About the Flaherty Seminar: The Art of Asking Questions

Written in 2018, this was first published here, where participants of the Flaherty Seminar, the long running week-long documentary seminar series in the USA, write about their experience. I was a Graduate Fellow there in 1999 and was invited back as a featured director in 2011.

“Before leaving Singapore in the 1990’s for graduate school in the US, my film diet was mainstream, linear, and fictional.

Although we had the excellent Singapore International Film Festival, many kinds of film could not be seen due to our nascent film culture. Though the country was economically prosperous, the arts were looked upon as a hobby. For example, our local universities did not have fine art, music, or film degree programs. I had a burgeoning interest in film and longed to see films I had read about in magazines like Sight and Sound that circulated at the British Council Library. Going to “the west” seemed to offer me the best chance to see these titles and learn the craft of filmmaking.

While in the MFA program at Northwestern University, my course mate Laura Kissel told me about Flaherty Seminar. She had heard about it from her former professor at Ithaca College, Patricia Zimmermann. With the help of grants from International Film Seminars [the nonprofit that produced the annual Flaherty Seminar] and Northwestern, I was able to attend.

I arrived at the 1999 Flaherty Seminar bright eyed and eager to watch films. The seminar’s policy to not announce what was to be screened was perfect for me—I was the perfect blank slate.

I attended two seminars back to back: the 1999 edition programmed by Richard Herskowitz and Orlando Bagwell with the title “Outtakes are History” and the 2000 edition programmed by Kathy Geritz, called “Essays, Experiments and Excavations.”

Those two short weeks at the Flaherty showed a young Singaporean filmmaker what was possible. My worldview widened and the ground softened.

Twenty years later, I vividly remember the programming, the directors, and my awe of their post-screening Q&As. I remember the mental and physical exhaustion that endured for weeks after the Seminars ended. I suppose these feelings and memories reflect what the Seminar’s public relations mean by “the Flaherty Experience.”

Many films at Flaherty influenced my work. In Singapore, I’d wanted to make fiction films. I returned from the USA a director taking on an essay approach, a style I continue to work in.

The 1999 Duke University edition screened Martin Arnold, Bruce Conner, Arthur Lipsett, and Scott Stark. All worked with found footage. I remember the shock of seeing Martin Arnold’s Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy [1998] for the first time. Unsettled, I thought if such high order work can be mined from found footage, most film shoots are redundant—a scary idea for someone just starting out.

Documentary giant Ricky Leacock, who shot for Robert Flaherty, DA Pennebaker, and Robert Drew, was among the 1999 guests. He stood up and protested the experimental works. Big divides tore through even the margins of film culture at the Flaherty. Leacock may have found more comfort in the epic, humanistic works of Armenian Artavazd Peleshian: Seasons [1975] and We [1969]; and Johan van der Keuken: Amsterdam Global Village [1996].

At the 2000 seminar, I was introduced to Harun Farocki’s oeuvre with Images of the World and the Inscription of War [1989] and Workers Leaving the Factory [1995]. His films are precise, intelligent, and painfully ironic. During the seminar, a few of us transformed into Farocki groupies. We hung out together at his presentations. We still keep in touch.

We saw films by Santiago Alvarez, Peggy Ahwesh, Chris Sullivan, and Jean Painlevé. It is a testament to the thoughtful framing of the Flaherty Seminar experience that I still remember these very different films. From the agitprop of Alvarez, the liminal works of Ahwesh, and the jittery hand-drawn animation of Sullivan, the films flowed from each maker’s personalities and curiosities. One could feel the sustained focus of each director.

At that edition, I decided to skip the discussion with Paper Tiger Television, a public access TV organization that challenges corporate control over the broadcast medium. Back then, I didn’t understand the organization’s politics. I wondered why their projects were not more polished, and why they’d been included in the seminar.

In retrospect, I realize their works were grassroots efforts produced with volunteers who wanted to reclaim the media for themselves. Their productions reflected a democratic perspective: it wasn’t about the films as objects as much as it was about access to the mass media. I should have given Paper Tiger a chance even if I didn’t understand the context.

In 2011, programmer Dan Streible invited me to present my films at the Flaherty. I’d met him at the 2000 Flaherty, and I was happy to make contact again. I showed Moving House [2001], Singapore GaGa [2005], Invisible City [2007], as well as The Impossibility of Knowing [2010]. These films question and probe the idea of Singapore as a contested terrain.

In a lovely coincidence, Laura Kissel was also a guest, presenting her work from the Cotton Road series. This series followed the journey of a commodity—cotton—from South Carolina to China, exposing the global labor behind our cotton clothing.

At this Flaherty, my circumstances were different. I was no longer a graduate student. I’d moved back to Singapore. I now worked in the trenches of independent film. And I could now appreciate the robust DIY ethos of Lillian Schwartz, Helen Hill, Jodie Mack, and Melinda Stone.

My goal was to be as generous a guest as previous guests had been to me.

Across the three Seminars I attended, the eloquence of some filmmakers struck me deeply. They avoided being defensive or pretentious. They were knowledgeable. I came to understand their attempts to connect with their own visions and also with the communities they sought to find through their work. I learned so much from them, and wanted to find out more. They’ve made me a more thoughtful and conscientious filmmaker.

At my three Flaherty Seminars, I learned the art of asking questions.

Generosity binds all my Flaherty experiences together. The audience listens and watches with open hearts and minds. The guest filmmakers and programmers share ideas and stories. Generosity impels the best questions from the audience.”