turbulent matrix, intersected by a diverse group of films and individuals coming together for a week at a time. This is very much a collective history: personalities tend to recede into dense institutional histories and long lists of names and organizations. In truth, it is an assembly of an archive. The Flaherty thus becomes a microcosm of larger developments in film and media culture, as well as a prime space for hashing out and organizing its (often contentious) energies. Much of this has come through its continued culture of nonpreconception: long removed from Frances Flaherty’s Zen Buddhist inflection, it now marks an attitude that keeps unsettled the question of how to watch a film, or even what a film is. As Hollis Frampton declared at the Flaherty in 1970: “I think if we only make the films that we know how to look at, we might as well cash in our chips and go home” (111).

More than an anniversary reflection, The Flaherty is an opportunity to revisit the critical debates that shaped film at some of the most crucial junctures of its history. As seen in the history of the organization, and often as a direct result of the seminar itself, the past 60 years were the ones in which documentary, avant-garde, and independent film emerged as powerful cultural forces in their own right. Outside of commercial cinema, these types of films were undoubtedly new and provocative—little wonder that they generated such heated discussions. In today’s embattled moment, when the forms and institutions of cinema have profoundly changed, and when the call for the arts to respond to the troubled political landscape has grown louder and more urgent, The Flaherty allows the reader to reconsider the struggles of the past: to follow, to learn from, and perhaps, to be newly inspired by them.

Genevieve Yue: Why is the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar important? Why write a book about its history?

Patricia Zimmermann: The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar is one of the longest continuously running nonprofit media arts organizations in the world—it began in 1955 and persists to this day, now in its 62nd year. Founded by Frances Flaherty to celebrate the films of her husband, documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, as well as his legacies of community, independence, and mentoring, the seminar has served as a gathering place, a retreat, an incubator, a think tank for partisans of international independent cinema. For those unfamiliar with “The Flaherty,” it has become a nearly 200-person, week-long immersive experience comprised of at least three screenings a day, each screening followed by group discussion with the filmmaker. More informal interchange takes place during communal meals and late-night parties.

Year after year, the Flaherty has attracted a heterogeneous array of people from different sectors of film culture—anthropologists, commercial film directors, critics, distributors, exhibitors, filmmakers, film studies professors, librarians, museum curators, people working in television, producers of sponsored films, programmers, sociologists, and theorists—who probe the nature and practice of independent cinema. Each year provides a different mix of documentary, experimental film, fiction features, sponsored projects, and television.

We felt a book about its history was necessary for several reasons. First, although the Flaherty has never been a large organization in terms of the numbers of people who attend, it has been and remains important in the development and practice of independent cinema.

Second, it’s important for the field of screen studies to engage institutional histories, the infrastructures that support and make space for works and ideas to enter the world. Since the new field of cinema studies developed in the 1980s, our discipline has looked to expand film history beyond major commercial institutions to include institutions that support all forms of serious media. Our book contributes to this expanding dialogue.

Erik Barnouw had a vision that the Flaherty story would one day become a carefully researched book that might make clear to a wider audience how a group of passionate people created a place for independent film that valued discussion amongst participants. Twenty years ago, Erik and I coedited a special quadruple issue of the journal Wide Angle, entitled The Flaherty: Four Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema. Scott contributed an essay, “Avant-Garde and the Flaherty,” and edited several discussions. So we’ve been working toward this project—at first separately, then together—for probably fifteen years.

Scott MacDonald: Cinema became my lifelong passion because organizations dedicated to the production, distribution, and exhibition of all kinds of film made it possible for me to develop a sense of the full range of cinematic accomplishment. I came relatively late to the Flaherty (my first was in 1987): by then it was well known as a nexus of screening and discussion, particularly about documentary and avant-doc—its story deserves to be told, though of course our book only begins to tell that story.

Yue: How did you conceive of the book’s braided structure, where historical analysis based on primary documents is interwoven with edited transcripts of key discussions at the seminar?

