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Anthropology verses Art: Array of International Films on Display at Margaret Mead

Anthropology verses Art: Array of International Films on Display at Margaret Mead

Anthropology verses Art: Array of International Films on
Display at Margaret Mead

by Liz Mermin

The Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival, held annually at the American
Museum of Natural History in New York City, is always in danger of
appearing schizophrenic. The only major festival in the country to
combine film and anthropology, it brings together people with very
different ideas about how films should be made and used. Margaret Mead
saw documentary or ethnographic film as a tool for teaching
anthropology, and any attention to art or technique she considered
intrusive and potentially misleading. Many people who attend “the Mead”
each year come to learn about unfamiliar cultures and stories, foreign
or domestic, in much the way Mead envisioned, while others come for more
academic reasons. The Mead is also attended by filmmakers,
distributors, and critics looking for new and interesting independent
and foreign documentary films. The challenge facing Elaine Charnov, who
has been programming the festival for years, is to please all of these

This year’s festival, held from November 6-14, opened with the US
premiere of “Delits Flagrants” (“Caught in the Act“), the latest
documentary by Raymond Depardon. Depardon is probably the best-known
documentary filmmaker in France, though his films are rarely shown in
the US. After viewing “Delits Flagrants,” a close examination of the
petty criminal division of the French justice system, it was clear why.
Depardon combines the observational approach of American Direct Cinema
with the self-consciousness of French Cinema Verite. While this can be
a tremendously entertaining mixture (as it was in Depardon’s earlier
“Reporters”), “Delits Flagrants” demanded more patience from its
audience than most programmers in this country are willing to accept.
Originally a photographer, Depardon has a wonderful eye and stylistic
sense, though much of the style in this film was born of necessity —
shooting 35mm in tiny rooms allowed for only one setup, which created a
flat, staged effect that enhanced a series of already theatrical
encounters between officials and petty criminals.

One of the most visually engaging films in the festival was “So it
Doesn’t Hurt
,” a short documentary from Polish filmmaker Marcel Lozinski
(and another US premiere). The film tells the story of a Polish
peasant woman whose determination to run her family farm combines with
her fondness for literature to make her the village outcast. Lozinski
visited the woman twice, once in the 1960’s and then again 23 years
later. Beautifully shot, with fantastic framing and a great eye for
detail, the film contrasts how much Poland has changed and how little
the woman has changed over the last twenty years, conveying great depths
about individual human needs without ever feeling didactic or

The Mead festival always has an important array of thematic sidebars.
Two interesting programs this year were a Raoul Peck retrospective and
New Cinema from Taiwan. Raoul Peck’s documentaries could serve as
models for how to combine politics, education, and art — particularly
Lumumba, ” his 1991 portrait of the first prime minister of Zaire/The
Congo Republic, and “Haiti-Silence of the Dogs,” both screened at the
Mead. Peck’s latest feature, “Corps Plongee,” had it’s US premiere at
the festival. Set in New York City, the film tells the story of a
French-Haitian woman who runs the city’s criminal autopsy Department.
Despite a slim plot (she leaves a married American politician for the
exiled Haitian Minister of Health) and melodramatic dialogue, the film
was interesting for its visual style and outsider’s view of New York and
American racism. Though “Corps Plongee” isn’t as good as Peck’s
non-fiction films, its originality suggests that Peck has a lot to offer
in fiction filmmaking.

Like Peck’s films, the Taiwanese films in the festival faced the classic
anthropological challenge of communicating across cultures. Perhaps the
most successful was “Coming Home,” a well shot 16mm film by Wu
Hsiu-ching (and another US premiere) about a man on death row.
Hsiu-ching skillfully uses the contrast between the space of the prison
and the Taiwanese countryside to build a sense of tragedy and evoke
sympathy for his subject.

Katherine Kean’s chronicle of the 1991 military coup in Haiti,
Rezistans,” was the festival’s heavy-hitting political film.
“Rezistans” featured disturbing footage and commentary from many Haitian
resistance leaders, artists, writers, and critics of US foreign policy,
including Noam Chomsky. Representing anthropological filmmaking was
“Baraka,” another US Premiere, by Jean-Paul Colleyn and Victoria Ebin
(both anthropologists). Not to be confused with the Koyaanisqatsi-like
film of the same name, “Baraka” tells the story of the Murids, an
Islamic group from Senegal that has created an effective economic
network that reaches beyond West Africa to Western Europe and the US.
Nicely shot and well-paced, the film demonstrates — contra Margaret
Mead — that aesthetics and anthropology don’t have to be in conflict.

Some films came from closer to home, including Danielle Renfrew and
Beth Seltzer’s video “Dear Doctor Spencer,” an historical portrait of a
doctor in Pennsylvania who provided abortions to women from all over the
country before they were legal, powerfully evokes what life without
legal abortion would be like. “Dear Doctor Spencer” was paired with
Under Wraps, ” a somewhat comic Canadian video about menstruation made
by Teresa MacInnes and Penny Wheelwright. “Under Wraps” was constantly
moving around, from Judy Bloom to uses for old tampon applicators to
mother-daughter coming-of-age rituals, but the video was at its most
engaging when it became an expose of the tampon industry’s negligence
regarding Toxic Shock Syndrome.

Amidst so much serious social and political commentary, the festival
programmers fit in some comic relief with the animal sidebar, which
featured two peculiar US premieres — “The True Story of Warthog,” a
farcical video by Krysztof Wierzbicki based on a warthog who became a
national hero by escaping from the Warsaw Zoo before it could be sent to
San Diego and thus endorsing Polish independence in the face of US
imperialism, and Mark Lewis’ “Animalicious,” which uses interviews and
re-enactment to tell a series of true-life animal horror stories
(including a duck that fell on a woman’s head, a snake that ate a small
dog, and a squirrel that terrorized suburbia). The cumulative absurdity
of Lewis’ stories and their over-stylized reenactments might have amused
even Margaret Mead.

This year’s festival had even more going on than usual, as it was
several days longer than it has been in years past, and with four
theaters running simultaneously, there was always something important
playing. The program summaries reflect content but not approach, and
while this makes sense for an anthropological festival, it is
frustrating for those who watch documentary films as much to learn about
filmmaking as to discover new subjects. The increased emphasis on
thematic programming this year suggests that selections are becoming
more content-driven. If this trend continues, program notes that put
more emphasis on style and approach would make the festival easier to
negotiate. One of the best things about the Mead is that it shows films
by filmmakers who have had little exposure in this country, but that
makes it all the more difficult to decide what to see — and in the end,
the most frustrating thing about the Mead is always the sense of what
has been missed.

A traveling version of the Mead will be screened over the course of the
year in cities throughout the country, including Chicago, Washington
D.C., Berkeley, Santa Fe, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. For more
information about any of the films in the 1998 Margaret Mead Film and
Video Festival, contact Melanie Kent at kent@amnh.org or visit the
Festival’s Web site at: www.amnh.org/Mead

[Liz Mermin is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in New
York City.]

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