PUBLIC LIVES; Curator of Documentaries and Anthropology Buff
The New York Times | November 9, 2007


      THE ode-ettes to joy -- and eclecticism -- inside Elaine S. Charnov's office at the Museum of Natural History include a pair of throwaway 3-D glasses that project the cheesy insouciance of a John Waters film. Of course she preserved them; they're functional! Same goes for the vintage Cheerios in her glass bookcase: the box features the cast of ''Beverly Hills 90210'': ''I plan to sell it on eBay and retire on the proceeds,'' she jokes.
She keeps a reproduction of a Native American cradle board (on hiatus from the museum's collection) on her windowsill and bought a toy monkey from the museum gift shop to briefly inhabit it. The monkey now clings to a ficus tree: ''It looks more at home there.''
     Ms. Charnov, the museum's director of public programming and for 18 years the maestro behind its estimable Margaret Mead Video and Film Festival, which runs today through Sunday, is not the difficult type. Ask her to pop on those flimsy, dorky 3-D specs and she complies with minimal prodding and maximal blushing. There's nothing wrong with wearing one's identity -- documentary curator, photojournalism fanatic, anthropology buff -- on the bridge of one's nose. But she takes her job, if not herself, seriously.
     ''Besides being considered one of the few ethnographic festivals around, one of our sweet spots is that we've remained noncompetitive and kept it true to the original mission, true to the spirit of Margaret Mead,'' she says. Social justice, the environment and cultural immersion are recurring themes at the Mead. Initially staged in 1977 as a way of celebrating Mead's 75th birthday and 50-year affiliation with the museum, the festival evolved into an annual event in the 1980s. Now in its 31st season, it is the longest-running international documentary festival in the United States and strict about programming in one sense only.
''Some filmmakers are out to undermine, exploit and expose their subjects, but that's not our agenda here,'' she says. ''We want to bring up issues, ethical issues, that don't usually get addressed in the mainstream cinema. Films that provoke extreme emotions, including dislike, interest us; if the experience voiced is authentic, there can be a value in that. We don't just select the films that make the curator happy.''
     Although she does have her favorites. Take this year's ''The Waterfront,'' which chronicles a community battle over water privatization in Highland Park, Mich. ''Films like this,'' she says, ''are a way of putting a mirror to our society.'' As is ''Gimme Green,'' an exploration of the nation's $40-billion-a-year obsession with pristine lawns.
     Ms. Charnov, an animation-friendly curator, considers Popeye's mate, Olive Oyl, her alter ego (this explains the presence of the Olive Oyl doll). An old New Yorker cartoon on her bulletin board skewers her vocation: it depicts the Tenafly International Film Festival, a fictional nonevent consisting of three bored patrons, a couple of decrepit screens, and several broken spools of film.
It is a there but for the grace of ... reminder of how not to run a film festival. ''You have to work very hard to make sure the festival you curate is not like that.''
YOU also have to cull just a few dozen documentaries from more than a thousand entries; last year the theme of the festival was China. This year it is the socioeconomic politics of water, which complements an exhibition at the museum.
     Ms. Charnov seems a reincarnation, at least in spirit, of her ahead-of-the-curve role model, Mead. Perhaps the Mead biography she read in junior high in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., served as a subliminal career road map: Mead, too, attended Barnard College and took a job at the museum. ''But I'd be lying if I said I plotted my life around hers,'' noted Ms. Charnov, 44, who previously worked for Wonderworks/WQED and CUNY-TV, and wrote her master's thesis on Zora Neale Hurston. Appended was a video thesis: ''Zoratelling.''