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40th Annual Robert Flaherty Seminar
Ann Kaneko
Afterimage. Nov, 1994

Marking the 40th anniversary of the Robert Flaherty Seminar, this year's program included a retrospective of work shown at the Flaherty, curated by Erik Barnouw and Patricia Zimmermann. The main program, curated by L. Somi Roy, featured Asian and Asian American work. Instead of complementing or contextualizing each other, these two programs seemed to polarize generations and perspectives regarding documentary.

In the 1994 Seminar guide, "new internationalism" was the stated theme of the Asian and Asian American program, juxtaposing the work of Asian artists in Western states alongside that of their peers in Asia. I was struck by the profile of this "Asian American" community. Most of the U.S.-based makers are young, emerging, and originally from outside of the States. Despite the variety of their work, they share some patterns. Almost all of them came to North America to continue higher education and appear to come from relatively privileged class backgrounds. Coincidentally, many of them also are gay.

During the screenings, Roy acknowledged that he "chose the films he likes." However, if the program was intended to explore how concepts cross national boundaries and endure generations of enculturation, artists whose cumulative experiences of living away from Asia are more than just their own should have been included. The majority of Asian Americans residing in the U.S. are the offspring of immigrants or subsequent generations of immigrants.

The highlights of the program were the featured visiting Asian artists: Mani Kaul, a Bombay filmmaker and former student of Satyajit Ray; Takamine Go, an Okinawan filmmaker and painter; Idemitsu Mako, a pioneer Japanese woman videomaker, and Nick Deocampo, a filmmaker, teacher and writer from Manila. Their work provided an eclectic mix of styles and themes from various parts of Asia.

Four of Kaul's films screened at the Seminar, including both his impressive first feature Uski Roti (A Day's Bread) (1969), made when he was 26, and his most recent film The Cloud Door (1994), a slick short produced for German television. All of his films retain a non-linear structure, reflecting the Indian traditions that his work incorporates. A student of Indian music and painting, he has translated musical form into cinema. Dhrupad (1982) documents the work of the Dagar Brothers, Muslim singers of North Indian Hindu devotional music lineage. Kaul's most inspiring film is Siddeshwari (1988), a stunning visual portrait of the late Siddeshwad Devi, a famous vocalist of the Thunri classical music of North India.

Takamine's work originates from his native Okinawa, the southernmost group of islands in Japan. One of the few filmmakers producing work in his native Okinawan language, he subtitles them in both Japanese and English, Curious mixtures of Okinawan folklore, these films combine a Japanese colonialist past and a post-World War II American occupational influence. In his dreamlike world backyard barbershop quartets suddenly break into song, women turn into pigs and interact with dirt-eating humans, obsessed ant collectors who painstakingly number the backs of each insect, and giant, commandeering American generals. Takamine's films chronicle the succession of cultural influences in Okinawa.

In contrast to Takamine's work, Idemitsu's videos are melodramas steeped in the oftentimes warped domestic workings of the modern Japanese family. As the originator of the early "Great Mother" video series (1983-1989), she occupies a revered position in Japanese videomaking. At first, I was somewhat bored by these family sketches, but I became hooked just as people become addicted to soap operas. The hallmark of her videos is a television monitor used within the frame to suggest the psychological motivations and preoccupations of each character. The drama in the interior monitor scene complements the main scene, and the character in the main scene often interacts with characters in the monitor scene. Formally, her usage of the monitor has become more sophisticated, if gimmicky.

Deocampo, an impassioned speaker, is extremely active in the Philippines where he runs the Mowelfund Film Institute. He has established a cooperative arrangement with the Philippine film industry, enabling students to make short films with the promise of industry resources for wider distribution access. These student films are not yet particularly impressive, but it is heartening to know that young, independent filmmakers in the Philippines are getting opportunities and support.

Deocampo also showed three of his own films. Each engaged similar themes: his obsession with this father; his "spiderman" friend who is part of a nightclub act; his gay identity; and images of a deteriorating Manila. Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song (1987), his lengthy first film shot in super 8 during the Aquino revolution, was the most interesting despite being the loosest and roughest in form. His later films Memories of Old Manila (1993) and Isaak (1993) got progressively shorter as their budgets grew bigger (the latter was shot in 35ram). As they became more technically sophisticated I did not find that a glossier style meant better filmmaking.

Aside from Michael Magnali's White Christmas (1993), an ironic view of Christmas in the Philippines, all of the Asian American work was video, reflecting the greater accessibility of this medium to younger makers. Even among the older Asian makers, cost is an important factor and part of why Idemitsu chose this medium and why Takamine recut Paradise View (1985) in video.

