AAA reached out to documentary filmmaker Seth Kramer to discuss his upcoming film The Anthropologist.
At the core of The Anthropologist are the parallel stories of two women: Margaret Mead, who popularized cultural anthropology in America; and Susie Crate, an environmental anthropologist currently studying the impact of climate change. Uniquely revealed from their daughters’ perspectives, Mead and Crate demonstrate a fascination with how societies are forced to negotiate the disruption of their traditional ways of life, whether through encounters with the outside world or the unprecedented change wrought by melting permafrost, receding glaciers and rising tides.
The film was directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger and will premiere at DOC NYC by the American Museum of Natural History on Friday, November 13, 9:30pm at the SVA Theater at 333 West 23rd Street in New York City. Tickets can be purchased here: http://www.docnyc.net/film/anthropologist-the/#.VkErna6rRE4.
View the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtAL-kkGwNg&feature=youtu.be.
What was the impetus behind The Anthropologist? Why anthropology? Why these two women? (Margaret Mead and Susie Crate)
We knew we wanted to make a film that tackled the issue of climate change through the eyes of a scientist, but a different kind of scientist than who we’re used to hearing from. Most of what you hear is the same old physics lesson over and over again, not that that isn’t important, but the voice of the social scientist is missing from the conversation and the human side of the issue is lost.
That was the original goal, initially we weren’t thinking of including Margaret Mead, we were just looking for the right anthropologist to follow. Many were studying climate change at their field sites, but we wanted a global view. We spoke with program directors at NSF involved with anthropological science, including the Arctic Social Sciences department, and the name Susie Crate kept coming up. She had just written her book, Anthropology and Climate Change, and had a real bird’s eye view of the subject, so she became the focus of the film.
What became interesting to us about Susie was not just that she was an anthropologist, but she had a teenage daughter. Anthropology didn’t seem to be just a career or a profession for her, but a guiding template for her as a mother, raising her daughter as an anthropologist, with a different perspective on the world.
We initially wanted to talk to Mary Catherine Bateson about what it was like to be the daughter of an anthropologist. She brought a lot of perspective to the topic. She could comment on what it was like to be raised by an anthropologist, and then comment on her own experiences as an anthropologist. Add to that the fact that her mother was Margaret Mead and it gives you an entirely different way of looking at the situation.
What did you learn from making The Linguists that you found helpful on this project? Were there similarities between the fields that made the process for this movie less challenging, or perhaps differences that made it more challenging?
In The Anthropologist we do a lot of filming in the third/developing world, which is something that people don’t get a lot of exposure to in the United States. The Linguists helped prepare us for that. There is a lot of crossover between linguists and anthropologists in that for scientists, there’s a protocol for this. Who do you talk to first? How do you behave?
As a filmmaker this is a completely different environment, and you have to learn how to conduct yourself and develop your own protocol. What do you do when you arrive with a camera and are immediately surrounded by 30 kids? The Linguists helped us develop that protocol, so we were less naïve going into filming The Anthropologist and better able to concentrate on getting to the heart of the story.
What challenges did you face tackling the well-known figure of Margaret Mead and the controversial topic of climate change?
We wanted to make a movie that dealt with Margaret Mead in a way that would be interesting to your members, with a perspective that even the most seasoned anthropologist could appreciate. I think we achieved that in a couple of ways. We compared Mead’s work to that of an anthropologist who is doing work today. In doing this comparison we were able to see not only the ways that their work was different, but the ways in which the whole field of anthropology has shifted over time. What constituted massive global change in Mead’s time may not be the same as what constitutes global change today. We also look at Margaret Mead not just as a scientist but as a mother; a new way to look at her as a person that adds perspective to what people already know through her fieldwork.
A lot of documentaries that you see about climate change are still trying to convince people that it’s real, that it is being driven by human activity and convert the nay-sayers. We decided not to do that. Because the people who already know that climate change exists deserve better. You won’t hear about carbon footprints or greenhouse gasses in this movie, but rather now that we accept climate change, what does it mean to be human in the face of these changes?
What were the pros and cons of working with the family members of your subjects?
We had no issues working with Mary Catherine Bateson and asking her questions about her mom, she was delighted to talk about it. Asking Katie (Crate) questions about her mother was similar. One of the surprises of the film was that we started filming when Katie was a teenager and she wanted to be nothing like her mother. We got to film her as she was coming of age and you get to see her transition to a point where she ends up becoming very like her mother.
These people are not the Kardashians; they don’t hunger for the spotlight. They weren’t comfortable having cameras following them around all the time. We film them at their best, and at their not so best. If they’re getting into an argument in a village in the middle of Peru, we’ll keep filming, and they don’t understand why we feel the need to do that. Susie is also a mother, and she feels like she needs to protect her daughter and there were certainly some challenges around that.
Were there any particular things that you learned about these women that you found especially surprising or unexpected?
There are a lot of misconceptions out there that anthropologists are all about the world as it was, preserving ancient languages or cultures by saving items in a museum, but we knew going into this that anthropologists are also engaged with the world as it is. We got to see how true this really is over the course of making this movie.
I was surprised by the way that anthropology became a framework for these women raising their children. I have a 9-year-old daughter and it was certainly interesting in that respect.
Climate change is not something that we’re going to solve by using a different kind of light bulb, or installing solar panels on our houses. It’s going to require a change in our culture. And we can’t do that unless we understand who we are. And anthropologists can provide that. We didn’t realize that before, but now we understand how necessary the voice of the anthropologist is in this conversation, they need to unapologetically insert themselves into this realm.
The immersion you underwent while making this film sounds not unlike the fieldwork conducted by many anthropologists. Did you feel you could relate to the subjects of the film on that level? What was the experience like?
It was a lot of fun. It’s fun to put an anthropologist under a microscope, turn the tables and be the one who is now studying the anthropologists. Anthropologists and documentary filmmakers have a lot in common. We’re both out there in the world trying to collect information about what’s around us, and in many cases filming it. Trying to create a story around what we’ve filmed and describe it for others. We had a few instances during filming where we had to fight Susie for space as she was trying to film something that we were also trying to get a camera on. Documentary filmmaking and anthropology require skill sets that complement each other, it would be interesting to see more anthropologists and documentary filmmakers team up.
There is something to be said about exploring the person behind the science. It helps the viewer make sense of the science if they see what’s motivating the person to travel halfway around the world and in some cases risk their lives.
We’re currently working on a film about a startup company trying to invent a bra that can detect breast cancer. It’s called “Detected.” Look for it in 2016.
The Anthropologist will be co-presented at DOC NYC by the American Museum of Natural History. The film will premiere on Friday, November 13, 9:30pm at the SVA Theater at 333 West 23rd Street in New York City. Tickets can be purchased here: http://www.docnyc.net/film/anthropologist-the/#.VkErna6rRE4