MacDonald: The braiding idea came relatively late in the process. Patricia and I do different, but related, kinds of cultural history. I think it’s also fair to say that we take pleasure in different kinds of scholarly activity and can handle different kinds of boredom as part of this work. Patricia likes digging through archives; I like working with oral histories. For years, I’d been aware that the Flaherty was recording the large-group discussions. When Ruth Bradley at Wide Angle agreed to devote a year’s issues to the seminar, I thought, “Why not see what some of those older discussions were like?” Thanks to the Flaherty itself (and with the help of NYU and Dan Streible), I’ve been able to get copies of many discussions and over the years have been transcribing those that have seemed particularly revealing.

When we realized that we needed to work together on this project, we considered various ways of organizing the book. Putting all the straight narrative history chapters first, then all the discussions afterward, or vice versa, seemed clunky—and not consonant with the Flaherty experience. Since the Flaherty has always been a dialectic space, made up of various kinds of immersive experiences, we realized that intercutting between historical narrative and oral history would energize the book and provide a more effective chronology of the seminar—as well as a metaphor for how the yearly Flaherty process works: first the planning and organizing, then the coming together to see work and talk about it.

Zimmermann: The braided structure emerged organically from our experiences at the Flaherty and the archival record. As Scott says, a key historiographic concept undergirding this book’s method and analysis is heterogeneity—the Flaherty Seminar is a very complex institution. It is not a unified organization with a definitive ideology, but rather a shape-shifting institution where many forces in film culture converge.

A distinguishing feature of the seminar is its focus on participants and extended discussions. The organization sees the participants’ responses to films as of equal importance as the films programmed or the filmmakers featured. In the early 1950s Frances was careful to call this gathering a “seminar.” And David Flaherty, Robert’s brother, insisted that those who attended be identified as “participants,” not “attendees,” not “audience,” not “students.”

The group aspect of the Flaherty experience looms large, so the historiographic question is how to elaborate that, especially when, despite popular misconceptions, there is no monolithic Flaherty position or party line. Confrontations, debates, discussions, endlessly reforming positions, and explorations infuse the space of Flaherty discussions, often revealing important shifts in film culture, practice, and theory.

The discussions included in our book demonstrate collective engagement with film culture, a rare record of how an audience, a highly specialized and trained one, confronts work. The discussions also elaborate how filmmakers talked about their projects in both meta-conceptual and practical ways, revealing aesthetics, challenges, concerns, politics, tactics, failures, and triumphs. The discussions are the life-blood of the seminar, where ideas are opened up and where participants join in. I see the discussions as chamber music pieces, where different players interact with diverse kinds of ideas.

Yue: Patricia, how did you approach the organization of such a massive archive? What were some of the major ruptures or turning points in the Flaherty’s 60-year existence, and how did you go about the task of periodizing different moments in its history?

Zimmermann: After confronting the challenge of trying to understand the history of an organization which has its archival source material scattered in boxes and in board members’ personal files, and not catalogued, the second challenge was periodization. How can we make sense of six decades of a nonprofit organization? How did board members, context, discussions, economics, films, ideas, participants, programmers, and the organization itself change, recalibrate, shift? What is the dynamic between the Flaherty and larger aesthetic, political, and social contexts and movements? How did the Flaherty contribute to the changing definitions of independent film?

Periodization is a way to mark significant change. The Flaherty’s history falls into six key periods, each with a different set of challenges, concerns, debates, and people: the early years of 1955–59 when the seminar was held on the Flaherty farm in Vermont; its quest in 1960–69 to become a nonprofit organization and a place for direct cinema and cinéma vérité and the disruptions of experimental film; the cultural and formal political debates of the 1970–80 period; what we call “the Shock of the New,” when new technologies and identity politics converged in 1981–89; the “Crises” of 1990–99, where economics, a changing nonprofit funding environment, and debates about race and empire challenged the Flaherty’s economic viability; and finally, what we’ve called “The Brand,” from 2000 to the present, where the organization became more conscious of engaging, year-round, with the larger nonprofit international media arts milieu.

Yue: Scott, how did you select which discussions to use in the book? And what was involved in editing these discussions?

MacDonald: A number of considerations were involved in the choice of discussions to transcribe and edit. First, the Flaherty has hosted major contributions to film history. The seminar was the site of the very first screening and discussion of Fred Wiseman’s Titicut Follies [1967]. It was the site of a memorable confrontation between Trinh T. Minh-ha and filmmakers devoted to ethnographic film, on the occasion of a screening of Reassemblage [1983]—as well as of the love-fest that greeted Barbara Kopple and Hart Perry after a screening of Harlan County, USA [1976]. It hosted a very early screening of and discussion with William Greaves about his Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One [1972] and an early screening of and discussion with Hollis Frampton about Zorns Lemma [1970]. Because of the historical and aesthetic significance of particular films, some discussions seemed film-historically significant.

