Here's Looking at You

Article excerpt

Since it was first organized by Flaherty's widow Frances over 40 years ago, the Robert Flaherty Seminar has offered participants a unique opportunity to view new visual works and discuss the processes, problems and politics of imagemaking. The Seminar has attempted, if at times belatedly, to respond to the evolving concerns of independent film- and video-making, including the relation between producers and their subjects, and the context and circumstances of production. These issues have become of increasing consequence in recent years as critical practices have informed the work of independent mediamakers.

This year's Seminar, "The Camera Reframed: Technology and Interpretation," was curated by Marlina Gonzalez-Tamrong and Bruce Jenkins of the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. The programming theme was prefaced in the Seminar brochure by the questions "Who's looking at whom?" "Whom are you looking at?" and "Who's looking at you?" invoking familiar considerations about the ways power is inscribed in visual media. The curators' opening comments linked an analysis of new communications technologies with an historical interrogation of the cinematic apparatus. Juxtaposing documentary and experimental film and video with archival collections, home movies, travelogs, advertisements, CD-ROMs and the World Wide Web, the curators established a critical discursive conjuncture between the politics of representation and emerging interactive media technologies. The overall strength of the program was this connection between an analysis of these recent technologies and an understanding of how power operates through such filmic conventions as framing, mode of address, temporal compression and identification. Themes that resurfaced throughout the week included the consequences and possibilities of the archive, public and private memory, models of self-representation and the ever-present nonfiction film topics of authenticity, objectivity and truth.

The Seminar's formal discussions provided a context to situate the individual works both in relation to one another and to the curators' overall project. As Gonzalez-Tamrong proposed during one of these discussions, the structure of technology is itself an interpreting mechanism. By characterizing the association between technology and interpretation in this manner, the programmers established a preliminary connection between the diverse works exhibited. Particular projects were used to make the thematic points through which Gonzalez-Tamrong and Jenkins addressed the application of interactive media technologies.

The paradigms and problems of ethnographic film practice provide one direction from which to approach the program's themes. Fatimah Tobing Rony's short video, On Cannibalism (1994), among the work in the opening screening, pointedly addresses the dialectic of the colonial gaze. Footage of ethnographic museums, anthropological drawings and Hollywood cinema is recontextualized by Rony's voice-over recollection of the moment she understood that she was one of the "savages" depicted in these texts, and that she therefore had somehow inadvertently occupied a position at the wrong end of the gaze. Her crisis of positionality, resulting from this contradiction between public imaginary and personal memory, bifurcates the intended narrative of identification as she occupies both sites simultaneously. The master narrative of traditional ethnographic film, which demands the clear delineation of subject and object, is thus displaced.

Thomas Allen Harris's fourth independent project, Vintage: Families of Value (1995), explores the dynamics of three African American families, specifically relationships involving lesbian and gay siblings. The film project was initiated by circulating a video camera among the subjects of the film. Shot over a five-year period, Vintage offers an intricate series of portraits that complicate the established parameters of identity politics. …