A FEW minutes into "H-2 Worker," an excellent new documentary on the annual sugar-cane harvest in Florida, an excerpt from a 1940s newsreel is shown. As the screen fills with images of African-American laborers, a narrator informs us that these workers are responding to a "hereditary urge" that draws them "back to the plantation" to perform hard manual work that naturally suits them.This is a brazenly racist assertion, as absurd as it is bigoted. Yet such ideas were shamefully widespread - sometimes aggressively, sometimes with subtle disguises - in the mass media just a few short decades ago, helping to spread and reinforce biases that still trouble race relations today. The newsreel clip in "H-2 Worker" is an example of how bad cinema may try to influence our perceptions of the world. What good cinema does is cast helpful light on human thought and behavior, using the resources of film to expose past problems and illuminate present possibilities. No branch of cinema is more directly concerned with documenting the way things really are than anthropological film, which takes all aspects of humanity as its domain. Hence the importance of the annual Margaret Mead Film Festival, now in its 15th year as the most widely known showcase for movies that reflect Mead's interest in visual anthropology and ethnographic cinema. Such films also support the need for sharing ideas and insights on an international scale, at a time when "multicultural" approaches are often subject to skepticism and even hostility in the United States. What needs underscoring about the Mead festival, moreover, is how downright entertaining many of its movies are. For just one example, last year's edition introduced "Paris Is Burning," the popular Jennie Livingston documentary on Harlem teenagers and their "voguing" subculture, which has since gone into widespread theatrical release. Movies with crossover potential are present again this year, along with more challenging works that will receive their most important showings at the festival itself. "H-2 Worker," which focuses on Jamaican workers brought to Florida each year for the sugar-cane harvest, is among the best-known entries in the 1991 lineup, with awards from the Cannes and Sundance filmfests already to its credit. Shot on the sly by director Stephanie Black, the film levels powerful charges of exploitation at the H-2 program that allows Caribbean laborers to work temporarily in the United States under rigidly controlled and economically outrageous conditions. Lest anyone think ethnographic film is an ivory-tower phenomenon for intellectuals only, it's worth noting that a congressional screening of "H-2 Worker" last summer helped spark a federal investigation. This confirmed legal violations and regulatory slackness in connection with the H-2 program, which may now undergo changes. Legal and moral issues also swirl through "Damned in the U.S.A.," which could be this year's most talked-about premiere in the Mead festival. It's an unflinching look at censorship, American style, complete with depictions of controversial art works (photos by Robert Mapplethorpe among them) and conservative activists like Jesse Helms and Donald Wildmon trying to condemn them without actually saying what's in them - an impossible task that produces some amusing failures of communication. Also in the film is a stand-up comedian whose monologues, intercut with more straight-faced material, make a witty case against the pretense that some individuals have an inside track on what's right and wrong for other individuals to read, see, and hear. Directed by Paul Yule, this British production is certain to be widely seen in coming months, although its displays of sexually frank materials aren't likely to find a place on American network television. "Age 7 in America" presents a different view of life in the US, as seen by some of its youngest citizens. Narrated by Meryl Streep and directed by Phil Joanou, this documentary is modeled after the "7 Up" series by British filmmaker Michael Apted, who has been interviewing a group of English people every seven years since 1963, tracing their thoughts and experiences as they pass through different stages of life. I've seen the latest installment in the British series, "35 Up," and can report that it's a smart and lively film blending present-day interviews with wonderful footage of the same people at earlier times. Regrettably, the first installment of the American series is much weaker than this, and also less captivating than the original "7 Up." I hope the filmmakers come up with more penetrating questions, and learn to select their footage with an eye for substance rather than cuteness, before "Age 14 in Amer ica" rolls around. For those who like their ethnographic films with spicy flavor and saucy music, the Mead festival is serving up such rollicking items as "Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of the Cajun and Creole Cooking of Louisiana," by filmmaker and food-lover Les Blank, and "Anything I Catch ... The Handfishing Story," by Charles Bush and Patrick Mire; both movies focus on Southern cuisine with French-Canadian roots. More somber perspectives on Southern life emerge in "Do Y'All Know How To Play 'Dixie with its revelations of Ku Klux Klan activity masked by folksy behavior, and "Blood in the Face," a study of white supremacy that has already stirred debate. Among the festival's many non-American offerings is "The Herdsmen of the Sun," by German filmmaker Werner Herzog, documenting customs and ideas of a northern Nigerian community that places great value on celebrating male beauty. Although the film suffers from Mr. Herzog's tendency to fall in love with his material and allow images to hold the screen too long, it is an instructive and sometimes penetrating study. Other works that extend the scope of the program far beyond the English-speaking world hail from a great variety of places including Brazil, Siberia, Nepal, Togo, Japan, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Canada, Bali, India, Colombia, Portugal, Australia, Egypt, Kenya, Greece, France, Mongolia, Mexico, and Estonia. A multicultural feast, indeed!
The Margaret Mead Film Festival continues through Sept. 26 at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.