Second, before I had attended a Flaherty seminar, I had heard stories of “trashings” of independent filmmakers during the big-group discussions, and in the years I’ve attended the seminar I’ve been present for some of them. Usually, these discussions reveal the cinematic zeitgeist of a particular era in a very dramatic way and as a result are both interesting and informative, even exciting to read. Certain particularly energetic discussions have become the stuff of Flaherty legend—and a sampling of these is included in the book.

Another consideration is that I wanted to suggest how the nature of discussion has changed as the seminar has expanded over the decades. Habits of public interchange are always evolving (who would have thought a president would tweet!), and many changes in public discourse have been evident in the six decades of Flaherty discussion. My hope is that the final choice and arrangement of the discussions will do some justice to the service that the Flaherty has provided serious cineastes over the years—though my selection is at most a kind of DNA for the much larger, ongoing, group experience of the seminar.

Zimmermann: As I look at Scott’s work on the discussions and think back to our conversations about our process, I see two areas of significance emerging in the selections. The first is an emphasis on heterogeneity, a defining characteristic of the seminar, with a range of filmmakers representing different countries, debates, styles. The second is the filmmaker’s role in defining and redefining international independent film: what changes in film culture or thinking did their work precipitate? The discussions in each chapter represent significant filmmakers from that period, but also reference important debates or concerns in film culture at that time.

MacDonald: I should add that the process of bringing the individual discussions into the book involved a kind of translation. Though Flaherty discussions have nearly always been recorded, the ability to record effectively has evolved. In earlier recordings, much is audible, much is not. But even a literal transcription of an excellent recording of exactly what a group of people said during a discussion does not necessarily capture the experience of the discussion itself. Sometimes I have needed to play fast and loose with a transcription in order to effectively communicate the nature of the experience that the discussants and filmmakers seem to have had.

Yue: Can you talk about the role Frances Flaherty played in the history of the organization? In what ways did her philosophy of “the Flaherty Way” shape the seminar?

Zimmermann: Our book restores Frances Flaherty to independent film history. Frances remains crucial to the history of the Flaherty—she created it in 1955 when she was 72 and pushed to keep it going until her death at the age of 88 in 1972.

Many participants who attend the Flaherty Seminar and others in the international media arts world falsely assume that Robert Flaherty invented the seminar. But Frances created the Flaherty after Robert’s death in 1951, in response to her many national and international invitations to speak about the Flaherty films. At these events, she confronted the pervasive idea that filmmaking talent and vision were somehow innate in particular people, a position she resolutely rejected. She felt filmmaking and seeing the world in new ways was not some essentialized talent but could be learned.

Francis had spent over three decades watching Robert, who did not make his first film until he was 38. With few film festivals and film schools operating during the 1950s, she discerned a need to create a space to continue Robert’s memory, to bring together disparate strands of film culture, and to nurture the next generation of filmmakers through intensive viewing and extensive dialogue and discussion. The Marlboro Chamber Music Festival and the Breadloaf Writers Conference, both in Vermont, provided models of master artists and acolytes who worked together in nonhierarchical ways in a retreat setting.

MacDonald: Now that film courses have become ubiquitous in colleges and universities, even in high schools, it’s worth remembering that the Flaherty was established well before there were opportunities to learn about even commercial film history, much less documentary and other kinds of filmmaking. Early on, the Flaherty served as a space where people could learn from the few people who had been engaged with the field of independent film. The Flaherty grew alongside the developing American consciousness of the wide world of filmmaking and over time has continued to be valuable even for people who have been able to study film within an academic context. As Patricia has shown, Francis was one of the first great American film educators.

Zimmermann: “The Flaherty Way” was an essay that Frances published in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1952. It elaborates her ideas about cinema as a way of seeing the world anew, without preconceptions. She had read widely in Buddhism and the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter to craft these ideas. Her notion of “nonpreconception” was in direct opposition to Hollywood production style, with its pre-planned scripts and hierarchical division of labor, a production practice both she and Robert abhorred. She proffered a more artisanal, humanist, mystical, and poetic view of documentary and cinema in general.

