March 1, 1999

The Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival

Clockwise, top-left: <em>Heart of the Country, Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, Black Tears, Under Wraps</em>, and<em> Lamumba</em>

In its twenty-second annual session—middle-aged as festivals go—the Mead festival this past November presented a parade of new films that enlarged public understanding of complex issues in many nations, particularly within the developing world. Mead performs this important service for the intellectual and scholarly community of New York City, but also for general audiences. Mead's outstanding Festival Director is Elaine Charnov. Now that the festival has ended, six programs of two hours-plus each are on national tours, managed by Melanie Kent.

Generally, Mead has programmed its films thematically—e.g., this year: social prejudice; health; portraits; skills; aging; decline of traditions; and a large contingent of films that perhaps can be categorized as "aboriginality"—wherein ethnic tribal minorities use modem media to document and assert their indigenous cultures, and also to resist homogenization.

Let's begin by attending to the old folks—Pirtis, a charming ten minutes from Vilnius, by Rimantas Gruodis, Lithuania, shows us the city's oldest bathhouse. It looks it. Plaster crumbling, ancient pipes, ancient clientele, too. The bathhouse is open to men four days per week; women, three days. This last surviving bath­ house in town is a mini-social center for ancient pensioners—a place to sigh, complain, swap jokes they all know by heart, and perhaps get a measure of relief.

Chan Tsai-gen and His Neighbors, by Wu Yii-Feng of Taiwan (85 min.), shows us a group of elderly men, originally from China, who live precariously in old shacks atop a mass-burial plot dating from the Japanese occupation. It's a film of sweet and painful memories, forgotten and leftover dreams. But with dignity. Skin's Sorrow from Belgium, by Richard Olivier (57 min.), begins with facts about taxidermy, the preservation of skins, plus hair and fur, and teeth and fangs and tusks, and so forth, for display purposes, e.g., in museums where gorillas and bears in lifelike display delight the school kids. We learn about the methodology of this profession, gruesome but necessary, which we rather take for granted. But in our typical lives we rarely encounter that second line of taxidermy, the preservation of beloved pets, dogs and cats mostly, by their elderly bereaved masters and mistresses. These pets are skinned and stuffed with God knows what, to create a lifelike pose almost like the deceased original. A grotesque but funny film? Not quite, because the love of these lonely living hu mans for their departed animal­ companions is so real and urgent-we see their caresses, their affectionate stroking, their soft murmurings, even kisses—we'd be ashamed to laugh.

Bread Day, much admired at Berlin, and at New York Expo in December, is an extraordinary study of a forgotten Russian village deep in winter. (The film has been mentioned in these pages more than once, but it deserves the attention it's been getting.) Once in a while, when the government remembers, an ancient box-car is left at a siding some kilometers from the village; in it are boxes of bread, never enough. Five or six elderly folks—there seem to be no young people about—must tramp through heavy snow, rock the box-car when it's frozen to the tracks, then push it to the village, a mighty effort. There bread is distributed by an elderly woman to elderly neighbors, a loaf or two at a time, per a rationing system, while also being pestered by a drunken old man. Meanwhile, the camera notes the bleak landscape, the ravenous puppies that suckle their emaciated mother, the goats that wander about, trying to find something edible. Without forcing the material, Russian director Sergei Dvortsevoy in fifty-five minutes creates a melancholy portrait of an abandoned Russia, sad and hopeless.

Elsewhere, Mr. Yasunoto is also elderly, and a villager, the school principal of a rural township, once impoverished, in remote Hokkaido. Popular and energetic, he places his hope in the children, emphasizing the teaching of the heart as well as the mind. He may be among the few beleaguered traditionalists and ideal­ists left in modem industrialized and urbanized Japan. In his profile, Heart of the Country (90 min., Japan), director Leonard Kamerling depicts a man and a way of life that both seem endangered.

In still another place, an older gentlemen revered in his small town is Dr. Robert Douglas Spencer, abortionist. A general practitioner, Dr. Spencer has been treating citizens of the coal-mining districts of Pennsylvania since 1920. Among his patients were poor miners crippled with work-accidents, also wives with too many children. One day a miner's wife pleaded—can you stop this pregnancy? 1923, that was the first of Dr. Spencer's 40,000 safe and inexpensive abortions­ he had begun almost half a century before the Roe v. Wade land mark decision. Inexpensive—$5, never move than $100.

