Film Festivals | Film Reviews

Let the Mead Flow

1 Jan , 2005  

Written by Melanie Turpin | Posted by:

A report from the 28th Annual Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival and reviews from the films featured.

What better way to celebrate progressive cross-cultural encounters than to hole up inside the house each winter? Well, the annual Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival offers a slightly better-informed alternative. Now in its 28th year, the festival screens new works in the un-genre of ethnographic (or "cross-cultural" or "inter-cultural" or "anthropological" or simply "documentary") film, a field that, since the 1960s, has defined itself by stretching its own boundaries, requiring only that constituent works deal in some way with culture — a simple enough concept, except that even those who study it can’t seem to agree on what it is. The event is named for the woman who started all this glorious confusion: legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead, known the world over for her groundbreaking use and championing of film (rather than the notebook and pencil) as an empirical tool for studying other "cultures." 

Helping to kick off the 2004 schedule was a program featuring a film about Mead’s life ("Margaret Mead: A Portrait by a Friend") made by another of anthropological media’s heavy-hitters, late cinema vérité junky Jean Rouch, who swung the ethnographic pendulum in the opposite direction, blurring the boundary between documentary truth and fiction with highly collaborative, largely improvised films like "Chronicle of a Summer" (1960) and "The Human Pyramide" (1960). Not to be outdone, Rouch was paid tribute as well, in accompanying presentations "Conversations with Jean Rouch" by Ann McIntosh and an excerpt from a 1980 episode of the television show "Screening Room with Robert Gardner" featuring an interview with Rouch.

Screened in its usual home at the American Museum of Natural History over the course of two weekends, this year’s lineup was no exception to the genre’s "no-rules" rule. A rich array of dizzyingly varied themes and aesthetics, presentations ranged from the misty dreamscapes of re-enactment-filled, Discovery Channel-hopefuls to the soberer descendants of 1960s cinema verité to more journalistically-minded endeavors, and covering everything from capital punishment to sex after 60. Most screenings featured two to three films, grouped according to equally variable themes – nation, political issue, sappiness… even dissimilarity.

In spite of the heterogeneity, however, one theme stood out: a number of the festival’s 41 films and multimedia works — hovering somewhere between the "hands-off" observational films and the more activist "message" films — were devoted to carving out a space for the experiences and recognition of marginalized groups of people (or "Others," or "minority groups," or "ethnographic subjects").

One of the few films I saw that managed to take itself completely seriously without courting sentimentality was "Afghanistan Unveiled," a journalistic foray into remote, devastated regions of (almost) post-Taliban Afghanistan. Shot by the first-ever group of camera-savvy Afghani women journalists, the 52-minute, TV-style documentary rightfully overwhelms with one unfathomable story of violence and poverty after another, bringing us into the otherwise inaccessible lives of women like the widowed mother who "simply survives" in an unlivable desert, sharing a cave and meager rations of food with the several massacre-orphaned children of whom she has become the sole guardian. In spite of the confusing, unfittingly polished voice-over commentary of a narrator whose identity and relationship to the project is never made clear, the film is an affecting witness to atrocities and global indifference glossed over by evening news. Much to its credit, "Afghanistan Unveiled" does not shy away from the use of film as a tool for inspiring real-world social action, a pursuit that documentary filmmakers too often forego for the medium’s safer observational and storytelling functions.

"Afghanistan Unveiled" puts to shame the self-congratulatory, though surprisingly endearing, American hairdressers in the festival’s other film about Afghani life, Liz Mermin’s wry and witty "The Beauty Academy of Kabul." Full of priceless quotations like "She’s a good candidate for waxing" and "If you guys don’t do it, how will Afghanistan change?" the film traces the progress of a group of unbearably new-agey women as they set up a beauty school in Afghanistan’s capital city, bent on perming patriarchy into submission. My only real qualm with this fascinating film is that one would like to see more interviews with the Afghani students or at least more of their daily activities at the salon to balance out the smothering influence of their mother-knows-best instructors. To be fair, however, Mermin made it clear in the post-screening discussion that getting past domineering Afghani husbands for interviews isn’t exactly a snap.

Only Joe Berlinger’s (of "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster" fame) "Gray Matter" rivals "Afghanistan Unveiled" as the pun-intended title most out of alignment with its film’s serious-as-cancer content. Opening with an oddly macabre tour bus excursion to Spiegelgrund Hospital in Vienna, the film follows Berlinger’s attempt to uncover the full story behind a cramped storeroom on the hospital’s second floor where the brains of hundreds of murdered children were kept in jars and used in scientific research from the Nazi era until as late as the 1990s. The progression of a long-overdue memorial service and burial given by the city of Vienna at the urging of an Austrian Jewish organization is woven into the main plot, highlighting the certain inadequacy of either narrative strand to do justice to an irresolvable atrocity. "Gray Matter" otherwise adheres to a familiar documentary formula, alternating between "expert" commentaries by academics and footage of Berlinger trying to track down the eugenics program’s director, Doctor Heinrich Gross, Michael Moore-style. The tight focus on the filmmaker’s quest rather than the story often fails to escape the clutches of narcissism, but the film as a whole is successful in its crucial task of bringing an unforgivably neglected moment in history into circulation in the present.

