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The International Documentary Filmfestival

By Ann Kaneko

A closeup of Kurt Cobain's face on a poster for Nick Broomfield's' 'Kurt & Courtney.'

My first visit to Amsterdam's International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) was quite a revelation for someone from Los Angeles, supposed movie capital of the world. Here was a festival exclusively devoted to documentaries, where advance ticket sales were often sold out. Many locals for months plan their lives around the festival, often to be disappointed because they can't get tickets... all of this highly inconceivable in L.A. where docs receive little theatrical play.

I learned that in its eleven years, the IDFA has become one of the most respected and important festivals for documentaries. This year's event, November 25 to December 3, welcomed hundreds of filmmakers, programmers and journalists from around the world, to view more than 200 films and participate in the market (FORUM) activities. Even though the dreary, cold weather kept many filmgoers (attendance was tabbed at 56,000) snuggled within the eight-theater venues, Amsterdam's informal "small town" atmosphere characterized the festival; de Balie, the smoky cafe across from the City film complex, was the hub of the IDFA where filmgoers gathered between screenings for meetings and interviews.

Big names from the U.S. independent documentary scene, such as Albert Maysles and Nick Broomfield, were overshadowed by some European filmmakers whose names I didn't recognize. And the films featured were stylistically different, particularly Eastern European pieces, with their beautiful long takes, no talk­ing heads and the understated presence of the filmmakers. I was torn between seeing films at the festival and trying to do business, but I quickly discovered how difficult it was for independents unfamiliar with buyers and commissioning editors actually to conduct business without having contacts in advance.

Most of the top award winners were films that have been featured in these pages from previous festivals. The VPRO Joris Ivens Award, awarded to the best documentary film, went to Fotoamator / Photographer (Poland, 80 min., 1998), directed by Dariusz Jablonski. Reviewed as part of the Krakow International and National Short Film Festivals (ID, Sept. '98), the film is a moving study of the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, utilizing early color photographs taken by a German bookkeeper. The Special Jury Award went to Victor Kossakovsky for Pavel and Lyalya (A Jerusalem Romance) (Russia, 30 min., 1998). A beautiful ode to Lyalya's love and devotion to her dying husband, this film was discussed in the review of the St. Petersburg "Message to Man" Festival (ID, Nov. '98). The Silver Wolf, awarded to the best doc­umentary video, went to Curtis Levy for Hephzibah (Australia, 75 min., 1998), a portrait of the talented concert pianist and sister of world-famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin (ID, Jan.-Feb., '99). Also of note in the video competition was Mosco Boucault 's Un crime à Abidjan / A Crime in Abidjan (France, 90 min., 1995), an unflinching look at the brutal methods used by the Abidjan police chief to investigate the murder of a police officer.

Director Sergey Dvortsevoy 's well­ received Hlebni den / Bread Day (Russia, 55 min., 1998), also previously reviewed (ID, Nov. '98) and among film finalists in Amsterdam, is a portrait in many long takes of a group of elderly residents of a remote Russian village who push an uncoupled train car full of bread into town only to bicker over the distribution. Another finalist was English director Paul Wilmshurst's Mob Law (U.S./U.K., 92 min., 1998) which looks at mob lawyer Oscar Goodman.

The Fipresci prize, awarded to a debut filmmaker in the "First Appearance" program, went to Dan Alexe for Les amoureux de Dieu / Howling for God (Belgium, 64 min., 1998), about two sheiks in Macedonia contending for power in the Sufi brotherhood. Jurists also made special mention of Olga Krylova's Rasskazio o szivotnikh / Tales of Animals (Russia, 10 min., 1997), featuring elephant keepers in a Russian zoo. Another standout which has received attention since its appearance at Sundance (ID, May '98) was Julia Loktev's Moment of Impact (U.S., 117 min., 1998), a family document about her mother who cares for her invalid husband. In the "Highlights of the Lowlands" program, made up exclusively of Dutch films, Ko van Reenen's Twee Vaders / Two Dads (Netherlands, 43 min., 1998), on gay parenting, was awarded the NRC Handelsblad Award. "Kids and Docs" was another solely Dutch program of films for the under-12 audience.

There were many outstanding films, made by women, about women. In "Reflecting Images," an international program of films, Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir­ Housseini's Divorce Iranian Style (U.K., 80 min., 1998) and Vicky Funari's Paulina (U.S./Canada/Mexico, 88 min., 1997) were favorites; the latter film was featured in IDA's recent DOCtober"'. In "Platform 98," films by directors working in developing countries, Li Hong's Out of Phoenix Bridge (China, 110 min ., 1 997) and Felipe Cordero and Hilda Hidalgo Xirinachs's Bajo el limpido azúl de tu cielo / Blue Under Your Sky (Costa Rica, 38 min., 1997) stood out. In all of these films, the focus was on women struggling for respect and their own identity within their societies.

