EVERY year at about this time, the American Museum of Natural History steps up to remind us that ``Weird Science'' isn't the only science that movies can deal with. Its ninth annual Margaret Mead Film Festival, slated for Sept. 9-12, promises to deliver the message once again through a program of 44 documentaries treating 30 different cultures from an ethnographic and anthropological viewpoint. A highlight of last year's festival was ``Small Happiness,'' a study of male-female relationships in China that mixed scholarly intelligence with surprising wit and good humor, much of it contributed by the peasants who were the focus of the film. Something of a hit by documentary standards, it went on to showings in many other venues.
Following up that success, the latest Mead Festival has scheduled another film by the same team. ``All Under Heaven: Life in a Chinese Village'' returns to the rural community of Long Bow and examines its daily economic life -- not in the abstract terms of statisticians and politicians, but from the immediate human perspective of the people who live, work, worship, build families, and die there.
A useful perspective this turns out to be, allowing neat end runs around prejudices and preconceptions that filmmakers often bring to Chinese subjects. Through interviews and on-the-spot footage, we meet villagers and hear their views on matters that most Americans read about only in dry news accounts: collective farming, government planning, and China's new drive toward private enterprise and incentives.
And surprise! The issues aren't black and white, but draped in every shade of gray one can imagine.
Take the issue of collectivization, for example. The early communes were dandy, say the burghers of Long Bow, once everyone got used to them. Trouble arose when distant bureaucrats started merging them into large and unwieldy units; but the canny workers sidestepped problems by politely ignoring the more impractical notions of their party bosses.
As for the current drive toward private enterprise, the men and women of Long Bow have mixed feelings -- some looking forward to new opportunities while others (such as the elderly) fear it will disrupt a settled and satisfactory way of life.
In probing such topics, ``All Under Heaven'' doesn't claim to give final or ``correct'' answers through its intimate, person-on-the-street approach. But it does much to humanize a nation that's viewed by many Westerners through distorting lenses. Its freshness, vigor, and candor mark it as another special movie from filmmakers Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton.
Another major work in this year's Mead Festival is ``A Man When He Is a Man,'' a provocative look at relations between the sexes in Costa Rica. Using interviews and documentary footage, punctuated by love songs and old film clips, director Valeria Sarmiento escorts us through the groves of youthful romance and the thickets of marital responsibility. Then she ushers us abruptly into the dangerous territory of extreme machismo and violence toward women, ending the tour with convicted killers interviewed i n prison.
Most of the film is low key and mellow, stressing the whims and gratifications of romance at the expense of such issues as poverty and family stability. But its dark conclusion points up the filmmaker's awareness of -- and concern with -- severe social problems that exist in many guises in many cultures.
Other noteworthy items also appear on the Mead Festival slate. One is ``Kaddish,'' director Steve Brand's poignant examination of personal and political issues through a filmed portrait of his father. Another is ``Stockman's Strategy,'' David and Judith MacDougall's subdued study of an Australian aborigine turned farmer. ``America and Lewis Hine'' is Nina Rosenblum's concise account of a renowned photographer's life and work. ``The Dark Glow of the Mountains,'' by West German director Werner Herzog, see s the death-defying feats of a mountaineer as life-affirming works of art.
All are substantial films and serve as welcome reminders that documentary film is a valid and sometimes inspiring branch of cinema that deserves far more attention from moviegoers and critics alike.