Anthropology and documentary have always gone together like rice and beans. Even back in the earliest days of film, pioneering documentarian Robert Flaherty turned his “objective” camera on the daily lives and rituals of Inuit hunters, Irish fishermen, and Samoan villagers. As the century went on, the tradition was continued by the groundbreaking work of anthropologist Margaret Mead, who was one of the first academics in the field to incorporate visual methods into her research.
In 1976, to commemorate Mead’s 75th birthday, the American Museum of Natural History honored her long career by founding the Margaret Mead Film Festival, which became one of the first American festivals dedicated exclusively to the documentary arts. Over the past 29 years, the event has branched out from its ethnographic roots and now includes everything from experimental nonfiction to community media and has premiered some of the world’s most respected documentaries along the way.
This year the festival celebrates its 2015 edition by exploring the borders and boundaries of our increasingly globalized world, bringing together over 50 films from all over the world that touch on the guiding theme of “Thresholds.” From Mongolian modernity to ancient textile traditions in Egypt, barrio museums, and Vietnamese funeral songs, “Thresholds” presents a tapestry of human experience in the 21st century and invites us to discover our commonalities.
And of course, this wide-ranging slate wouldn’t be complete without a handful of films from Nuestra América, and Margaret Mead delivers. A total of 11 features and shorts will bring New York audiences slices of life from Uruguay, Peru, Panama, Mexico, and much more. Here’s the rundown of this year’s Latino films so you don’t have to miss a single one.
The Margaret Mead Film Festival runs October 22-25, 2015 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
One Man’s Trash
The story behind an unusual museum nestled in the heart of Manhattan’s historic El Barrio. Nelson Molina is a New York sanitation worker with over three decades on the job, but more than just disposing of other people’s waste, Molina has found his calling as a collector of second-hand gems that for whatever reason made their way into his compactor truck. Rather than letting these rare or valuable items go the way of so many old mattresses, Molina has made use of a nearby sanitation garage where he displays the items in a makeshift museum he calls Treasures in the Trash.
El hombre nuevo
El Hombre Nuevo tells the story of Stephania, an unassuming Montevideo parking attendant with a spectacular past. Born in Nicaragua, Stephania was adopted and raised by leftist Uruguayan parents in the midst of widespread social unrest. As she grew into a radical Sandinista activist, Stephania dropped her birth name of Roberto, and reinvented herself as a fighter for political, social, and educational reform. 20 years ago she was forced to flee her native country for Uruguay, where she carves out a meager existence without letting go of the experiences that shaped her.
Avant is the chronicle of revered Argentine ballet dancer Julio Bocca’s struggle to bring Uruguay’s national ballet from neglect and obscurity to international prominence. Along the way, he must battle obstacles ranging from bureaucracy to improper facilities, but he and his company nevertheless brim with hope for the future.
El cuarto de los huesos
From the Institute of Legal Medicine, El cuarto de los huesos (The Room of Bones) follows several mothers from El Salvador who search for the remains of their children, who disappeared amidst violence in their country. The film is a look at the 20 or more bodies that are received at the morgue on a monthly basis and remain unclaimed – the story of DNA with no name, of bodies that became cadavers for belonging to a rival gang.
Hijos de la tierra
Hijos de la tierra explores the day-to-day routines of an agricultural community in the Peruvian Amazon, from work to play and everything in between, but with one caveat: the film was made by members of the very community it sets out to portray.
A journey to uncover the history and meaning of the psychoactive concoction know as ayahuasca, Icaros follows Mokan Rono as he travels through a part of the Peruvian Amazon that has been home to the Shipibo indigenous people for two millennia. Along the way Rono learns the ways of ancient healing from his mother, and delves into the peculiar cosmovision of the Shipibo people.
Flor de la mar
Flor de la mar tells the story of the Venezuelan island of Nueva Cádiz, which was home to the first European city in the Americas. Today, the government struggles with mismanagement and insufficient funding as it attempts to revitalize the island, while its 51 current residents guard the ruins of the original city and defend their way of life.
Zeroing on the experience of an indigenous Ngäbe cacao farmer in Panama, El Cacao explores the economic contradictions of the global chocolate industry in the midst of rising demand from developed countries.
A profile of a midwife, activist, and practitioner of traditional Mayan medicine in Mérida, Yucatán, Juanita forces us to question long-held beliefs about traditional vs. modern medicine.
A real-life story of charros vs. Nazis, Matria takes director Fernando Llanos on a personal journey into the legend of his grandfather, Antolin Jimenez, who fought alongside Pancho Villa and went on to become one of the most renowned charros of 20th century Mexico. When Jimenez heard of a possible Nazi plot to invade Mexico, he rounded up a band of his fellow charros in a bid to defend the homeland from foreign aggression. As Llano digs deeper into the truth, his grandfather’s legend turns to a story of family secrets that ultimately speaks to the destiny of modern Mexico.
Bering. Equilibrio y resistencia.
The story of one community divided between two countries, Bering. Equilibrio y resistencia takes a visually poetic approach to the struggle of Inuit residents to preserve their culture and traditions on Little and Big Diomede Islands. Straddling the international date line, Little and Big Diomede are split between Russia and the United States, yet share one history. Renowned Mexican photographer brings her lyrical eye to the everyday experience of the island’s residents.