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Documentary as Ethnography: The Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival

By Russ Baker

Jean Painlevé in 1925 with microcinema equipment.

When a film series is named after an anthropologist and staged in a museum, you expect certain things—like an air of earnestness and a near-constant sense that you are being educated. So it is with the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival, the United States’ oldest ethnographic fête. At this year’s event at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, when I wasn’t watching a grainy, silent, 1898 film of the surgical separation of Siamese twins, I was observing mollusks copulate and elderly Bulgarian peasants awaiting death. Not the lightest fare, but still the makings of a fairly compelling festival.

Four subjects were highlighted: borders, disability, the films of Mira Nair and those of Jean Painlevé and his circle. Science films have customarily been the runt of the litter, with many of the best lost to posterity, so the Mead gets high marks for bringing in the rare and antique work of Painlevé. A French naturalist, Painlevé (1902-1989) managed not only to get his cameras into the most remarkable and challenging biological environments, but also to scandalize his colleagues by the liberties he took, supplementing his somber footage with jazz and droll commentary. Several films seemed to raise issues of identity—and sexual identity; one captured a ménage à trois of bisexual mollusks, and another, by a Painlevé colleague, featured amazing tiny creatures called myxies, which evolve from plant to animal -- and back. The most wrenching—and perhaps most famous Painlevé sequence—released in 1945 as a commentary on Nazism, features a vampire bat attacking a guinea pig, complete with footage from Nosferatu and a Duke Ellington soundtrack.

Very well received was Liebe Perla, by Shahar Rozen, the story of Hitler’s effort to exterminate dwarves, told through the contemporary friendship between two “little persons”—an Israeli Holocaust survivor who had been a Mengele subject, and a younger German woman exploring the topic. One of the more intriguing offerings was Devotion, Barbara Hammer’s new film about the late Japanese documentarian Ogawa Shinsuke, and the collective that grew up around him and helped him make 18 films in 30 years. Hammer shows how Ogawa’s scene literally turned into a cult, as crew members sacrificed their individuality, privacy, comfort and families in order to crew for a man who lectured them but literally stayed behind during the shoot. A lighter note was offered by Sandy Osawa’s On and Off the Res’, a pitch-perfect biography of Charlie Hill, billed as America’s foremost Native American comedian. The film brilliantly but good-naturedly shows how unaware America is of its deep-rooted racism, as seen through the characterization of Indians in popular culture.

Although the Mead features films about science, indigenous cultures and the like, its longtime director, Elaine Charnov, says she’s trying to change the definition of ethnography, and will consider any good documentary for inclusion. This attitude reflects the need to stay vibrant in an increasingly crowded festival field. Mead also works hard to publicize the often arcane material to specialized communities. It’s easier to do that when they’re grouped together, and so this year’s 56 programs (with 89 films in all) ended up in pre-curated categories, some of which made sense and some which seemed entirely arbitrary and lent confusion to the printed schedule.

If you missed the Mead, you can still see many of these unusual works, thanks to a touring program. Launched in 1992 (Charnov says it was to stave off post-festival-partum depression), it now brings selected films to about 25 cities and five foreign countries. By taking it on the road, Mead gets filmmakers into some venues they wouldn’t ordinarily reach, including libraries—and provides participants with an honoraria for coming along to interact with the audience.

Interaction is key to any good festival, and it’s a pity that the Mead doesn’t do more to bring audiences and filmmakers together. Nearly half of the films were capped by Q&A’s with the makers, yet the sessions were perfunctory and the audience shooed out for the next screening, although many clearly would have liked to socialize with others who shared common interests. At times, the festival often seemed characterized by excessive severity, in the introductions of filmmakers, in the hardness of some of the seats and in the general atmosphere -- not surprising, since it is primarily a museum-funded and housed project. Charnov and her staff work year-round in the vast building on Central Park, readying the Mead and other exhibitions and festivals, which are to include a Genome Film Festival and a SpaceFest. “Welcome to the 1950s,” Charnov says, chuckling, as she leads a visitor along a vintage-look hallway with lockers labeled for vertebrates and invertebrates, before opening a door to her office, which is chaotic and graced by the presence of a firebellied toad mascot nicknamed “Maggie.”

Although the Mead attracts a general—if highly educated—audience, plenty of makers were in attendance. They seemed to appreciate the candor of Nair, whose works were featured in a rare retrospective, including all of her documentaries. Asked why she allowed herself to be visible asking a question in one scene, Nair explained that she doesn’t believe in rules for documentary. “Whatever works,” she said. As to her migration from documentaries to features, “I got tired of waiting for things to happen, so I got into fiction.” Makers in the audience for a Painlevé panel learned they’re not the only strugglers: a Painlevé expert noted that the maestro survived on a small inheritance, didn’t spend much and “hesitated to buy a pair of pants.” Perhaps the best audience moment came after The Patience of the Stone, an existential Bulgarian documentary by Kostadin Bonev about a day in a remote, nearly abandoned village, where the few elderly inhabitants recount their village history while awaiting a bread truck. “Couldn’t they bake their own bread?” asked an audience member. Another audience member suggested that maybe they weren’t really waiting for bread at all. Indeed.


Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Esquire and The Nation. He is making his first documentary. His last article for International Documentary, on Jennifer Fox’s Documentary Master Class, appeared in the December 2000/January 2001 issue.