Recollections on the Flaherty Film Seminar at 40
In 1989 Pearl Bowser invited me to present my film “Sermons and Sacred Pictures” at the Flaherty. That year the theme of the seminar was African and African-American images in film. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to present “Sermons”, an experimental documentary on Reverend L.O. Taylor, a black Baptist minister from Memphis, Tennessee (my hometown) who was also an inspired filmmaker with an overwhelming interest in preserving the social and cultural fabric of his own community in the 1930’s and ’40’s. As programmer of the Flaherty that year, Pearl created an exhilarating, often hotly debated, dialogue around the intention, context, and impact of images made by and about Africans and African-Americans. As a white, American woman, I was curious, exited and, yes, anxious about my Flaherty screening. My film galvanized a long discussion around the ownership of images, calling to question the notion of an unwritten contract that surrounds the possession and use of a photographic representation. It was a white woman in the audience who seemed most bothered by my making a film about a black minister. It was black writer Toni Cade Bambara who eventually stood up for the piece. Recalling her initial impressions of “Sermons and Sacred Pictures”, I remember her reflecting to the audience on a vocal rhythm in the soundtrack that danced between the eleven voices , that gave these reminiscences a poetry and an authenticity that was very specifically connected to the spoken words and music of Reverend Taylor’s community as she’d experienced in the film. Later I had the chance to talk with film historians Tashomi Gabriel and Abi Ford. Both men told me choosing not to make “Sermons” because I am white would have been nothing less than patronizing.
To this day, conversations, observations and friendships from those few days at Wells College linger with me. Strolling into my first screening, I immediately recognized a friend from my freshman year of college whom I had not seen in almost a decade — Zeinabu irene Davis. After exchanging only a few words, we realized that our lives had followed very similar paths: that we had both just completed new films as part of our MFA’s; that we were about to start our first college teaching positions in completely new towns; and, that we were both committed to independent, non-traditional filmmaking.
Pearl planted a seed in many of our traveler’s imaginations by inviting a fascinating group of African filmmakers to the seminar. Using my minimal college French, I talked often to Cheik Oumar Sissoku, a young non-English speaking director from Mali who presented his film “Finzan”, a powerful, exquisitely photographed narrative that explores issues around female circumcision . Pearl didn’t exactly advertise her enthusiasm for the Pan-African Film Festival in Burkina Faso, but she and the rest of the African film enthusiasts and makers never stopped referring to this almost mythic place, a West-African capitol which was in actuality not all that far from Timbuktu. Two years later, I found myself on an airplane in Abidjan, Ivory Coast with Zeinabu and many other people who had been a part of the 1989 Flaherty. It was as if the conversations had never really stopped, the curiosity had intensified and all of our adventurous spirits had drawn us back together — heading to the dusty sub-Saharan town of Ouagadougou to watch more movies in the most spirited, outdoor theaters I have ever experienced.
Lynne Sachs, 1995