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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


Margaret Mead Film Festival 2017, New York

From October 19-22 the annual Margaret Mead Film Festival sponsored by New York’s American Museum of Natural History presented 41 productions from 42 countries and numerous special events including 14 US premieres and one film shown for the first time, with half of the films directed by women.  Following the guiding theme of “activation”, films shown this year had the objective of reflecting about and acting on our understanding of the complex diversity of the cultures the audience was exposed to. This aim was reinforced by 40 film makers at all post screening discussions, experts like the astronaut Charlie Nuke, installations by first nation artists, and special seminars.

The 2017 edition of the film festival offered numerous issue and problem oriented documentaries on environmental, political and social issues characteristic of the societies we are living in. Apart from the productions reviewed below, the program covered a broad range of topics. Perspectives were presented on climate change in the  in the UAE, identity formation and socialization, life in the planned urban space of Brasilia, impact of encroaching  blindness on an artist,  exploration of racist nationalism in Australia,  impact of bureaucratic procedures on asylum applicants in Holland,  Kurdish women soldiers, LGBT communities in Israel, traditional agrarian community in Morocco  facing globalization, destruction of an indigenous community in Papua New Guinea  by a government supported private real estate  company,  and other topics.

As in past years, several seminars were an important and enlightening part of the program. One entitled Capturing Empathy: Photojournalism and Anthropology Today explored the power of visual media.   Moderated by David Furst, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer and senior editor from the New York Times along with anthropologist Zynep Hurseln  it included several established investigative photo journalists. Conditions for success were clearly specified  such as support from the agency or newspaper the journalists worked for, acknowledged professional expertise resulting from long experience in the trade, execution of in depth research on the topic to be covered and trust of the journalists by the subjects of their shoots which was developed through sometimes long time exposure to their environments.  Since both journalists on the panel had worked for David Furst the discussion of their work was productive. The samples of their unique work with the victims of the government enforced drug crusade in the Philippines and the catastrophic medical consequences of Venezuela’s bankruptcy were outstanding. Empathy by the viewer with the photographic presentation of the victims could readily be established given the quality of the images. Yet the question of the influence on the viewers of investigative photo-journalism above and beyond the emotional response remained open. Given the growing flood of visual images we are exposed in everyday life as magnified by  cell phones  it would be difficult to identify an image that moved us to action.

Almost Heaven, Carol Salter, United Kingdom/China, 2017    This ethnographic production portraits the work of a 17-year old Ying Ling. She is employed as a trainee in a huge mortuary, the Mingyang Mountain Funeral Homein Changsa, China.  Given the scarcity of jobs and in deference to her family she decides to be employed in the funeral business without having clear plans for the future.  The work is not exciting though instructive for the viewer who partakes with her in  all phases of the funeral process, from picking up corpses at the hospital to preparing the body for the funeral, consoling the relatives, and deposing the corps through cremation. Ying Ling is isolated and has a hard time adjusting to her new life but slowly develops a friendship with one co-worker and overcomes the visible discomfort with her job. Carol Salter’s direction remains invisible; Ying Ling and her environment take center stage.

Brexitannia, premiere  UK  2017, Timothy George Kelly    Brexitannia is the first documentary about the exit of Britain from the European Union. Filmed in Black and White the production is based on more than 100 interviews of which half were included in the production. The first part of the documentary presents the views of the ‘People’. In part two a smaller group, the ‘experts’, present their views. Broad oppositional positions are presented representing the fractures in British society and reflecting by and large the orientation of the Brexit vote.  This included popular sentiments versus cosmopolitan perception, young versus old, rural vs urban,  and blue collar working class vs. white collar middle class.  Members of first group tended to support Brexit whereas those in the second group were opposed to it. Because they were better educated, including Naom Chomsky and Saskia Sassen, they placed Britain and its politics in the context of the global corporate system where Britain on its own would lose economic and political power if she leaves the European Union. In both groups people told their stories and shared subjective perspectives unhampered by the positions of the film makers. The documentary revealed deep cultural splits and contradictions and the limited knowledge many populists had about the forces affecting their life. These factors and the politics of Brexit were more clearly articulated by most of the members in the second group. Populists felt that their country had fallen behind and voiced the hope that once leaving the EU England will rise again to become the power she presented in the past.  There were expressions of political impotence by populists and the view that the Brexit vote would give them the chance of having an impact. There would be actions against the immigrants who had taken their jobs. Blue collar workers responded that they had not received their fair share of economic growth and that EU membership did not provide benefits to England. These views seemed to be influenced by the pro Brexit campaign slogan that Britain would save billions of pounds leaving the EU but also by patriotic and nationalistic sentiments.  The Financial Times estimates however that Britain owes fifty three billion pounds to the EU with estimates by the EU of an amount close to 80 billion.

Pre-Crime, Germany, USA, France, UK, Matthias Heeder & Monika Hielscher, 2017 is a powerful and disturbing documentary about the development of predictive information technologies robbing citizens of privacy and giving state and corporate agencies the power to predict and shape our behavior. Drawing on empirical data and interviews with information and criminal justice experts, Heeder and Hielscher demonstrate that we already live in a surveillance society. We cannot control the collection of massive amounts of information about us from consumer behavior, criminal and mental health records as well as our social media activities. Thus, the basis is created for algorithms which are and will be increasingly used to regulate our behavior, moving now in the criminal justice sector from protection to control, from identifying crime prone areas to the identification of individuals likely to engage in criminal behavior.  We are still far away from the conditions of the feature film Minority Report where individuals are arrested before they commit a planned crime but have already entered a stage where development and the use of information technologies escape our control.  For example the information our faces contain is mined through facial recognition technologies. Chinese companies have developed facial recognition software for the government to implement the Minority Report scenario, which is the prediction of future criminal behavior.  In the United States Stamford scientists Michael Kosinski and Yilun Wan have developed a method that detects through an application of a  facial features  algorithm the sexual orientation of individuals  which can determine with an 81% accuracy rate who is gay and who is straight. The Program is based thousands of facial data points mined from each face.   Because relevant data management strategies and the development of algorithms are private property they are owned by companies which invoke copyrights to avoid citizen’s control.  There is no transparency. We live in a matrix box and cannot impact how the information collected about us is used yet we collaborate willingly in the collection of data whenever our behavior generates them.

Claus Mueller