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Flaherty Experiences Down South, Part I:

IndieWIRE 1999


Over 100 filmmakers, curators, and academics converged on the Duke University campus on Friday, June 4th for the 45th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, which continues through next Thursday. This year's seminar, titled "Outtakes Are History," will highlight the editing process of various filmmaking practices. Flaherty attendees are required to attend all screenings and discussions, and films are only screened if the filmmaker is present. This has lead to a tradition, often referred to as the "Flaherty Experience," which features spirited discussions about the state of independent, documentary, and experimental filmmaking.

Attendees I have met so far have ranged from student filmmakers, to successful producers in mid-career, to true legends in the field. As I unpacked, cinema-vŽritŽ pioneer Richard Leacock walked up to my dorm room door, extended his hand and introduced himself. Despite the wide range of experience among the attendees, there is a real sense of community here that makes first-timers like myself feel right at home.

In his introductory remarks on Friday, co-programmer Richard Herskowitz discussed open forms of editing in which "the cut serves as both a boundary and a crossroads for new possibilities." Herskowitz illustrated these open forms with the work of Dutch filmmaker Johan van der Keuken and Armenian filmmaker Artur Peleshian. At the Saturday morning session, co-programmer Orlando Bagwell explained that many of his curatorial decisions began with the question "Where does editing begin?" in relation to historical documentary filmmaking, and the task of condensing history into television time slots. Bagwell, who began his career with Blackside, Inc., the production company responsible for the civil rights series "Eyes on the Prize," dedicated this year's Flaherty to Blackside founder Henry Hampton, who passed away last year.

Two screening sessions featured films with a similar topic, but very different approaches. "Mississippi: Is This America?", an episode from "Eyes on the Prize," was produced by Bagwell and edited by Jeanne Jordan. Many of the positive audience comments addressed the restrained tone of the film, which Bagwell explained was part of Henry Hampton's philosophy at Blackside. Hampton, a large man, would often speak softly, knowing that people would listen more carefully, and he used a similar strategy in his films. In discussing the nature of compilation documentaries, Jordan explained how the title of this year's seminar was literally the case for this film, because much of the archival footage was found in outtakes at local television stations. Many sequences were never aired on the evening news because they were too provocative, but they were saved and stored at various stations throughout the South. Bagwell and Jordan recalled the frustration of approaching one station just one week after it had thrown away its entire archive.

Producer and editor Sam Pollard presented "Four Little Girls," directed by Spike Lee, which tells the story of the young victims of a 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Pollard's editing credits include several of Lee's fictional films, as well as projects for Henry Hampton at Blackside. When asked what he thought Hampton would say about "Girls," Pollard suggested that he might say what he often said to his producers: "Is it balanced enough?" The different philosophy and style of the Lee film, which went for more direct emotional responses than "Eyes on the Prize," prompted many reflections on the current state of television documentary. One attendee questioned the general move towards a more hectic visual style, suggesting that style took more importance than content. Another questioned the use of sound effects with footage shot without sound, as some feel that this can corrupt the historical integrity of the footage. Pollard defended both of these practices, and reminded the audience that films can ask different questions in different ways. He pointed out Lee's background in dramatic filmmaking, and the legitimacy of experimenting with visual style and sound design as a means of involving the audience in the story.

Seminar organizers have suggested that the large discussions at the Flaherty, while often provocative, are not nearly as memorable as the rich conversations shared at group meals. I have found that the strongest praise and the harshest criticisms of the films screened so far come during these informal discussions. I have also found a larger contingency of experimental filmmakers and programmers than I had expected. Mark McElhatten, curator of the "Views from the Avant Garde" program at the New York Film Festival, will present a selection of films for the seminar later this week. The hard-to-categorize films of Artur Peleshian particularly impressed many from the experimental set. More on Peleshian and the rest of the seminar as indieWIRE's reports from Flaherty continue 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.]