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Festival Focus: IDFA 2008

By Marc Glassman

The Tuschinski, one of the main venues for International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA)

Anniversaries are supposed to be a time for celebration and reflection. Walking the blustery, rain-swept streets of Amsterdam in late November, city guidebooks and film catalogues in hand, an international mix of filmmakers, commissioning editors and programmers had plenty of time to dwell on both while attending the 20th edition of the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA).

The closing of a major Cineplex had forced the Netherlands’ heralded doc event to move to the narrow, cobblestone lanes around the historic Rembrandtplein, far away from deBalie, the cultural center where festival-goers had traditionally congregated. IDFA director Ally Derks and her crack administrative team were able to locate a larger Cineplex, the Munt, a good venue for many of the over 300 films being screened, and, even better, negotiated the use of the Tuschinski, a gorgeous Art Deco building that has been tastefully renovated to include five smaller cinemas as well as the main historic hall. With the move of the festival’s influential pitch FORUM to a two-story set-up at the relatively nearby Compagnietheatrer and the placement of the industry’s DVD-theque Docs for Sale (under the assured guidance of Holland’s legendary Fred de Haas) at a local arts club, the move was complete.

Still, questions remained. Would the new, more spread-out venues create the proper festive atmosphere? Could anything replace the camaraderie engendered at deBallie? And what programs would IDFA create to celebrate its own anniversary?

The last query was answered quickly. IDFA acknowledged its 20th year with a maximum of content and a minimum of sentimentality. The major commemorative program, which took place at the Tuschinski, mixed glamorous Dutch celebrity TV host Sophie Hilbrand and a historical setting with a weighty, issue-oriented set of interviews and film clips.

Tackling three major subjects—the Role of Documentarians in Representing War, Social Engagement and Truth and Mass Media or Documentary: Where Does the Truth Lie?—IDFA brought on a who’s who of commentators ranging from Chicago 10 activist and former California State Senator and Assemblyman Tom Hayden through Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. James Orbinski to International Court of Justice prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo and Chilean-American author Ariel Dorfman. Clips from a number of films, including Chicago 10, FTA, Darfur Now and Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, were shown. Adding to the program were caricatures of the interviewees by Suss van der Akker, a talented newspaper cartoonist; musical interludes by Dutch rappers; and appearances by two other facilitators: journalist Bert Bakker and Canadian director Peter Wintonick, wearing a magician’s top hat.

It was endearingly awkward, a sincere amalgam of politics and ethical talk mixed with show-biz buffoonery. Wintonick was also the avuncular presence at the nightly Talkshows, which took place on the second floor of Amsterdam’s respected Compagnietheatre. Increasingly popular as IDFA went on, the shows combined preview clips of upcoming festival docs, commentaries on favorite films or pet peeves by critics and distinguished pros, and, as the feature presentation, a long interview with a major filmmaker.

Maziar Bahari, the young Iranian journalist-filmmaker and Derks’ choice for this year’s Retrospective and Top 10 carte blanche, was one of the highlighted documentarians at an IDFA Talkshow. IDFA screened clips from Bahari’s Top 10, including Leni Reifenstahl’s Olympia, the award-winning Hugo Chavez documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and a short Iranian film entitled The Night It Rained. The latter was a revelation; in this obscure 1967 doc about a boy being acclaimed for apparently preventing a train wreck, one can trace the roots of Kiarostami’s and Mahkmalbaf’s artful blurring of the lines between truth and fiction.   

Bahari, who reports on Iraq for the British media, ranged widely in his discussion, addressing current political issues as well as the reasons for his Top 10 selections, among which included Dr. Strangelove and The Green Berets, two fiction features about war that allowed him to talk about the increasing tensions between the US and Iran as well as the current conflict in Iraq. Significantly, the brilliant Holocaust film The Sorrow and the Pity was on the Iranian’s list. In his program notes, as well as in conversation, Bahari takes Iran’s leadership to task for denying that the events revealed in Ophuls’ landmark film were true.

Another unique series and panel discussion at IDFA was Paradocs: On the Edge of Documentary, in which “the filmmaker…positions himself as an artist instead of a journalist” and the line between the real and the visionary is continually being crossed. Case in point: Nora Martirosyan’s 1937. The first half, shot in the sensual, super-saturated colors of Super-8, wordlessly evokes a mother and daughter’s relationship. In the second part, an old woman called Babulia recalls what happened to her mother and herself when Stalin’s police arrested her father in the Armenian component of the Soviet Union in 1937. This section is intercut with Soviet propaganda films proclaiming the success of the People’s Revolution.

