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On the opening night of the 36th Annual Margaret Mead Film Festival, crowds slowly filled the nearly 1,000 seats of the American Museum of Natural History's LeFrak Theater, a soaring neoclassical venue that first projected lantern-slide images in the early 20th century. As scruffy hipsters took their seats alongside affluent Upper West-Siders, a massive IMAX screen ran silent previews for the theater's usual fare, such as documentaries like Flying Monsters, a National Geographic feature on pterosaurs. Meanwhile, outside the theater in the museum's Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, other festivalgoers perused Boas-designed dioramas depicting turn-of-the-century people, practices, and objects of the Kwakwaka'wakw, the Haida, and other indigenous American groups.

Yet like much of the festival that followed, the opening night's film, The Other Half of Tomorrow, took viewers worlds away from the past of museum displays and into a vivid present—in this case, the often-embattled present of women's activism in Pakistan. Directed by mother-and-daughter team Samina Qureshi and Sadia Shepard, the film consists of seven shorts shot in beautiful color and accompanied by an evocative soundtrack of energetic music and everyday clamor. Presenting the film, Shepard positioned it as a rejoinder to the representations that now dominate Western media and foster illusions that Pakistan is a “monolithic culture.” In this respect, The Other Half of Tomorrow is successful to varying degrees, as its treatment of Islam exemplifies. A number of shorts, such as one featuring an older woman whose reminiscences link the “Islamization” of her country to its fall from egalitarian origins, play into Western narratives that figure Islam as the cause of women's oppression. Elsewhere in the film, however, the religion appears as a vital element in women's efforts to change their communities and nation. Thus, another short foregrounds a rural Muslim woman's piety as she works to foster greater awareness about, and the prosecution of, violence against women.

More generally, the film offers a vivid illumination of the ways that Pakistani women are remaking diverse cultural fields such as song, dance, education, and sport into sites of empowerment and social transformation. More particularly, one of the central formal features of The Other Half of Tomorrow—it unfolds through the stories of multiple women, ranging from an elected official to a cricket team captain—made it a fitting start to this year's festival, the theme of which was posed as a question: “Whose Story Is It?” In what follows, I don't pretend to canvass the breadth of the festival's engagement with issues of storytelling, but instead focus on some key features of this engagement that may particularly interest anthropologists. And simply put, the festival as a whole provided a salutary rejoinder to Walter Benjamin's elegiac reflections on the downfall of storytelling in the face of modernity, demonstrating that this practice is alive and well today, and often enabled by modern media forms like the documentary film. This point was made over the course of four packed days, which featured 25 new films and a handful of retrospectives and panel discussions, along with a rich offering of other events, including a drumming circle, a reception with filmmakers in the museum's Hall of Gems, dance parties featuring Brazilian and Bhangra music, and even social justice video games provided by the nonprofit Games for Change.

The panel discussions, in particular, were not mere supplements to the films but effective considerations of the practice of storytelling in their own right; they grappled with the present and the past of this practice via film and other electronic media. One panel—gathering producers from the storytelling collective The Moth, the PBS documentary series POV, and StoryCorps, a multimedia oral history project—gave festivalgoers the opportunity to learn about contemporary institutions that promote the sharing of stories and to meet some of the leaders of these institutions over drinks. Another event, “Re-seeing the Century: The Expedition on Film,” provided a kind of genealogy of contemporary ethnographic filmmaking, focusing on some of its direct precursors. Scholars, archivists, and filmmakers—from both inside the American Museum of Natural History (Barbara Mathé, Melanie Stiassny, and Vivian Trakinski) and outside it (New York University's Pegi Vail)—reflected on scientific and expedition photography and film from the late 19th century to the present while showing some iconic technologies and images from the museum's archives and broader public culture. Vail presented an especially arresting illustration, a promotional poster for the 1928 film Simba: The King of the Beasts. The poster depicts filmmakers Martin and Osa Johnson on one of their African collecting trips in the 1920s and the 1930s: facing a snarling lion, Martin has a tripod, while Osa, a skilled markswoman, holds a gun—a chilling reminder of the ambiguity of the term “shooting” in the context of colonial projects that enabled a great deal of early ethnographic filmmaking and supplied large portions of natural history collections.

