Working Methods: The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Colin Beckett

A sulphur miner in Michael Glawogger's  Workingman’s Death

A sulphur miner in Michael Glawogger's Workingman’s Death

The Flaherty Seminar is unlike any other place you might see a film. Unaffiliated with any major institution and totally noncommercial, the first seminar took place in 1955 at the Vermont farm owned by Frances Flaherty, filmmaker Robert Flaherty’s widow. For the first few years, Frances and her brother-in-law David gathered an intimate group to analyze Flaherty’s films alongside newer works by luminaries of observational cinema such as George Stoney, Satyajit Ray, and Jean Rouch. In the fifty plus years since it started, the Flaherty Seminar has grown into an essential yearly stop for a certain kind of cinephile, and has acquired a reputation for the thorough, and often contentious, discussions that bookend every screening.

It was Frances who coined the term “non-preconception” to describe her husband’s approach to his subjects, and it is this ethic that has guided the seminar since its inception. This applies not only to the nature of the work shown, but the organization of the seminar itself. There is no screening schedule, and films are not announced beforehand. Participants file into the theater for three daily sessions, before each of which the programmer announces only the number of films playing and the total running time. The intimacy and intensity of this arrangement gives the programmer a significant amount of control that acts as a kind of counterbalance to the more democratic nature of the discussions. When this year’s programmer, critic and Moving Image Source editor Dennis Lim, described his program as a narrative, it was not just a fanciful mission statement. Gathering 150 people together to watch nearly forty films over the course of a week does more than put these works in conversation—it binds them together as a unit, each successive program modifying your sense of the whole. Though the films and videos here were too complex, too individual to be subsumed under one smooth surface—Lim said he was motivated more by fidelity to the films than the theme—it is difficult to avoid drawing some general conclusions about the theme from the program’s arc.

The theme for 2010 was “Work,” but those expecting socialist-realist heroics or righteous indictments of exploitationwould have been badly disappointed. Lim was deliberate in choosing his title. This is work—”a word with endless connotations”, as he put it in his introduction to the seminar—as distinct from labor. Occupations diverse and various appeared on screen throughout the week, but with them Flaherty participants also witnessed an array of unpaid activities that circle in the theme word’s orbit: fatherhood in Pedro González-Rubio’s Alamar (2010); living with mental illness in Kazuhiro Soda’s Mental (2008); cultural assimilation in Alex Rivera’s Papapapá (1995); and in the astonishing series of 16mm films (2008) Naomi Uman has made since relocating to rural Ukraine.

In that introduction, Lim also mentionedHarun Farocki’sWorkers Leaving the Factory(1995) (which did not appear at the seminar)as a piece central to his thinking about the program. Implicit to Farocki’s analysis of the cinema’s near-exclusive preference for life outside the factory is the disappearance of industrial labor as a reliable source of income for the Western working class. Fifteen years later, the verb in the video’s title has definitively switched from the present continuous tense to the present perfect: the workers have left. Benj Gerdes and Jennifer Hayashida pun on Lumière and Farocki in one of the titles that appears inPopulus Tremula (2010) superimposed over the completely automated operations of a Swedish match factory. Robert Flaherty’s ownGrierson-produced Industrial Britain (1931) plays as camp in this context, the sensuous detail of Flaherty’s cinematography unable to sustain the now-comic triumphalism of Donald Calthrop’s voice-over. Most of the recent films at the seminar were shot far from the factory gates, and our brief layovers in the industrial world pictured an environment radically different from the canonical images of assembly lines and smokestacks—Gerdes and Hayashida’s unpeopled match factories, transcontinental copper production in Lucy Raven’s China Town (2009), the illegal, and worker-run coal mines in Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (2005). In Squeeze (2010), Mika Rottenberg joins images of rubber plant employees, lettuce pickers, and manicurists into different corners of a single set, its moving floors mashing together the detritus of their labors into a disgusting cube that has no value apart from its status as art.

These few pit stops in the factory notwithstanding, Lim’s program registers changes in the global economic order with a set of films and videos which surveys the new livelihoods workers have carved from the wreckage of their old ones, and the kinds of preindustrial work to which others have returned. From the evidence here, the exodus from the factory has not led to better conditions for those on the losing end of the neoliberal economy. If, as Farocki says, film is “repelled” by the factory, many of the works here depict spaces that most commercial filmmakers would not even know to avoid.

Megacities (1998), and Workingman’s Death (2005), by Michael Glawogger, are globe-hopping symphonies of extreme living. Both films are comprised of vignettes that explore the means by which people survive at society’s fringes. They are almost compendiums of the sorts of places from which the camera, particularly the 35mm camera Glawogger uses, has shied—an open-air slaughterhouse, a drainage basin where men scour for saleable garbage, a sulphur mine. Glawogger is anything but a miserablist. In these difficult lives he finds great beauty and, particularly in the better-modulated Workingman’s Death, even joy, all of it presented at monumental scale. Megacities opens with a quote from William Vollmann, and there is something of Vollmann in Glawogger’s fetishistic attraction to hardship and his satisfaction in having confronted it. Like the prolific writer, his formal sophistication and technical precision make his work difficult to dismiss. In a way, the queasiness they induce is part of their greatness. These are knotty, complex movies that refuse to countenance our fascination with images of suffering.