Gil Cardinal’s "Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole" also recuperates a moment of major historical significance for a little-recognized people, the Native American Haisla community of British Columbia. "The Return" chronicles the struggle of Kitamaat Village to reclaim an intricately carved totem pole of extraordinary spiritual and cultural significance. In 1929, the nine-meter-high rendering of stacked supernatural figures was sawed off its spot by the bank of a river and taken to the National Museum of Ethnography in Sweden, where, despite the village’s extremely generous efforts at negotiation, it still sits today. Turning up its nose at the cinematic decorum of subtlety, "The Return" is an unabashed celebration of documentary’s most flagrantly sentimental devices. Chock-full of money-shot vertical pans of the pole that tell us nothing of the story but plenty about dramatic, almost religious lighting, the film is at its best in the scenes of traditional carvers eaking out by hand not one, but two stunning replicas of the pole to replace the original over a matter of months. Outdated glam shots aside, "The Return" is an engaging story and important reminder of the often unchallenged stinginess of a West that still feels entitled to treat other people’s historical treasures as collectible baubles.

Where more playfully self-conscious works are concerned, Liz Blazer’s 5-minute refresher "Backseat Bingo" was a highlight. The animated film’s six saucy elders, both men and women, were modeled after real-life senior citizens whose commentaries about sex and romance in the golden years provide the dialogue. The comedic possibilities of animation (and these figures are darn cute) certainly could’ve been put to better use; the characters are fixed in the same positions, from the same (head-on) angle throughout the entire film, leaving it vulnerable to the argument that live-action interviews with the speakers would have been just as effective. While I appreciate the film’s effort to get beyond the "Ew…old people having sex" attitude of younger generations and open up a dialogue about an oppressively taboo subject, its approach raises another issue that brings the problem full circle – can we talk about the aging libido without turning seniors into cartoon characters?

Among other notable films were the festival’s captivating shorts, including "Suckerfish," "Getting Through to the President," and "Mini Ciné Tupy." In "Suckerfish," filmmaker Lisa Jackson applies what she describes as a "Monty Python-style" mix of animated cut-outs, photography, stylized bits of text, and re-enactments to an impossibly concise (8-minute) meditation on extremely complex issues of ethnic identity and kinship. Jackson finds the humor in the often heavy topic of heritage (think "Totem"), even as she recounts the dark moments of her mother’s drug addiction and premature death. Reflecting on the discovery that her family’s Native American name, "Nahmabin," means "suckerfish" rather than "sucker," as her mother had once told her, she quips, "Though I was relieved to find out my ancestors were named after a fish — rather than a push-over — it’s not the kind of Indian name you brag about at school."

Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s 7-minute short "Getting Through to the President" was another nice break in the ceaseless flow of seriousness. Though a bit diluted by its politically correct balance of right- and left-wing points of view, the film demonstrates once again that the appeal of watching people bitch about the president is inexhaustible, and that hearing people praise him will always be fascinating in a maddening sort of way. According to the filmmakers, people were lined up by payphones in Greenwich Village for hours on end, waiting to call-in, free of charge, to the White House’s comment line on camera. This revealing bit of trivia that makes one wonder why the queue wasn’t included in the film.

"Mini Ciné Tupy" by Brazilian filmmaker Sergio Bloch is an ode to resourcefulness, showcasing the beautiful little theater that film fanatic José Zagati set up in the garage of his home in a slum just outside of São Paulo. The local kids come in droves for the free cinémathèque held there each Sunday, complete with fresh-popped popcorn. Everything in the theater is recycled, from the fixed-up projectors to the red-upholstered chairs to the found films that make up the weekly program. This modest little film (unlike the horrendously drippy and artificial feature "Being Dorothy" that accompanied it, about the (questionable) absorption of the "Wizard of Oz" into American political ideology) is as sincere as its subject when he declares that "The pleasure is beyond description… It’s awesome."

The festival closed with one of the best films of the lot — "A Panther in Africa," paired with a film whose purpose and appeal I’m still trying to come to some conclusion about, "a.k.a. Mrs. George Gilbert." "Panther" is a funny and thoughtful portrait of former Black Panther Pete O’Neal cut from an unthinkable 200 hours of footage. O’Neal was exiled to Tanzania in 1969 (supposedly for carrying a shotgun across state lines, though we can be sure that being a leading figure in the Black Power movement likely had more to do with it), where he and his wife Charlotte have devoted themselves to the upkeep of their transformational community center. Jolly, quirky, know-it-all O’Neal makes the perfect documentary subject and skillfully edited, unforeseen twists of fate make for an effortlessly engaging slice of not-quite-American life. "a.k.a. Mrs. George Gilbert," a mostly fabricated account of the trial of ‘60s civil rights activist Angela Davis, was less involving, due in large part to the gratingly theatrical voice-over dialogue between a phony FBI agent and an unidentified narrator that recalls the soap-operatic exchanges of Hollywood film noirs, but evokes little of their smooth seductiveness.

This year’s Mead Festival was, in a word, eclectic. What mysterious binding element brings these unique, astonishingly disparate films together into a cohesive, well-rounded, captivating whole? I have no idea, but it was a fun and — yes, the word must be uttered — educational ride.