Listening With/Through Mead:
An acoustic review of the 33rd Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival

By Jen Heuson


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It is deep November now, and rain pellets fall in sharp and then sliding
tones upon and down my nylon hood. My head is framed completely in a thick sheet of
North Face; it cups and muffles the sound vibrations, trapping them briefly in a self-
constructed bubble. I sometimes forget the fleshy flaps that hang from my head allow the
external world to seep in without consequence. Why do we not evolve ear lids? Then
again, this could devastate the iPod isolation revolution, leading perhaps to intermingled
acoustic molecules and a general chaotic rip in the visual glue of modern life. The soft,
sweet sound of saxophone blends with low subway rumbles, surrounding me, pushing
against me. I enter the B train at 4th Street, heading uptown. Dhang dhang, the door
speaks, closes, swishes, speeding its way toward sonic speed, toward Margaret Mead.

I close my eyes. Bali dancers fill me – rustling earth, brazened legs and toes shuffling.
What sounds pierced her …early on a Bali morning? …late late next to Gregory? Did the
Balinese think Gregory’s camera too loud? Though Margaret assuredly distracts, like a
Midwestern aunt calming and cooing – and I forget what exactly she said about that
spanking new infant, scraped clean by mother’s leafy hand – her voice, though, rings
still. It is poetic, poesis, and I smile. I hum one scratchy-throat note, but am interrupted.
“Hisst ehventy-eckend srreet. Sand clear closn doors pleeze. Ext top eehty-furrst sreett.”
Low, steady rumbles, clanks. Stops. “Eehty-furst.” Swish. I’m in a long, tiled corridor.
Walking, microphone in hand. A cough trails me. Shoes. Step, step, step. I emerge,
reborn to above ground air – sound opening. I drag two feet through a crunch, crunch
pile of leaves. Swirling behind, bouncing too, people and cars coagulate.

It is opening night of the 33rd Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival. I enter the American
Museum of Natural History on 77th Street. A large, quarter “U” shaped, canoe stares
down at me. A dozen human notes fill the hall, English gurgles sticking between wall and
floor tiles. Festival workers gather around three tables. I check in and, with badge in
hand, head to the t-shirt table. There, I find volunteers mulling about. Introductions and
inquiries follow. A coin drops. “I don’t think American Apparel is going to shrink that much,”
affirms one festival guest. “They do,” responds a volunteer, her voice peaking
with certainty. We throw shirts about searching for the elusive “Classic Girl” in Large.
Laugh. Laugh. Chitchat. The hall fills slowly; a double line now wraps the canoe, trickling
to the Northwest Coast. Boaz totems speak with magnificent smiles, their tongues
ancient with words I do not comprehend. “He doesn’t like karaoke or what?” We wind our
way toward LeFrak Theater. Low drums peek out.

I enter with nine hundred others, the beats of our hearts and smacks of our lips fusing
with the beats and smacks of The Coast Orchestra, a First Nations orchestra here to
perform Brahams’ original score. Medium male bellows and low percussive drones coo
the air. Brahams’ composition will reunite with its celluloid mate, Edward Curtis’ In the
Land of the Headhunters
. I smile. I adore early cinema, when sound and image unite
momentarily, performatively, uniquely. Just a few weeks earlier I heard the premiere
notes of Loew’s Jersey City organ, lovingly restored over twelve years, bringing life to
The Phantom of the Opera, forcing my ears to time-travel eight decades. Old organ
notes fade to clapping. “This is a coming out party of sorts for me,” Ariella speaks.
Cough. Clap, clap. Tinkle. Cough. Then, male talking, “Performers were paid actors, and
the film was in no way intended to be a depiction of Kwa-waki-wak … uh, that’s gonna
happen again… Kwakwaka’wakw life in 1914. It continues to resonate as a romantic
evocation of a particular Indigenous North American past.” A child somewhere, behind
and to my left, whispers. A mother responds.

“I would like to thank very warmly our dear brother Roberto Berraro for making sure that
our traditions and our people are always represented in this wonderful place,” she
speaks from the stage, returning my head to attention. Clap, clap, clap. “On behalf of
Chief Syd Hill of the Onadaga Nation, and I am a citizen of the Onadaga Nation as well,
Snipe Clan, I would like to extend our warm greetings and a warm welcome to the
Indigenous territory of the First Peoples here on Manhattan Island.” A tall graying man,
then, speaks Kwakiutl. His words float calmly, carefully, lovingly from his lips in a long,
snake-like stripe to my eardrums. “Dey la kesta.” The stripe, moving molecules,
connects us, links us physically. Is he speaking only to me? Do others see the glowing
string between us?
He talks in English also. “It is really exciting for us to see this movie
because all of the actors are relatives, great aunts, great uncles. We get to see what
they look like when they were younger.” Laugh, laugh. “We see that the dances they were
doing in 1914 are the dances that we are doing today.” Toe tap. “Da dat.” How I
would like to dance with him, to feel the vibrations of his voice upon my skin.