Lisandro Alonso’s films all deal with self-sufficient men divorced from an immediate community. La Libertad (2001), his earliest, and the first feature screened at the seminar, is a patient, exacting portrait of a man named Misael who lives alone in the Argentine Pampas lowlands. The film is largely wordless. Alonso tracks his subject from his shack into the woods, where we see him purposefully chopping thin sticks from trees with his machete. Cobi Migliora’s camerawork is astonishingly intimate for 35mm. In long takes, he fluidly tracks Misael’s every move, turning the woodsman’s daily routine into a spellbinding rhythm. La Libertad is a movie content to simply show, to bring us into a visceral relation with this man’s being and extrapolate no further. La Libertad is a documentary of one kind or another. His two other films in the program, Los Muertos (2004) andLiverpool (2008), are fictions, but they deviate little from the agenda Alonso set for himself with his first feature. Both are self-contained studies of men who remain opaque as they move through landscapes that become increasingly articulate. Where the documentary is circular, rhythmic, and exploratory, Los Muertos and Liverpool are forward-moving, A-to-B journeys. Alonso’s directing is always tight and controlled, but seeing these three films in so short a time span rubs a little of the luster off each. It begins to seem like Alonso is letting the blankness of his characters do a lot of the narrative work, his distinctive voice and confident imagery keeping us from noticing that he has only one trick.

With industrial employment, the eight-hour workday has also been eclipsed. In Farocki’s companion essay to Workers Leaving the Factory published in 2001, he touches on something unmentioned in the film:

“In the Lumière film of 1895 it is possible to discover that the workers were assembled behind the gates and surged out at the camera operator’s command. Before the film direction stepped in to condense the subject, it was the industrial order, which synchronized the lives of the many individuals. They were released from this regulation at a particular point in time, contained in the process by the factory gates as in a frame.”

Glawogger’s short Haiku (1987) uses the clang of metal forming as the basis for an earsplitting rhythm that mirrors the repetition of life structured by the factory’s whistle. In the films gathered here we see not only the spaces in which the underclasses now toil, but also the temporal arrangements this toil entails. For many, the demarcation between work and the rest of life has dissolved (a demarcation Farocki makes much of: “Immediately after the workers hurry past the gate, they disperse to become individual persons, and it is this aspect of their existence which is taken up by most narrative films”). We see this in the nearly unceasing continuity of Alonso’s films and Eugenio Polgovsky’s Trópico de Cáncer: men and women, employed irregularly or in trades that defy classification, who cannot stop moving forward, scavenging a living from the earth they tread. Kazuhiro Soda locates a similar continuity in a twenty-four hour workday of a paler collar, his Campaign (2007) detailing the endless performance required today by even minor political candidacy.

At the other end of the spectrum, we find the flow of life fractured by the vicissitudes of global capital. China Town is composed from thousands of still photographs animated in succession. Raven begins with a Nevada copper mine and follows the ore to the metal extraction that occurs in China. The stuttering animation of the sutured stills is an esthetic of absence and loss that evokes Marx’s famous observation about capital’s annihilation of space by time. Alex Rivera’s films and videos explore the schizophrenia induced by the northward immigration patterns insured by the asymmetric dispersal of economic opportunity and the fate of people forced to live with their feet planted in different time zones.The Sixth Section (2003) details the efforts of an upstate New York migrant union to raise money for public works and basic infrastructure in their hometown in Puebla. Rivera accounts for the great physical distance that separates these men from their families, but he also composites images of streets and overlays maps to illustrate the technological changes that have allowed them to maintain parallel lives.

Elsewhere, work has vanished and time has lost its shape. In Uruphong Raksasad’s grim, hilarious The Longest Day (2006), two elderly women sit waiting to die in the Northern Thai village their children have abandoned for employment in Bangkok. In a brief eleven minutes, Raksasad is able to summon the never-ending stasis of purgatory. Street Life(2006) and Ghost Town (2009), both by underground Chinese documentarian Zhao Dayong, chronicle communities out of time. Street Life is largely contained to one road in Shanghai, the main hub for a group of homeless people who buy and resell plastic and cardboard waste from the city’s better-heeled residents. Zhao shot it on cruddy DV in catch-as-catch-can lighting, and the grimy, pixellated image renders the claustrophobic mise-en-scène all the more oppressive. These men live in public but are largely estranged from the bustling schedule dictated by Shanghai’s economic centrality. By the film’s end, it is unclear how many days have passed since we first joined these men and women. People vanish and reappear, negotiations and arguments repeat, conditions do not improve. You could call it episodic, but episodes end. Like the shorts that make up Uruphong’sStories From the North, Ghost Town takes stock of a rural population hollowed out by the magnetism of urban opportunity. In three hour-long chapters, Zhao canvasses the remains of Zhiziluo, a mountainside town in Southwest China. His painterly tableaux allow a stillness absent from Street Life. Life here is no less troubled, but its quiescence gives Zhao time to burrow deeper into this world and craft a layered, multivalent portrait of life at a standstill.

