The 1994 Flaherty Documentary Film Seminars marked the 40th year of the now legendary annual event. This year's Seminar featured both a retrospective programme, curated by film maker Eric Barnouw and writer and lecturer Patricia Zimmerman, and an Asian (in the broadest sense of the term) Diaspora programme curated by L. Somi Roy.
Roy's programme was challenged by the immense geographical terrain which he had to traverse to make his selection. And also that for many of the delegates at the seminars the term Diaspora was clearly a problematic definition: the existence of Diasporic cultures assumes a pure culture somewhere else, the idea of a collective sense of source, the mythical homeland. For those of us living in the West, these places exist in the collective imaginary, as notions of authenticity disguised as home. Caught in the bright glare of this projected illumination of authenticity, many in the Diaspora find themselves wanting; another kind of difference is assigned; and we enter yet another form of colonisation.
But Roy handled this problem by making it organic to the format and content of his programmes. Instead of a dualist East-West, Homeland-Diaspora duel, the work featured proposed that, as cultures become increasingly globalised, the East lives inside the West and vice versa, and Homeland and Diaspora often exist only as fictions.
The work was programmed thematically, not as a kind of linear progression from Third World to New World. As a result, the films of Nick Deocampo (Philippines), and Go Takamine (Japan) were featured alongside the experimental video work of American Yau Ching and Canadian Shani Mootoo. Roy also chose to by-pass the usual suspects that materialise in discussions of Asian cinema and feature instead many artists whose work rarely gets screened in the West, including emerging artists and frankly—and for the most part delightfully—some rather oddball eccentrics.
The highlight of the programmes was the brilliant work of Indian film maker Mani Kaul.
Kaul has been described as a formalist. But the term does not do justice to the intense emotional stories that reverberates from the images that make up his interpretations of myth, music and architechture—although often they are more like collaborations with those cultural pratices and forms. He defies categorisation: to call his work non-narrative does not accountforthe detailed and complex narration that his camera work offers within any single scene. Even to call him an Indian film maker does not seem useful since Kaul refuses to locate his work within national or cultural subjectivities. But in Uski Roti (1969), Dhrupad (1982), Siddeshwari (1989) and The Cloud Door (1994), Roy revealed to many of us for the first time, the range and development of a master film maker whose work has rarely been screened in the US.
Roy selected a lot of exceptional video work as well. Highlights included the witty, feminist parables of japanese artist Mako Indemitsu; the elegant video and video installations of the Korean American, Seoungho Cho; the razor sharp collage work of Yau Ching; and the premiere of Shani Mootoo's new piece, Her Sweetness Lingers, a moving and erotic video poem which had to be screened twice to satisfy audience demands.
But the most interesting aspect of this year's Seminars was the juxtaposing of the Asian and Asian Diaspora programme alongside the retrospective programme—which itself offered a rich and satisfying selection of both the seminal and the irreverent from previous seminars. One programme, screened after a viewing of contemporary Japenese and Asian-American work, featured Eric Barnouw and Paul Ronder's very moving Hiroshima/ Nagasaki (1945), provided—particularly after just having viewed programmes of contemporary Japanese and Asian American work—an intriguing way of measuring time and distance in the histories of documentary film practice.