The documentaries of this year's Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival show more than they tell, underlining how each story is shaped not only by subject's self-presentations, but also by the films' frames.
"Since I was born, there was only war," says Hossein over a long shot of rocky hillsides and gray sky. "They keep bombing Afghanistan. Russia, Karmal or, who knows, the USA. There's only war and it never ends. How can anyone rebuild Afghanistan?" The camera cuts to roosters fighting on a ledge, the same stark landscape in view behind them, interrupted by small single-floor homes bumped up against each other. Hossein appears at the back of the frame, emerging from his house. He pauses, leaning on his walker. The camera pushes toward him as he makes his way forward. He doesn’t speak, only gazes into the lens, steadfast and probing.
In these opening moments, Helga Reidemeister's War and Love in Kabul (Mein Herz sieht die Welt Schwarz - Eine Liebe in Kabul) sets in motion a complex relationship between viewers and subjects. Using the romance of its title -- between Hossein and his childhood sweetheart Shaima -- as a kind of prism, the documentary considers the effects of war that "never ends" on survivors' imaginations and expectations.
One of the selections in this year's Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival at New York's Museum of Natural History, which ran 12-15 November, War and Love in Kabul demonstrates both the Festival's perennial focus on international documentaries and the ongoing changes in such films. Far from assuming any sort of objectivity, several films revisit the very concept of subjectivity, exposing its formal construction and political effects. Just so, War and Love pushes past a basic drama -- sold into marriage to another man with three wives, Shaima now has a child as well as a determination to look after Hossein, a paraplegic who is unable to support a wife -- in order to examine the war and poverty that shape their (lack of) options.
While Shaima, smoking a cigarette, declares it's her "fate" to be with Hossein, he lies back on the couch behind her. The film doesn't show her actually tending to him -- this is the work of his mother, sisters, and grandmother -- but their much-proclaimed is evident in their bright smiles and long looks at one another. When the off-screen narrator asks how Hossein feels, Shaima answers, "What's poor Hossein supposed to say? Of course he's happy." When she instructs him to "say something" anyway, he nods, "Either we'll flee together or I'll kill myself." Shaima doesn’t exactly smile. It's not clear whether the visible tension is a function of the camera in their homes or the doubts expressed by their families. Hossein's mother, citing Pashtun tradition, worries that Shaima will bring with her a "blood feud" (she whispers about her son when he leaves the room); Shaima's mother complains that she's "a dumb girl, she's very simple."
When it emerges that Hossein was injured while fighting for the Talban, he admits he did so for the money, just as Shaima was married for money, and now their plans are shaped by financial concerns. His grandmother condemns the violence that is so very costly: "You know who the Taliban are? Either they are orphaned children or they have nothing to eat. They're forced into war. They fight wars that are already lost." In this situation, consequences can only be cruel. Hossein says of Shaima's family, "They're against me because I'm an invalid. This is not about our code of honor." Again, the interviewer presses for clarification that complicates the love story: "In Afghanistan, there is no more code of honor," Hossein answers, "It's only about money."
Money also affects the several narratives in Raffaele Brunetti and Marco Leopardi's Hair India. Exploring more deeply the politics and profits of Indian hair than Chris Rock's Good Hair, the film considers the process of commodification. In a Mumbai hair salon, Sangeeta Waddwanee, executive editor of Hello magazine, decides on the shade and length of her hair extensions, based on media images she helps to disseminate ("The market research showed us that a fair model sells more covers" than a dusky model, she explains during a television interview). Her decision is part of a circuit of consumption and profits. These are reaped by the executives who run Great Lengths, here a couple of very smooth talkers: Mayoor oversees a Bangalore factory full of women workers and bids for a contract with a temple, while Thomas runs ad campaigns and sales out of Rome. The two men chat on their cell phones repeatedly, exchanging stories about their matching Jack Russell terriers ("These dogs are a handful!") as they set prices and calculate costs.
The film also follows an impoverished family in Muchipara, Bengal. They decide to shave all their heads at the temple, in exchange for what they hope will be good fortune and also cash: the $40 for young Gita's long tresses will pay for her little brother's eye surgery (and of course, her hair will grow back, her mother promises). On the streets outside the temple, the camera pans dozens of bald heads, a population premised on need and encouraged by faith. As the film reveals, the relations among these disparate communities -- wealthy and poor, trusting and cynical -- are structured by images and stories, whether traditional and religious or contemporary and breathlessly reported via "entertainment news" outlets.
