THE term ``ethnographic film'' is such a mouthful that even movie buffs often steer away from it.
All it refers to, though, is the motion-picture branch of anthropology, which has produced a large body of work documenting cultures around the world. When done with energy and flair, such cinema can be not only informative but also as gripping, enticing, and entertaining as most commercial productions.
Anyone who doubts this should pay a visit to the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, named after a trailblazer in the visual-anthropology field. Held annually at the American Museum of Natural History here, it also sends many of its attractions on a United States tour after its New York run has ended.
This year's program marked the 18th anniversary of the event, with 64 offerings chosen from more than 400 films and videos submitted. As in the past, the lineup was designed to attract a wide variety of spectators with a diverse array of works. Emphasis was placed on films by as well as about ethnic minorities, activists on racial and gender issues, and indigenous peoples.
High points included the ``Peru Today'' program, a series recognizing the United Nations Year of the Family, and a retrospective of works by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon, creators of some superb films about China's rural population. Among their works on view was ``Small Happiness,'' a 1984 picture that takes its title from a Chinese proverb about the limited pleasures of having a daughter instead of a son. As revealing and ironic as its name, it makes an excellent advertisement for the expansive pleasures of first-rate ethnography.
Instructiveness took equally enjoyable forms in other attractions, such as two segments from ``Blood Brothers,'' an Australian video series. ``From Little Things Big Things Grow'' focuses on Kev Carmody, an Aboriginal singer who blends folky mannerisms recalling Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger with social commentary so heartfelt that it's gained Carmody an audience around the globe. ``Freedom Ride'' recalls the successful fight for basic Aboriginal rights during the 1960s - a struggle with remarkably exact parallels to US events at the time.
Also conveying an optimistic message is ``God's Alcatraz,'' by Boris Stout, who visits an African-American pastor working to encourage a sense of dignity and strength in an impoverished New York neighborhood. The main ``character'' of this documentary, Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood, emerges as a complex and charismatic thinker. Unfortunately, the film contents itself with suggesting rather than exploring his unorthodox social ideas, thus losing a deeper dimension that could have enriched it.
As engaging as many of the works are in a typical Mead filmfest, not all offerings are suited to all viewers. Some of this year's selections contained imagery that is disturbing and even shocking -
not gratuitously, but because their topics make such treatment necessary.
One such film is ``Act of Love,'' directed by Karin Junger, whose compassionate study of African female circumcision combines extensive interviews with small amounts of graphic footage. Another is ``Boatman,'' by Gianfranco Rosi, who conducts a cinematic tour of a funeral site in India.
Other items ranged from ``Genbaku Shu: Killed by the Atomic Bomb,'' in which an American father and son revisit the horrors of the Hiroshima bombing, to ``The Belovs,'' a blunt and almost surrealistic visit with an unhappy Russian family trying to hold itself together in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Its use of ``real time'' filming recalls the widely seen US documentary ``An American Family.'' A portion of that 1973 work was also on view in the film festival's Family series. There was something for everyone, indeed.
* The Margaret Mead festival travels to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Nov. 19 to 20; Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., November; the University of Florida in Gainesville, January; Temple University in Philadelphia, Feb. 24 to 26; the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, March; and Webster University in St. Louis, April.