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Docs That Make Us Think Social Action at IDFA

By Laura Almo

From Adan Aliaga's My Grandmother's House, which won the VPRO Joris Ivens Award for best feature at the 2005 IDFA

Last November, as Americans were preparing for Thanksgiving Day, across the Atlantic the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA; was getting underway. A cornucopia of a different kind, this was the beginning of a ten-day feast of nonfiction fare that included more than 800 documentaries from over 50 countries. Social activism was on the screen and in the air as films, panel discussions and informal conversations tackled difficult issues. From the inside of a clothing factory in China to a former Nazi concentration camp in Germany, this year's line-up illustrated the power of film to capture moments big and small, collective and individual.

The festival began under stormy skies and rainy days that conjured up images of Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens' Rain, the experimental and artistically innovative film that chronicles Amsterdam before, during and after a rainstorm. It is the lyricism and poetry, storytelling and political consciousness of Ivens that infuses the programming at IDFA. Festival Director Ally Derks noted that IDFA shows films "that make us think and discuss, films that do not look for simple solutions to complicated questions, but ones that really reflect on the hard times in which we are living."

Located in the center of Amsterdam, just off the Leidseplein, was the DeBalie Cultural Center, the festival headquarters and nerve center. Right across the street was the City Cinema, where most of the screenings took place. Festival attendees could easily stop in at DeBalie for a warm cup of coffee or a Dutch hot chocolate, have a look at the film schedule, and then stroll across the street or down the block to catch a screening.

Things got off to a great start with Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi's Sisters In Law opening the festival. Sisters In Law is a delightful film about two womena judge and a prosecutorworking in a small courthouse in Kumba Town, Cameroon. Shot in classic cinma vrit style, the film provides a heart-wrenching but often humorous account of the cases that come before the court, including cases of domestic violence and child abuse. The two main subjects of the film traveled from Cameroon to attend the festival and while participating in a panel discussion with Longinotto, were asked if Sisters In Law will have an impact in Cameroon. Both responded with a definitive "Absolutely," explaining that the film captured an era that no longer exists. The courthouse has closed and both women have moved on to other courts in Cameroon.

The Joris Ivens Competition showcases feature-length documentaries (60 minutes and longer). This year, over 20 films competed for the coveted prize. The award went to Spanish filmmaker Adan Aliaga for My Grandmother's House. This beautifully shot film explores the relationship between a six-year-old girl named Marina and her grandmother, Marita. Things become complicated when Marita must move out of the house she's lived in for 52 years. The unhurried pace of the film allows the details and subtleties of daily life to unfold in a poignant and poetic manner. My Grandmother's House deftly invokes the spirit of Ivens, depicting the social realism of contemporary Spain in an expressive, cinematic style.

KZ, by British filmmaker Rex Bloomstein, revisits the Holocaust-era Mauthausen concentration camp. Taking into account the passage of time and the sheer number of films that have been made about the Holocaust, Bloomstein forgoes archival footage and testimony from survivors and instead explores Mauthausen through the eyes of visiting students, those who work there as tour guides and people who live in the town of Mauthausen.

There was an abundant selection of personal films. Derks observed that the trend is shifting: While many filmmakers continue to make personal films, they seem to be less in search of their roots and more concerned with big political issues that affect our society.

An example of this is Our Own Private Bin Laden, by Iranian-born filmmaker Samira Goetschel, who makes her home in New York City. The opening narration explains that Goetschel is Muslim and after September 11, 2001, she was filled with many questions about the vilification of Osama Bin Laden. As she says in her narration, "Like everyone else, I turned to the media for an explanation of the attacks but I soon found myself victim of attacks from the media." Goetschel set off to explore for herself the reasons for the attacks. What follows is a very detailed examination of the issues, with interviews with Zbigniew Brezezinski (National Security Advisor 1977-81), Benazir Bhuto (former Prime Minister of Pakistan), Nick Fielding (journalist at The London Times) and political activist Noam Chomsky.

GitmoThe New Rules of War by Swedish filmmakers Eric Gandini and Tarik Saleh also employs first-person experience and narration. The film documents the filmmakers' attempts to penetrate beyond the media-friendly Public Information Officer at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and find out what really goes on inside the detention center. The filmmakers are thwarted and instead are told about the wildlife, scuba diving and golf courses around Guantanamo. Unsatisfied, Gandini and Saleh take it upon themselves to do their own research. What ensues is an entertaining, illuminating and infuriating picture of Guantanamo Bay and the "War on Terror."

Social action and documentary dovetailed with the screening of Marshall Curry's Street Fight, about the corrupt mayoral race in Newark, New Jersey. The IDFA programmers were inspired to screen the film for all of the mayors of Holland; IDFA hopes to motivate them to take a different approach to politics.

Thematic programming is always a part of IDFA's mission as well. Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now, 2005) curated a series of his ten favorite documentaries. The list included Leon Gast's When We Were Kings, about boxing legend Muhammad Ali; Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton's Lost in La Mancha, an account of filmmaker Terry Gilliam's disastrous attempt to make the film Who Killed Don Quixote; and Eleanor Coppola's Hearts of Darkness, about the making of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

The Forum

The Forum is a three-day pitching session that takes place alongside the film festival. Forty-one projects were selected this year, and subjects ranged from a milk bar in Poland to the rivalry between sports footwear giants Adidas and Puma. Here's the scenario: Commissioning editors from around the globe, including the likes of Claire Aguilar of ITVS, Cara Mertes from P.O.V., Nick Fraser from the BBC and Rudy Buttignol of TV Ontario are gathered together. Projects are pre-selected and each production team is given 15 minutes to pitch its projectseven minutes for presentation and eight minutes for a Q&A with the commissioning editors. Needless to say, this is a very exciting, albeit nerve-wracking time for the filmmakers. A first-rate pitch is compelling and answers all the questions the commissioning editors may have; a good pitch may very well lead to meetings and a possible deal. A bad pitch leaves questions unanswered.

Some tips on first-rate pitching: A strong pitch will convey the essence of the story and assure commissioning editors that the project is feasible. The oral presentation has to be outstanding; clear, concise, focused and organized. Explain all the details of who you are, what you're doing and the production team you are working with. Be compelling. Explain what is new and different about your project. Provide an angle for the subject matter and explain how your idea will be an engaging, visually interesting film. Do not digress and do not go overtime.

The IDFA Fund

IDFA is about showing films and evoking an audience response. Undoubtedly we've all gone to a screening where we've been captivated by the subject matter and moved by the plight of the subjects, but then the film ends. The Dutch writer Geert Mak put it beautifully when he said, "They [the subjects] tell us their story, they grant us their trust, and then the light goes back on. Then they're gone, like ghosts, as if they never existed. Often, they are people who struggle to keep their footing in a poor and insecure world."

Mak wanted to find a way to help the people who appear in documentary films, so he and producer Frank Von Engle came to IDFA with the proposal to give people who appear in these documentary films some financial help. The result is The IDFA Fund. It is a one-time grant that the filmmaker will be able to apply for after the film has screened at IDFA. The grant is "a gesture, a handshake, a little help in the struggle to exist," says Mak. Ally Derks hopes that others will follow suit with this kind of practice and that organizations worldwide will get involved.