The 40th edition of the Margaret Mead Film Festival, screening at the American Museum of Natural History through October 16, continues its mission of bringing audiences artful and fascinating global perspectives on the most pressing issues of our time. Women's rights, climate change, and immigration are but a few of the issues tackled in this year's selections. Along with film screenings, there are installations, a new virtual-reality lounge, and panels.
Below are my recommendations of some notable films. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the festival's website.
A REVOLUTION IN FOUR SEASONS (Jessie Deeter) *OPENING NIGHT FILM
This documentary tracks Tunisia's revolution over four years, beginning with the overthrow and ouster of President Ben Ali in 2011, the start of the "Arab Spring." That actually turned out to be the easy part, as this very timely and intensely relevant film shows. The difficult part was when the revolutionaries actually had to govern, an arduous process that exposed and exacerbated deep rifts within Tunisian society, largely along religious lines. This is illustrated by the two women focused on in the film: left-wing journalist Emna Ben Jemaa and Islamist politician Jawhara Ettis.
Though both women are passionately work toward making Tunisia a fully democratic country; they differ sharply in their visions of what such a country would look like. While Emna envisions a secular Western-style democracy, Jawhara seeks a balance between democratic politics and Islamic principles. The film vividly takes us through the contentious elections and power struggles that occurred, which included political assassinations. Despite this incredible turmoil, Tunisia remains one of the region's success stories, at least politically, emerging with the most progressive constitution of any country in that region.
SHOOTING OURSELVES (Christine Cynn)
Christine Cynn previously co-directed The Act of Killing, which expanded the boundaries of documentary with its use of performance in relating the story of Indonesia's 1960's genocide. Her latest work does something similar, though to much different effect. The subject is the global weapons trade, refracted through the lenses of many different people who are involved in one way or another with these weapons.
Shooting Ourselves follows the creation of "Situation Rooms," a theater piece by Berlin-based company Rimini Protokoll, in which a number of subjects are given a device to film themselves recreating their experiences with weapons, each of them assigned to their own room in which to do so. These participants are also encouraged to interact with and film one another, exchanging their experiences and in some cases debating with each other.
The people we meet include: a Doctors Without Borders war-zone surgeon from Germany; a former child soldier from the Congo; an Indian Army helicopter pilot; a Syrian refugee; a German war photographer; a security-systems developer who exhibits at weapons fairs; a weapons factory worker; a German peace activist; an Israeli soldier.
The effect is of an eerie, unsettling blending of utopia and dystopia; this process has brought together a diverse set of people who have never met before and probably will never meet again, doubtless enriched and moved by one another's experiences. On the other hand, the machinery behind their experiences is one that breeds untold death and destruction, often for great profit. These are the sort of thorny and complicated issues so artfully illustrated in this brilliant film.
(Oct. 16, 5pm)
INDIVISIBLE (Hilary Linder) *CLOSING NIGHT FILM
Three sets of family members tearfully hugging and kissing each other through opposite sides of a metal fence on the U.S./Mexico border is the indelible take-away image at the center of this moving documentary. Notwithstanding the self-aggrandizing and careless rhetoric perpetrated by Donald Trump and others during this election season (and for many years prior), Indivisible reminds us that there are actual humans involved in these issues, especially children and teenagers who are too often caught in the middle of these conflicts.
Renata, Evelyn, and Antonio are the three main figures here, whose parents brought them to the U.S. as young children from Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico respectively. They all were separated from their parents when they were deported - or "self-deported" in the case of Antonio's parents - to their home countries, leaving their children behind in the U.S.
All three of these "dreamers" are politically aware and are active advocates for others in similar situations, while they negotiate the arduous bureaucratic processes involved in getting waivers to visit their parents while being able to legally return to the U.S. The film puts intimately human faces to issues that are too often reduced to political grandstanding and rank stereotyping.
(Oct. 16, 8:30pm)
WALLS (Pablo Iraburu and Migueltxo Molina)
The physical, political, and psychological divisions places on us by national borders is poetically explored in Walls, which begins with footage of the breaching of the Berlin Wall, which seemed to portend the beginning of an end to the idea of walls separating people. However, the reality is very much the opposite, with walls, barbed-wire fences and ditches more entrenched than ever.
Three borders are featured, along with stories of people on opposite sides: between the U.S. and Mexico, Spain and Morocco, and Zimbabwe and South Africa. The filmmaking visually elides these borders, cutting freely among each locale, and bringing them together in a bravura sequence midway through that uses split screens to bring people together from all the locales in a virtual shared dinner.
(Oct. 15, 3pm)