Fortunately, most of the festival's films evinced a great deal of distance from this colonial past, telling stories about a rich array of topics such as global environmental activism, social media and the Egyptian revolution, the music and struggles of Dalits in India, sex workers and climate change in Bangladesh, Siberian reindeer herding, the apocalyptic prophecies of American evangelicals, and women drummers in Rwanda. Yet these offerings often remained close to the history of ethnographic film in other ways, particularly in terms of technique. Many films relied heavily on well-trodden Euro-American conventions like observational cinema, thereby downplaying the role of the filmmaker and employing the camera as a seemingly transparent window on various cultural worlds. Even so, however, many of the festival's offerings conveyed a sense of the diversity of sensibilities and concerns that observational techniques can compellingly evoke, ranging from Najeeb Mirza's Buzkashi!, which channels the frenetic energy of Tajikistan's polo-like sport while using it as a lens on growing inequalities in a post-Soviet context, to Valérie Berteau and Philippe Witjes's Himself He Cooks, which reveals volunteer efforts to feed thousands of pilgrims in a Sikh temple in India in a sensorially rich fashion, attending to fine details like floating motes of flour and the bright shimmer of metal dishes.

Grappling with the issue of perspective in storytelling, and departing from the dominant ideal of the individual filmmaker as auteur, two of the most innovative films screened at the festival are collaborative efforts made by intercultural filmmaking collectives that include anthropologists. One of these, Children of Srikandi, was conceived, shot, and directed by eight queer women in Indonesia and produced by anthropologist Laura Coppens. Eschewing straightforward plot in favor of a layered blend of animation, shadow theater, dramatization, and personal narrative, the film highlights the predicament of Indonesian queer women, showing their efforts to live and love in the face of homophobia and amidst the interplay of desire, new kinship forms, and globally circulating categories of sexual identity. At the same time, the story of Srikandi, a gender-changing figure from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, deftly sets contemporary Indonesian queer lives in a mythological frame, and this embedding of past and present is playfully mirrored by a score featuring a gamelan remixed into techno. Importantly, both the creation of Children of Srikandi and its place at the Mead underscore the fact that film and other media constitute, rather than simply depict, communities and movements: the film began in a series of workshops that brought queer Indonesian women together, and in turn its screening occasioned a large turnout of queer Indonesians living in the New York metropolitan area, whose perspectives added depth to the question-and-answer period that followed.

A second collaborative work, Manapanmirr, in Christmas Spirit, received a special commendation from the festival's awards jury. Made by Yolngu (Aboriginal Australian) community leaders Paul Gurrumuruwuy and Fiona Yangathu, Euro-Australian anthropologist Jennifer Deger, and Euro-Australian filmmaker David Mackenzie, the film is an engaging, sensitive treatment of the creative imbrication of seasonally specific Yolngu practices of renewal and ancestral connection and the holiday of Christmas, which was introduced by Christian missionaries in the first half of the 20th century. “This is a film about feeling,” explains Gurrumuruwuy, also the film's narrator, at its outset. In keeping with that concern with feeling, the film follows the rhythms of everyday Yolngu life as it accelerates to the intensity of Christmas Day commemorations of the dead. Along the way, the camerawork follows communal activities while attending with delicate restraint to Yolngu individuals, especially the intermingling of their laughter and tears as they remember the dead, as well as touch, regard, and circulate photographs of recently deceased men. As an example of anthropologically informed media production, this film “about feeling” also offers a theoretical challenge: one cannot help but feel the limits of arid abstractions like “hybridity” and “syncretism” in conveying the unfolding of Yolngu ritual life amid Mariah Carey songs, Santa Claus apparel, and the frequent creation of cell phone videos and photographs.

Also of theoretical and pedagogical interest are the depictions of indigeneity and disability in a number of the films screened at the Mead. Aside from a peculiar outlier, Patrick Morell's Nagaland: The Last of the Headhunters, which panders to lurid exoticism and tropes of the vanishing primitive, Manapanmirr was joined by other films about indigenous peoples in upending assumptions about the incompatibility of tradition and modernity, and the inevitability of generational conflict. Thus, Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos and Pietra Brettkelly's Maori Boy Genius each portray indigenous youth as creative agents in the rearticulation of Inuit and Maori practices, movements, and aspirations.

