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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is  Senior New York Correspondent

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene, professor at Hunter University, accredited member of the Foreign Press Center,  U.S. Department of State NY.


New York: 2013 Margaret Mead Film Festival

Guided by the festival’s appropriate motto “See for Yourself”, the festival established again a reflexive link between its audience and diverse cultures and the challenges they face by presenting an outstanding program of documentaries and videos from October 17-20.  This year’s edition covered 38 productions, including 7 short films.  A wide range of themes was broached including, but not limited to, developmental questions, environment challenges, artistic endeavors in film and music making, modernization, sports, global capitalism, identity processes, visual anthropology, the impact of tourism and the international organ trade.

Established in 1977 in honor of the Anthropologist Margret Mead, the festival is the oldest New York fest with an exclusive focus on documentaries. Staged at the American Museum of Natural History the festival is shaped by the Museum’s mission of research, education and its ethnographic focus. Special seminars established dialogues with the audience on new forms of ethnography,   the boundaries of art and visual anthropology and the impact of digital media on storytelling.  On a lighter note, the audience benefited from events which featured the acclaimed single shot film People’s Park on the Chengdu park in China, Native American Zuni music, a Chinese Jazz band, and at the closing award ceremony, a Mariachi dance party. Principal sponsors of the festival are The New York State Council of the Arts and HBO.

The festival opened with MISS NIKKI AND THE TIGER GIRLS tracking the rise of Myanmar’s first all-girl band to international attention. This documentary is appealing and entertaining, taking place in a traditional society that is going through dramatic political changes. Under the watch of the military police and the disapproval of the older generation, the girls are able to assert themselves. They play for an audience of enthusiastic young people and fight the prejudice against singing young women assumed to be sex workers. Managed by a young Australian, May, the band changes its name to Me N Ma Girls and eventually leaves their country for Los Angeles after getting contracted by an American music entrepreneur.

Both GRINGO TRAILS and TALES FROM THE ORGAN TRADE are superbly produced documentaries providing questioning accounts of urgent current topical issues. In Gringo Trails Pegi Vail shows the devastating impact tourism has been having in Latin American, African and Asian countries such as Bolivia and Thailand. Accepted by the host countries as a badly needed source of financial revenues unhampered tourism tends to impair local cultural configurations and often causes environmental degradation. Once written up by travel magazines or propagated through the internet exotic sites discovered by backpackers and others become magnets for a constantly growing number of tourists and, in the extreme, for mass travel. As Enzensberger suggested many years ago, having reached the object of an authentic experience in a foreign country the tourist traffic unwittingly destroys it. Gringo Trails provides excellent footage of the tourist sites and covers in compelling sequences the nefarious impact of organized and mass tourism, though it does suggest some remedies to develop sustainable eco- tourism, such as stronger local government regulations.

In Tales from the Organ Trade, one of the most important documentaries of this year’s festival, Ric Esther Bienstock offers comprehensive insights into the international organ trade.  Her impressive documentary includes a case study of kidney transplants in Kosovo as carried out by a Turkish doctor, Y. Sonmez, and an Israeli surgeon, M. Harfel, in the now closed Medicus clinic. Attempts to prosecute the principals have not been successful thus far. The multibillion dollar illegal kidney transplant industry is driven by the demand for kidneys in North America, Western Europe and the Middle East, and the ready supply from the Indian subcontinent, the Philippines, and China. The World Health Organization estimates that 75% of all illegally traded organs are kidneys and that organ transplants, including illegal ones, met only 10% of the medical needs for such transplants.  An estimated 10,000 illegal kidney transplants are carried out each year.

Given the increase in postindustrial countries of diseases such as Diabetes, the demand for kidney transplants has been growing steadily. Kidneys travel from the South to the North, from poor to rich countries, from the underclass to upscale groups. In all countries except for Iran the harvesting of kidneys for pay is illegal and kidneys can be donated only under strict rules. Yet only one third of the individuals on the kidney transplant waiting list get their life saving replacement on time; the others die.  Rather than passing judgment, Bienstock provides up-to-date information from all over the world and enlightening interviews. We meet individuals who face certain death without an illegal transplant but also the impoverished donors, (in this documentary mostly from the Philippines), who sell their kidneys in this well organized trade. In both cases the motivation is clear, saving one’s life requires purchasing a costly transplant surgery, trading a kidney for cash is an apparent way out of poverty. The patient pays for the transplant, frequently carried out in India or China, between $100,000 and $200,000, the kidney donor receives on the average up to $10,000. Organ brokers, medical establishments and other parties in the illegal transplant trade benefit greatly. Recent news reports provide more insights. Severe poverty among Syrian refugees results in a growing number selling their kidneys. Yet the growing discrepancy between the supply and the demand for kidneys has driven down the price paid to $7.000.


Overall, the festival delivered again this year an outstanding program.


Claus Mueller


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