MacDonald: If in the 1950s, nonpreconception referred to how a filmmaker approached the filming process, by the later periods, the seminar had reinterpreted this idea into the exhibition practice of never revealing either the overall seminar program or the titles of the films about to be shown. Of course, no one comes into any experience without preconceptions, but the seminar continues to honor Francis by symbolically referring to her commitment to intellectual open-mindedness.

Zimmermann: What Francis began has grown from a small gathering of distributors, filmmakers, intellectuals, nontheatrical film exhibitors, and sponsored film producers to a larger media arts organization that has come to serve the wider field of independent cinema not only through its annual seminar, but through multiple smaller-scale programming events across the year, such as Flaherty NYC. The Flaherty began as a service to an almost exclusively East Coast clientele, but has evolved into a more international organization by offering seminars in Israel, Latvia, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; by developing collaborations with such events as the Flahertiana in Perm, Russia, and the Oberhausen Film Festival in Germany; and, through its Fellows program, by making the Flaherty available to a more ethnically and internationally diverse clientele.

MacDonald: The Flaherty seminar is an evolving community. College professors, exhibitors, filmmakers, and programmers often work alone. The Flaherty provides a community of cineastes who argue as much as agree—and this community reconstitutes over and over. Some people attend only a single Flaherty, but many people return again and again and this creates a sense that one is part of a ongoing experience that is more like Michael Apted’s Up Series [1964–2013] than a film festival.

Yue: Who are some of the important figures in the history of the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar and organization? What did they contribute?

Zimmermann: Reading the lists of participants and guests who have been part of the six-plus decades of Flaherty Seminars is a humbling experience for any historian. The number of important filmmakers who have screened at the Flaherty Seminar is staggering. And the lists of those who have contributed to its history are vast and impressive—but also complicated, as there is no straight line through all of these people and how they intersected with the seminar.

Of course, the programmers instigate the content of the seminars, and they are a distinguished group, but it is important to remember that like many media nonprofits around the world, the Flaherty has been run by women and men who have worked, often as volunteers, both as members of the board and behind the scenes during seminars. Any list of important contributors must include Madeline Anderson, Erik Barnouw, Sally Berger, Pearl Bowser, Patti Bruck, Jack Churchill, John Columbus, Nadine Covert, Kathy Geritz, Faye Ginsburg, D. Marie Grieco, Richard Herskowitz, Tom Johnson, Mary Kerr, Linda Lilienfeld, Adrienne Mancia, Juan Mandlebaum, Dorothy Olson, Anita Reher, Jay Ruby, William Sloan, Cecile Starr, Barbara Van Dyke, Willard Van Dyke, Margarita de la Vega Hurtado, Sol Worth…there are too many to name.

Yue: The Flaherty Seminar has been recognized for its emphasis on programming. It’s an unusual canvas: an individual or a small group will have the opportunity to select and sequence a group of films over the course of about a week. How did the programming develop and change over six decades?

MacDonald: The art of programming has been under-recognized in film studies—I’m referring to the way in which films and media are selected, arranged, and situated to provoke discussion, debate, and film-historical awareness. At the Flaherty, programming requires intellectual and artistic adroitness, as well as a keen sense of how audiences engage works, as well as an ability to deal with the realities of funding. I expect that for most programmers, an invitation to program the Flaherty is a career highlight, and a challenge requiring over a year of conceptualization, research, and organization.

Zimmermann: The Flaherty Seminar is one of the only places in film culture beyond the college screen studies classroom that has a captive audience who experiences an entire program together. The programming began with Frances screening Robert’s films for close analysis of technique and discussions of strategies and practices. It then moved into other works from the nontheatrical/noncommercial sectors, including ethnographic films, experimental works, feature narratives, sponsored works, and other types of documentary. As the decades progressed, the programming moved toward more and more heterogeneity. In the last fifteen years, as a result of pressures from funders, the Flaherty has announced a theme for each seminar; each theme is a broad conceptual net.

