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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: Margaret Mead Film Festival 2018

With an excellent reputation among the numerous documentary film festivals in the New York metropolitan area, The Margaret Mead Film Festival, held from October 18-21 at the American Museum of Natural History, delivered once again an outstanding program of 55 productions from 39 countries. There where 18 premieres and numerous special events and performances. The festival received 500 submissions, and including the solicited films reviewed, about 800. Drawing an audience primarily from Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, over 6,000 individuals attended the festival screenings and programs. Of those that attended, there were 850 students and 600 members of the Museum hosting the event.

Guided by the theme “Resilience in Motion”, the festival emphasized groundbreaking and liberating stories. Films shown depicted people advancing their communities and asserting control over their environment. As in other film festivals, effective and innovative storytelling was essential. Numerous productions covered original topics previously  unaddressed, with the festival emphasizing productions outside of mainstream film markets and festivals. Given its backgrounds as an anthropological showcase, the Mead Festival placed indigenous underrepresented communities into the foreground, selecting three visual story telling groups from Cambodia, East Africa and Brazil who had been trained in filmmaking.  Among the appealing events, readily accessible with of the comparatively low cost $12 festival tickets, were performances, interactive events, enhanced virtual reality in the mixed media lounge, exhibitions, a panel on story ownership {an important theme also pursued by the  much  larger  2018 DOCNYC festival), and a selection of the most innovative visual anthropological shorts .  The Margret Mead Filmmaker Award this year featured eleven contenders; all U.S. premieres. Unique criteria were applied with the requirement that the prospective winner displays artistic excellence and originality of technique while offering a new perspective on a culture or community remote from the majority of the festival audiences’ experience.  Funding for the festival was provided by public agencies and private foundations as well as families with additional support from numerous foreign New York based diplomatic offices and cultural institutes.  For the first time, the Margaret Mead Film Festival received a Film Watch grant by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to broaden its audience, which covered travel expenses for filmmakers and fund related educational events. It is certainly amazing that there was not a single corporate sponsor for the festival or any of its individual programs and screenings.

What was significant in this year’s selection of films is the advanced topical relevancy many films represented.  There was no scarcity of critical examinations, exploration of borderline scientific ventures, and examinations of political issues impacting the world we are living in. The festivals maintained its well deserved role as a sophisticated learning incubator as reflected in the documentaries selected.

The 2018 Swiss production by Christian Frei and Maxim Arbugaeouth, GENESIS 2.0, raised the mind bending issues of the recreation of life, or ‘playing God’s hands’. With the aid of award winning cinematography in the permafrost of the New Siberian Islands of the Arctic Ocean and urban science and academic settings in South Korea, China, and the United States, GENESIS 2.0 portrays the intensifying search for ways of creating life through cloning, as well as, the creation of hybrid animals. In  superbly cinematographed passages  by Peter Indergard we discover the uninhabited New Siberian islands’  hunters excavating mammoth tusks. Mammoths perished there more than 4,000 years ago, and the tusks are essentially “white gold” to Chinese buyers. We are also presented with scientists searching for mammoth remains. Their goal is to extract cells that can add to those found in 2013 in the fluid blood of the totally frozen carcass of a Woolley mammoth found in the thawing soil of a New Siberian Island. To their shock and pleasant surprisal scientists opening the from mammoths’ stomach were confronted with what seemed to be blood spilling out of it.  Hunters driven by the need to make a living sell tusks but are stymied because only impeccable tusks are significantly valuable. Scientists motivated by synthetic biology \have the goal of using the DNA from the mammoth to clone the creature or create a hybrid life.  There is consideration of implanting a mammoth embryo in an elephant to give birth to a clone mammoth after 22 months. According to its protagonist, the geneticists George Church from Harvard’s Medical School, and his enthusiastic international disciples, Synthetic biology constitutes the he most  advanced field of scientific inquiry, despite t is generally not well known to the public. For its proponents success it could open doors to limitless possibilities, but some warn that it might lead to man-made disasters.  The path for sequencing a mammoth is far from complete. The work the documentary shows is science, not fiction. As show in GENESIS 2.0, the Korean cloning laboratory Sooam Biotech already clones dogs has been $100,000 each. 900 dogs of varying species and size have been cloned thus far. The Sooam Biotech company does more than just clone dogs, it is involved with several projects, including a new research facility currently being build in Siberia’s frozen permafrost soil. The Beijing Genomics Institute is taking part in projects aimed at cloning  the mammoth and is expanding by providing equipment and services to corporate and public clients from around the globe. According to the BGI scientists, the goal of BGI is to sequence the genome of all living species. BGI has already started to sequence the plant genomes and introduced the world’s fastest genomics sequencing machine in October 2018, which can process a genome in 24 hours.  For Chinese policy makers, the development of this advanced scientific sector is certainly a priority.

