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
''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.''