May 1, 1997

Margaret Mead Festival Celebrates Twenty Years

From Judith Helfand's <em>A Healthy Baby Girl</em>

The annual Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival, named for the renowned anthropologist and social activist, celebrated its twentieth birthday last November at its customary digs, three large and two small theaters, within the huge American Museum of Natural History, in New York City.

As usual, a mixed bag of new and old titles-long and short, U. S. and foreign, documentary and fiction, video and film—Mead's weeklong program later began its national tour, to Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Berkeley and Chicago.

Of special interest on this anniversary occasion is a new biography film about the late Dr. Mead , who died in 1978, shortly after having co-founded the festival bearing her name. Her daughter, Catherine Bateson, is still closely associated with the festival, now directed by Elaine Charnov. Margaret Mead: An Observer Observed (70 min.) is produced by Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, who teaches American history and women's studies at Rutgers University. (Yans also served as consultant to the recent three­ hour Ellis Island.) Her Mead film received a prize, from the Association for Visual Anthropology. Directed by Alan Berliner, Observer intercuts material both old and new. The new material includes dramatized scenes of Mead's three husbands, some marital discord, with some reference also to her extramarital romances, some of these with women. This private Mead is contrasted with the old: footage shot by third husband Gregory Bateson, while they were in Bali and New Guinea during the 1930s. Mead's landmark study, Coming of Age in Samoa, and several other books, became bestsellers, setting off a firestorm of controversy in regard to free love among the natives. She authored thirty other scholarly books. The late Gregory Bateson is today greatly esteemed in anthropological circles. Their work combined with accomplishments by other anthropologists, some explorers, adventurous filmmakers, et al., to create a wave of popularity for anthropological research, now a highly regarded, serious and complex academic study. A regular columnist for Redhook magazine, forever busy, Mead had a natural show-biz presence and was often benignly combative on radio and TV talk shows for years. Also, she testified before governmental and learned bodies, tirelessly proselytizing for progressive causes, interpreting "anthropology " broadly as the study of humankind in all its aspects and activi­ties. The TV clips in Observer show a strong and bold debater, an original thinker who cuts through the academic rebop to the humanistic values at stake.

Co-programmed by Charnov and Nat Johnson, the festival grouped its 69 titles as follows: "Pacific Island Cultures"; "Contested Religious Symbols"; "Appropriating Native Religions"; "Music: Cultural Synthesis/Cultural Resistance"; "Portraits"; "Manipulating Media" ; and "The Underbelly of Culture: Sex, Sex, Sex." Of the 69 works, foreign titles numbered 31, including new arrivals on the international festival circuit from Mali, Thailand, Guyana, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar and Belarus.

For many films, the directors were present for audience comments and questions. Almost 70 films in one week were too many for this scribe, but favorites among those he saw included Shinjuku Boys (Japan, 53 min.), by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, which is not about boys at all. The Shinjuku district of Tokyo include as many small intimate gay clubs, including some where attractive young females with short hair dress as males, to dance with infatuated young women fascinated by the casual self­ confidence of the imposters. Aching to inspire the blase boys to reciprocate their love, the young women offer gifts, money and themselves. In interviews, "the boys" are reticent about the sexual matter, avoiding the word "lesbian." Several Shinjuku boys express a strange fatalism, almost suicidal, a "why-was-I­ born?" indifference.

A Healthy Baby Girl (U.S., 54 min.), by Judith Helfand , is a protest film with an ironic title, both deeply personal and angrily internationalist. At age 25, Helfand discovered that she had cervical cancer, necessitating a hysterectomy. Her cancer's origin was the synthetic hormone DES, the drug given to her mother to prevent miscarriage during her pregnancy with Judith. During the 1950s and 1960s, five million American mothers-to­ be took the drug, having been assured by their doctors—"Yes, you'll now have a healthy baby." For 30 years, DES was sold worldwide, even after tests proved the drug to be carcinogenic and ineffective i n preventing miscarriage. Belatedly , our FDA withdrew approval of DES for the American market. Abroad, DES is still a money-maker. The damage caused by this drug has now been linked to infertility in males and females, impairment of the immune system , even testicular cancer. With outrage, and with great courage to bare her family distress, Helfand constructs the case against DES , with wide­ ranging visuals shot and gathered over five years. The rapacious profit-motive, combined with misused science, created the DES monster ; and now A Healthy Baby Girl seeks to slay that monster.