Another set of constructed relations is traced in Intifada NYC. Elaborating on a story also recounted in Shouting Fire, David Teague's 47-minute film looks at the controversy that attended the opening of the first Arabic-English, dual language public school in the U.S. Granting time to advocates and detractors, the documentary doesn't so much suggest both views are equal as it exposes the terrible effects of post-9/11 racism and fear. Even the concept of the Kahlil Gibran International Academy inspired some citizens to form the Stop the Madrassa Coalition, premised on the fear that this public school intended to radicalize young Muslims (Jeffrey Weisenfeld explains that he saw in the school an effort to conduct a "soft jihad"). Following a spiral of events and increasing local panic, principal Debbie Almontaser tried to define the word "intifada" during a phone interview with the New York Post.
The result was more media frenzy and Almontaser's dismissal (she was asked to resign by the Department of Education and the city/Mayor Bloomberg). Introduced by civil rights activist Dorothy Zellner ("We go through periods of time like this, where this hysteria sweeps the country"), the film follows up on the case, including Almontaser's efforts to sue the city for violating her First Amendment rights, the school's hiring of a new principal, Holly Reichert, and ongoing agitations against KGIA (one demonstrator tells a supporter of the school, "Get yourself a suicide and blow yourself up"). Most strikingly, the film finds new ways to make the opposing arguments visible, compiling an eclectic mix of interviews and protest footage (including some virulent YouTube attacks, i.e., "What the fuck is New York thinking!"), tabloid headlines ("Axis of Weasel"), and allusive watercolor drawings of events for which there is no footage; the phone interview is rendered, for instance, in images of Almontaser speaking and an anonymous hand taking notes, sketches of newsprint beneath both images indicating how storytelling is an ongoing and collaborative (or contentious) process. Perhaps most effective of the movie's many media images are those recorded by students working with Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media; they describe their experiences with prejudice, and raise crucial questions about who gets to say what, to whom.
Like Hair India and War and Love in Kabul, Intifada NYC shows more than it tells, and underlines how stories are shaped not only by subjects' self-presentations, but also by the films' frames. Oded Adomi Leshem's Voices from El-Sayed (Shablul Bamidbar) investigates and enacts still more kinds of framing. Specifically, it considers how deafness constitutes its own "normal," arguing that any conception of normal -- constructed, always -- has costs as well as benefits. The film tells several stories from El-Sayed, home to a Bedouin tribe that settled in Israel’s Negev Desert 200 years ago. Here an unusually large percentage of residents are deaf, including multiple members of some families. The film shows their different experiences, in different formats.
Seventeen-year-old Ruwayda first appears on screen in a mirror in her bedroom. She is taping herself, she says (in subtitles -- her footage is silent, as she hears it), with an eye toward becoming a professional camerawoman. With two deaf children in her family, she says, "There's good communication between us kids, because we all know how to sign. Being deaf is fun. Even if God could give me the ability to hear, I wouldn’t want it." Juma, an auto mechanic, feels similarly, asserting, "A hearing person is always nervous.” For him and his friends, "being deaf is natural."
When a team of doctors arrives in El-Sayed, the possible definitions of "natural" are thrown into some disorder. The team offers cochlear implants, and while one family decides to try it for young Muhammad, Juma and his friends resist the idea. The film follows the family's post-surgery efforts and difficulties, making noise and encouraging the boy, eventually, to speak (the images here are evocative and lovely, as Muhammad sits before a TV, camera behind him, or looks into the camera, eyes wide as he sorts out one new experience after another).
The film reveals the many kinds of "voices" that shape life in El-Sayed, spoken and not. When a second team of experts arrives in the village to record the signs used by a group of seven-year-olds, Juma helps to organize and translate. All the families -- hearing and non -- share a common experience of poverty. Like their neighbors, Juma and Muhammad's father Salim rig generators in their homes to have electricity, to record themselves or keep Muhammad's implant charged. As all these documentaries make clear, storytelling is hard work, a way to express and remake experiences.