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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to filmfestivals.com

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


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New York: 2019 Margaret Mead Film Festival

Held from October 17-20, the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History, reinforced its preeminent role as the platform for superb documentaries. Productions screened were informed by anthropological and social science underpinnings, an orientation towards contemporary issues, and cogent analysis of problems ranging from political self determination to environmental challenges.

The festival, started in 1977, is the longest running annual international documentary festival in the United States, and has shown, as of 2016, over two thousand of the 40,000 films that have been submitted to MMFF. 1,000 of these films are held in MMFF archives. Indigenous filmmakers from all over the word are presented each year. The narratives these filmmakers share reflect how they  define reality  as distinct from the stories commercial media tell about indigenous people. Including 18 US premieres the festival screened 44 films from 34 countries which combined with numerous special events  served to break stereotypical preconceptions we have of others as alien and exotic. Among the 34 countries whose work we rarely see in our media were Brazil, Ethiopia, Greenland, Haiti, Israel Mexico, Peru, and Saudi Arabia. Their productions ranged from female racecar drivers, indigenous drag queens, ultra-orthodox Jewish feminists and the interaction between robots with humans.

Among the special events arranged, open to all ticket holders, was the VR Lounge presenting Awavena by Lynette Wallworth, presented by Amazon. A panel discussion, with collaboration from indigenous communities, followed. There were several Mead dialogues covering ground breaking community based media collectives, as well as episodes from the New York Times documentary series The Weekly.

Programing of the festival did not follow a set perspective. This year’s theme “Breaking the Narrative” emerged from the orientation of the 600 films which had been submitted and the 100 which were solicited from other festivals. As in recent years, about 5,000 individuals attended the festival, leading to many sold out screenings. Renovations of some parts of the Museum, and the construction of the new Richard Gilder Center for Science and Innovations, created the need for more screening spaces.

One of the major challenges the festival faces is the constant creation of new film festivals. It seems as if there is at least one new festival announced each week. New York City has become over-saturated with film festivals, increasing competition for funding and outstanding new film productions. Given the strong history of the Margaret Mead Film Festival, these challenges have not, and may not, become a problem. For the first time this year, the festival has received funding from the National Endowment of the Arts, and it has received support from the Academy of Motion Picture arts and Sciences for the second year in a row. MMFF has also received support from state and city agencies, foreign consulates, private parties, and from HBO.

Several documentaries from this year’s selection struck me as creative and compelling productions.  Antonio y Piti from Brazil by Vincent Carelli and Wewito Piyaeko presents a cogent portrait of the Ashanonka people who had been enslaved as rubber tree tappers by a company which was forced to abandon its business by a coalition of indigenous and non-indigenous people. One guiding theme  in the film was the multi-generational portrait of one mixed race family which was instrumental in the struggle agaisgt oppression. Their children continued the fight against corruption and the environmental devastation. Antonio y Piti is a superb investigation of survival against all odds.

Sidse Torstholm Larsen and Sturla Pilso directed Winter’s Yearning, depicting the everyday lives and struggles of the mostly young peoples from the small and ancient whaling village of Maniitsoq in coastal Greenland. Several generations grew up there  with social and economic problems, alcoholism, drug addiction and social isolation. There seem to be no alternatives or solutions for people living in Maniitsoq where many have become dependent on outside support and services, mainly funded by Denmark, the country administering Greenland. The images of the environment and individuals are pristinely presented, and the interviews are carried out with great sensitivity. One factor aggravating the socio-economic misery was the American Alcoa company’s early 2002, multi-billion dollar promise to build an aluminum plant to commence operations in 2014. This would have made Greenland, with its 56,000 inhabitants, independent from Denmark. Yet the plant was never constructed, and no action has been taken during the last 10 years. The documentary shows the consequences of the broken promise but does not explain Alcoa’s failure to invest.  

Whereas Antonio y Piti and Winter’s Yearning document the survival strategies and struggles of ingenious peoples, the German Hi, AI (Hello Artificial Intelligence), produced by Isa Willinger, investigates important issues faced by advanced industrial nations such as Germany, the United States, and Japan, where most of the documentary was filmed. It addresses the issues coping with personal and emotional isolation and the pursuit to find surrogates that can overcome social separation. With the progressive breakdown of families and traditional institutional  care taking avenues, there is a search for alternatives

Isa Willinger’s documentary deals with the current status of robotic artificial intelligence. She explores the advances in artificial intelligence and the engineering of sophisticated robots. In Japan, there is an android called Pepper that takes care of a grandmother living in a nursing home. Pepper was purchased by the grandmother’s son, hoping to cure, or at the very least address, her loneliness. Research has empirically shown that pets have a positive impact on the emotional and physical states of ailing elderly people, but whether humans can be as emotionally attached to robots, and have the same positive outcomes, has not yet been demonstrated. The emphasis of the film is placed on further developing the emerging cognitive abilities of robots like Pepper. In the United States, Willinger records the interactions between Chuck and Harmony, a female robot companion able to converse like Pepper, over a week. The film exposes that we are moving into a world in which sophisticated robots will begin taking care of our needs, including those related to mental health. Chuck came from a dysfunctional family background, was married to an abusive wife, and suffers from depressions, but reported that he felt much better after his experience with Harmony.

The Guardian of Memory, by Marcela Arteaga, a production from Mexico and the USA ranks among the best documentaries shown at the Mead Film Festival this year. It excels in storytelling, outstanding cinematography, and set design. Using a data driven perspective, it addresses issues faced by migrants in Mexico and the United States, and the complicity of Mexican federal, state, and local official agencies in the close to genocidal destruction of Guadalope. The city once was home to 20,000 residents, but now only 900 people live there, left with wrecked homes and the desert.  The human cost of violence and murder is born witness by the human face of testimonies from surviving residents. In 2008 the government decided to send the army into this border region of Juarez and Chihuahua to clean up drug trafficking, and the result was the destruction of homes, pillage, extortions, kidnaping and killings, depopulating the area. In the past, individuals crossed the border to work in the United States, or left Mexico fearing for their life. Whole families where often brought to the border by Mexican authorities, demonstrating that even their own government felt it could not protect them. Generalized distrust of the authorities and the fear caused by open criminal activities destabilized the community. This reflected conditions which the filmmakers identified as ‘authorized violence’.  When El Chapo’s son was briefly captured by 30-armed soldiers in the city of Uliacan earlier this month, they were forced to let him go after just one day him following the cartel, once headed by El Chapo, occupying part of the city.

The filmmakers also document how on the other side of the border US authorities have started deporting those who fled from Mexico, including half of the people interviewed for the film. Officials invoked rules of a mandatory documented presence in the US of two years in order to stay in the US. The authorities have turned down 99% of all applications for political asylum, compared to a rejection rate of about 37% in Germany.  Many US immigration judges are apparently  former border guards.

The Australian director Erica Glynn won the 2019 Margaret Mead Filmmaker Award for her film She Who Must Be Loved about her activist mother Freda Glynn, an Indigenous Australian media trailblazer. The festival’s Special Mention was presented to Mari Gulbiani, the director of Before Father Gets Back, depicting the daily life of two daughters of jihadists waiting for their fathers’ return

 

 

Claus Mueller      filmexchange@gmail.com

 

 

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