Stirring Things Up: The 2008 Flaherty Seminar (Extract)

Harriette YahrDOX Documentary Film Magazine Issue No.80, Denmark, january 2009.

By Harriette Yahr

If you’ve never heard about the Flaherty, even though you consider yourself an educated filmmaker, join the crowd. If you’ve attended one, you’re already ‘in the know’ and I hope this report brings back good memories. I belong to the camp of filmmakers who had heard about the Flaherty (officially called The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar), but that was about it. Even if I had known more, it would never have compared to the actual experience, which runs the gamut from exciting to challenging to exasperating to revelatory – and ultimately

So what is the Flaherty anyway? Most of us know something about filmmaker Robert Flaherty and his seminal doc Nanook of the North. His wife, Frances Flaherty, a maverick in her own right, founded the seminar fifty-four years ago. It runs for about a week every summer, usually held in a college town, usually (but not always) in the northeast USA. Filmmakers present work, participants discuss, dialog,  debate, argue, rage … all for the love of film. From Jean Rouch to Satyajit Ray, Frederick Wiseman to Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Agnes Varda to Michael Snow to Louis Malle – many greats have attended the Flaherty….


Participants at Flaherty are famous for challenging filmmakers. This year British filmmaker (living in Belgium) Laura Waddington got a taste of the hot seat.  I will go on record to say that I’ve never heard a more articulate person meet charges of, basically, being “a privileged white woman making films about the less fortunate”, with such poise and depth of intelligence. The rub is unfortunately timeless: outsiders can’t know the truth, the privileged can’t really understand “what it must be like.” It seemed senseless to me: how can anyone not speak from their own perspective? Wouldn’t anything else be disingenuous? The critique came from just a few, not all – there were plenty like me who find Waddington’s work revelatory and brilliant – and it’s an example of how passions and opinions run high at Flaherty. 

In Border Waddington used a slow-staggering nighttime image to offer a hypnotic entry into the desperation of life around France’s Sangatte Red Cross Camp, where Afghan and Iraqi refugees hope to smuggle themselves across the channel tunnel to England. “I think it’s never been so important for individuals to go out with a camera, not the embedded nor the professional but those who want just to take time to look and understand,” writes Waddington in A Letter to Nicole Brenez. “It’s my belief in a world full of people claiming to ‘represent’ everyone but themselves, the small, the fragile, the unfinished voice – that which searches and refuses to be anything but that – is a kind of resistance.” ….

The seminar’s intent was not to offer conclusion or resolution (it never is), but rather to inspire and provoke, to stir things up. “The idea of migration is far too large for any kind of summary or master narrative,” says Yang. “Rather, the week’s goal, cumulatively, was to impart a framework of how to grasp its enormity and complexity, using a guiding question: ‘What kind of logic and patterns govern a world where individuals, some by their own volition, some with no agency, are literally circling the globe, pushed and pulled by forces that are completely outside of their control?’”
Stirring Things Up: The 2008 Flaherty Seminar” by Hariette Yahr, “DOX Magazine Issue no.80, Denmark,” January 2009