Most programmers have possessed a very wide view of film culture and also a keen sense of audience and current context. They have been aware of, often immersed in, emerging theoretical debates. In my historical analysis of the Flaherty I have worked to make clear which programmers instigated transformations in the nature of the seminar, but again, there is no space here to elaborate all the remarkable programming contributions.

Yue: What are some of the misconceptions associated with the Flaherty Seminar?

Zimmermann: I have extensive firsthand experience with Flaherty Seminar mythology, having attended initially in 1980 as a grants-in-aid recipient while a PhD student, serving on the board of trustees, programming some seminars, leading post-screening discussions, and now, spending more than ten years researching this history. Oddly, the misconceptions seem repetitive across all these years: the Flaherty is a place renowned for “filmmaker bashings,” as Scott spoke of earlier; it’s for East Coast media elites; it’s a closed secret group; it only focuses on documentary and despises experimental film; it has a party line or an ideology about humanist artisanal documentary; it’s a place that focuses exclusively on auteurs…

The archival history of the seminar supports that in fact it has had an East Coast bias, partly a result of its limited resources and its small paid staff. In recent decades annual seminars have mostly taken place in New York State, to take advantage of funding from its longtime supporter, the New York State Council on the Arts. However, the archival evidence also makes clear that as the Flaherty advanced through the decades, it attracted a wider group of participants well beyond the East Coast, especially as more and more screen studies and production faculty started to attend in the 2000s.

With its explicit interest in independent cinema, the seminar has always included an heterogeneous mix of approaches and genres, and that has included experimental works in varying amounts, depending on the programmer. Although I see it as having a bias toward auteurs rather than concepts, the participants are as important to the Flaherty’s history and experiences as the makers. And the expanding Fellows program continues to build on Frances’s commitment to bringing maestros and emergent artists together.

MacDonald: The “filmmaker bashings” constitute the stuff of Flaherty legend. But in fact, though these particular moments are often revealing, within the overall context of the seminar’s history, they remain exceptional moments, not the norm—though spirited debate has occurred, both within the big-group discussions and more informally, at every seminar.

Yue: In the ten-year process of researching and writing this book together, what were some of the challenges? How did your analysis of the Flaherty change?

Zimmermann: The research process was one of excavation, exhumation, and explanation. Until the last fifteen years or so, when more scholars and writers started attending, the Flaherty was rarely reviewed, so sources of information as to what went on at the seminars were limited. I had the lists of participants and the lists of films, and I had lists of who had been trustees and programmers. Ten years ago, I realized that the insufficiencies of the document archive, combined with many unanswered questions about how the institution operated and how the seminar was programmed, required that I do interviews with key players.

Because Scott had access to the audio recordings of the post-screening discussions, I knew that the filmmakers’ role would be addressed in their own words. So I focused on identifying former administrators, board members, and programmers who could fill in the gaps by providing their own perspective on events and a sense of institutional debates and challenges. I interviewed nearly fifty people, often going back to them three or four times with more questions, taking extensive notes, and making timelines in notebooks to graph changes, crises, resolutions. Also, at seminars I’ve attended, I’ve spoken informally with many Fellows, participants, programmers, and trustees as a way of orienting myself within the debates percolating through the seminar.

MacDonald: I don’t believe anyone but Patricia could have written the history of the Flaherty Seminar. While we’ve both attended many seminars and are grateful for the experiences we’ve had—for the films we’ve seen and the discussions we’ve been part of, for the community we’ve experienced there—the challenge was to produce a work of scholarly value: as honest a history as we were capable of, and definitely not a puff piece or even a simple celebration of the Flaherty. No one knows the history of the Flaherty as both participant and scholar better than Patricia; I doubt anyone knows it as well. The long-term efforts required to do her chapters (and my efforts in transcribing and editing discussions) certainly reflect our sense that the seminar has been historically significant, but also, I hope, make clear our sense that, like any important organization, the Flaherty is a complex mix of problems and solutions, successes and failures, revelations and frustrations, and sometimes problematically compromised contributions to our sense of modern cinema and its cultural contexts.
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Patricia Zimmermann and Scott MacDonald, The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017. $41.00 (cloth). 360 pages.

Read an excerpt from the book.

Keep up with all things Flaherty on their site.

Header image: The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar at the Flaherty Farm in Vermont circa 1950s.  Courtesy of the Flaherty Seminar