There are over 80 short- and feature-length documentaries in this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival, but of course there could always be more, the multitude of people projected on its screens just a tiny slice of the human pie. The fest can be counted on to visit forgotten corners of the globe, but the filmmakers and audiences are linked by a basic impulse, namely the desire to see something new or unexpected.
This year’s Mead is loosely organized around a number of themes, among them spirituality, myths of sex and sexuality, and the use of high-definition video tech in documentary. The festival is also offering a mini-retro of cinema verité docs anchored by the work of Canada’s Allan King. King’s 1968 A Married Couple is often described as an exemplary classic of the genre, edited from 70 hours of film shot over five weeks. It’s an often jaw-dropping time capsule, the shrill, showy spats set against the polyesterish backdrop of late-’60s middle-class angst and folly.
Taking on some of today’s sexual conundrums is Vanalyne Green’s concise and blunt Saddle Sores, which unpacks some of the philosophical and biological implications of the filmmaker’s ill-fated affair with “Cowboy Bob.” Her Wild West adventure climaxes not with the arrival of the cavalry but her first herpes outbreak, leading to shame, anger, and an obsession with the darker side of the cowboy mystique. James Rutenbeck’s Raise the Dead follows the trail of a traveling Pentecostal preacher. Imbuing a clearly dying form of belief with elegiac dignity, Dead manages to convey the fevered energies of a tent revival even as it illustrates its more banal aspects as business and entertainment.
Two films get new angles on the new-style ethnographic film, the transvestite sub-cult doc. Paradise Bent returns to Margaret Mead’s Samoan stomping grounds to look at the fa’afafine-a traditional Samoan sex role where boys are raised as girls-and how they’ve been transformed by Western notions of hetero- and homosexuality. Bent sketches the particulars of a local third gender even as the images suggest that in a global culture the zenith of alternative sexuality is inevitably the Cage aux Folles?style drag revue. In the West Africa?set Woubi Cheri, slang-spouting and high-attitude woubis (gay-acting gay men), yossis (straight-acting), and drag queens live in the shadow of an often hostile traditional society.
And the Cow Jumped Over the Moon looks at another set of African trailblazers, nomadic herdsmen in Mali who use weather satellites to survive difficult dry seasons. Sparely effective techno-porn images of NASA hardware are intercut with the dusty rituals of the cattle run. Director Christopher Walker wonders if the new dependence on information from orbit might further deplete cultural and political autonomy. It’s a narrowly defined question, but as with most of the initially small and local-seeming questions asked by this festival, the answer will ultimately mean something to all of us.