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It's a Festival, Market, Forum... It's Amsterdam!

By Henry Lewes

From Marc Singer's <em> Dark Days</em>

The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) was really three events, all of extreme interest to documentary filmmakers.

First there was the Festival, where from 9 a.m. til past midnight, some 200 films, from more than 1,600 submitted, were screened in eight theatres. There was also the Docs For Sale market, with 300 titles available for viewing by prospective buyers on 30 monitors that were never idle. And finally, there was the Forum where over a period of three days, filmmakers seeking finance pitched 58 projects before an audience that included more than 50 commissioning editors.

The originality of subjects and their treatment was striking. From China came Ju An Qi’s There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing, where the camera crew simply stopped people in the streets and asked them nonsensical questions, such as “Do you think there’s a strong wind blowing in Beijing?” The result was an extremely unstructured film that nevertheless gave an impressionistic picture of China and its people.

Desi (Maria Ramos, The Netherlands), observes the day of an 11-year-old schoolgirl. Everything appeared quite normal until the evening when she has to phone around to discover whether any friend or relative is willing to offer her a bed for the night, as she is homeless. In The Exhibited (Jesper Jargil, Denmark), a colony on ants in New Mexico directed actors in Denmark. The insects’ movements were transmitted, in the form of changing lights, to a museum where the performers reacted by mood and movement.

In Jung (War) in the Land of The Mujaheddin (Alberto Vendemmiati/Fabrizio Lazzartti, Italy/Afghanistan), a surgeon and a war correspondent set up a hospital in Afghanistan, providing an extraordinarily intimate view of women living under the medieval laws of the fundamentalist Taliban.

From the US came 43 films, several of them with their director presents. Following the screening of her Nuyorican Dream, Laurie Collyer explained how over four years she had become almost part of a Puerto Rican family. The success of her “direct cinema”-style was evident from the open manner in which three generations shared their lives with the camera. For a mother it meant selling second-hand clothes in the street; for a son, drugs and imprisonment; and for the oldest son, escape to university. Thirty-three years after arriving in New York this family -- like so many others from Puerto Rico -- is still struggling at the bottom of the ladder.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye, by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, recounted how the doll-like Tammy, 12 years ago a highly popular TV evangelist, built an immense religious empire with her husband, which totally collapsed when he was found guilty of adultery and embezzlement. Interviews, intercut with news coverage, provide a disturbing picture of how this woman, of unstable character, yet full of self-belief to the end, could sway a huge public. Even in the final shot she is clearly still in charge, putting a “Do Not Disturb” notice on her door, as she retires along with her second husband.

The production story behind Dark Days by Marc Singer deserves a documentary in itself. Singer, a social worker, got to know a group of men and women who had lived for years underground, beside a rail track in New York, with electricity tapped from the overhead wiring. Appalled by their rat-infested shacks, he decided to raise money by making a film showing their conditions, using the group as crew. Questioned about production problems, Singer said the greatest difficulty was that when it came to the editing, everyone wanted to choose the shots in which they thought they looked best! During the two-year shoot, 50 hours of black-and-white 35mm film were exposed. The happy result, however, was that social agencies and Amtrak helped to get the men and women housed.

US films were awarded two of the four annual prizes. The Fipresci, worth 5,000 guilders (about US $2,100), went to Monteith McCollum’s Hybrid, an entertaining study of the life of Milford Beeghly. The Special Jury Award was given to David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s already much-lauded Keep the River on your Right.

At Amsterdam, choice is often difficult, since there are so many activities running at the same time. Under the title of “Docs Online,” there was debate about whether the new media would lead to different documentary forms. Questions raised included what are makers’ motives when they start working online or on CD-ROM or DVD? Are digital documentary projects, with opportunities for input, effective in influencing public opinion? Are there already discernible online genres? Another aspect of contemporary technology was the display throughout the week of four mini-DV films, each shot single-handedly and telling the story of a hazardous train journey.

A nightly opportunity for learning about production problems was ‘Talk of the Day,” when films shown were discussed with their makers. Leo de Boer’s The Train to Grozny, one of the DV films mentioned above, clearly required real courage in approaching passengers inclined to vent their pent-up anger about the Chechen war on the two-person crew. In order to reach Grozny, it was necessary for the filmmakers to persuade not only taxi drivers, but those in charge of tanks and helicopters to give them a lift.

Festival Director Ally Derks chaired a “Talk of the Day” while relaxing with a cigarette and a glass of white wine. She observed that during the selection process a number of trends had caught her eye. One was the tendency for so many films to end up exactly 52 minutes long, regardless of their natural length. This had been made evident by so many filmmakers who submitted both a 52-minute and a longer version. She felt this constriction could be the death warrant for documentary art, and appealed to commissioning editors to explain to their bosses how destructive this commercial requirement could be. Asked what she looked for, Derks replied, “an original point of view on reality, running as long as it takes.” She closed by expressing her belief that the documentary would survive the Internet, “as proved by our being here tonight to share the film experience.”

Concurrent with the festival, the Docs For Sale market was open for business 12 hours a day. Anyone can submit a film, but to ensure high standards, there is a selection process. Maria Pallier of Spanish TV revealed that she, like many other buyers, spends a solid three or four days endlessly viewing. The only break is the 6:00 p.m. happy hour, which provides an opportunity for sellers to approach buyers. Sellers can discover their likely targets because buyers must fill in a form stating their degree of interest in every film they view. This means that although it is not essential to be present if you have a film in the market, it clearly gives you a much better chance of a sale.

However, if you are looking for co-production money, the Forum is the place to be. Here, in the Paradiso, a former church, contestants are allowed just seven minutes to pitch their projects, followed by eight minutes of questioning from the assembled company of commissioning editors, producers, financiers and festival directors. The atmosphere, with so much depending on the presentation and spotlights picking out the speakers, is intense. It seemed a harsh world where a moving description of a proposal for a film based on the reunion of Holocaust survivors received the comment, “I think people will say there have been too many programs about this subject.” Or one on female cheerleaders for a Berlin football team, which was greeted with “You call it a docu-soap, and that is why I would steer clear of it.” But large numbers of proposals get off the ground with helpful moderators making introductions and prodding and cajoling commissioning editors to be bold. Pitching is clearly an art, and before having a go, it is wise to attend as an observer. Apply well in advance, as places are filled from early on.

The most important reason for attending IDFA, in addition to the pleasure of seeing dozens of good documentaries in the company of other enthusiasts, is networking. Meeting with others is how films get made and in Amsterdam, meeting is easier than in most festivals because of a staff happy to help with introductions. Also, the administrative center contains a delightful câfé called De Bali, where sooner or later, everyone pauses for a chat and a drink.

For further information, contact IDFA, Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen 10, 1017 RR Amsterdam, THE NETHERLANDS; tel. 31 20 62 73 32 9; fax 32 20 63 85 38 8; e-mail:


For over 30 years, Henry Lewes has researched, written and directed documentaries for the BBC, CBC Canada, Film Australia and the United Nations. His previous article for International Documentary covered Visions Du Réel and Sunny Side of the Doc.