The lights die. A prelude begins: Drums; Indigenous voice; Dark violin. A loud cry cuts
the black space. “Whey oh. Ey ey. Oh.” More violins. Ba ba boom drums. Soft flute and a
long, sad, slow, low saxophone. Cough, coughing. Bells. Celluloid flicker. I smile so so
so wide. Melted film. Enflamed village. Dancing animals. All while a magnificent female
voice enters me, penetrating each molecule. Is this ethnography? Acoustic
ethnography?
It is present – not an ethnographic present, static and enduring – dynamic,
happening now. Curtis’ film lives; it moves. People sing to it, with it. Margaret sings too. I
toe tap. And hum rum. The flicker stops. So much clapping now. Some shouting too and
whispers. Waves of hands. Thunder, thunderous. A roar of delight that does not equal
the orchestra’s beauty. The roar quiets. Sons and daughters of the actors’ sons and
daughters now breathe into the microphone, emitting a Kwakiutl song: “Yoo. Yah hey.
Heya hey. Yo yah.” I leave my cushioned seat. I float above the audience now. I do not
wait. I go with them, riding the heavy sound waves, leaving here.

“You’re ruining my theory,” anonymous says. Giggle. “Don’t you love that one?” I hear
myself speak, laughing from afar. I am walking to the Opening Night party now. “They’re
all domestic,” someone replies. “I just love the way this, like this section… what’s the
word, not choreographed, curated, like the look of it is so nice. I don’t even know what
it’s about.” Weaving toward the Hall of Gems. The carbon particles in and around
continue vibrating, pleasantly and provocatively. “That room is awesome,” somebody
says. “Yeah, I know it’s amazing, and I really like shiny stuff.” Enter groove music. “It’s a
party room actually.” Louder groove music. Laugh. Lower groove with echo. Soft,
smooth sound of talking. Clinking glasses. Rustling. “Curtis made me realize how
brilliant, how revolutionary, Flaherty was. His use of close-ups really tell a story,” my
classmate claims with conviction. Yes, but there are many ways to tell a story, I think to
myself. “Curtis told his story with sound and image,” I say. “His film makes us feel the
emotions of his characters, not just see them.” I am, of course, still entangled deeply
with the sonic evocations of my recent experience. Why do we prefer the visual? Why do
we forget sound?
I think of Margaret again and wonder what she would think of visual
anthropology today. Then, I hear Margaret and Gregory bickering. I laugh to myself.

Pound, pada pada, pound. Slush ush. I run quick, dodging a puddle here and there,
almost late for my second day with Margaret. We have not yet resolved our ear/eye
argument but have, for the moment, put our differences on hold. A quick toilet stop.
Running water… Rrrr usssshhh, usssh. “Hi mama,” I hear a small boy squirp. “Hi baby,”
she lulls in return. “You must wash your hands,” sternly spoken. I am compelled, as if
she were my own mother, and wash my hands with extra normal care. Gggrrrr usssh! A
toilet growls, its voice clinging to the tiled walls. Boy chuckles. I lank to the theater,
entering silently until the door makes a thud. I sit in the back with other festival
volunteers. Another sold out show. My microphone scrapes the carpet floor. I curl up,
going to Russia, going Alone in Four Walls. Birds chirping. Russian boys talking, telling
their sad, too sad, story. A yawn. Voices are so so far far away. Detached, without
bodies. Sad. Lonely. Robotic, analytic echoes. Is this ethnography? Is it documentary?
How really are the two different? “Laa lala la laa.” I love the Russian pop song. “Laa lala
la laa,” the boys sing. Low drone keyboard. Someone from the audiences stands up,
says, “They all need someone who really cares about them, who looks after them, and
they don’t have this person.” The filmmaker agrees in Russian, then English. “All of the
kids she has still contact with until now nothing happens,” she proclaims.

As quickly as I enter, I exit. “I don’t want to go,” someone behind says. A small group, we
walk to the filmmaker party. It is Saturday night and busy in Manhattan. Cars pass, fast
and slow. Footsteps. “This is really ridiculous,” I hear. Not attentive, I think of the
Russian boys. Long cement-dragging shuffles. Exhausted all. “Yeah I was confused
about that.” What is my responsibility to the kids I just witnessed? What do they get from
my watching, my listening?
“Each guest gets two drink tickets,” the volunteer coordinator
reminds, sticking the envelop in a tall guy’s hand. We enter the bar, full with music and
voices blasting. Hockey screens coat the walls. “An odd choice for a documentary
festival,” I hear someone say. “It was cheap,” another responds. Bustling bartenders.
Tinkling glasses. “Did you get that the reformatory was in a city of two million,” a
classmate asks, sitting at the bar with two Russian friends. “Really?” I respond surprised.
“We have many schools like that,” a girl says. “But they aren’t that nice.” Filmmaker
selectivity, I suppose. Would Margaret make a film like that, I wonder. “Are there any
more chips?” a little man nudges me. I put my queries on hold, again. Sip wine. Shuffle
chips, salsa, and iceberg lettuce.

