Margaret Mead Highlights (and a Brief Rant)

Writing my dissertation I didn’t have time to make it to the Margaret Mead Film Festival the past few years, so I was happy to catch a few films this time around. While there were a few duds, I was pretty happy with most of the films I got to see. I thought I’d write about my three favorites.

I especially liked The Concrete Revolution by Xiaolu Guo. This Chris Marker-inspired visual essay was quite thoughtful and managed to pack a punch as well. From a peasant village herself, Xiaolu’s legal status was changed when she enrolled in university, putting her in a different category from the construction workers she interviews. Under the watchful eye of their managers, the workers won’t say anything except for propagandistic phrases about the wonders of progress and the glory that the 2008 Olympics will bring to their nation. However, as the film proceeds we slowly see through this rhetoric: a woman is being evicted from her home, a worker cries because he hasn’t been paid in three months, and even the guy in charge of evictions seems to wish for a better life. While I never found the film boring, many scenes end with a sense of finality which give you a false sense of closure, thus making the film seem to drag on longer than you expect.

Another highlight was the new film by Dennis O’Rourke, of Cannibal Tours fame: Land Mines, a Love Story. While more of a traditional documentary than Xiaolu Guo’s film, this too had the feeling of a visual essay/meditation on the effects of land mines, and yet it was done without any voiceover narration by the filmmaker. Shot in Afghanistan in 2002, at the film’s heart is the relationship between two land-mine victims:

Flash forward to early 2002. The Taliban have been routed and Afghanistan occupied by the United States and its allies. Kabul and all parts of the country have come under intense bombardment with thousands more innocents killed and wounded. American-made cluster bombs – which have the same killing effect as land mines – litter the country. Habiba is begging on the pavement in the main bazaar. She is just nineteen. Her husband Shah is her only support in the world; he works in the streets as a cobbler. On a good day he can bring home the equivalent of two dollars, which is not enough to feed their family of three children.

Habiba and Shah are illiterate, yet they speak with great eloquence and conviction about how war and conflict have affected their lives. They discuss international events and moral issues from a perspective that is so far removed from our own. Their insights into the state of the world, and their example of how to live, are enough to shame our leaders in the West, and us too.

It is precisely the warmth and eloquence of Habiba and Shah that make this film so endearing. And in O’Rourke’s expert hands, the film’s message comes across without any of the clumsiness or heavy-handedness one finds in the work of less-experienced filmmakers.

Finally, I’d like to discuss two projects by a friend: Liz Canner. Symphony of a City, done with John Ewing, was an installation project produced in Boston in 2001:

Dynamic individuals, from a homeless person to a multi-millionaire, were nominated by over 50 community groups from across Greater Boston, to wear tiny video cameras on their heads and document life from their perspective for a day. Eight outstanding citizens were selected. The project premiered at the 2001 Boston Cyberarts Festival where over the course of two days the videos the participants generated were streamed in real-time on the Web and presented as large scale outdoor video projections on the facade of Boston City Hall. The video from each of the participants was juxtaposed so that at any given moment four stories, four lives, four perspectives were in view. The project now exists as a gallery installation, an experimental single channel documentary and an interactive cyber documentary on this web site.

Highlights of this project can be viewed online in a variety of raw or edited versions. Liz’s more recent project, Bridges, doesn’t yet have a web site (its in the works), but it also used head-mounted cameras:

Bridges, a digital public art project, was created in response to tensions between Native Americans and police officers in Saskatoon, Canada, in an attempt to create deeper intercultural understanding and dialogue. For the project, a native leader and a leader within the police department each donned wear-cams as they lived and filmed each other’s lives for a day.

Liz had gone to Canada for a residency right after the starlight tours story had broke. This involved local police taking Native Americans for a drive and dropping them off in the bitter cold to die. So saying that there was a need for “deeper intercultural understanding and dialog” is a bit of an understatement.

[rant] There were a lot of other films I didn’t get to see, including even a selection of animations. It is nice to see the Mead Festival embracing experimental films and new media, since I often feel there is something stultifying about the traditional PBS documentary format. These are all excellent documentaries and if it wasn’t for venues like the Margaret Mead they would never get seen.

At the same time I can’t help but notice that very few of the films had anthropologists associated with them. I have a certain fondness for the classic ethnographic films of Tim Asch, Asen Balikci, the MacDougalls, and others. It would really be nice to see more films like Trobriand Cricket which actually set out to explain anthropological concepts for classroom use. I assume that there simply isn’t funding for this kind of filmmaking anymore. Everybody wants “personal narratives.” Theorizing in film is considered so passé … If you are a filmmaker and go on TV you are trained to say: “All I want to do is tell a story.” Anything else is suspect. I’ve even see the Coen brothers repeat this line. I suppose that’s how they manage to get away with making the films that they do … [/rant]