Naomi Uman calls her recent series of films “The Ukrainian Time Machine” because the town they document, Legedzine, is sustained by agricultural and manufacturing processes that have existed for centuries, but the three pieces here do not transport us to the past as much as to a place where time has ceased to matter. Even when they explicitly track its passage the clock’s hands tick forward like a body moving through jello —Kalendar (2008) is composed of twelve vignettes that correspond to the Ukranian names for each month; in Unnamed Film (2008) a group of babushki celebrate one woman and her late husband’s anniversary; Clay (2008) documents the continued practice of brick-making methods that predate the Common Era. Uman works in 16mm, the boxy aspect ratio making it seem as if she has opened a cabinet that contains a parallel dimension. The films are completely silent, and Uman’s camera is drawn to details and surfaces, human and otherwise, that serve as metonymies of an entire history.

By the middle of the week, an opposition between films tilted more toward observation of a subject and those that foreground some kind of historical analysis emerged as one of the motifs of the group discussions. This first came up after Campaign, whose subtitle, “Observational Film #1,” highlights where its sympathies lie. Soda’s immersive account of an ex-classmate’s hapless bid for a city council seat makes no effort to explicate the market-driven politics of the Liberal Democratic Party he represents. Campaign is smart and funny, finely-tuned to the idiosyncrasies of character, but it does illustrate the form’s tendencies toward a decontextualized individualism. Fortunately, the rest of the program provided ample evidence of the limited usefulness of such a dichotomy.

Polgovsky’s Tropic of Cancer plunges us without context into the San Luis Potosí desert, following a family as they trap animals and gather plants. For nearly forty minutes, we watch them work with no sense of their purpose. In the film’s momentous final act, Polgovsky joins the family at a highway roadside where they hawk their catches, living and dead, to wealthy tourists looking for exotic mementos. Cutting between the family’s negotiations with their entitled customers and quick pans of trucks speeding by on the artery that connects this outpost to Mexico’s North, Polgovsky efficiently situates his subjects within the world economy. His follow-up,Los Herederos (2008), stitches together images of child labor from several Mexican states. Again his nimble editing steers this project from the vague humanism that could have crippled it, and points us towards those who benefit from the system that creates these horrors. Likewise, Uruphong’s feature, Agrarian Utopia (2009), mixes fiction and documentary to reveal the Thai political class’s abandonment of the rural poor. The two families at its center are enslaved by debt. Alongside the long-take observational scenes in which this narrative unfolds, Uruphong makes excursions to Bangkok political rallies, where the ruling government and the increasingly belligerent opposition jockey for power, disconnected from and unconcerned with people like our protagonists. With the documentary footage, and his scripted constructions, Uruphong provides a multilayered view of contemporary Thai life. The distinction between these two modes seemed premised on the absurd notion that without verbal text, a film is unable to provide context or make argument. None of these observational films provide us a complete history of the causes underlying the situations they depict, but far from suggesting these things happen in isolation, these videos rend argument from visual scrutiny and editorial structure. The more essayistic work is able to offer a fuller picture of social dynamics, but remains unable to fully articulate the nuances of our contemporary political landscape. Strike Anywhere (2009) is, with Populus Tremula, part of Benj Gerdes and Jennifer Hayashida’s multiformat investigation of Swedish match king and neoliberal avatar Ivar Kreuger. Combining original video footage with found photos, letters, and graphs, and brought together under theoretico-poetic narration, Strike Anywherewas the most explicitly analytical work at the seminar. But in order to avoid mythologizing the industrialist, Gerdes and Hayashida leave the story riddled with lacunae, and unleash their evidence and commentary at breakneck speed, never allowing their viewer to feel as though they have a full grasp of Kreuger. But these jagged edges are smoothed under the veneer of their crisp, attractive HD cinematography, and Gerdes and Hayashida’s explication appears unfinished rather than intentionally fragmentary. Their video is very good, but it is wrong to suggest that its analysis is any more instructive than those performed more slyly by Polgovksy and Uruphong.

Luckily, we do not have to choose between these methods. Though Lim weighted his program towards the observational end of the spectrum, he encouraged a catholic appreciation for form—there were as many differences as there were similarities between the films here grouped under the “observational” umbrella. As with his approach to the realities of work today, Lim’s survey of contemporary documentary esthetics served as a jumping-off point rather than a final word. The Flaherty Seminar, designed to spur exploration and debate, is not the place for final words.

Colin Beckett lives in Brooklyn. He is currently the Critical Writing Fellow at Union Docs.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 4