51st Robert Flaherty Film Seminar

June 11-18, 2005  co-curated by Jesse Lerner and Michael Renov

Opening Remarks

Documentary has, from its origins, held forth the promise of History.  Think of the first Lumiere films of 1895: the workers leaving the factory or the train arriving at the station at La Ciotat.  These actualites signaled the cinema’s potential to capture the evanescent moment.  The past, or better yet, the present that becomes the past, the realm of history, was there to be seized.  This documentary cinema offered, as Andre Bazin has famously argued for the photographic arts, no “mere approximation” of the past but rather an object capable of issuing an evidentiary claim, of producing verifiable proof of experience, of  bearing witness to an otherwise inaccessible historical moment.

Yet, in addition to providing the glories of revelation, documentary  bore a terrible burden attached to historical representation.  Meta-historian Hayden White has characterized the 20th century as  “Holocaustal” for the scale of destruction and suffering inflicted through two world wars and countless genocides.  Throughout that same century, the documentary film has been history’s handmaiden, present to record and offer testimony to all that befell mankind.  But the documentary film is also no mere transcriber of history.  For it is capable not only of recording the past but of offering it up for reflection and analysis, for critique and reinscription.  I have argued that documentary always alters what it shows; there is no zero degree style.  The documentary film, so capable of bearing witness to historical events, is also a powerful expressive vehicle as we shall see in the days ahead.

The point about documentary altering what it shows is related to another point necessary to mention.  As the psychoanalytic tradition has shown, memory – on which much historical narration depends – is unreliable, incomplete, subject to revision.  Moreover, trauma (and the 20th century has been rife with trauma) often occludes memory, transforming it into symptom or aphasia.  Filmmakers, far more than professional historians, have embraced the unreliability of memory, have meditated on its limits and slippages, forging a route to an unspeakable experience.  Their interrogations of history are often less about accuracy than investigation, opening up rather than closing down the past.  For it is the work of artists to offer audiences an engagement with the past through their own creative engagements with the filmic material.  That engagement is often transformative; it can even be therapeutic.  It is also always ethically charged because, simply put, history happens to someone.  In the documentary film which depicts the impact of history on others, we feel ourselves to be implicated.

It is to this complex topic of Cinema and History that the 51st Robert Flaherty Film Seminar is devoted.  In the week ahead of us, we will encounter a great variety of films, tapes, and digital works that take the past – its meanings and effects – as their object.  Many approaches toward the representation of history will be on display, many styles, many tonalities, many colors.  If the documentary penchant for historical representation is of long standing, it is also far-reaching indeed globalizing.  We are proud to present work by artists from six continents.  We take this geographic reach to be a critical component of the seminar because documentary culture is exploding everywhere and it is our pleasure and obligation to acknowledge and engage with works produced both here in southern California and around the world.

The breadth on display this week will also be felt at the level of style and approach.  In the films we’ll see, traces of the past are interrogated from many angles, from the search for one’s own family  history to the analysis of the lingering effects of colonial occupation or the legacies of state violence.  These pieces are, literally, in many languages but they also speak many different film languages.  By that we mean that the works range across many idioms and styles; they employ diverse production practices and move across the documentary modes (from observational to participatory to performative). Beyond the traditionally conceived documentary film, we have programmed works that spill over into the terrain of interactive installation, performance and experimental media.  Some take the subjectivity of the filmmaker as a starting point while others avoid all references to the self.  Some situate themselves in relation to the historical avant-garde – causing some, perhaps, to question the works’ documentary credentials – but this experimentalism should come as no surprise for a tradition whose forebears include Dziga Vertov, Jean Vigo, and Luis Buñuel.  What unites all of this work is a willingness to turn away from the dominant modes of  historical documentary, with its implicit assumptions of a monolithic and universal historical truth to be captured, and to embrace any of a number of strategies informed by a sophisticated historiographic understanding.  We encourage you all to maintain a maximum openness to the diversity of style and method.  As always, there will be ample  opportunity to respond, to engage in dialogue and debate.

Link to Robert Flaherty Film Seminar

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