Robert Flaherty Seminar 2010, Part 1: Unseen Labor

R. Emmet Sweeney

Above: Mika Rottenberg’s Cheese.  Photo by Galerie Laurent Godin.

This is the first of two reports on the 56th Robert Flaherty Seminar.

Since 1955 The Robert Flaherty Seminar has gathered influential filmmakers, critics, academics and programmers to hash out the aesthetic and political possibilities of the documentary. This year I joined them in packing the dorm rooms of Colgate University, subject to ominous-smelling shared bathrooms and dissipated coffee, but trusting that the curatorial acumen of guest programmer Dennis Lim, and his chosen theme of “Work,” would make it all worthwhile. The coverage of the fest is split into two parts. I’m taking the first half of the seminar, and Leo Goldsmith the second.

Started by Robert Flaherty’s indomitable wife Frances soon after the director’s death, the seminar ascribes by “The Flaherty Way,” which is repeatedly defined by the gregarious (and engagingly cult-like) staff as “non-preconception.” From the beginning, the seminar encouraged an exploration of multifarious forms (from experimental to training films), never limiting its scope to Flaherty-style observation, however constructed. There is no house style, and running down the list of guests throughout its history is dizzying: Erik Barnouw, Hans Richter, Fred Zinnemann, Satyajit Ray, Shirley Clarke, Chris Marker, Michael Snow, and on and on.

To encourage exchange between the diverse group of attendees, everyone lives and eats in the same space, breaking down the stratifications between filmmaker/critic/audience that usually operate at film festivals.  To elicit a similar egalitarian spirit at screenings, the program is not announced beforehand, in an idealistic (and unrealistic) attempt to stanch any pre-formed opinions of the films or filmmakers.

Instead of a broad panorama of labor, from white collar to the working classes, Dennis Lim’s program drilled down into the work that is hidden from view—the actual, skillful and back-breaking physical work of the castoffs of globalization, from itinerant farmers to bullfighters to black-market coal miners (that the films focus on process, as opposed to analysis, irked some of the academics, as did a supposed lack of female representation). As Harun Farocki has written, and which Lim quoted in his opening statement, most narrative films take place in “that part of life where work has been left behind.” The 2010 Flaherty Seminar lingered in these ignored spaces.

The opening night paired Uruphong Raksasad’s short, The March of Time (2006, anthologized in Stories from the North), Mika Rottenberg’s Cheese (2008), and Lisandro Alonso’s La libertad (2001). This trio introduced themes and stylistic choices that would resonate throughout the seminar, and I’ll use them as jumping off points to the rest of the program. Alonso and Raksasad both deal with constructed versions of reality in long takes, while Rottenberg’s worlds are flamboyantly artificial, teasingly abstract and metronomically edited. But all of them deal with issues of survival, and the varying levels of freedom that living off the land affords.

Raksasad is the child of farmers, and he films his village of Chiang Rai with unprepossessing nostalgia and an attendant melancholy. The March of Time is composed of a series of vignettes, snatches of childhood memories of an old man tending water buffalo, a gunshot, and a boy flying his kite against the setting sun. Working on no set schedule, the farmer eases back and forth between work and play, the effort with his buffalo on the same continuum as teasing his dog. It is a hard-earned kind of freedom, but one that is rapidly disappearing. Uruphong casts the villagers to re-enact their own lives (and his own memories), in order to capture moments that will soon be swept away by urbanization and mechanization. His desire to reclaim the past reaches its apex in Agrarian Utopia (2008), a sadly ironic title that refers to a film that is almost entirely staged, a utopia that will only exist on screen and in his head.

Above: Naomi Uman's Unnamed Film.

Another kind of utopia is presented in the films of Naomi Uman, whose search for her family roots in the Ukraine led her to move to the small village of Legedzine. In Unnamed Film, she shoots the old bubushka ladies as they expertly prepare pickles, pick vegetables, and sing odes to vodka. Shot on 16mm with non-sync sound, it has an intimate, handmade quality, only heightened by the use of explanatory inter-titles in place of subtitles. Uman’s Ukrainain was weak, so she wanted the viewer to have the same experience as she did, just getting the gist of things. As with Uruphong’s work, there is a nostalgia for the old ways, which were self-sufficient but took an incredible toll on the body. The bubushkas complain about their aching backs and the never-ending poverty, spiking any drift towards romanticization.

Issues of immigration and homeland, which Uman hints at in her impressionistic works, come to the fore in the films of Akosua Adoma Owusu and Alex Rivera. Owusu's films are graphically dynamic collages of the cultural and economic exchange between Ghana and the U.S.  The only member of her family born in America, she uses advertisements and her own footage to draw lines of cultural lineage, including the comically damning journey in Intermittent Delight (2007) of Ghanian batik cloth making its way into a 50s Westinghouse refrigerator commercial.

Rivera is also a connections man, keen on mapping out the psychological and economic effects of immigration with a broad, punning sense of humor. His early video works also feel handmade, with the mordantly personal Papapapấ (1995) tracking the racial history of the potato, and the transformation of his Peruvian-born father into a couch spud after his emigration to the U.S. The Sixth Section (2003) finds him mapping another tale of displacement, this time drawing lines from upstate New York to the village of Boqueron, Puebla, as a group of Mexican laborers pool their money to build up their poverty stricken neighborhood (first on the list: a baseball stadium).

Above: Lisandro Alonso's La libertad.

