Flaherty NYC, the seasonal screening series named for the famed director Robert Flaherty, has strived since 2008 to engage audiences with the visionary. Focusing on filmmakers whose work demands discussion, the series promotes and facilitates conversation between filmmakers and audience. With the theme ‘The Infinite Child’ , this season’s programmer, Sukhdev Sandhu, seeks to present childhood as a space of freedom, defiance and inner strength, liberating it from generic representations.
An Associate Professor of English at New York University, Sandhu has been a film critic (honored as Critic of the Year in 2005 by the British Press), author of socially and culturally analytical works including Night Haunts: A Journey Through The London Night (winner of 2008 DH Lawrence International Prize For Travel Writing), as well as a creator of radio documentaries for the BBC. His writings have been featured in a number of publications including the London Review of Books, New York, The Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.
Starting October 5, Professor Sandhu’s program will feature rarely-seen films at the Anthology Film Archive in New York every other Monday through December 14th. Over the six evenings, filmmakers, speakers, and audience members will question the relationship between film, play, and the social minority to which everyone has belonged – childhood.
Professor Sandhu spoke with POV about his experience as Fall 2015 Flaherty NYC Programmer.
For those who are unfamiliar with the series, could you describe Flaherty?
Every filmmaker I know who’s had any dealing with Flaherty has been astounded. For nearly 60 years it has showcased an incredible array of cutting-edge and international documentary cinema – both short-form and durational, experimental and arthouse. It brings filmmakers together with curators, writers, students and general enthusiasts. It takes conversation and discussion seriously, and treats audiences as more than passive ‘consumers’. It seeks to advocate for and advance the form of non-fiction filmmaking, regarding it as infinitely richer than just a vehicle for bog-standard ‘content’ of the kind routinely found on many current affairs websites and in conventional documentary festivals.
Can you describe your relationship with Flaherty and how you became involved as a programmer this season?
For the best part of a decade I’ve run the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University where I’ve been programming strange, sometimes challenging films – on punk in Africa, North Korean science fiction, Pakistani horror, Chinese deindustrialisation, Marvin Gaye on the run from the I.R.S. in Belgium. It doesn’t have a website and is a bit furtive, so I was rather surprised when Flaherty’s Anita Reher asked me if I’d come up with a series for her. Surprised – but also honoured.
Why was theme selected and did it evolve throughout the process of curation?
Partly through my interest in pedagogy: more and more people are tiring of the high-pressure, standardised-learning systems of knowledge acquisition from kindergartens to universities. There are also more DIY, para-academic, expanded-education initiatives sprouting up that are trying to think through the possibilities for new forms of learning in an era of permanent austerity. When you think about children – as Michael Apted’s 7-Up series shows so brilliantly – you’re thinking about your past, but also the dreams of the future you once had. There’s a strong utopian dimension running through much writing about children and that’s worth holding on to at a time when utopias seem to be in short supply.
What sort of curated space did you hope to create in the selection of your theme?
I hoped to create a kindergarten-like brouhaha. Not a gated community, not an elite enclave, but a rather rowdy space where ideas, insights and visions get sparked. I certainly didn’t want to deliver a lecture in the form of a film programme or to be tersely dogmatic. I wanted a broad range of genres to be represented – essay film, agit prop, poetic reverie, cine-memoir. It was especially important not to focus on American films.
All the films in the series explore a variety of depictions of children, some seemingly indexical others largely poetic. What inspired you to select these films and how do you think their treatment of children deviates from general representations?
Again: variety! Some -such as Anna Lucas’s Art School – are international premieres. But I have a touch of the archaeologist about me: I’m happy to be screening The Hornsey Film which has never been shown in this country, as well as D.A. Pennebaker’s Elizabeth and Mary and Nicolas Philibert’s Qui Sait? which are both almost completely unknown. In general, the programme features few hugs and clammy kisses, no false social uplift, no liberal saviours helping to redeem troubled inner-city kids.
Do you think the nature or perception of childhood has changed as the world has become, in many ways, more accessible to young people in a digital era?
That’s a huge question! Young children interact with screens much more than they used to. They also know how to take and distribute moving images. Their relationship to technologies of seeing has certainly been liberated.
How do you hope audiences, who were of course once children themselves, engage with the theme?
I hope they laugh, cry, ponder. I hope they’re rendered both loquacious and mute!
In adulthood, it seems that the textual is often given precedence over the visual (i.e. the stress on reading, writing and language over film or other images in academia), but in a few of the selected films, the dominance of the visual in childhood is explored. For instance, in Messages, the textual (all messages from children) is either entirely concerned with, or transformed into the visual (for example, ‘names are what you see when you look at things’). How do you think film as an experimental space for the visual can play with or alter our ideas of childhood?
I suspect it’s particularly well equipped to evoke the random, the mysterious, the ambient. Experimental film in particular has the ability to convey both drift and intensity, the vagrant and the concussive. Perhaps it can evoke a sense of synaesthesia too.
Two films in the series concern art school, the suitably named Art School and the Hornsey film. Art school is a space that arguably is occupied by individuals at the end of, or beyond, childhood. Do you see art school as a space connected to childhood? What do you see as the link between these films and the theme?
Historically art schools have been places where ‘anything goes’ – certainly compared to universities. You don’t have to be exhaustive or hyper-contextual or obsessed with ‘disciplinarity’; instead, you can focus on your projects however silly or instinctual or hard-to-explain they might be. They’re places which take the idea of ‘play’ seriously. If universities are about seriousness and maturation (often to an inhibiting and unhelpful degree), perhaps – just perhaps – art schools are places where some of the energies, loose intensities and vagrant expansiveness of children can still be cherished and held on to.
Finally, what have you enjoyed most about your experience as Fall 2015 Programmer so far?
There are a lot of pressures on children today. A lot of stress. The future looks … challenging. And yet, watching these films (and many dozens of others that didn’t quite make the programme), was mostly really great fun, a holiday for the soul, returning myself to a better frequency. I hope audiences will be similarly inspired and aerated by the season.
This year’s Fall Flaherty NYC series runs every other Monday at 7 PM, beginning on October 5, 2015 and running until December 14, 2015. Tickets are available at the door on the day of each event. The screenings will take place at Anthology Film Archives. Some filmmakers will be present for a dialogue with audience members at the end of each evening.
Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs!