FESTIVALS: Margaret Mead; Inspired International Docs NOT in Ethnographic Box
by Amy Goodman
(indieWIRE/ 11.19.01) — As it is written in the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival‘s 2001 brochure, “this Festival promotes cross-cultural understanding through cinema.” If there’s one thing New York needs right now, it’s a little cross-cultural understanding, and this year’s Mead Festival, held from November 2-10 at the Museum of Natural History, offered an eclectic program of films that grant access into a vast array of cultures — for those of us still interested in understanding them.
The annual Mead Festival was founded twenty-five years ago after the enormous success of what was supposed to be a one-time event — a tribute to superstar anthropologist Margaret Mead, who traveled the world studying vanishing indigenous cultures and often recorded her findings in films. Showcased as part of the event at The Museum of Natural History, Mead’s films were a smash hit, primarily because in 1977 few other venues screened documentaries like Mead’s, full of foreign places and exotic peoples.
Mead’s legacy has endured and as the fest turns 25, some things have not changed. The Festival still has a reputation as an “ethnographic documentary” forum. You will still find films with an anthropological flavor, valuable records of human history and educational tools, and you will also find the devoted, niche audience for “ethnographic films” that has filled the Museum’s theaters for 25 years.
But now, however, it has become increasingly clear that the term “ethnographic film” does not inspire the general public to buy tickets for $9 a pop. According to Artistic Director Elaine Charnov, “the Festival is trying to move away from being positioned as an ethnographic festival. The public reads those words as academic and educational,” Charnov says, “and we want to open the festival to the mainstream. It is a public program, after all.”
Considering the broad range of programming in this year’s Festival — from experimental non-fiction (Raoul Peck‘s “Profit and Nothing But,” an indictment of capitalism) to poetic verite (Victor Kossakovsky‘s “The Belovs” about a rural Russian family), to more traditional historical films (Joel Katz‘s “Strange Fruit” about the jazz song of the same name popularized by Billie Holliday) — Charnov and her staff have done a solid job of expanding the Festival’s repertoire. As usual, about two-thirds of the films were made abroad, but this year, the Festival feels more international than it does anthropological.
In honor of the Festival’s 25th Anniversary, Charnov and her staff came up with the idea for “Spotlight on 25,” a showcase of films by filmmakers who have made long-standing contributions to documentary film and to the Mead Festival. Each filmmaker in Spotlight presented encore screenings of earlier celebrated films and then presented new work or films never seen in the U.S. “This year’s program is more of a look back, a reviving of certain works, and given the popularity of these films this year, we will continue to do this sort of thing,” Charnov says. “A new generation of filmmakers who haven’t seen a lot of these films found real value in watching them.”
Many of the Spotlight filmmakers, according to Charnov, can be classified as traditional ethnographic filmmakers. They include filmmaking team Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson (“Facing the Music“), British anthropologist Melissa Llewelyn-Davies‘s film (“The Women’s Olamal“), David and Judith MacDougall (“Lorang’s Way“), whose work was the subject of a Mead retrospective in 1980, and Alanis Obomsawin, who screened her landmark film about the 1990 Mohawk rebellions in Canada, “Rocks at Whiskey Trench,” as well as her newest work, “Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Metis Child,” which tells the story of a teenage boy who committed suicide.
Three stand-out filmmakers from the Spotlight crop are Russian-based: Victor Kossakovsky, Kim Longinotto (“Divorce Iranian Style,” “Runaway“), and Australian Dennis O’Rourke (“Half Life: A Parable for the Nuclear Age,” “Cannibal Tours,” “Cunnamulla“).
“You can break filmmakers down into the ones who are business people-slash-filmmakers and the ones who are artists,” Charnov says, trying to articulate Victor Kossakovsky’s particular appeal. “Kossakovsky is about creating the work.” His “I Loved You (Three Romances)” is certainly one of the most striking films in this year’s line-up and arguably one of the best documentaries made this year. Shot in Russia, the film tells three separate, unrelated stories about love affairs: the first, shot in 35mm is about an elderly couple facing imminent death; the second, shot in 16mm is about a young every-couple on their wedding day; the third, shot in digital video, is about a soulful 5-year-old girl and her 6-year-old first love.
The empathy and profound humanism Kossakovsky brings to documentary filmmaking is so unusual, so refreshing, it’s almost tangible; you can feel it in the free emotional expression of his subjects, and in his every calm, deliberate camera move. (You can also actually hear him and his sound man crying at the action in one of the scenes.) Gifted non-fiction filmmakers, like gifted fiction directors, are able to elicit genuine emotion and elemental truths from the people in their films. Kossakovsky’s “I Loved You” and “The Belovs,” a film that gained international acclaim in 1992, confirms his place among the gifted, and represent the very best in poetic verite filmmaking.
Another standout is New York-based Joel Katz’s “Strange Fruit,” which drew a large, diverse crowd on Wednesday night. Lovingly and masterfully crafted, “Strange Fruit” tracks the long and winding history of the eerie, controversial jazz classic. A song about lynching, it gained infamy when Billie Holliday began to sing it and refused to adhere to the ban against singing it in certain public places. Katz directed, produced, and edited the film. While the interviews are moving, and the score by Don Byron and the performances of the song itself (at least four of them) are hypnotizing, it is truly the editing that makes this film excellent.
During the panel discussion after his film, Katz quoted a friend who told him that, “Making a good film is like telling a joke in a bar. You have a few secrets that you have to reveal in the right order at the right time and you always have to one-up yourself.” Katz puts this analogy to good use in the film. Funded by ITVS and The National Foundation for Jewish Culture, “Strange Fruit” joins the host of unusual historical documentaries, like “Hitchcock, Selznick & The End of Hollywood,” which profile the connection between two people in order to illuminate larger social forces at work.
“Cunnamulla,” Dennis O’Rourke’s tour-de-force portrait of the wacky, endearing, sometimes heartbreaking people living in a small town in Queensland, Australia, is a more personal, less condescending version of Erroll Morris‘s “Vernon, Florida.” A Queensland native himself, O’Rourke doesn’t shy away from ethical dilemmas in documentary filmmaking; when asked in the Q&A how he could possibly exploit two 14-year-old girls in his film by including shocking details about their miserable sex lives, he responded, “There are twenty other Caras and Kelly Ann’s in Cunnamulla and all over the world. My job is to tell the truth, not to be just, okay?”
Two films about female filmmaking pioneers, Martina Kudlacek‘s “In the Mirror of Maya Deren” and Jean Rouche‘s “Margaret Mead: A Portrait by a Friend,” were also standouts on the Festival slate. And Matthew Testa‘s even-handed film about the threat to the remaining American bison population, “The Buffalo War,” is a testament to the potential success of documentary as political activism.
“Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin,” a film that scooped the story of devastated, volatile Afghanistan before September 11, and “Runaway,” a film about young Iranian women who have run away from troubled, abusive homes, resonated with audiences in particular in light of the past two months of war.
“We definitely noticed a hunger this year for works that focused on Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the anxieties after September 11 played out in a public space after both the ‘Jung’ and ‘Runaway’ screenings,” Charnov says. “Both screenings provoked highly emotional responses and the Q&As were pretty tense; there was an incredible depth of knowledge and incredible ignorance there, which is always the goal of appealing to a diverse audience.”
“Jung,” directed by the Italian duo of Farbrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati and coming to New York’s Cinema Village theater next week, won the Nestor Almendros Prize at the 2001 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, and “Runaway” is Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini‘s follow up to the acclaimed “Divorce Iranian Style.”
There are a handful of unusually innovative, inspired films in this year’s program that probably wouldn’t show up in a Sundance or Toronto line-up. One of the main reasons for such unique, refreshing programming, Charnov says, “is that the Festival hasn’t moved into the marketplace arena, and that’s really where most festivals have had to position themselves.” Aside from the fact that it is a community festival rather than a market, the Festival also has a built-in, loyal audience and it gets its annual budget each year from The Museum of Natural History, The New York State Council, and the National Heritage Trust. This means that the festival doesn’t have to beg for funding or an audience, “a luxury,” according to Charnov, that grants programming freedom. “That also means,” Charnov says, “that the emphasis of the Festival is still on the public (more than the film industry), a community gathering where you can have conversations between filmmakers and an audience.”
Contemplating the future of the Festival, Charnov says that she plans to expand the Festival (it will travel nationally and internationally to at least twenty cities this year) and to continue showcasing film and video programs that help the Festival transcend its “ethnographic only” reputation. Hesitant to even discuss the term “ethnographic film” with indieWIRE for fear of further pigeon-holing the Festival, Charnov stresses that the Mead has been an international — NOT an ethnographic Festival — since the mid-90’s. “The term is still relevant in academia,” she says, “but it is not relevant in trying to generate mass audiences. It undermines what’s interesting about cinema.”
Aside from the limited appeal of ethnographic films to the general public, the term “ethnographic film” itself is an outdated genre description in need of political correction. The term is used by the public-at-large primarily to define educational documentaries made about third-world peoples and places. At the turn of the 21st century, however, after the advent of globalization, we must acknowledge that ALL documentaries — and arguably all fiction films — are “ethnographic” by nature; they are about people, the cultures they live in, or some aspect of the human condition. If the term “ethnographic film” is only used to describe documentaries made in the most far-flung regions of Africa, Asia, or South America — and not films like “American Movie,” “The Farm” and “Titticut Follies” — then the term is not only outdated and redundant; it is also racist and Anglo-centric.
Obviously, traditional ethnographic films about vanishing indigenous communities and third-world countries serve an important purpose: they educate, they open minds, they are some of the tools that led to globalization in the first place. And they need a name.
But times have changed. When asked how he felt about the term, Joel Katz says, “I wouldn’t want to use the term ethnographic filmmaking as pejorative, but it is loaded with baggage. In this day and age, if you are an educated white filmmaker making a film about a different culture that is less privileged and wealthy, you have to position yourself somehow in those dynamics. It seems archaic to ignore that.”
“There has been an enormous shift in anthropology and in international documentary filmmaking,” Chernov says. “People all over the world have access to technology to tell their own stories. If stories are told in collaboration with outsiders, long term relationships are often established, which changes the power dynamics. Filmmakers are socially and politically more sensitive to the communities they are working with.”
As ethnographic filmmaking continues to change, the term will hopefully keep up. As Charnov knows after years of trying to get the message out that the Mead is AN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, NOT AN ETHNOGRAPHIC FILM FESTIVAL, language is important and, she notes, the world has “never been more sensitized to language then now.”
[Amy Goodman is a freelance writer and documentary producer based in New York City.]