Margaret Mead Fest’s Latino Doc Lineup Is a Dose of Empathy in Times of Deep Division

Lead Photo: Still from 'Salero'.
Still from 'Salero'.
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For 40 years, the Margaret Mead Film Festival has been bringing New York Audiences a diverse slate of beautiful, challenging, and timely documentaries to expand our understanding of the world and our place in it. Named after the pioneering visual anthropologist who headed up the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology for over 50 years, the Margaret Mead Film Festival follows in its namesake’s tradition of humanist anthropology and uses documentary to find those common threads that unite us across cultures.

Inspired by the tumultuous and increasingly polarized times in which we live, the 40th edition of the festival takes the title “Re:Frame” and seeks to bring us a vision of a world without false binaries and arbitrary divisions, looking instead for nuance in the complexity of human experience. Boasting a selection of nearly 50 documentaries from around the world, this year’s festival also features a handful Latin American and Latino films that give us a look into some important but overlooked stories from the region.

First up, Farewell Ferris Wheel from directors Jamie Sisley and Miguel Martinez, brings us into the world of 21st century American carnies, who in this case happen to be Mexican guest workers who vie for seasonal work erecting and dismantling the fair’s massive ferris wheel. The work is dangerous, difficult, and poorly paid, but it provides an important lifeline to a small rural community that otherwise has no opportunity for economic advancement. Taking a fair-minded look at the experience of both the workers and the carnival managers who depend on them, Farewell Ferris Wheel avoids partisan propaganda in favor of a nuanced portrait of a complex issue.

From Paraguay, Alejandro Mouján‘s documentary Damiana Kryygi tells the harrowing 19th-century chronicle of a young indigenous Ache girl who was raised by settlers after they killed off her family for a supposed horse theft. When the pubescent Damiana developed an active sex drive, the terrified family sent her off to an Argentine asylum where she eventually died of meningitis. Bringing us back to the present, the filmmakers document the return of Damiana’s remains to the Ache community after her cadaver had been inhumanly dissected and kept in the holdings of a German museum for over a century.

Finally, Mike Plunkett’s Salero takes us into one of the most starkly beautiful places on the planet – Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. Over the centuries, the 4,000 square mile salt flat has been uninhabitable for all but a small group of saleros, who have spent generations harvesting the salt from this vast natural wonder. Salero is a profile of one of these traditional workers in the midst of president Evo Morales’ campaign to exploit to Salar’s massive deposits of lithium and turn Bolivia into “the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century.”

The 40th Margaret Mead Film Festival runs at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City from October 13-16.