CAAM Flaherty Fellow Theresa Loong’s Reflection on the Flaherty Film Seminar

Theresa Loong. Photo by Kimberly.
Theresa Loong. Photo by Kimberly.

Editor’s note: Theresa Loong is a director and producer. Her film, Every Day Is a Holiday, received funding from ITVS and debuted on public television. It is also streaming on Seed & Spark, starting October 24. Loong attended the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar as a CAAM Fellow. Her reflection on the seminar is below.

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I was privileged to attend the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, a unique film program in its 63rd year, as a CAAM Fellow. Founded by Frances Flaherty, Robert Flaherty’s wife, approximately 170 film lovers and makers watch films while practicing the notion of non-preconception. Attendees do not know what film is screened until the lights dim and the film starts to play.

I live in New York City, and took a bus that arrived on at Colgate University, a lovely campus located in upstate New York, hours from NYC. Colgate has hosted the Flaherty for ten years. I attended with 33 other fellows. The week, from June 17-23, 2017, was programmed by Nuno Lisboa with the theme “Future Remains.” Fellows arrived an evening early, on Friday, June 16, to meet each other and get settled. On the whole, participants at the Flaherty are treated equally. We slept in dorm housing on mattresses that could be more comfortable, and we ate most meals in the campus dining hall (complete with gluten-free and lactose-free options). Fellows had the special privilege to lunch privately with filmmakers whose work was being screened during a particular day. It was rewarding to share a meal, exchange ideas, and listen to advice.

To prepare for the seminar, fellows read two articles: Agamben’s “Notes on Gesture,” and Jeff Wall’s “Gestus.” In addition, we read a brief overview of Flaherty Seminar’s history, and an interview about film curation with Ian White by Siri Peyer and Wolf Schmelter, “The Cinema Auditorium,” selected by Pablo de Ocampo and Ariella Ben-Dov. I create interactive visual experience design as well as film, so this article was of special interest. In addition to screenings at the Flaherty, there were also temporary installations of artwork and viewing experiences. Transforming the white box—these physical spaces—is a challenge given time and budget. Dominic Gagnon’s work was voyeuristic—a peep show-like environment with the black curtain and small space.

Vincent Carelli speaking with fellows. Photo courtesy of Theresa Loong.

Vincent Carelli speaking with fellows. Photo courtesy of Theresa Loong.

Talking about gesture. Really a chance for me to step back and analyze the thread that runs through my work, to truly push it forward. How? Take more risks. Embrace communication and technological advances and capturing them. Continue to be open to filming on different continents. Continue to work with both non-actors and actors. Know when to use each. Improv actors have a charm of the unknown. Be confident with my directorial decisions.

It takes great effort to watch films with a critical eye all day, starting at 9am and ending after discussions, often around midnight.

During our fellows orientation, curators Pablo de Ocampo and Ariella Ben-Dov met with us. A returning Flaherty participant told us that we would run into people from our past and our future at the seminar. It’s true; the Flaherty family is a special one.

My goal going to the Flaherty Seminar was to familiarize myself more fully with the body of work of current documentarians and experimental filmmakers, to be exposed to older work, and to be inspired by work to create my own. I am primarily a documentary director, working in experimental and creating narrative pieces as well. In the fellows briefing, we were asked to think about what we want to get out of the program. For me, it was to find a new way to make film and experiment with something new and to be inspired to create narrative film. For example, I am working on a piece about a female video game designer. I’m also working on an interactive piece about domestic violence, looking at it through the lens of objects broken in the relationship and how to heal from the experience.

I found connections to themes I saw in my own work—such as those dealing with issues of identity and immigration. Also looking at different ways of seeing, of capturing footage and stories. I was inspired by Laura Huertas Millán’s piece Sol Negro, because she started filming it as a documentary, then returned to create a hybrid narrative piece. It works. It’s evocative; the film utilizes distant, striking images and close-up, intimate scenes. Teddy Williams blurs fact and fiction in a dreamscape that keeps me thinking—even when the escape is participating in online porn from an everyday, mundane house in Argentina—then we get transported to a similar setting and experience of boys in Mozambique…and I keep thinking about Kevin Jerome Everson’s work, and honoring those who work. Kevin explores the theme of appreciation of everyday people and everyday work and elevate them. It’s a theme I like in my own work that I want to move forward.

The Flaherty is a chance for contemplation. For me, the contemplation takes place outside. I managed to get up early one day to swim in the pool “a natatorium with one of two retractable roofs east of the Mississippi,” according to the school’s web site. It was a good way to clear my head prior to all the films and the discussion.

Attending the Flaherty has already impacted my thinking and it will impact my creative work in the future. It wasn’t always easy, minute by minute, to be at the seminar – it’s takes a lot of energy to watch so many films—but the fatigue was worth it. I enjoyed the intellectual rigor and an attention to craft—craft and an arc of a filmmaker’s career. I enjoyed how the theory was brought down to earth when it felt too esoteric. I was thrilled to see and hear from Laura Poitras and many of the other filmmakers, including Trinh T. Minh-ha, Teddy Williams, Dominic Gagnon, Kevin Jerome Everson, Laura Huertas Millán, Sana Na N’Hada, Peter Nestler, and Vincent Carelli. Quite a lineup programmed by Nuno Lisboa.

