Films from Flaherty

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09/12/2008 9:00 AM |

Starting today and continuing through the weekend, BAM will feature a selection of films from the annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar (2008 edition recently completed). L film critic Cullen Gallagher, who worked for Flaherty this year, runs down the selection.

One of the perks of working film festival-related jobs is not do you only get to attend the big event, but hopefully you get to see a ton of great movies you won’t see elsewhere. Such was my experience at this year’s 54th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar held at Colgate College in Hamilton, NY. But for those who didn’t make it upstate for the Seminar, highlights of the program are being re-screened at BAM this weekend, and they’re very much worth checking out. Curated by Chi-hui Yang (of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival), the theme of this year’s Seminar was "The Age of Migration," and it popped up in myriad fashions: micro- and macro-stories about the movement of people; situations in which the filmmakers themselves were the objects of migration; and, in a metaphoric sense, the actual movement of narratives, as they cross not only borders, but hands and voices, and take on new meanings. (In light of this, perhaps it is only fitting that the these films have traveled south from Hamilton to Brooklyn.)

Inaugurated in 1955 by Robert’s widow, Frances, the Seminar is an intensive weeklong gathering of filmmakers, scholars, programmers, critics and enthusiasts. Thrice-daily screenings and discussions build off one another in ways that typical film festivals do not: rather than exhibit the best of "new" cinema, The Flaherty examines the body of work of several filmmakers in the context of a themed program in which the films help to illuminate each other in new ways.

Several of the key issues that appeared in many of the films are highlighted in Flaherty’s own The Land (1942). Reminiscent of Pare Lorentz’s The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938), as well as Walker Evans’ photographs from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,
Flaherty’s film details America’s devastating rape of the soil, as well
as the potentially dangerous effects that the mechanization of farming
has on both the environment and the economy. The controversial role of
migrant workers in The Land becomes the primary focus of Lee Wang’s God Is My Safest Bunker
(2008). Through the personal stories of several Filipinos working for
US Military contractors in Iraq, Wang illuminates the much broader
effects of war in the age of globalization. Wang skillfully blends the
emotional and the political, as well as the specific and the global,
all the while refusing to offer easy answers and overly simple
rhetoric.

Undermining the assumed "authoritarian" nature of documentaries is Laura Waddington’s Cargo (2001). "It had been years since I had been able to watch like that — without the pretense of understanding," admits the narrator, while Waddington’s observational camera stares out of a porthole. Cargo is an insightful contradiction of global transportation and restricted movement: traveling by cargo ship for the Middle East, neither Waddington nor the other workers are allowed to disembark at ports. In lieu of unlimited access, Waddington uses her constraints as an aesthetic device. Filtered through a necessary extreme zoom and rendered in slow motion, Cargo‘s images are hazy and hypnotic: the ambiguities of truth and understanding become manifest in the blurred pixels of digital video.

Equally ambiguous is the narrative of Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava (1994; pictured above), a melding of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950). After a migrant Cape Verdean worker is in injured while working in Lisbon, a nurse accompanies the comatose patient back to his home to oversee his recovery. Face to face with "the other," her reaction to the Creole culture is one of alienation and attraction. Whereas the nurse of Casa de Lava and the narrator of Cargo represent the gaze of outsiders looking in, Kent MacKenzie’s docu-fiction hybrid The Exiles (1961; pictured at right) represents the insider speaking out. Examining the everyday lives of a Native American community in 1960s Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, the narration of The Exiles is culled from interviews with the film’s subjects. Recently rescued from obscurity by Milestone Films, The Exiles is nothing short of a revelation: a West Coast Shadows (1959), of sorts, in which MacKenzie captures the anxieties of assimilation and the tensions surrounding ethnic identity in a big city melting pot.

These diverse narratives, taken from over sixty years of filmmaking and from across the globe, represent views on migration and globalization as diverse as their origins. Whether the personal narrative of Renee Tajima-Peña’s Calavera Highway (2008), the dialectical polemics of James T. Hong’s The Form of the Good (2006), or the investigative documentary approach of Ursula Biemann’s Black Sea Files (2005), they all contribute to what is both a timely and timeless topic.