While these artists are working from a more personal mode, Lisandro Alonso is a perpetual outsider, a curious artist-anthropologist who simply tries to capture people and landscapes that interest him. His first film, La libertad, follows the logger Misael (who Alonso met on his father’s farm) as he goes about his daily business: cutting down trees, stripping them into posts, selling his wares, and then killing an armadillo for dinner. There is a well-trained beauty to his hacks, expressive of the endless repetitions made to gain this expertise. His whole existence seems to be a series of repeated motions—after work he’s always dipping his dusty Mets cap in water, and hanging up cups and pots ritualistically on a jury-rigged hook. Alonso shoots him until his film cartridge runs out, and in the context of these near-motionless long takes, every movement seems monumental. When Misael drowses his way into sleep, and the camera slips away into the forest, the question becomes - is this a dream of escape? Or a representation of his own liberty? The film offers no answers. His follow-up, Los muertos (2004), while introducing more narrative elements, is even more withholding, reducing a story of repressed violence into shards of dialogue. Alonso is more interested in Argentino Vargas’ movements, the way his figure cuts against the landscape, and his facility at gutting a goat.

In Toro Negro, Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio provides a clear conclusion—poverty has destroyed Fernando Pacheco, a 21-year-old bullfighter and alcoholic who performs at Mayan community fairs in the Yucatan peninsula. Shot in a brutally intimate handheld style, Rubio is given access to scenes of terrifying violence, pushing the limits of documentary ethics. One of the great tensions of the film is whether he chooses to intervene in the increasingly fraught domestic brawls. It is confrontational cinema, a well-placed shot to the gut about life on the edge of civilization (Rubio would present an inverse type of intimacy in his delicate father-son drama To the Sea [Alamar], later in the week).

Fellow Mexican Eugenio Polgovsky presented his own potent polemic with Tropic of Cancer (2004), following impoverished families who survive by hunting and gathering in their desolate desert home in the inland state of San Luis Potosi. They skin snakes, capture birds, and knock off rodents to stay alive, with incredible slingshot accuracy. Offering a counterpoint to Uman’s more poetic vision of self-sufficiency (they screened back-to-back), it is a call to social action, ending on a grotesque vision of class inequality.  Zhao Dayong’s bruising vision of Shanghai’s homeless, Street Life (2008), was equally urgent, and Zhao even blunter in his aims, when he said, “If I had to kill someone with a knife to awaken them to the world, I would do it.”

While Polgovsky’s film ends with an explosion of middle-class narcissism, Kazuhiro Soda’s documentary Campaign (2007) revels in it for its entire 120 minutes. Kazuhiko Yamauchi, a former rare stamp dealer, is running for the city council in Kawasaki with no political experience, but has the Liberal Democratic Party machine backing him. Soda, a former classmate of Yamauchi, tracks his progress through generic talking points, endless handshakes, and poorly attended speeches. He endures the humiliations with an impenetrable deadpan and the gallant support of his acerbic wife. Soda has an unerring eye for the absurd, including a packed subway image worthy of Tati, and he frames the LDP as such a well-oiled machine that it could have easily elected a lamppost.

Equally mechanical in their operations are the Rube Goldberg factories of Mika Rottenberg, the impish video artist who creates abstract industrial work cycles in her studio. In Cheese a group of long-haired Rapunzels tend their locks and milk their goats in a series of interlocking operations to produce a gleaming block of cheese, providing a kind of imprisoned freedom that echoes the work of Uman and Alonso. The sound design is as intricate as the wooden contraption that stirs their milky brew, a precision that carries over to Squeeze (2010), which premiered at the Flaherty (and is now running at the SFMOMA), and is a major step forward. For the first time she incorporates documentary footage into her contraptions, of a rubber plant in India and a lettuce farm in Arizona, concretely linking her inner metaphorical world to the economic realities she alludes to. Dizzyingly intricate, a rotating cube houses groups of women, each performing one rote task, a compact globalized factory that interacts with the real workers to produce a useless blob of greens and makeup. Bitterly funny, it’s work as Kafkaesque nightmare, a tangled bureaucracy of labor for labor’s sake.

Above: Michael Glawogger's MegaCities: 12 Stories of Survival.

Another vision of globalized labor is presented by Michael Glawogger in MegaCities: 12 Stories of Survival (1998), his galvanic globe-trotting tour of the working classes. Like Alonso, he is an explorer, searching for expressive faces and landscapes, and liberally re-staging reality to get at more elusive truths. But Alonso withholds information, his figures fascinating but opaque, where Glawogger is a garrulous showman, packing his mini-portraits with anecdotes and revealing details—creating epic heroes out of everyday survival, a Times Square hustler and a Bombay street projectionist are majestic in his lens. Shooting on 35mm, and with an eye for dynamic compositions, he’s even able to make a garbage can of chicken caracasses look transcendent, as filmmaker Pawel Wojtasik commented during the discussion.

Lim wrote Leo Goldsmith and myself over e-mail that the films in his program were “confrontational in the most decent, human sense of the word.” Through a kaleidoscope of styles, tones and personalities, which began to rhyme and interact as the week progressed, he was simply trying to display images of labor that are never shown, left hidden in Farocki’s space where “work has been left behind.” In the current recession, where terms like “the unemployed” and “globalization” are reduced to rhetorical devices, this year’s Flaherty seminar tried to bring them back down to the earth in confounding and revelatory ways. As Glawogger told me:

"Plato said, 'beauty is the splendor of truth.' Tomorrow you’ll see a piece of mine, 20 minutes in a slaughterhouse, where it looks beautiful. And that affects something in your head where you really start to think about the world. That is a challenge."

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