Citizens and local police looked the other way when the Greyhound bus brought a frightened shopgirl from Philadelphia or New York. Their desperate letters—"Dear Dr. Spencer"—had asked for his help. He couldn't refuse. The State Police tried to close his office. Arrested three times, never convicted. Some called him "The Angel of Ashland," also "King of the Abortionists." Respected, mild-mannered, Dr. Spencer had one or two eccentricities, like his special boat-automobile that he could drive across rivers. Also, an occasional crazy hat at a picnic. Died 1969. Dear Dr. Spencer: Abortion in a Small Town (25 min., U.S.), Danielle Renfrew and Beth Seltzer. (In case you haven 't picked it up, the story recalls the fictional treatment by John Irving in his The Cider House Rules, a novel, now a musical, and soon a theatrical feature.)

Another elder of more than local renown was the jazz composer/musician, remembered in Charlie Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, directed by Don McGlynn and produced by IDA member Myron Meisel (87 min., U.S.). Mingus drew inspiration from Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, also, he said, "from the way the waiter spoke to me at dinner. The film weaves performance footage from the 1960s and '70s, plus old photos, along with fond memories from band-mates and their wives.

Five Cuban musicians have an average age of eighty, which is also the number of minutes for Black Tears, by Sonia Herman Dolz, of Cuba. They are "the grandfathers of salsa," the five singers-musicians "La Vieja Trova Santiaguera," shot during their five-month tour through Europe. They joke about their difficulty in climbing just a few steps to the stage, but their energy instantly returns when singing of youth, dance and, of course, romance. European crowds love their existential realism: "What do I care if you used to admire another, and that you groaned with pain and enjoyment in his arms? When I drink my wine, I don't wonder if the glass has ever quenched the thirst of another heavy drinker."

Elderly Senegalese men, exiled from home by poverty, are profiled in Baraka (54 min., Senegal), by Jean-Paul Colleyn and Victoria Eben. Devastating drought has killed agriculture and herding. The Murid Brotherhood , an Islamic sect, must work in street markets and small shops i n the U.S. and in Europe. Still, they try to maintain connections with their tightly-knit community, sometimes even using the Internet.

Other films of note include Tinta Roja, or Blood Ink (70 min., Argentina), directed by Carmen Guarini and Marcelo Cespedes, about a scurvy Buenos Aires daily, Cronica, that exploits the day's murders and atrocities, sensationalizing and titillating outrageously to build readership reaching almost American proportions. Tinta Roja has a long pedigree of festival exposure and prizes, well deserved.

Treyf, loosely translated from Yiddish as "not kosher," by Alisa Lebow and Cynthia Madansky (54 min., U.S.), details, sometimes satirically, the lesbian love of two Jewish lasses. They are of progressive, secular Jewish identity, but compelled to confront Zionism, religion and the Holocaust. This may be the first lesbian film of its kind to deal strongly with homophobia, anti-Semitism and other nasties.

Under Wraps, about menstruation, by Teresa Maclnnes and Penny Wheelwright (56 min., U.S./Canada), deals boldly, factually yet humorously, with a taboo topic that is still taboo in many families and cultures, including the supposedly sophisticated and enlightened U.S. of A. In addition to exposing prevailing ignorance and prejudice regarding menstruation, Under Wraps targets the huge multi­ billion dollar menstruation industry, which markets myriad menstrual nostrums, gadgets and gizmos, some of them toxic and dangerous. The film was a 1997 IDA Award nominee.

Spunwrench-Kahnawake Man, like Baraka, is another portrayal of man's determination to protect cultural identity. "Spudwrench " is Randy Home, a high-steel worker from the Mohawk community, Kahnawake, near Montreal. He has literally manned the barricades against attempts by golf-course entrepreneurs and cops to seize sacred Mohawk land. Horne, an activist like others of his and additional tribes, has worked on some of the tallest buildings in the world , but he has never lost touch with his tribal roots. The film was directed by Alan is Obomsawin, for the National Film Board of Canada (58 min.).

