Global Filmmakers Raise Awareness

Margaret Mead festival delivers broad array of documentaries that illuminate cultural phenomena

LIKE the renowned anthropologist it is named after, the Margaret Mead Film Festival blends commitment to scientific exploration with a desire to communicate current insights to a wide and diverse public.

With such an admirable agenda, it's not surprising that the festival has established itself as one of New York's most dependable resources for documentary film and video. And now a good thing is getting even better. Beginning this fall, the festival is sending many of its offerings on national tour, so audiences across the United States can benefit from its ambitious and eclectic programming.

Besides serving up a broad selection of new documentaries, the Mead festival serves as an annual reminder of issues that are inevitably raised when filmmakers from one culture aim their cameras - along with any preconceptions or prejudices they might have - at a "foreign" or "alien" people.

Can such filmmaking attain a reasonable degree of objectivity, substituting the clarity of artful images and sounds for the bias and misunderstanding that often plague popular thought where "others" are concerned? Or do ethnographic films frequently topple into traps of their own, subordinating the cultures they explore to the views of investigators with subtly ethnocentric leanings?

These questions have importance far beyond the world of specifically anthropological cinema - touching, for example, on the way ethnographic images were used to "sell" the Gulf war to Western populations.

One particularly relevant issue raised by this year's Margaret Mead filmfest is whether voice-over narrations tend to be helpful tools or coercive intrusions. (They're usually the latter, in my view.) Also, where does the boundary lie between usefully illuminating a cultural phenomenon and actively celebrating or promoting it in film?

The festival's selections offer no easy answers to the long-standing debates on such matters, but they provide many opportunities for thought and discussion.

The lineup at the 16th annual Mead festival includes:

`Summerhill at 70' by Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon. Founded on the philosophy that children should be allowed to run their own lives and determine their own destinies, England's unorthodox Summerhill School has been stirring up controversy since the early 1920s.

Judging from this on-screen visit, the price of libertarianism is a certain amount of chaos, a large amount of creative interaction, and an enormous amount of time spent on rules and regulations - adopting them, discarding them, arguing about them, and complaining how impossible it is to live without them.

The film gives too little explanation of the principles guiding the school and reveals nothing about how its alumni fare after they leave. Summerhill remains a formidable experiment, though, and its daily activities are often remarkable to behold.

`Siki' by Niek Koppen. The prizefighter called Battling Siki was born in Senegal, became the first black world-champion boxer in 1922, then died violently in New York while still a young man. Along the way he married a white European woman, endured threats provoked by his public and private activities, and agreed to throw one of the crucial fights of his career - only to change his mind during the match and confuse everyone involved.

This fine movie tells Siki's story through interviews with his biographers, themselves a fascinating bunch ranging from a Dutch intellectual to an African-American author who lives and works in a mobile home. Absorbing from beginning to end.

`The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche' by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. Saddened by the death of his spiritual teacher, a Buddhist monk decides to find the master's new incarnation, and after an energetic search, he locates a four-year-old boy who appears to fit the specifications.

Unfortunately, the boy is in Tibet and the monk now lives in India, where many Buddhists have taken refuge from the brutal Chinese occupation of their country. But everything works out fine, thanks to the spiritual tenacity and sheer good humor of everyone involved, from the Dalai Lama on down. Documentaries don't come more informative, engaging, and just plain charming.

`They Can't Take That Away From Me' by Kevin Adams. Focusing on a gay-bashing incident with a deadly outcome, the filmmaker uses music, printed words, and evanescent images to make a brief but passionate statement against American homophobia.

`Benedita da Silva' by Eunice Gutman. Portrait of a black Brazilian woman who represents her slum community in the National Assembly, where she has earned much respect. Interviews with Brazilian citizens reveal much about problems of racism and poverty that are relevant to many nations today. Unfortunately, such devices as slow motion and pop songs often make the film more like a campaign commercial than a serious examination of da Silva's work.

`Javna, Reindeer Herdsman in the Year 2000' by Stefan Jari. Our hero is a rural 12-year-old who travels to school by helicopter. The film effectively blends his daily experiences with ecological concerns, including the impact of deforestation on reindeer and the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on the region's future.

`2,000 Years of Freedom and Honor: Cochin Jews of India' by Johanna Spector. Study of a venerable Jewish community in India, which has largely disintegrated since many of its citizens emigrated to Israel in search of a new life. The subject is fascinating, but many of the visuals are disappointingly ordinary, and the narration is full of sweeping generalizations and questionable assertions that sadly devalue the entire film.

`The Devil's Dream' by Mary Ellen Davis. Drawing on traditional and contemporary currents in Guatemala today, the filmmaker intercuts folk theater, folk music, and even footage of a beauty-contest winner with material demonstrating continued oppression and government-sponsored violence in this troubled nation.

`Collecting America' by Jonathan Blank. A baseball card selling for more than $400,000 at a Sotheby's auction? That's just one of the marvels in this entertaining look at the craze for baseball memorabilia, which would be an even stronger film if it took a more thorough look at the roots of such obsessiveness in some individuals.

`Black Harvest' by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson. The checkered career of a mixed-race plantation owner in Papua New Guinea who attempts - with complicated results - to inject high-tech capitalism into a culture that regards ritual warfare as a higher priority than modernization and wealth.

`Shayna Maidels: Orthodox Teenage Jewish Girls' by Lisa Kors. Although some observers claim that young Americans are losing their religious values, this movie visits three households where the kids are more religious than their own parents, and neither generation is quite sure how to deal with the situation. Capably made and enjoyable to watch.

`Sikambano: The Sons of the Sacred Wood' by Herve Cohen. Senegal, which has one of the most vital third-world film industries, is the setting for this account of a male initiation ceremony - held every 25 years or so, and lasting several weeks - that bestows adult status on participants ranging from little children to young men. The filmmakers aren't allowed to accompany the group into the forest, since the proceedings are secret, but they effectively convey the contribution made by this event to cultura l continuity. Still, too much all-explaining narration diminishes the film's sense of authenticity.

Other entries in the Mead festival range from "Wild Wheels," a peripatetic look at "car art" by Harrod Blank, to "In Search of Our Fathers," an uneven but sometimes powerful documentary by Marco Williams about his quest for the father he never knew as a child.

Many of the offerings are world or American premieres and are now beginning an extensive tour of the US.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.