The Flaherty has remained timely. It’s controversial and fun. I truly appreciated the egalitarian nature of The Flaherty. I ran into Dominic Gagnon before I saw any of his work. It was nice to meet him as a fellow filmmaker and to see his early piece, The Matrix, because I work with interactive experiences and film. Looking at looking. Dominic put videotapes inside of camcorders in a Sony retail store, recording from the viewpoint of those in-store demo cameras. It was harder for me to interact with him after watching his film Of the North, because the film raised many issues for me. It raised a lot of issues with people at the Flaherty. [He’s never been to the north, he searched for the term “Eskimo,” he looked at Google and porn sites, he’s committed to what he created and accepts the consequences of creating the work]. Dissent is encouraged. It’s powerful. It’s difficult. Moderators at the sessions encouraged people who hadn’t spoken to come forth and ask a question or share an idea. However, I’m glad I watched the film and listened to the ensuing discussion – and I was still able to talk with Dominic afterward. I’ve worked with indigenous Mayan people in Chiapas, so the seminar was especially relevant for me—thinking about how I might want to revisit the work I conducted as a young anthropologist almost 20 years ago and what I might do with that information and that footage now.

Over a fellows lunch, Dominic Gagnon shared with us one of his other projects – a long-term project where he, his wife and his daughter, surprise each other and film themselves around the house. It sounds both vulnerable and charming. Dominic started the project by surreptitiously assembling a video camera, flipping the switch on, and then putting it back in its original box so that it seemed new and unopened. To me, it added a new twist to the idea of “unboxing”—the set of videos on social media of people opening new gadgets and products and commenting on the experience. “Reality” like “reality tv” vs. real like real life?

I was so excited to see that Laura Poitras was attending the Flaherty as well as my friend and mentor, Professor Carol Dysinger. Watching Risk and the other experimental documentaries using technology, especially AJ Schnack’s Speaking is Difficult, a work in progress about the gun violence. It’s supposed to be updated.

With Teddy Williams’ work, I learned that he literally took balloons and floated his camera into the air, retrieving it with fishing wire. I work with improv and non-professional actors, and learned from his hybrid approach. He worked with video chat rooms, where people take their clothes off and some perform sexual acts for money.

I was also inspired by the work of Kevin Jerome Everson. He’s prolific. He partners with people. He takes risks. He plays with fact and fiction, letting his subjects redo scenes in a documentary. I’m learning when I want to bend the rules of documentary, and when I want to create a narrative. Kevin is a professor at UVA as well as an artist. I was impatient at first with his piece,…about elections and the polling booths, filmed in black and white, watching, waiting. And then another fellow felt that we didn’t do the piece as much justice by having smaller group discussions instead of larger group discussion. His pieces demand attention. I drifted in and out. It still worked.

I was thrilled to hear of his and Greg de Cuir Jr.’s selection as curators for next year’s Flaherty Seminar. Keeping it relevant for sure.

And then I returned home. And the events in Charlottesville happened.

As artists, we can choose to make people think. And so, this is what I choose. I’ve grown up using technology and creating experiences as interactive graphic novels, Facebook games, augmented and virtual experiences, and physical art. There is something in the physical, in the hybrid of virtual and physical, that makes an experience very compelling. I still love to work with and shape stories with the audience who remains “passive.”

I’m so grateful to the Flaherty and to the Center for Asian American Media for this opportunity. It was so wonderful to be a part of the fellowship program at the Flaherty. As a Fellow, it enhanced my Flaherty Seminar experience! For example, I was not familiar with Trinh T. Minh-ha’s work prior to the seminar. Her generosity providing a master class for the fellows helped prep me for the rest of the weekend. I really enjoyed the personalized and small-group attention.

I was also very grateful to be selected to moderate two small-group interactions. It was such a treat to be part of Teddy Williams’ table and conversation. Funnily enough, Laura Poitras sidled over to our group to hear and participate in the discussion. Also, I was able to chat with Dennis Lim, someone who I’ve heard about – and who lives in New York – but who I’ve not met in person until the Flaherty Seminar. Teddy was so generous in his conversation.

I also enjoyed my “task” of working on social media – focusing on the Flaherty’s Twitter feed—during the week. For example, I live tweeted this during a discussion of Teddy’s film, I Forgot! Part of his process is that he films, and then weeks later, looks over the footage and the translation of the dialogue. During that process, he discovers conversations and situations:

Tweeting also allowed me to do some research. I discovered that my fiscal sponsor, Women Make Movies, is the distributor for Trinh T. Minh-ha’s work. Minh-ha suggested that I watch her film A Tale of Love, because I am interested in working with smell and adapting Italo Calvino’s The Name, The Nose. While I don’t always agree with the aesthetics of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s films, I learn a lot from hearing her talk about her work as well. She is very strong in theory and I’m inspired by that. Also, she spoke about a relative who was suffering from dementia, and utilized a phrase accompanying text—“forgetting with dignity.” As my parents age, I begin to think about these issues.

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Theresa Loong is a director and producer. Her film, Every Day Is a Holiday, received funding from ITVS and debuted on public television. It is also streaming on Seed & Spark, starting October 24. She received funding from the NEA, and her work has been exhibited at the National Gallery of Art, Círculo de Bellas Artes and the Asia Society in Hong Kong. Loong also specializes in the editorial and strategic development of integrated media projects. She has produced interactive graphic novel games and social media games for AMC Networks shows The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. With Intellitoys’ smart-ebear, Theresa worked with Grammy award-winning musicians and storytellers to create interactive stories, songs and games for children in Chinese, Spanish, French, and English. Theresa is an honors graduate of Harvard University and has lectured at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and The New School. Loong has been an artist-in-residence at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty National Monument. She collaborated with the New York Hall of Science, the Tech Museum of Innovation, the Presidio, the Knight Foundation, and others to create interactive experiences for children and adults.