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Whose Story is It?

Festival Theme

To spark the conversation around the 2012 Margaret Mead Film Festival theme, Whose Story Is It?, we asked this year's filmmakers, protagonists, friends, and advisors just that question.  Here and throughout the film pages you will find their responses.  During this year's festival we invite you, the audience member, to join them in this conversation.

“I think that our mission as filmmakers is exactly this: look around, choose a story (or be chosen) and tell it honestly before it disappears and is erased from the memory of the world.” - Giovanni Giommi, Director, Bad Weather

Human beings are storytellers. That is our species’ most distinctive feature. We remember our experiences and recite them in narrative. We tell each other who we are through stories. 

Telling a story to those unfamiliar with it is essentially an act of translation. When we tell our ownstory to others, it requires situating, for them to understand. For indigenous filmmakers, as in this year’s Grab and Manapanmirr, in Christmas Spirit, this is a balancing act: remaining true to the local story, while telling it to a global audience. As Jennifer Deger, director, Manapanmirr, in Christmas Spirit, puts it:

“It's only our story if we tell it our way. That means refusing to explain everything away in other people's terms, risking misunderstanding for truths that matter.”

Indigenous filmmakers balance two worlds (at least)—a dynamic whose seeds were already present in the remarkable series, Though Navajo Eyes, when Sol Worth and John Adair asked young Navajos to make films of their own choosing in the 1960s.

A related kind of translation involves filmmakers from elsewhere, typically a metropolis, hearing stories of others, especially from out-of-the-way places, and wanting to tell them to a wider audience. This kind of translation takes on the challenges of “Speaking for Others” (in Linda Alcoff’s memorable phrase). The choices here are fundamentally ethical as well as interpretive. Najeeb Mirza, director, of Buzkashi! frames this:

“As a filmmaker I try to bring forward voices that are not often heard, and try to tell their stories as authentically as I can… Directly or indirectly they tell me what their story is, and using my skills as a filmmaker I choose how best to tell that story.” 

This, it seems to me, is what unites the different acts of translation in this year’s films: to reach across boundaries, to remind each other of our common humanity, to depict out-of-the-way places and unexpected contexts. The stories build bridges, dissolve ownership. Whose story is it? It is mine, yours, now via film, all the world’s. The local is made global, the unfamiliar familiar, and the universe of human understanding is expanded as Valérie Berteau, director, Himself He Cooks puts it:

“It is the story of people far away but it could be ours. Could it be? Somehow, this film and, I believe, documentaries question that: How could other people's behaviors, traditions, influence our ways of life? How do we learn from others?”

The spirit of Margaret Mead lives!

Peter M. Whiteley
Curator of North American Ethnology
Division of Anthropology


Whose Story Is It? 

by Ngaa Rauuira Puumanawawhiti, subject of the film Maori Boy Genius

There are words of my ancestor spoken more than 600 years ago, where Maori acknowledge their contributions and achievements as a collective more so as individuals.

From a personal perspective this story is about my sense of belonging within traditional and wider communities, who are my backbone and my inherent strength.    

On occasion our references have alternated from this film, to our film, my film, her film but, Maori Boy Genius is the genius of Pietra Brettkelly first and foremost. 

The lens of this film presents the interpretation of New Zealand’s pioneering international female filmmaker, who has made it her own as, creation and storytelling flow from one person to the next. 

Suggesting it’s mine, it’s hers, it’s his, it’s theirs! Anyone may want to stake claim to this story. 

Maori Boy Genius is a universal representation that people and their communities respond to because it is spoken from the heart with raw emotion and honesty. Somewhere in the scenes of the film, a viewer is able to step into the subject’s shoes and say that was me, I’ve felt that way, I’ve had a similar experience, or I want to be like that person one day.  Feeling is believing.

But some have challenged the very title Maori Boy Genius, and say there is nothing accomplished in our quest.  Some have publicly disowned such a story because there are others who have achieved much greater things than I.  

This has come from individuals of Maoridom itself who do not take to young people being elevated over and above anyone else,and who criticize a European woman daring to make such a film.   

This story is anyone’s story.  I know many young people who are leaders; who are inspiring, who are charismatic, who are true geniuses. 

Let the viewers decide.