A friend of Margaret Mead once remarked that “hers was the most complex life imaginable. She had so many fingers in so many pies, and was behind the scenes on so many levels.” A similar characterization could apply to the bigger-than-ever festival that bears Mead’s name—a panglobal omnibus of nearly 90 documentaries.
The festival’s tentpoles this 24th year are the loosely devised programs “Reframing Disability” and “New World Border” and two typically unexpected retros. Mira Nair, who brought us the purple prosaics of Kama Sutra, is feted with screenings of her acclaimed docu-feature debut, Salaam Bombay! (1988), and her less-well-known nonfiction films. Patrons can spend two evenings with the festival’s other featured artist, the late naturalist-turned-filmmaker Jean Painlevé, whose endlessly engaging science shorts include Predatory Mushrooms and The Love Life of the Octopus, in which Dr. Who-ish music scores the lurid undulations of the “creature of horror.” Painlevé’s films suggest Jean Cocteau as a Discovery Channel adept—indeed, his work would seem incongruous with the festival’s ethnographic purposes if his sensibilities weren’t so unmistakably French.
Acrid humor collapses normative assumptions about American identity and manifest destiny in Gustavo Vasquez and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s collage-cum-mockumentary The Great Mojado Invasion, as well as for Sandy Osawa’s subject in On and Off the Res With Charlie Hill. An Oneida from Wisconsin, Hill found success on the comedy circuit only to receive fourth-banana acting offers that wallowed in the same stereotypes of Native Americans his stand-up act so deftly deconstructed. Goofball fun looks to be in store during the opening get-in-the-ring moments of Gaea Girls, about Japanese female pro wrestlers, but directors Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams are less interested in mass spectacle than individual personalities, specifically the borderline sadomasochistic relationship between cherub-faced Takeuchi, a most unlikely aspiring piledriver, and her fearsome coach, mat star Nagayo Chigusa, whose training tactics shade close to hazing but seem to stem from familial abuse.
The suffering of Russian prisoners is indelibly etched in their ornate, body-blanketing tattoos in Alix Lambert’s Mark of Cain, a densely informative yet starkly lyrical consideration of the Samara prison complex, where malnourished, TB-plagued inmates have to sleep in shifts. The patterns on their skin reveal their crimes, their history, and their place within a ritualized hierarchy; Lambert achieves a startling intimacy with these men, many of whom look barely out of their teens and resemble not wards of the state but prisoners of war.
War and the reckonings that follow compose an underpinning theme of the festival. Like Mark of Cain, Heddy Honigmann’s equally empathic Crazy chooses a single point on a massive latticework to illuminate the whole—in this case, the songs that Dutch UN soldiers remember from their time in combat. Honigmann is a gentle but persistent and lucid interviewer, and her camera’s patient gaze is revelatory. A pair of videos follow Holocaust survivors on journeys in which geographical space and lost time cohere: In Shahar Rozen’s Liebe Perla, an elderly Hungarian dwarf attempts to track down Josef Mengele’s films of her family, while her gratitude to Mengele (“He wanted to do research. . . . That’s why we survived”) defy not reason but meaning; Luke Holland’s I Was a Slave Labourer spans three years with businessman Rudy Kennedy as he seeks reparations from I.G. Farben, a German chemical manufacturer that used concentration camp labor, including his own, during WW II. Kennedy’s otherworldly grace and rectitude never waver despite endless red tape, condescension, and overt hostility.
Arthur Howes’s lovely portrait doc, Kafi’s Story (originally presented at the 1989 Mead festival), will screen in conjunction with Nuba Conversations, in which Howes revisits the Nuba mountains in Sudan where, 10 years earlier, war was only stirring from a distance; it now has obliterated a culture, mutilated or murdered untold thousands (Howes talks to several surviving casualties whom we first met in Kafi’s Story), wrenched a generation of children from their families, and drafted most young men onto the killing fields because there is no other way to stay alive. Howes’s new film works as both searing journalism and a passionate first-person account of the unaccountable, a document of what has to many Western eyes remained an invisible cataclysm.