Timeliness is of the essence, and the 25th annual Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival has got it to spare. No doubt the biggest draw in this pan-global compendium of ethnographic film, Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin documents the combined efforts of a surgeon and a journalist to build a hospital on a ravaged, moon-surface outpost of Afghanistan during 1999-2000. Intrepid directors Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati interview scores of embittered Northern Alliance soldiers (one of whom derides the Taliban as U.S. patsies), shrouded women, and amputee children; State Department officials and headline writers who’ve been busily mapping out Afghanistan’s postwar prospects might take pause when one interviewee ascribes to the country’s 22-year-long conflagration “only one logic—that of total destruction.” (Jung opens for a theatrical run later this month.)
The erstwhile international face of Islamic fundamentalism, Iran, is represented by one of the festival’s outstanding offerings. In Runaway, about a Tehran center for girls who have fled their homes, directors Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Mead regular Kim Longinotto train their seemingly invisible cameras on introductory meetings, therapy sessions, and tense reconciliations. More heartbreaking than the endless catalog of rape, abuse, isolation, and emotional terrorism is how easily the refugees’ resistance melts when family members come to claim them. (One young man chastises his sister, “Were you the only girl to get beatings?”) They seem to relent out of helpless love and the creeping realization that any escape route they choose only leads to another virtual prison: homelessness, prostitution, slave-wage labor. Stark and reticent to the point of disorientation, Runaway provides a kind of documentary companion piece to Jafar Panahi’s equally damning The Circle.
Much of the Mead’s lineup likewise proceeds under a dark cloud of the overdetermined and the inevitable. The frighteningly unselfconscious residents of Dennis O’Rourke’s Cunnamulla stew in the sticky juices of their rural Australian town, suitably located at the end of the railway line: A hard-eyed matron spews racist gibberish, a 13-year-old girl drifts toward whoring, an aboriginal convict muses on the burg’s cultural heritage (“Grog . . . drugs . . . fightin’ . . . that’s about it”). Everybody’s on the dole and nobody bothers to brush the buzzing flies away. Inertia doesn’t hamper either side of The Buffalo War, but the tireless guerrilla agitators in Matthew Testa’s prodigiously researched doc can’t do enough to stem the steady, state-endorsed massacre of the few bison that remain in and around Yellowstone. Raoul Peck’s Profit and Nothing But! announces from its outset, “Capital has won,” and then itemizes how globalism has vanquished his native Haiti—through detachedly aphoristic voice-over, witty found-footage collaging (Papa Doc and Nelson Rockefeller glad-hand; a nonbiodegradable bottle washes up next to a conch shell on the Caribbean shore), and periodic looks at the numbers that shape our world (Bill Gates’s net worth = Haiti’s GNP for the next three years). Even going to the supermarket is an exercise in predestination: Research has proven, as we learn in The Creators of Shopping Worlds, that “customers orient themselves horizontally . . . and vertically they look for a specific item.” The mall planners and bread-display architects seen at work in Harun Farocki’s exhaustive doc take on the sinister air of a worldwide conspiracy.
The most high-spirited offerings toast indomitable NYC couples. Remy Weber’s Why Pay Two Rents? meets up with Stan Selub and Paul Miller, who’ve been together since before Stonewall and whose relationship has evolved in parallel not only with the gay rights movement but the gentrification of Greenwich Village. And Amato: A Love Affair With Opera, directed by Stephen Ives, is an improbably entertaining dash through the hectic golden-anniversary season of the tiny Bowery opera house—two doors down from CBGB—founded by lovebirds Tony and Sally Amato in 1948. In an uncommonly dark and rueful lineup, turns out that the local color is the brightest.