"Visions II" included student films from the European Documentary Workshop, organized by Groupement des Ecoles Europeens de Cinema et de Television (GEECT). Among these, Hitomi Steyerl's Die leere Mitte / The Empty Center (Germany, 62 min., 1998) was laudatory. This dense, complex film The Empty Cemer documents the geography and history of Potsdamer Platz, and examines the reconstruction of German identity after German reunification.

Highlight of the festival was the retrospective of work by Kazuo Hara. Although well-respected internationally, Hara's work is difficult to see outside of Japan. Amsterdam featured four of the filmmaker 's five works, made over a 25 year period. His commitment to each project over several years, as well as the lack of funding for Japanese independents, has produced a body of work in which there is little separation between the artist's film­ making and his life. His films are marked with an intensity and relentlessness that make many viewers uncomfortable.

The film by Hara that put him on the documentary map is Yuki yukite shingun / The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (Japan , 1987). This cinéma vérité piece has as its subject Okuzaki Kenzo, who is on an individual crusade to make Emperor Hirohito take personal responsibility for war crimes Sayona committed during World War II.

Sayonara CP / Goodbye CP (Japan, 1972), Hara's debut film, was screened for the first time with English subtitles. Here the filmmaker collaborated with people afflicted with cerebral palsy. Marginalized by their physical handicaps, they struggle to gain greater visibility in the Japanese public where the society either pities or shuns them. Hara's vérité camera never falters even when the wife of his main subject demands that he stop filming.

As part of Hara's appearance in Amsterdam, he chose an interesting group of 10 Japanese films, mostly from the 1960s and 70s. Disgusted with the de-politicization of recent Japanese films and the numbness of today's young people, Hara chose these films as a kind of challenge to young Japanese filmmakers to open their eyes to the vigor and power of the turbulent 70s. Many Westerners, I think, are unaware of the international fever of activism that reached Japan. Among these films were two by Ogawa Shinsuke, influential in organizing the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. In Daini toriide no hitobito / Narita, Peasants of the Second Fortress (Japan, 143 min., 1971), Ogawa documented the battle of farmers and students against the construction of the Narita Airport, outside of Tokyo. Hara also included Ningen j ohatsu / A Man Vanishes (Japan , 100 min ., 1967), a film about a missing businessman, made by his mentor Imamura , who questions the lines between documentary and fiction.

In contrast to Hara's body of work, Nick Broomfield has been very prolific, completing 18 films in the last 28 years, 17 of which were screened this year at IDFA in a retrospective of his work. His latest, Kurt & Courtney (U.S., 99 min., 1998), has the distinction of being the only film ever to be pulled from the Sundance Film Festival. The film traces rock star Kurt Cobain's tragic life and recounts the contradictory stories regarding his suicide, making a case for the possibility of his murder, plotted by Kurr and wife Courtney Love. As in his other films, Broomfield stars as the bumbling filmmaker trying to get to the heart of the story, continually denied access to his main characters.

The festival offered many opportunities for audience mem­bers to interact with filmmakers, and some of the Q&A sessions could become quite heated and lively: during the discussion of Fotoamotor, for example, one audience member was visibly angry as she expressed her disagreement with the filmmaker's stylistic ara CP choices. For those interested in more general discussions, invited film scholars led various seminars and panels at de Balie, on a variety of topics, such as ethics, docudrama and cultural differences in the documentary.

Aside from the festival, many attendees had come for the three-day FORUM, a high-profile meeting of producers and prospective financiers of television documentaries. Participation in the FORUM is highly selective, and all projects had to be linked to a broadcaster and have at least 25 percent financing. Pitches lasted seven minutes (among those pitching was Belgian independent Chantal Ackerman), followed by a brief question and answer period. Commissioning editors from the main European television stations were in attendance, so the place was abuzz with deal-making. These sessions were held at the Paradiso, next door to de Balie, and only FORUM panel participants or those who had applied to be observers were allowed entrance. Since several of the films in the festival were made by former FORUM participants, it seemed that a successful FORUM experience would lead to your work being included at a future IDFA.

Another arm of the IDFA was "Docs for Sale," a market which included a videotheque with 20 viewing booths for prospective buyers and commissioning editors. The catalogue included more than 300 titles from which videos could be checked out for viewing. The atmosphere was very relaxed as buyers and sales agents conducted business whi le chatting over cookies in the plush rooms of the Marriott Hotel. Divorce Iranian Style was very popular in this venue.

Visiting the IDFA for the first time, I became quickly aware of the extensiveness of the European documentary market as another resource for me to explore. Although my goal was to find buyers for my documentary, included in "Docs for Sale," the exclusivity of the FORUM and the structure of the market made it difficult to access buyers without knowing them in advance. It also became very Courtney apparent that a film not part of the festival has a harder time attracting the attention of buyers. However, I learned a lot from attending IDFA, enjoyed myself, ate a lot of Indonesian food and will know better how to prepare for future visits.

ANN KANEKO is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker. Currently, she is seeking distribution for her documentary Overstay, about foreign migrant workers in Japan.