In a lively set of panel discussions, filmmakers Martirosyan, award-winning Finn PV Lehtinen, Dutch ex-performance artist Jeannette Groenendaal and others articulated why experimental techniques can make a documentary even more relevant. From the perspective of the directors and curators in this series, truth must be the dominant reason for making a film. Any technique, even the showing of a dream sequence, may work for their kind of doc, provided that validity is being served.

Ever inventive, IDFA also presented a special section of six programs on Animation & Docs. Highlights included two recent and very personal Oscar winners, Chris Landreth’s Ryan and John Canemaker’s The Moon and the Son, the brilliant Last Days of Dutch Schultz––which takes its visual cues from 1930s pulp magazines––and Winsor McCay’s acclaimed World War I propaganda short The Sinking of the Lusitania.

A cornerstone for the IDFA is education. A 20th anniversary initiative was the creation of an International Student Competition program to ensure, in Derks’ words, “that the garden of documentary can continue to be nourished.” Added to the already successful non-competitive Kids & Docs program of films (which are generally made by adults about young people) and the teenage-oriented DocU award, this commitment to the next generation of filmmakers and viewers is remarkable and should be studied by other festivals, doc-oriented or not.

The major competitive programs at IDFA are the Joris Ivens, which gives €12,500 for the best feature; the Silver Wolf, offering a prize of €10,000 for the finest film under 60 minutes; and the Silver Cub, presenting €5,000 for the most deserving doc short.

Uruguayan Gonzalo Arijon garnered the Ivens for Standed, his marvelously crafted re-creation of the 1972 Andes air crash disaster, in which the survivors resorted to cannibalism in order to keep alive. The director, who is a friend of the crash victims, turned what could have been a sensationalist tale into an impressive statement on religious faith and humanity’s capacity to endure in even the most horrifying of circumstances.

The winner of the Silver Wolf and Volkskrant Audience Award was Tamar Yarom’s To See If I’m Smiling, which focuses on women in the Israeli army, and is, in the words of the jury, a “powerful testimony to the corrosive effect of power.” The Tailor, Oscar Pérez’ darkly comic portrait of a Pakistani rogue businessman working in Barcelona who exploits his staff and regularly cheats customers, won the Silver Cub prize.

The FORUM for international co-financing of documentaries, under the accomplished direction of Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen, celebrated its 15th anniversary with some interesting new developments. The Central Pitches, which require 25 percent of financing in order to qualify, have been supplemented by Rough Cut and Seedling projects, which are in earlier stages of development. While the Central Pitches were dramatically situated in an amphitheater setting, the others were staged in roundtable sessions. Unfortunately, the breakout discussions took place in rooms that were too small to handle the crowd of professionals interested in hearing more about these newer proposals.

Projects presented at the FORUM traditionally get made; in fact, Stranded was pitched in 2005. Two fascinating proposals among the more than 30 pitched were Vivan las Antipodas, an avant-garde idea from Russian auteur Victor Kossakovsky, and The Shock Doctrine, based on Naomi Klein’s political bestseller. Kossakovsky proposes to string together short docs shot on the opposite, or antipodal, sides of the world at the same time, reinforcing the notion that “life is beautiful” everywhere. Avi Lewis and his partner Klein hope to expose a vast, if unintended, conspiracy to privatize the globe and destroy any traces of governmental socialist humanism.

IDFA draws an audience of distinguished doc professionals every year, but even that sophisticated crowd was impressed by the appearance of Werner Herzog. The filmmaker with the “finest German accent in the world,” according to Up the Yangtze director Yung Chang, was interviewed at a mid-week Talkshow by Women Make Movies executive director Debra Zimmerman. As the Brits would say, Herzog gave “full value” at his discussion, offering amusing anecdotes about shooting at the South Pole for Encounters at the End of the World, which had its European premiere at the festival.

Given the packed audience of over 250, rapt in attention as Herzog spoke about the difficulties in making a film in such an isolated, bitterly cold environment, it was clear that Wintonick’s Talkshows were working wonderfully well. The audience that used to head to deBalie had found a new place to go. Now firmly ensconced at the Compagnietheater and the Tuschinsky, the IDFA is ready to take on the next 20 years.


Marc Glassman is the editor of POV, Canada’s leading documentary magazine, and of Montage, the publication of the Directors Guild of Canada.