We all know of ethical atrocities in film, inflicted upon unsuspecting audiences by cynical producers, whose motto is: "Do whatever, it's for their own good." Such trickery is common, of course, in political propaganda films; but it's become the rule in many other films as well, those seeking to persuade, to promote products or personalities, to affect attitudes, etc. Thus, the Mead Festival organized a provocative program entitled, "Fake Documentary: Sometimes You Have to Lie to Tell the Truth"—that oft-heard insidious rationale for deceiving the public.

Miscellaneous shorts illus­trated aspects of the fake documentary , including the parody "mockumentary."

Hungarian Paul Fejos (1897-1963) had worked in fiction features, then switched to documentary. Mead showed four Fejos films. Lonesome (1928, 75 min.), shot in New York City to emphasize its chaos, dramatizes a young couple's aborted romance, sabotaged by big-city inhumanity. The subway crush­ hour is a great scene. Dance Contest in Esira (1937, 20 min.), shot in Madagas­car, features men and women competing in a merciless dance-off. For The Yagua (1941, 55 min .), Fejos lived for months with the Yagua Indians of the Peruvian Amazon, leaving us this filmed record of how the implacable forces of nature can destroy an entire village. Fejos produced the film in collaboration with the tribe's shaman. Finally, Fejos' Jungle of Chiang (1938, 69 min.) was shot in Thailand and starred 200 wild elephants on a rampage to destroy man's best-laid plans—and villages. At the film's center is a newly­ wed Thai couple—they resolve to rebuild and carry on. In all, the four Fejos films were a rare treat, a re-discovery that should now remain visible and accessible.

The Peter Adair Retrospective honored the late gay film activist who died of AIDS last year. Adair titles include Word Is Out (1978, 130 min.), a pioneering survey of homosexual life in America. From 200 filmed interviews, Adair created two dozen portraits that celebrate gay efforts to resist and outwit social and governmental discrimination. With Rob Epstein, Adair produced The AIDS Show: Artists Involved in Death and Survival (1986, 58 min.). A filmed play, The AIDS Show illustrates the campy self-mockery by which some guys humorously mask their dread of having AIDS. Adair made Absolutely Positive in 1992, his last major work (88 min.). The film depicts gay women and men who, certain they are HIV positive, bravely confront the inevitability of a prolonged ghastly death. Adair is among them, on camera. Several other non-gay Adair films were shown. His father, John Adair, an eminent anthropologist/filmmaker, now elderly, frail, in a wheelchair, attended the Mead eulogy for his deceased son, following the last program. A half-dozen Adair colleagues were present, including Epstein, and Veronica Seiver, co-director with Adair of Word Is Out. Each spoke movingly of their work with Adair.

Regarding credits of the Adair films, it is important to note that his gay titles emanated from the Mariposa Film Group of San Francisco, a collective of which Adair was, it can be said, the fast among equals. He was the center, the spearhead. No egos illustrated the Mariposa colleagues from their collective values and goals.

In 1992, when Adair brought his Absolutely Positive to the Berlin festival, I interviewed him there for Off-Hollywood Report, organ of the Independent Feature Project, New York (now called Filmmaker). Adair's first comment in our interview concerned the spectre of AIDS and his own death-to-come. This knowledge renewed his determination to use every moment of life meaningfully. Instead of falling into apathetic despair, thus curtailing his work, Adair refused to concede a victory to AIDS, which had already slain so many comrades. Instead, he resolved to set priorities and keep pro­ductive. At Mead, as a final tribute to Adair, I read aloud the following statement by him, from that 1992 interview:

"Because of my HIV, I may die of AIDS. So things speeded up for me. I have to measure time. It changes things. You wonder—'What next? Shall I do a big project? I'll only get sick before the project in done. Or do I work faster? ' So things change, you know, when you get the AIDS virus. You spend less time with the bull shit, things get more real for you. Real quick."

 

GORDON HITCHENS is founder of Film Comment and served as editor for the magazine's first seven years; he is also a Variety stringer and has reviewed more than 200 film s f or that newspaper. A former faculty member at C.W. Post/Long Island University, he serves as consultant to numerous film festivals throughout the world .

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