Mead festival -- engaging, entertaining

Sixty-three movies! Thirty-three premi`eres! Sixteen revivals! Forty cultures! Filmmakers! Anthropologists! Introductory speakers! How many festivals can make those claims?

Just one that I know of, the latest edition of the Margaret Mead Film Festival, which began a five-day run Sunday at the American Museum of Natural History, marking its 10th year as host of this annual event.

In a new departure, selections are also being shown on public TV in New York (WNET, Channel 13), and may be picked up later by other stations.

As in previous seasons, the festival is focusing on documentaries made around the world by filmmakers of various styles and nationalities.

Judging from my perusing of this year's program, it promised to demonstrate once again the delightful secret of good anthropological film -- that it's often as engaging, entertaining, and just plain fun as the ``noneducational'' fare that most of us are accustomed to.

Take the provocatively titled ``Rock Around the Kremlin,'' for a lively example. Rock music has taken a tentative hold in the Soviet Union, it seems, and Soviet officials aren't sure how happy they are about this.

To study the situation, Agn`es Gu'erin and Yves Billon turned their inquiring camera on everyone from a leader of the Russian rock movement to a honcho of the state-controlled Melodiya Records company.

The filmmakers come to no definitive conclusions about the future of Soviet youth in general, or their rock-and-rolling heroes in particular, but the exploration is informative throughout.

It will have its United States premi`ere as part of a four-film program called ``Teen-agers East and West.''

Another festival entry that deserves special note is ``To Taste a Hundred Herbs,'' by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon, the third installment in their wonderful ``Long Bow'' trilogy, filmed in a rural Chinese town of that name. This time they focus on the village's doctor, a humane and humorous man who practices a mixture of traditional and modern medicine -- and feels a bit guilty that he rides a bicycle to his house calls, instead of trudging on foot like his father and grandfather before him.

One needs no special interest in doctoring to appreciate the dedication and compassion that motivate this clever yet humble man, or to be fascinated by the currents of small-town life that swirl around him.

Chief among these currents is a tension between centuries-old Chinese religion (practiced by most of the populace) and Roman Catholicism, adopted by a minority that includes the physician -- who refutes the charge of embracing an ``imported'' faith by noting that Karl Marx wasn't exactly a Chinese native son, and dismisses the official doctrine of materialism by saying that Chairman Mao's ``cult of personality'' was itself the height of superstition. It's stimulating to spend an hour in the company of such a cheerfully outspoken individual.

Not every film in the Mead festival is a great success. One that falls short, for example, is ``Private Practices: The Story of a Sexual Surrogate,'' by Kirby Dick, who serves up an explicit examination of a sex therapist's technique, but never acknowledges the most obvious question of all -- namely, what makes some of her clients willing to parade their perceived failings and inadequacies before the world by allowing their therapeutic sessions to be filmed?

Still, the festival lineup is an impressive one, covering such varied topics as ``war and peace'' and ``music.''

Along with premi`eres, it will offer such already proven successes as ``Funeral at Bongo,'' by Jean Rouch, an ethnological-film pioneer; ``Las Madres: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,'' filmed in Argentina by Susana Munoz and Lourdes Portillo; ``First Contact,'' a study of an intercultural encounter filmed by Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly; and a couple of works by the visionary scholar Robert Gardner, including his haunting ``Forest of Bliss,'' shot at a funeral site in India.

In the earliest days of cinema, many experimenters thought of it more as a scientific tool than an entertainment medium.

The entertainers have won, in terms of fame and fortune. But the observers and recorders of humanity are still a large and hard-working tribe. The yearly Mead festival is a welcome celebration of their efforts.

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