According to some people (looking at you, Thomas Friedman), the world is flat. One of the reasons is that the Internet makes the planet feel much smaller, more accessible. News moves fast, creating a feeling of familiar ubiquity no matter where you are (and provided you have access to the necessary technology—a big caveat, I admit). There’s easy access to everything from documentaries and travel shows to home-made videos that provide direct access to first-person experiences from Australia to Zimbabwe.
At the same time, it’s common knowledge that Americans continue to have a poor grasp not only of basic geography (which is why the rumor that Sarah Palin thinks Africa is a country instead of a continent is so scarily believable) but of other people’s mores and customs. And this problem does not seem to have been remedied by the aforementioned increased access to foreign cultures—it’s as if we’re gorging on sweets without getting any actual nutrition. Which is why an event like the American Museum of Natural History’s Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, now in its 32nd year, is more relevant than ever.True to its name, the festival started by focusing on ethnographic films; though you can still see traces of those origins with the screening of Revisiting Franz Boas and the Northwest Coast (about the famous anthropologist), in recent years the fest had broadened its focus and now offers a wide variety of documentaries from all over the world and on all kinds of subjects. Because as fun as it is to watch clips of leaping lemurs and nutty Japanese game shows on YouTube, sometimes you also want someone to, you know, put things in context and explain them a bit for us. I’m looking forward, for instance, to Alexandra Westmeier’s Alone in Four Walls, about a Russian reformatory for young (sometimes very young) delinquents, and to Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers, by Rithy Panh, the France-based, Cambodia-born director of the masterful 2003 doc S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.
The most fascinating item in the lineup for me may well be the oldest one: In the Land of the Head Hunters, a silent from 1914 that was salvaged from a dumpster in 1947 and has been painstakingly restored. Technically it’s a feature, but like Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) it stars actual Native North Americans (from the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe) and employs documentary techniques to ground the characters in a setting as realistic as possible. If the effect is remotely close to that of watching Nanook, the experience should be otherworldly, as if we were watching the flickering black-and-white ghosts of a world that once was.