A personal favorite was Sandeep Bhusan Ray's Leaving Bakul Bagan (1993). Shot in a cinema verite style over a period of four months, it centers on a 21-year-old Bengali woman leaving her large family to study in the U.S. Set in 1992 when race riots occurred throughout India after a Muslim mosque was destroyed by Hindu fanatics, the video portrays the day-to-day interaction of the family, anticipating the anxiety of separation that the young woman is about to experience. The simplicity and directness with which the piece reflects on the complexities of leaving one's home and family, especially for a first world country like the U.S., is in stark contrast to the layered experimental work of Yau Ching and Ming-Yuen S. Ma.

For both Yau and Ma theory plays an important role, as they challenge ideas of representation, language, and identity in their work. In Flow (1993), Yau focuses on a Chinese artist friend, exiled in New York City after the 1989 crackdown. She uses a variety of media to address the hybridity of identities that inform her friend's experience. Toc Storee (1993) by Ma examines Asian/Pacific Islander gay life through a complex multi-layered format. As both continue to mature as artists, we can expect to see further growth in their exploration of ideas. Current work-in-progress tapes by both were visually more exciting and interesting than their earlier work.

Shani Mootoo, a Canadian videomaker and writer from Trinidad, born in Ireland, whose family is from India, incorporates a little from all of these places in her work. There is a clear progression in her work, from A Paddle and a Compass (1992), to The Wild Woman in the Woods (1993) to her current work-in-progress about women's relationships, beauty, and nature.

In contrast to other work featured in the Seminar's program, Seungho Cho's video installations Opium and Memory Blinked Three Times (1993), and The Island with Striped Sky (1993) were more purely aesthetic experiences. In trying to convey his personal vision of journey and dream, his work was not part of the more politicized discussions of representation and identity concerning other work.

Unlike the Asian program, which was somewhat untraditional in its focus, the retrospective took a more doctrinal approach, chronologically presenting films from past decades of the Seminar, Bamouw, a Flaherty old-timer and a "godfather" to documentary film studies, joined forces with Zimmermann to organize this program. Although Zimmermann espouses to be an older, "young upstart" of the Seminar, more knowledgeable of contemporary discussions regarding filmmaking, she failed to combine praxis and theory. Instead of rethinking the usual course of documentary film history, the program relied on old stand-bys, with entire sessions devoted to George Stoney and Robed Drew. Although both men have made substantial contributions to documentary filmmaking, they were disproportionally valorized at the Seminar.

In general, a cloud of politesse and nostalgia hovered over the retrospective, preventing people from debating the compelling arguments in the documentary field in either diachronic or synchronic terms. A dialogue about representation and identity politics in the context of Asian and Asian American programming became a moot activity in the "historical context" framing of the retrospective. Ironically, the last time there was any interplay between the two programs was on the opening night. Satyajit Ray's film, Sadgati (Deliverance) (1981), and Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1990) were screened. Ray combines the interests of both programs as an early attendant of the Flaherty and one of the Seminar's earliest Asian filmmakers. Although Riggs was an African American videomaker, his work, on the other hand, was much closer in spirit and impulse to the work of the young, queer Asian American filmmakers included in Roy's program.

Although discussion of the more recent work in the retrospective could have provided an important context for newer work in the Asian Program, few parallels were drawn. Even the inclusion of work by Rea Tajiri and Janice Tanaka, prominent Asian American women videomakers, at the end of the retrospective prompted no comparative discussion with work by the emerging Asian American artists.

Aside from being hard of hearing (he is over 90-years-old), Barnouw did not understand the questions addressed to him in post-screening discussions as dealing with larger issues in current film analysis and could only respond in terms of the details of the process. Zimmermann did not speak the same language as much as the audience, and Roy was not always present at retrospective sessions because he was busy orchestrating others. Perhaps my expectations for the Flaherty were a little high. Two distinct programs don't necessarily inform or relate to one another. Concentration on the friction and discontent that comes from interchange, however, seems productive. Because I am Asian American, I was able to attend this year because of a grant and will not be able to attend again soon unless I am invited. I hope that there continues to be a presence of Asian Americans, and we are not just the "flavor of the month." t noticed that there was only one Latina filmmaker attending this year--fewer than last year, I imagine, when the focus was on Latin American film.(1)


1. For information on the Annual Robert Flaherty Seminar contact International Film Seminars, 305 W. 21st St. New York, NY 10011 (212)727-7262.

ANN KANEKO is a filmmaker and writer based in Los Angeles, and currently on a fellowship in Japan.

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