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Film Notes: the custom of collecting customs

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Unlike other anthropologists of her generation, who interviewed tribal elders to salvage vanishing Native American cultures, Margaret Mead headed to the South Seas--Samoa, Bali, and New Guinea--seeking cultures uncontaminated by modernity. Instead of pursuing so-called salvage ethnography and studying disintegrating traditions, she observed isolated societies that seemed whole and healthy.

Salvage ethnography at its worst resorted to grave robbing and relic mongering. An elegiac impulse tainted even the more high-minded practitioners of Mead's era. But at its best, it saw anthropologists recording rituals and behavior on film and preserving artifacts and dialects.

In her introduction to the proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, held in Chicago in 1973, Mead urged her colleagues to join her in embracing salvage-style cinema, since "precious, totally irreplaceable, and forever irreproducible behaviors are disappearing." Mead died five years later, but anthropologists continued to heed her call. The custom of collecting customs is carried on in some of the works in the 20th annual Margaret Mead Traveling Film and Video Festival.

In Singsing Tumbuan, Marsha Berman records a mask-dance ceremony in the lower Ramu River area of Madang in Papua New Guinea. To safeguard "secrets of the ceremony, culturally sensitive revelations," Berman alters parts of scenes with a video smearing effect. She also edited a longer, unsmeared version of the video for future generations of New Guineans.

Cultural survival is the thrust of several other films as well. In Islands on the Edge of Time, a Palauan schoolteacher worries about cultural self-preservation in Micronesia: "Like Hawaiians, our culture will become just a museum showcase for foreign tourists. We'll become another extinct subspecies of the human family." Director James Heddle also documents how pollution and politics are rapidly corrupting this island paradise.

"Our religion is not for sale," sings Alice DiMicele over the credits of White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men, a production about New Age traffickers in Native American spiritualism by directors Terry Macy and Daniel Hart. One Native American addresses wannabes when he says to the camera, "We laugh at you--we tolerate you and we laugh at you."

Identity politics takes a bloody turn in Sivas--Home of Poets, made by Said Manafi and Werner Bauer under the auspices of the Austrian Institute of Scientific Film. On July 2, 1993, 37 Alevis died when a mob of fundamentalist Sunnites torched the Hotel Mandimaka in Sivas, Turkey, during an Alevi festival of song and dance. We learn that this instance of religious persecution "will be made into a passion play and the 37 martyrs of 2nd July will live on in countless songs and poems."

"Peoples of the Earth: A Visual Voyage," the midwest premiere of the Margaret Mead Traveling Film and Video Festival, is sponsored by the Field Museum, Columbia College, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. The festival opens at 6 PM this Friday with a reception and screening of Me and My Matchmaker, a personal documentary about a Jewish matchmaker, at Columbia College's Hokin Auditorium, 623 S. Wabash. Admission is $20. Filmmaker Mark Wexler will attend. One-day and two-day passes for Saturday and Sunday screenings at the Field Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt at Lake Shore Drive, range from $13 to $25. The Field Museum is also running a children's program on Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 12:30 PM for parents attending the screenings; $5 per child. Call 312-322-8854 for more information.

--Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Sivas--Home of Poets" photo.

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