The Margaret Mead Film Festival, held annually at the Museum of Natural History in New York, is the longest running international documentary film festival in the country. The Mead, as it is known to insiders, is named for famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, the Department of Anthropology's curator for fifty-two years. This year the festival celebrates its 35th anniversary.
Noted for its diverse lineup, the festival features work from a broad array of communities. Featured filmmakers are in attendance for post-screening discussions, often joined by the subjects of their films. The resulting dialogues bring to light important social issues that many attendees would otherwise not have the opportunity to encounter. Cinephiles, armchair anthropologists, film and journalism students, the intellectually curious public, and family and friends of the filmmakers and film subjects make up the basic audience, while any given film may have it's own audience of fans for whom the film's subject has a special relevance. There are also many who attend out of a love for the Natural History Museum, itself a New York institution.
The festival's storied past includes introducing audiences to acclaimed Oscar winners like the feature documentary The Blood of Yingzhou District (2006), as well as many Oscar-winning animated short films. Paris Is Burning, the famed 1990 documentary about ball culture in the urban transgender community, was first screened at The Mead.
The 2011 festival, which ran from November 10 through November 13, featured the work of filmmakers from more than thirty countries, including the Czech Republic, Egypt, Mozambique, and Portugal. The thirty-six chosen films were narrowed down from over one thousand international and domestic submissions. In addition to film screenings, the 2011 festival featured live musical performances and a space-themed Radiolab listening party in the Hayden Planetarium dome.1
A highlight this year was the 35th Anniversary Retrospective Series, a celebration of some of the festival's most influential features and short films over the past three decades; included among the offerings was N!ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman (1980) by John Marshall, Adrienne Miesmer, and Sue Cabezas. The film's story, which introduces us to N!ai as a young girl and chronicles her life into her 30s, is told by N!ai, addressing the camera directly in both speech and song. The !Kung, a people of the Kalahari Desert, speak the !Kung language, noted for the clicking sounds that accompany the consonants. N!ai is unique in this genre of film as it was shot over the course of twenty-seven years and blends ethnography with history. The films shows the many ways that N!ai's tribe evolves over three decades while remaining firmly focused on N!ai and her story.
Another offering, A Wife among Wives (1982) from husband and wife anthropologist team David and Judith MacDougall, introduces us to the Turkana, semi-nomadic camel herders in Kenya. The third film in The Turkana Conversations trilogy, A Wife among Wives, focuses on the women in the tribe and their views on polygyny, the practice of men taking more than one wife.
The much coveted Margaret Mead Filmmaker Award recognizes filmmakers whose work shows not only creative excellence but offers a new perspective on a remote culture or community. This year's jury was headed by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky of Black Swan (2010) fame. Joining Aronofsky was Film Forum director Karen Cooper, The Farm: Angola, USA (1998) director Liz Garbus, and The Murder of Emmett Till (2003) producer Stanley Earl Nelson, Jr.. The award went to NYU journalism graduate Yuanchen Liu, for his documentary, To the Light (2011), which chronicles the lives of miners in Sichuan, China.
Also included among the 2011 award nominees were Memoirs of a Plague (dir. Robert Nugent, 2011), which tells the haunting story of locust invasions in Ethiopia, Egypt, and Australia, and Rainmakers (dir. Florys-Jan van Luyn, 2009), in which average citizens display heroic tendencies as they fight for the most basic of rights: clean air and water. First-time filmmaker Bettina Büttner's experimental, black-and-white film Kinder (Kids) (2011) follows the lives of four boys interned in a German orphanage and Small Kingdom of Lo (2010) directed by Caroline Leitner, Daniel Mazza, and Giuseppe Tedeschi notes the effect of modernity on the Nepali village of Tsarang.
Other stand-out films of possible interest to women's and gender studies classrooms include Jinhee Park's Voice Unknown (2011), in which an elderly woman recounts the harrowing tale of her escape from North Korea. At Night, They Dance (dir. Isabelle Lavigne and Stéphane Thibault, 2010) investigates the complex lives of marginalized women making a living as belly dancers in Cairo's urban sprawl and We Still Live Here (2010) by director Anne Makepeace about Martha's Vineyard islander Jesse Littledoe Baird, who was called by a vision to return the Wampanoag language to its people. Baird reconstructs the language using the only tools available, a Bible translated into Wampanoag by the British missionary John Eliot and official deeds, letters, and petitions of the colonial era, which form a collective history of how the tribe's land and culture were stolen in the first place.
The Mead Festival takes place each fall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Opening and closing night tickets are $15. All other screenings are $12. More information, including a full line up of films with descriptions and trailers can be found on the festival's website http://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/adults/margaret-mead-film-festival. Following the festival, some of the films are packaged into a festival tour with visits to universities and museums across the United States and around the globe.
Diana Cage is a Senior Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book, Mind Blowing Sex: A Woman's Guide, was released by Seal Press in April 2012.