Car honk. I exit the subway for my final night with Margaret. “You really want a hotdog?”
I turn to see a man and two kids and a food cart. “Yeah. Yeah!” Quick, lanky steps. No
rain today. Humming. “It’s the stupidest thing. I wanted to hang out in the park.” Words
weave behind me. A laugh. Leaves rustle. “It’s only a quarter to four.” Low, loud airplane
buzz. “Eleanor!” Birds singsong. Museum doors swoosh. “Tonight’s show is sold out,”
the coordinator tells me when I approach the Festival Information table. I yelp. “I’ve two
tickets,” a tall lady nearby calls out. The coordinator assures me I can’t attend with my
volunteer pass. Besides, my husband is on his way to join me. We exchange cash and
tickets. Relieved sigh. I run to watch, my feet scratching whitened floor.

Dramatic string music unfolds, surrounding me. A voice glumly states, “But once they
came over the fence into the secret war in Lao, they had free hand to bomb whatever
they want.” Music follows. “People of the United States are entitled to know everything
they possibly can with regard to any involvement of the United States abroad,” an
archived Johnson speaks. “There are no American combat troops in Laos,” says another
archived voice. When queried about American troops in Laos, the voice replies, “That
has nothing to do with bombing.” Archival sound, archival sight, carry me to Laos. I
remember time spent there, people met. “Ceremony is a very great thing for Lao
people… to invite night monks into your house to chanting get rid of bad thing and
calling the good luck in.” Chanting. Bells and strings pick up force. Singing. Night
insects. “There probably is an element of luck in bomb disposal because you can’t
always cover every base.” Fireworks. Explosions. Rockets. “They’re trying to shoot the
American planes apparently about forty years too late.” Bomb Harvest resonates
roughly. MAG reps stand with filmmakers. “How difficult was it to get permission to make
this film?” an audience member asks. “We have to get permission from the local
authorities. There is a memorandum of understanding in every province where we are
working,” in almost whisper. I probe again my own responsibility. I think of the children I
filmed while on a Lao Mekong Island. Their faces smiled at me four years ago today.

The medium drone of voices covers us as we wait for the sold out show of Sascha
Paladino’s Throw Down Your Heart. “Do you think Bela Fleck is going to be here?” asks
my husband. “Ha.” Voices raise and fill out the theater. Fleck music waves in the
background. “There is going to be a band though,” I say. Chat chit, chat. Quiet. Cough.
Seat rustling. Zipper. Phone ring. “Hi everybody!” “I’m Sahna. This is my friend Bahka.”

String. String. Drum. Pound. Pound. “Eeeehyea. Eehya.” Sing. Pounda pound. “Yaya.
Wayeee a mama. Eehya. Waye mama.” Clapping all together. Strings rough. “Yakan ah
ey.” Clap, clap, clap to the beat. “Everybody! Harder harder!” No seat is empty. No hand
not clap clapping. The festival is ending now. This is the end. Ariella speaks, “If you
haven’t noticed already, the opening and closing theme for this year’s festival is music.”
Music is ethnographic. Ethnomusicology. What about sound? Margaret never recorded
sound. I would like to ask her about that someday. “We’ve been working on this film for
about four years, and, uh, it’s really great to show to people we’re not related to,” says
Sascha. “Thank you for being those people.” Clap. Clap. Lights off. Flicker on. Fast,
upbeat banjo. Giggling. Clap. Strings and drums. Bela plays with locals. Banjo hides.
Clank clank. “Hey Dave, how are we going to record this thing?” Xylophone. Women.
Audience giggles. Chanting. Music crisscrosses the African continent. Gorgeous, far
away notes. Sascha keeps me at bay. I do not float away this time. I sit firmly in my
cushioned seat. Analytic beauty. Sound twirls without spirit. I smile, but do not leave.

Three November days pass away. I emerge, husband in hand. Our toes crunch, munch
sogging leaves. Walking along Central Park. Honk. Swush. Haha. Night noises circle
about. Leftover rain and cars and people blending. Is this not ethnographic? Why are
images favored over sounds, Margaret?
A tire screeches hoarsely in the distance.
People are no more eye than ear. “Sound is everywhere,” my husband says. “It has no
beginning or end.” The film frame simplifies, cutting up the world. This explains also
ethnomusicology. “Music is like a frame,” he continues. “It gives sound a beginning and
end.” I think of Curtis and Flaherty, Gregory and Margaret. So many different ways.
Distinct approaches. Humans are complicated. Rarwar waaa ra! A siren sharply pierces,
whizzing. Whhirrrr ra!! I shiver when the noise enters me. Step, step. Step down, sound
tunneling underground. Clank, clank. Whoosh. We go on the subway now, home bound.
I leave Margaret in the distance. We will talk again. Unanswered questions linger.