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The Flaherty Experience, Part II: Peleshian, Simpson and Sonbert

IndieWIRE, 1999

Original on indieWIRE

On Friday night, Armenian filmmaker Artur Peleshian screened his films "We" (1969) and "Seasons" (1975) in beautiful 35mm prints. Saturday featured his other films on video, including his student work "Beginning" (1967) made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. While clearly a part of the Soviet Montage tradition, his editing differs from Eisenstein and Vertov in that he has developed what he has termed "distance montage." Unlike Soviet Montage which creates meaning through the juxtaposition of two particular images next to each other, Peleshian creates effects by repeating, rhyming and opposing shots which are placed quite far apart from each other.

In a question and answer period, programmer Richard Herskowitz asked Peleshian about the circular structure of some of his films, where particular images seen at the beginning, repeat near the end. Peleshian suggested that there was, in fact, no repetition in his films -- that when the same image reappears, the shot is not the same because of its new context. The beginning and end of "We" includes a beautiful close up of a girl with her hair blowing in the wind. After a moment, you realize the girl's face is not changing despite the duration of the shot; it is actually optically printed repeatedly (her hair blows the same way, backwards and forwards). This loop printing is used to great effect throughout Peleshian's work, particularly in a large crowd scene in "We," where the crowd appears to ebb and flow.

Peleshian also creates striking rhythmic effects by cross cutting between two versions of the same shot with the screen direction flipped. But these technical details do not convey the emotional impact of his films, particularly the beautifully shot "Seasons," which lyrically documents the daily routines of Armenian sheep herdsmen. One seminar attendee commented on Peleshian's obvious affinity for his subjects in "Seasons," those who live in harmony with nature.

The most fascinating programming juxtaposition was the Saturday afternoon session featuring Warren Sonbert's "Nobelesse Oblige" (1981), a 1932 Film and Photo League short documentary by Conrad Friberg called "Halsted Street," and David Simpson's 1998 reworking of the Friberg film called "Halsted Street, USA." The session clearly illustrated how certain experimental editing techniques, ones which encourage people to look for the organizing principle between shots - and to look at developments within the shot itself - can be used in even more accessible broadcast documentaries.

In his introduction, Simpson explained his fascination with the Friberg film, which examines the diverse communities found on Halsted Street in Chicago in 1932. Simpson was also a student of the late Warren Sonbert, who edited his films based upon constantly shifting principles, and would often foreground particular shots which have a formal integrity in themselves. Placing "Nobelesse Oblige" next to the first "Halsted Street," which were both silent films, illustrated how both are about the pleasure of looking, and the political significance of simply documenting your community.

Watching the two "Halsted Street" films together illustrated the importance of editing with a sense of movement, particularly when the structure of the film depends upon movement (in this case, up Halsted Street). And seeing Sonbert's influence on Simpson's editing demonstrated not only there is room for experimentation even in broadcast documentaries, but more importantly that we should be aware of all of the tools available to us as filmmakers -- including the lessons that can be learned from film history. Simpson dedicated his "Halsted Street, USA" to both Friberg and Sonbert.

L. Somi Roy, director of the Flaherty Film Seminar, suggested to me that each Flaherty has its own flavor, and that things really start to get going in the discussions after the initial weekend. By Monday afternoon, I had shared several group meals with all the attendees, and each is its own fascinating discussion session. By Monday evening, the stage was set for the most heated debate of all the sessions so far -- over the films of Virginia-based filmmaker David Williams ("Lillian" and "Thirteen") which fuse together fiction and documentary forms in their portraits of Williams' friend Lillian Folley. For the films and the fallout from this discussion, check indieWIRE's next and final report from Flaherty later this week.

[James Kreul is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin--Madison, where he is writing his dissertation on avant-garde film distribution and exhibition.]