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The Robert Flaherty Seminar

Jesse Lerner

There is a tribe that converges annually to honor the spirit of Robert Flaherty. Best known for his landmark Nanook of the North (1920-21), Flaherty’s films stand as models for collaboration between documentary subject and filmmaker. For the past 51 years, the Flaherty flock has gathered for a weeklong intensive “film camp” with screenings in the morning, afternoon and evening (and sometimes a midnight show as well), each followed by a discussion with the director. The Flaherty Seminar has the resources and prestige to bring (almost) all the artists showing work to their screenings. The Claremont School of Theology houses the Robert and Frances Flaherty Study Center, an invaluable archive of photographs, diaries, footage, scripts, writings and other unique materials of the famed “father of documentary film.” Through the years, the Flaherty Seminar and the Flaherty Study Center had drifted apart, and it was time to reconnect. Bringing the Flaherty Seminar to Claremont was part of that effort. For the Claremont Colleges, it was a way to bring the attention of leaders in the field to our new Intercollegiate Media Studies program.

The Robert Flaherty Seminar is at once the media curator’s wildest dream and worst nightmare. On one hand, it’s a carte blanche for the programmer, and offers a kind of freedom that is hard to come by anywhere else. The audience is composed principally of film scholars, media artists and other curators, and is a notoriously demanding one. It’s also an audience that has already seen lots—when you’re programming films for film programmers, they’re likely to scrutinize your decisions closely. The entire audience makes the commitment to stay at the seminar for the entire week, and to attend all of the screenings, so it’s not like curating media at a film festival or museum, where any particular audience member might attend one evening but then not make the next screening. This allows the curator to build the week’s program as a carefully crafted whole, developing a thesis and exploring its ramifications in a way not possible in any other forum. Divided by all kinds of ideological, aesthetic and generational fissures (to name just a few), the Seminar has earned a reputation, and—especially among filmmakers—not always a favorable one, as a hothouse for passionate, gloves-off discussion of documentary, experimental and independent media arts from all over the world. In short, as a curator, one can pretty much screen whatever one wants, and probably get the filmmakers to attend and discuss their work, but one must be prepared to face the consequences and defend one’s choices.

I partnered with a former professor of mine, documentary scholar Michael Renov, a professor of critical studies (and now associate dean) at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television. After a year’s work defining and refining our thesis, inviting filmmakers, screening submissions, working out logistics, securing a gallery space for six interactive new media installations, assembling the program and more, the seminar took place on the campuses of the Claremont Colleges on June 11-18, 2005. We put together a program on the theme of Cinema and History: Piling Wreckage upon Wreckage (the program’s subtitle is borrowed from Walt Benjamin’s famous theses on the philosophy of history) that looks at the complex relationships between moving images, memories, and histories, both official and subaltern. We hosted more than twenty media artists from Argentina, Korea, Italy, Australia, Hungary, Mexico, Canada, Cameroon, Chile and France, as well as about 150 media studies professors, students, writers, video artists, critics, documentarians and other members of the Flaherty tribe. It was an exhilarating and exhausting week, one that generated such an intense flurry of thrilling ideas and enduring images that I will never forget those seven days of June.

—Jesse Lerner is an associate professor of
Media Studies at Pitzer College.

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