Two other films—Zoé Chantre's Tiens moi droite (Keep Me Upright) and Adam Isenberg's Una vida sin palabras (A Life Without Words), which won the festival's Mead filmmaker award—challenge widespread assumptions in a similar fashion, offering complex portraits of people with disabilities. Chantre's sobering if occasionally whimsical meditation on her life as a French woman with scoliosis revolves around scenes of ordinary days and extraordinary medical procedures, all imaginatively refracted through her notebook illustrations and pencil animations. Isenberg's immersive look at the lives of deaf siblings and their family in Nicaragua provides a vivid, deeply personal view of the country's sign language movement, which famously developed a distinctive gestural vernacular. Isenberg focuses on the hopes, struggles, and frustrations of the siblings and their family as magnified by the arrival of a teacher who endeavors to teach them the language they grew up without. For all the thematic and aesthetic differences between Chantre's and Isenberg's films, both subtly contest the reduction of disability, as a form of human difference, to pathology and disorder—its medicalization—without ever romanticizing it.

A rare and moving joint treatment of indigeneity and disability is central to Maya Stark and Adi Lavy's Sun Kissed. The film follows a Navajo couple as they endeavor to understand xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare genetic condition that renders sunlight carcinogenic, often involves fatal neurodegeneration, and ultimately kills their daughter and son. As nuanced as any ethnography that sails under a banner like “medical pluralism” or “religion and medicine,” the film delivers a study of the hope, doubt, joy, and sorrow of parents of children with a fatal disability, the legacy and historical memory of colonialism, and competing biomedical and spiritual etiologies, all of which are presented against the backdrop of sparsely beautiful desert landscapes.

In focusing on a condition not widely talked about in Navajo communities today, Sun Kissed presents a number of challenges, ranging from the difficulty of fairly representing competing understandings of affliction to the film's death scene, which, I am told, many Navajo viewers would find extremely problematic. Such challenges point to the contentious nature of storytelling, and no doubt to address them the film was followed by a panel with scholars of public health, evolutionary anthropology, and cultural anthropology. Yet, at times, the panel, which excluded the filmmakers for reasons not apparent to me, felt less like a discussion of the film than a discussion about some of its topics. Much of the panel was dedicated to remedying perceived gaps or “contradictions” in the film through conveying details on subjects like Navajo cosmology and the epidemiology of genetic disorders. While such information is extremely important, this focus foreclosed a robust consideration of the central features of the film, including its narrative choices and strategies, as well as the ethics and politics of cross-cultural representations of life, affliction, and death more generally.

Although limited to the topics discussed, the panel on Sun Kissed nonetheless serves as a challenge for more productive and engaged future dialogue between anthropologists inside the academy and the vibrant ethnographic filmmaking going on outside of it—between, in other words, forms of storytelling conventionally marked as social science and other forms deemed art. Such dialogue, as well as ethnographic filmmaking by anthropologists, matters on many fronts, not only for reasons of intellectual and aesthetic interest but also for public engagement. Festivals like the Mead offer one of the all-too-rare venues in which anthropological research might speak directly to broader audiences and attain that elusive thing called “relevance”—surely a fitting tribute to Margaret Mead's own legacy. Day after day of the festival, throngs of people eagerly watched films and discussed them between screenings, while buying tickets under the museum's 63-ft. Haida canoe, and at receptions and parties. Many of the festival's films were sold out, and twice, while waiting for a theater to open, I was asked by frantic-looking individuals if I had extra tickets to sell. Judging from the Mead at least, people are hungry for ethnographic work, and whatever the motivations of this hunger—be it the lure of the otherwise and elsewhere, activist or humanitarian concerns, or simple curiosity—it attests to the potential of ethnographic films and film festivals to provide anthropology with an arena for public voice. To ignore such potential at this moment—when a U.S. governor calls for the defunding of university anthropology departments and Forbes magazine deems anthropology to be the worst of the “10 worst college majors”—would surely be a missed opportunity to bolster the wider import and presence of our discipline.

Acknowledgment

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  2. Acknowledgment
  3. Films Cited
  4. Biography

This review has benefited from the insights of Faye Ginsburg, Robert Desjarlais, and Mary Kate Slattery.

Films Cited

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  2. Acknowledgment
  3. Films Cited
  4. Biography

Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Acknowledgment
  3. Films Cited
  4. Biography
  • Tyler Zoanni is a PhD student in anthropology at New York University.