DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL OPENS TONIGHT AT USC

Times Film Critic

We have moved from the winter to the spring of a serious moviegoer's discontent. It is dire out there at the nabes and it's bringing on May morbidity. And so Anthropos '87, an extremely ambitious new film festival, arrives at just the right time to shake things up. The festival opens tonight through Sunday on the USC campus.

It is a provocative collection of just over 100 films and videos from 31 countries that share one common bond: They are about something. That something may be the gap in pretty women's teeth or the thread of gospel music that runs through four generations of a pretty amazing North Carolina family or what makes New Yorkers angry.

To preview a generous cross section of Anthropos '87's films is to have the feeling of being with grown-ups again. The films are, of course, documentaries. And when you consider the state of the "fiction" film today--by and large--the surge of excitement that can come from a beautifully perceived documentary seems more than ample reason for such a festival. Not all the films here reach that peak--some are simply decent and serviceable, a few are impressively inert--but the same could be said about any catalogue this size, and even in the merely pleasant ones there is something to see in a corner of our world.

Organized by Vikram Jayanti of USC's Center for Visual Anthropology--the festival's sponsor with the Discovery Channel--Anthropos is dedicated to USC anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff. She and her work were the subject of two films, both by Lynne Littman: the Academy Award-winning "Number Our Days" and "In Her Own Time," chronicling Myerhoff's last, gallant investigations before she succumbed to cancer. (Both films will be in the festival, noncompetitively.)

There are eight competitive categories, each with a $1,000 prize for the winner--to be chosen by "celebrity judges." Between films there will be international foods, or what the festival calls "anthropological grazing." (Anyone who thought anthropology was immune to trendiness can hereby be disabused of that naivete.)

To graze lightly over the films available, here is a very personal selection of highlights. Do not miss Dennis O'Rourke's films, and don't feel shy if you don't know about them. Only one, "Half Life: A Parable for the Nuclear Age" has played here, making his unveiling a fine move by the festival.

"Half Life" is a devastating investigation of the fate of the Marshall Islanders in the wake of the Bikini atoll nuclear tests. Using irony, humor and the gift of a natural-born eavesdropper to build his sound tracks, O'Rourke makes subtle, revealing films about the islanders of the South Pacific and the aboriginal people of his own Australia. Their traditional ways of life--if not their very lives themselves--have had monstrous inroads made upon them, frequently by the U.S. You might try "Yap--How Did You Know We'd Like TV?" and watch another gentle culture go down the (television) tubes.

(In that same noncompetitive slot, be sure to see the real Karen Blixen in a little black-and-white film made in Denmark in 1953, and discover that her charm was greater than even Meryl Streep could convey.)

O'Rourke's films are among a dozen of the very best of the festival, films in which passion and skill are on an equal footing, such as John Akomfrah's "Handsworth Songs," in the rich Social Issues category. Using poetry, keenly chosen historical footage, voice-over interviews, songs and newsreel footage, Akomfrah builds a multilayered perspective on Britain's scarring 1985 racial riots and on the lives of West Indians in England. The West Indian dialect may be difficult at first, and the references not always immediately clear to non-British, but persevere, this is one of the most rewarding and most filmic entries of the program.

Also recommended in that category are "Maids and Madams," Mira Hamemesh's fine, balanced work not only about the employer-employee relationships under apartheid, but also an introduction to many white South African women working thoughtfully to battle that system.

For more sheer film-making power, try the superb closing-night film, "Threat," by Stefan Jarl, whose clear, pure images might have been made by Carroll Ballard. A handsome young Lapland couple who, with care and abstemious grace, live in a conscious effort not to despoil nature, have their lives shattered when the cloud from Chernobyl kills most of the world's reindeer and renders fishing impossible. To hear Lars-Jon, who looks and speaks like a thoughtful graduate student, speak of "their vision of untouched land, of harmony and balance"--lost to them forever--is to recognize true tragedy.

You might wonder why festival programmers didn't stand proudly behind their subject and offer "Threat" as a magnificent opening-night film, instead of "John and the Missus," the amiable, well-acted Canadian fiction feature whose link to anthropology is frail, to say the least.

"Threat" may make you deeply angry. So, for very different reasons and in varying degrees, may a pair of films in other categories. In the Jewish Studies section there is Ilana Bar Din's "Intermarriage: When Love Meets Religion," in which six young couples, in each case a Jew and a non-Jew, begin a class in interfaith instruction with optimism and courage and are, seemingly, "enlightened" into giving up their partners. Adjustment or flexibility do not seem to be qualities much cherished at a time when the world would seem to need them most.

In the Video section there is "One Year in the Life of Crime" by John Alpert. By turning a camera on a loud-mouthed trio of petty criminals during robberies, as they sell the stuff, or during their pathetic home lives, Alpert makes his scummy losers preen, posture or punch out their women even more exaggeratedly. Reprehensible stuff, this.

You might counterbalance the taste of that Video entry with another in the same category, "Jesus, Shelter Me," John Slagle's portrait of the Las Vegas-based Gospel Tornados, together for 15 years, through thin and thinner--their lack of financial success seeming hardly possible once you hear them sing.

Gospel is also the backbone of "A Singing Stream: A Black Family Chronicle" by Tom Davenport, Allen Tullos and Daniel Patterson, in which the splendid Landis family, lively, raucous, gently disputatious, who have sung together for 50 years, seem to reach out and touch each of us.

Among the fine Women's Subjects entries is "India Cabaret," Mira Nair's wonderfully poignant look at the roguish cabaret dancers of Bombay, whose amiable, amateurish nightly strip dancing as well as prostitution make them "polluted" women. Nair's balancing footage in the homes of some of the male clients pinpoints the matter of freedom and slavery in that society. Also see Les Blank's exuberant "Gap-Toothed Women" and "Small Happiness: Women of a Chinese Village" by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon, for another definition of slavery.

There's a stunner in the Student Documentary category, "Home From the Hill," Molly Dineen's portrait of the Empire's least glorious hour as Col. Hilary Hook, abruptly forced to vacate his farm in Kenya, moves back to an English suburb where he copes querulously or not at all. Not even Richardson or Olivier could do the full, sad range of the Pukkah sahib as well as Col. Hook.

Others of note in that category include Michael Rymer's "The Cut," in which the Sassoon training school becomes the pressure cooker and the school's most thoughtful iconoclast the loser; and that frightening and funny survivalist portrait "Knocking on Armageddon's Door" by Torv Carlsen and John Magnus, which includes that exquisite second in which a straight-faced survivalist, in almost a reflex gesture, catches and eats an annoying fly.

Far more riches than room to ruminate on them. This could be documentary's finest public outing. Many film makers are scheduled to attend; the festival will take place in five theaters grouped around USC'S Bing Plaza and sculpture garden. For the complete schedule, call (213) 743-5241; for ticket information, (213) 743-7111.

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