Talking about movies, Sarah Elder makes the distinction between fiction and non-fiction: In the former the people change clothes and go back to their own lives, in the latter they stay as they are. "The people you see are living the lives you see," she said.
Right at the moment the most celebrated non-fiction movie in America is "Hoop Dreams."
Elder makes non-fiction films among the Eskimos. "Documentary has gotten a little bit of a bad reputation as boring. But a good documentary sweeps you along like any good film. You have a bit more, well, let's say you honor what you see a bit more, because it is real people in real struggles.
"I don't believe anyone should have to furrow the brow too much when experiencing a non-fiction film," she said. "You shouldn't have to work it out like the Times crossword puzzle. If it works, it works, and it does so sort of magically. In that sense fiction and non-fiction are the same.
"But in non-fiction movies," she said, "there is the added component of dealing with real people and real lives. That touches us all as viewers. We know, even children understand, these people on screen are not made up, their problems and joys somehow touch us because they are not made up."
One of the premier showcases for documentary films is the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, named for the famed anthropologist, who was one of the first to see the value in documenting cultures on film. For many years, since 1977, the festival was a stationary event in New York's American Museum of Natural Historys. Then three years ago a traveling showcase was developed.
Elder is instrumental in bringing it to Buffalo this year for the first time. The 18th festival started in New York City last fall, and is traveling to eight other cities, Buffalo among them. It opens April 5 in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts on the North Campus, and continues with showings April 7, 12, 14, 19 and 21.
All programs are open to the public free of charge. Each program consists of showings of several films followed by discussions led by Elder and sometimes including the filmmakers or experts in the field.
"Most documentary filmmakers have given up the notion that there is a truth to a situation," said Elder. "Everybody assumes there are points of view. We don't look for truth, we look for accuracy.
"There's quite a difference there. If the whole business of filmmaking is to compress time and make it an experience of 90 minutes, you're going to make selections from reality. You can make selections which will distort or which will accurately represent a larger reality, and often the only people who will know are the more or less distorted subjects of the film."
For this reason, documenting other cultures has become complicated. Elder herself cedes a fat share of the control of her films to her subjects. Traditional favorites, the Hopi Indian culture, for instance, have produced their own filmmakers.
One of the films to be shown, "Our Way of Loving," draws on a 25-year friendship between the filmmakers and a young woman they've known since she was a child in Ethiopia. (Wife beating, acceptable in her society, is part of the document, making choices by the filmmakers very hard.)
Another film is a study of one of the pioneers of film in anthropology, Rudolph Poch. But Poch's early efforts centered around the First World War and later were used by the infamous eugenics movement.
Nothing from Elder's body of work will be shown, because the festival is for recent work, and she has nothing to qualify this year. She returns this summer to Alaska to continue a new project.
The programs are individually titled each night to render general themes:
April 5, "Invading Others: Anthropology, Film and Tourism": "Trekking on Tradition" (43 minutes), about tourist invasions of traditional Nepalese villages; "The Anthropologist" (50 minutes), the film on Viennese anthropologist Poch; "Imagining Indians" (60 minutes), by Hopi filmmaker Victor Masayesva.
April 7, "Home Abroad": "Homelands" (75 minutes), a close personal look at two refugees from El Salvador; "Siki" (60 minutes), about the life and death of Battling Siki, Senegalese boxing champion; "Piemule" (40 minutes), about an isolated Czech community in Romania.
April 12, "Music: Performance to Protest": "From Little Things Big Things Grow" (56 minutes), about Aboriginal singer and songwriter Kev Carmody; "Gandy Dancers" (30 minutes), about eight retired black American railroad laborers; "Earl Robinson: Ballad of an American" (56 minutes), about the balladeer of the American Communist Party (composer of "Joe Hill").
April 14, "Shamans Today": "Children's Magical Death" (7 minutes), about Venezuelan children who imitate shamans; "Survivors of the Rainforest" (50 minutes), magic vs. modern encroachments in Venezuelan forests; "A Shamanic Medium of Tugaru" (94 minutes), about a Japanese woman shaman.
April 19, "A Woman's Place: Ethiopia, Namibia and South Africa": "Our Way of Loving," marital ways in Ethiopia; "N!ai: The Story of a !Kung Woman," about a beautiful !Kung woman who acquires wealth from white photographers and how it affects her life.
April 21, "Porteurs D'Ombres Electriques" (26 minutes), about two people deep in China showing films outdoors; "Lighting the 7th Fire" (41 minutes), an Ojibway film about contending with modern ways in northern Wisconsin; "Copperworking in Santa Clara del Cobre" (50 minutes), about copperwork in Mexico; "God's Alcatraz" (36 minutes), about a black American leader in Brooklyn who advocates segregation.