Again, directed by Obomsawin for NFB , My Name is Kahentiiosta (27 min.) concerns a militant young mother, arrested after a stand-off of 78 days against the Quebec government. Her sentence was prolonged because she refused to renounce her aboriginal name and centuries-old heritage. "She has so much strength, courage and integrity," says Obomsawin, "she never ever lacked courage or had any doubts." Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance , also by Obomsawin for NFB (119 min.), further documents the clash of Mohawks versus the Canadian Army.

Mead had ten titles from Australia and from the islands to the northeast, per its series, "From Sand to Celluloid : Australian Indigenou s Media." NIDF, the National Indigenous Documentary Fund, is a factor in this prolific production, with activist topics. Night Patrol is one, by Valerie Napaljarri and Pat Fiske, Warlpiri Media Productions (30 min.). "We don't want to be crying all the time," declare the aboriginal mothers of Yuenduma, in NE Australia. So they organized night patrols, uniformed but unarmed, to break up trouble spots where alcohol abuse, gasoline sniffing, and domestic violence occur.

Another of Mead's ten: Mabo—Life of an Island Man, by Trevor Graham (87 min.), about an aborigine in exile, deep into legal action against the presumption of Australia's white government that the continent was vacant of inhabitants on "discovery" two centuries ago, thus the premises could be claimed entirely as a new find. But a final court ruling vindicated Mabo and set a long-ranging precedent: aborigines had rightful claims for owner­ ship and compensation.

Another valuable Mead grouping, seven titles from or about Haiti, included the Maya Deren avant-garde classic, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, shot 1947/1951, and edited in 1977 by Teiri and Cherel Ito (54 min .). More contemporary, Resistants (156 min.) by Katharine Kean chronicles the 1991 coup in Haiti and the dictatorship that followed. The complicity of the U.S. government in the turmoil of Haiti is a central theme.

Seven titles comprised Mead's mini-retrospective on Taiwan. Chen I've already mentioned. Another is Moon Children (63 min.), directed by I-Fong wu. A "moon child" is an albino, therefore different from other Taiwanese, therefore a target of heartless discrimination. The film centers on a sixteen-year-old lad who at last is able to study and work, but only with the greatest difficulty. Hardship and pain are the legacy of moon children, and adults, in Taiwan.

Of great interest was Mead's retrospective on the career of Raoul Peck, born in Haiti 1953, educated there and in Zaire and France, trained in cinema at Berlin's Academy of Film and Television in the 1980s. Haiti is Peck's main topic, but he ranges abroad with great effect, e.g., Lumumba (1991, 69 min.), produced by the then Democratic Republic of The Congo. Patrice Lumumba, the first Congoleze freely-elected Prime Minister after independence from Belgium, was seized by rebel officers, tortured publicly (footage shown), brutalized for months, finally murdered, ten months after his election.

Complicity of western nations, fearful of the socialist contagion, is well documented. Mead screened Lumumba per arrangement with the African Film Festival. Other Peck films were screened, both fiction and reality-based, notably Haiti—Silence of the Dogs (1994, 52 min.), about the exile of elected President Aristide, the ruthless power of the military, the streets as places of violence, fear and death.

Concurrent with Mead were four symposia, under the collective title of "Screening Culture," organized by New York University's Program in Culture and Media, Department of Anthropology, and the Center for Media, Culture and History: "Relocating 'Home'—New Documentary from Taiwan," with Taiwanese guests and cineastes to discuss their native visions of Taiwan, its past, present and future; "Haitian Cinema: The International Journey of Raoul Peck," with Peck discussing his films and study/work periods in Europe and Africa ; "What's a Festival For?" which saw a half-dozen festival directors discuss the changing screen representations of culture; and "From Sand to Celluloid : Australia's Indigenous Media," in which panelists were some of the key players in films screened at Mead.

 

Gordon Hitchens is Contributing Editor to International Documentary. He was founding editor for Film Comment's first seven years. As a string for Variety, he has reviewed more than 200 films for that newspaper. A former faculty member at C. W Post/Long Island University, he serves as consultant to numerous film festivals throughout the world, including Berlin and Yamagata.

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