The 34th edition of the M. Mead Film Festival presented 38 selections from November 11 to 14 at the American Museum of Natural History, its principal sponsor. This festival is the oldest documentary film festival in the United States and includes outstanding and innovative productions covering animation, experimental approaches, in addition to archival material and restored films with a large number not shown before in the New York metropolitan area. Transcending the strict ethnographic film and video approach, the festival featured this year again films addressing current global socio-economic and cultural issues which are prominent in political and academic discourse. The number of quality films entered is growing each year reflecting the success of this well organized non-commercial festival fest aimed at the educated upscale urban public. More than 1000 documentary films were submitted this year, compared to the 2000 documentaries received by the broader market oriented Sundance festival. The Mead film festival stimulates thinking and reflection since most productions offer new perspectives and demystify taken for granted realities; documentaries screened are rarely if ever intended to entertain.
The opening film PLUG AND PRAY (Judith Malek Pahlavi & Jens Schanze, Germany, Italy, Japan, 2009) entitled in German ‘On Computers and Other Human Beings’, investigates the development and uses of artificial intelligence (AI) and its possible fusion with the human mind. Specifying limitations and dangers, Joseph Weisenbaum, one of the founders of computer intelligence technology provides a sobering commentary throughout this production. He warns that scientists are shaping and misleading our perceptions of the world. Their notion is that biology, thus the human brain and body is flawed and needs to be backed up by or improved with computer chip technologies. This requires very careful analysis before fully embracing it since scientists are oblivious to the applications of their research. Thus most of the billion dollar funding in the US and Germany for AI technologies comes from the military with the goal of creating a computerized combat force of robot solider. Fundamental ethical questions are not posed. The development of military AI and its application in the civilian domain is not inherent in scientific AI research, but driven by political factors.
Nadah Harel’s THE ELECTRIC MIND (Israel 2010) provides a thorough investigation of neurological research and cutting edge surgical techniques using highly focused deep brain stimulation, formerly called electro shock , to create the ‘brain space required for new experiences”. Interviews carried out with patients about their ailments ranging from epilepsy to severe depressions while they undergo treatment are most revealing, pinpointing to possible solutions.
Whereas PLUG AND PRAY presents scientists who believe that the merger of human and artificial intelligence will solve our problems, starting from the military ones, HUMAN TERRAIN (James Des Darian, David and Michael Udris, US, Afghanistan, 2009) takes a different tack. In this superbly produced and researched documentary, the US military project Human Terrain is analyzed. The ‘Hearts and Minds’ of civilian populations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and whatever other country the US military is fighting need to be won to achieve comprehensive political and military victory. Thus social scientists, mainly anthropologists are hired and embedded within the military to generate in depth cultural and social knowledge about the ‘enemy’ population. Presumably this knowledge permits developing greater cultural sensitivity for the US soldier but also to acquire intelligence for military operations. Apart from the fundamental ethical issues of scholars selling their knowledge to the military, the efficacy of Human Terrain type operations is questionable. Neither torture nor candy, nor in-depth knowledge will win hearts and minds if the ‘enemy’ civilian population is convinced that the US is an occupational force and if such conviction is upheld by the social network the civilian population is part of. Ironically, whenever US military power fails, there is the attempt to use social science as a problem solver. Recall the 1964 Camelot project under JF Kennedy serving to find anti-revolutionary remedies in Chile, cancelled one year later because of large scale public objections from the US and Chile alike. No such objections have been made to the Human Terrain project though the American Anthropological Association has voiced its opposition. Additionally the House Armed Services Committee made assessment of the effectiveness of the program a requirement for refunding.
As noted in my earlier article about HBO, the documentary division of Time Warner Cable has an extraordinary track record of domestic and international awards. Given the innovative and challenging topics, and the production value of the HBO documentaries, HBO’s SECRETS OF THE TRIBE (Jose Padilha, USA, 2009) falls into this group having received to date about twenty awards. The secrets divulged here are not discoveries about the culture and mythologies of the Yanomani. Rather what is revealed has been hidden thus far, the impact on the Yanomani of fifty years of consecutive invasions of the tribe by foreign anthropologists and others scientists had made their career becoming Yanomani specialist. The secrets of the Yanomanis are spelled out in superb interviews with the Indians and their survivors on one hand and with anthropologists on the other. The secrets of the anthropologists were also spelled out by those who had invaded the tribe and their professional opponents. SECRETS OF THE TRIBE shows undisputed acts of pedophilia and pederasty by the scientists with Yanomani children and youth. Also systematic human rights violations, professional misconduct, and the negligent and intentional exposure of the Yanomani tribes to diseases brought to them by social scientists. The subsequent measles epidemic as well as the infections the scientists were carrying killed many Yanomani. One of the revealed secrets is the funding of one project by the Atomic Energy Commission trying to identify one ‘virgin’ genetically pure population with which to compare groups affected by nuclear war.
In WHEN CHINA MET AFRICA (Marc and Nick Francis, China Zambia, 2010), a different clash is presented though not analyzed in depth. As a world power China is acquiring mineral resources from impoverished African countries. Zambia is an illustrative case since it desperately needs cash and infrastructure development, such as roads. Having limited negotiating power Zambia is forced to relinquish control permitting China to acquire minerals and land. In that process neo-colonialism rises while triggering local tensions and conflicts. Unfortunately we learn little about the local conflict, except for seeing the African workers scramble for spilled oil and learning that they are fed up with cabbage, the primary Chinese food they are served. by their employers.
Let me end this review with a comment about a charming documentary from Romania and Spain .MY BEAUTIFUL DACIA (Stefan Constantinescu and Julio Soto, 2009). Covering forty years since the first Romanian car .the DACIA, was built. The film uses the popular affection with the Dacia as background for a semi-serious excursion into Romanian history. Stories from a mixture of eccentric characters covering , the passage from communism to capitalism, and its aftermath, present a sympathetic view of everyday life and the problems faced by Romanians, including migration to Spain. The film gains its freshness from having non professionals acting and improvising, though never losing its story line, focusing on the indomitable Dacia and Romanian people resisting all obstacles.
Exposure to these and other documentaries delivered a true learning experience.