The Applications of modern data technologies generate benefits many areas. These areas include the investigation of war crimes as well as support for law enforcement organizations. In her 2017 German production, TRUTH DETECTIVES, Anja Reiss  presents several case studies where a combination of new and traditional  investigative approaches offers indisputable evidence of current and recent war crimes, as well as helping to detect the traces of old ones. With the systematic use of smartphone date and Satellite images events can be reconstructed. Global position system data is also applied, and images are tracked over time allow to detect changes. In depth interviews with victims and witnesses, 3D mapping, and the world wide review of social media recording conflicts converge to provide effective, multilayered, investigative tools.  Given their costs, the use of some advanced technologies are still limited, but when they are applied they generate undisputable evidence that war crimes have been committed, making it difficult for policy makers to deny their deeds.  The Hague International Criminal Court used the combination of digital information tools, such as interactive visualization, and citizen’s testimony, to convict Al Mahdi, of war crimes in Mali. In Israel, a 3D model of the town of Rafah from the “Black Friday” of the 2014 Gaza-war was constructed using images and videos posted by the residents during the conflict, along with witness confirmation of what had happened. Investigators from the Forensic Architecture group were able to reconstruct the devastating day and show the deadly civilian cost of the overwhelming military force the ISD chose to employ. The Hannibal Directive of the Israeli military was used to justify the use of any and all force to find a captured soldier, regardless of whether or not said soldier was killed in the application of this force. The collateral civilian damage in application of this directive was immense.

Also linked to Palestinian is Christy Garland’s film, WHAT WALAA WANTS, a Canadian-Danish co-production from 2018. The film premiered at the Berlinale this year and was nominated for several awards. WHAT WALAA WANTS won the special jury prize at Hot Docs and was selected as the best film at this years edition of the Margaret Mead Festival.  The film depicts the coming of age of Walaa, a Palestinian girl growing up in the Balata refugee camp, was raised by her extended family while her mother Laifa is in an Israeli prison for a failed suicide bombing plot. Her home is the overcrowded refugee camp, with its 27 thousand residents near Nablus in the Northern Westbank. The camp is known for its radicalism and, as in many similar camps, unemployment is commonplace and accompanied by poverty. The film shows a young Palestinian woman under dire circumstances maintaining a strong will and focus on her goals. An outstanding element of this documentary is am upbeat narration that is generally unseen in documentaries about Palestinians, which more often than not emphasize the dark and oppressive aspects of their lives. By the time Walaa’s mother is released from the prison 8 years have passed and Walaa is now 15. Walaa is rather articulate but also struggles with impulsivity. Walaa’s upbringing leads her to enter basic training of the Palestinian Security Forces, with the intent of becoming an officer.  Walla makes it through and returns home to start working for the security force. Her home life is dominated by newscasts of Israeli transgressions and the destruction of Palestinian homes. Just as pervasive are disputations between Walla and her mother, objecting to Walaa’s work as a police officer as it does not conform to the traditional notions she has of Palestinian women. For the viewer, Walaa’s transition from a rebellious undisciplined young girl to a woman with model maturity in the police force appeared almost too smooth.  It may be that in the filming of this documentary Walaa was motivated by the filmmaker focusing on her being the daughter of a woman who spent many years in jail. Walaa owns a story which may have impacted editing choices of the director.

Years ago HBO committed to funding of a documentary on the 2014 abduction of 276 Nigerian school girls from the Chibok Township in Northern Nigeria by Boko Haram, an Islamic insurgent movement. The girls were hidden in the Sambisa Forest until 21 were released in 2016 and 82 in 2017. To date, about 103 have been freed altogether.  STOLEN DAUGHTERS: KIDNAPPED BY BOKO HARAM was co-produced by the BBC and ARTE in 2018, written and produced by Karen Edwards, and directed by Gemma Atwal.  Known as the Chibok Girls, they were brought to a governmental safe house in the capital, Abuja, with their outside contact severely restricted. Limits where imposed on the filmmaker by the government, such as the prohibition of any interviews about the Chibok girls’ experience during captivity, “for fear of further endangering their captive schoolmates“, according to producer Sasha Achilli. The documentary focuses on the re-integration of the girls into Nigerian society, the reunion with their families, and counseling sessions they received before they started attending university. Direct contact with individual girls in the documentary was rather limited. As Achilli put it, “... the government was a lot more willing to let cameras in because they could show [their] achievement and that they were protecting the girls”.  The government imposed constraints on the film makers and requested emphasis on the successful integration of the Chibok girls under. Limits where placed on the information film makers could record and as a result, sexual and other violence against the girls during their captivity was not addressed.  There are estimates that more than 2,000 girls have been held captive by Boko Haram. The fate of these Forgotten Girls is not sufficiently covered in STOLEN DAUGHTERS. I suspect this is in part because the government does not want to provide support for those Forgotten Girls, many of whom now live in poverty. Audiences of this film will learn little about Boko Haram, Nigerian politics, or the colonial history of the country. This film represents a missed chance to educate audiences and allow for the possibly of discussing an important and sensitive issue.

Claus Mueller   filmexchange@gmail.com

 

 

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