This article appeared in the July 20, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Every year since 1954, the Flaherty Film Seminar, named after the influential American documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, has brought together directors, educators, programmers, critics, and students from around the world to watch and discuss a varied program of experimental films organized around a unifying theme. This year’s theme, Queer World-Mending, explored how, as co-programmers Jon Davies and Steve Reinke put it, “queer desire, through its very non-productive fucked-upness, can mend the world better than more stable, normative approaches.”
The 2023 edition was convened in a different space from previous iterations, which had taken place most frequently at Colgate University in Upstate New York. This year, Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York served as the hub of the Seminar, which was held from June 17 to June 23. With the exception of one open-to-the-public screening of Shu Lea Cheang’s multimedia installation 3X3X6, the Flaherty program was limited to those who participated in person at Skidmore and satellite venues in New York City, Toronto, Mexico City, Bengaluru, and Lisbon. Prior to the official kickoff, attendees received Barbara Hammer’s 1995 Flaherty proposal “Cross Gender/Cross Genre” as a teaser, and inspiration, for this year’s program. Dedicated to experimental film and video made by and for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities, Hammer’s 1995 proposal reads as a clear precursor to Davies and Reinke’s program, defining (in concrete verse) “Cross Gender/Cross Genre” cinema as:
contemporary films that defy categorization, that are not
genre specific, but that collapse a unified medium-
questions will arise as to how inappropriate
the traditional unified or even binary
approach to documentary filmmaking
is simplistic or overdetermined
The first official program on Saturday evening was a mix of the past and present, featuring what might be described as time capsules of sexual expression. Hammer’s own shorts, Multiple Orgasm (1976) and Sync Touch (1981), were a Holy Communion to the festivities; her postscript in the latter work, which reads, “The heart of film is the rapport between sight and touch,” offered yet another guiding light to the Seminar. “Intimacy” in Program 1 included Curt McDowell’s “cumpilation” masterwork Loads (1980) and Angelo Madsen Minax’s incredibly contemporary Stay with Me, the World is a Devastating Place (2021) and The Eddies (2018), which shows the ways in which a trans man navigates and explores modern masculinity through hookup apps and now-defunct Craigslist Personals. The Eddies documents the filmmaker’s desire to explore the phallic symbolism of guns as he solicits men in Tennessee to pleasure themselves while posing with firearms. In the case of one such “Eddie,” Minax and the stranger share a connection and jerk off together on camera, with Minax disclosing himself as a trans man in the process. McDowell’s Loads focuses more on the traditional gay cruising scene and the fantasy of pulling straight men into some action in dizzying montages of flirtation, connection, sex, and ecstasy. Taken together, McDowell and Minax’s works, which share an exhilarating stream-of-consciousness approach, attest to intergenerational ways of pursuing queer pleasure.
The second program paired Minax’s other shorts—Bigger on the Inside (2022), No Show Girls (2012), and The Source Is a Hole (2017)—with those of TJ Cuthand, a contemporary Canadian and Indigenous Cree filmmaker. Cuthand started his experimental-video career as a teenage wunderkind who explored his sexuality and gender presentation as a dyke lesbian with the incredibly sharp and funny video diaries Lessons in Baby Dyke Theory (1995), Working Baby Dyke Theory (1997), and You Are a Lesbian Vampire (2008). The Seminar pushes for “non-preconception,” encouraging viewers to enter the screening room without foreknowledge of which works are in the program, which meant that a few audience members were surprised to realize in the post-screening discussion that Cuthand had transitioned since making those films. Cuthand himself was in attendance, and was open in discussing the experiences he had filmed as a teenager, as well as his explorations of his trans masculine identity, which are at the center of his more recent shorts like The Lost Art of the Future (2022), which played later in the Seminar. Cumulatively, Cuthand’s work offers a profoundly insightful portrait of the ways in which one’s understanding and expression of one’s gender and sexual identity can evolve over time.
For me, another notable discovery was an artist I had long heard of, but whose works I had never seen: Edward Owens, who had two shorts in Program 9. Championed by the likes of critic Parker Tyler during his lifetime, Owens made films that feel like moving Baroque paintings in their colors, cross-fades, and shadows. Screened with Kenneth Anger’s sumptuous Puce Moment (1949), Owens’s Remembrance: A Portrait Study (1967) and Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts (1968-1970) conjured a mix of nostalgia, magic, and ritual that felt like a requiem for our forefathers in this medium. There were other hauntings found in the rest of the Seminar, too. A selection of films involving heavy, colorful strobe lighting included Pat Hearn and Shelley Lake’s Seizure (1985), which was filmed at the Strobe Project Laboratory at MIT. In the middle of the film, as Hearn dances naked onscreen in head-to-toe fluorescent body paint, the camera falls suddenly to the ground and voices can be heard off screen. A later cut to Hearn undergoing an EEG test at a hospital reveals that she experienced an epileptic seizure during the shoot. Another, even more discomfiting film in the program was Roee Rosen’s Out (2010), a satire about the far-right Israeli extremist Avigdor Lieberman, in which his profane, outrageous rhetoric is spewed by a woman possessed by a demon that a queer person tries to exorcize by whipping her repeatedly. These films offered an inversion of the theme of “world-mending,” demonstrating the sadism and masochism one can seek out both as an artist and a viewer in response to the harsh realities of the world.
While there were other agent provocateurs in the program, I found the films that directly took on the modern world and its unavoidable conflicts to be simultaneously inspiring, daringly poignant, and deeply unsettling. Sharlene Bamboat’s stunning Both, Instrument & Sound (2023) stages an intergenerational dialogue between the filmmaker and a fellow queer expat in Canada, an elder activist named Tony, about solidarity in the age of neoliberalism. John Greyson’s short International Dawn Chorus Day (2021) features birds on a Zoom call, their chirping translated via subtitles into a conversation about the circumstances of Egyptian political prisoners and refugees. The film shifts from a sly commentary on contemporary social-media discourse to a devastating tribute to the sacrifices of queer people and the limitations of online spaces as means of world-mending.
After a week of picnics, karaoke, performance art, discussions, and parties, the Seminar ended on a somber note. Opening with George Kuchar’s cheeky short Club Vatican (1984), the final program was in tribute to the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), one of the most influential American schools for experimental film, which permanently closed in 2022. Kuchar was on the faculty at SFAI and McDowell, his lover and collaborator, was a student. The program included Kuchar’s Video Album 5: The Thursday People (1987), which documents the final moments of McDowell’s life before he died of AIDS. Watching the film after McDowell’s own Loads was gutting: while the earlier work demonstrates the filmmaker’s virility and unapologetic sexuality, in Kuchar’s film he is frail and bedridden.
Kuchar’s resignation to losing McDowell underlines that he was hardly alone in experiencing the losses of the plague that took away a whole generation in the blink of an eye, particularly in San Francisco. The Seminar involved several tributes to the great artists we lost to AIDS, including Marlon Riggs’s Affirmations (1990) and Leslie Thornton’s The Last Time I Saw Ron (1994), about the Wooster Group actor Ron Vawter. That Kuchar’s film was also presented as an elegy to a now-shuttered institution prompted some other questions: how can film culture foster the creative queer minds of the future? Do we have the institutions, collectives, and spaces that can support artists who dare to cross boundaries and create new ones, as Hammer encouraged? The answer to these questions, as this year’s Flaherty Seminar made clear, will determine the future of experimental cinema.
Caden Mark Gardner (he/him/his) is a freelance film critic from Upstate New York.