The first edition of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) happened in 1988. At that time, it had a small audience and only three screening rooms. “We had one phone, two huge typewriters and a closet to work from” said IDFA director Ally Derks, remembering the beginnings. In time, IDFA became the largest documentary festival in the world, screening hundreds of films and attracting aproximately 120.000 visitors. This year it celebrated its 25th edition. And I was there to see it.
The Opening Film
This is a no. “Wrong Time, Wrong Place” (directed by John Appel) felt really unnecesary. The documentary follows stories of different people who survived the Oslo bomb attack and the Utoya tragedy last year. The storyline stresses too much the randomness of everything involved in these stories, looks back at the steps each character took that particular day and underlines each one’s fragility and vulnerability in front of chance. Natia knows that her friend, Tamta, would have survived if they stayed together. But they didn’t. And Tamta died. Her death is a tragedy. But following each step she took before her end, going back and forward thinking how would a small detail had been different she would still be alive, that is a process that a mourning friend or relative goes through for a while. There is something futile and unnecesary in making a large audience follow these steps. If everyone would constantly reflect upon the risks of every single moment we live, we would be paralized by fear and live nothing. Lingering in a pond of tragedy only to reflect on how futile life is, is unnecesary. And not only that, it also makes the lives of the people who died in Norway seem pointless. It makes everyone look at them through the lens of death and futility instead of through the meaningful persons they were.
The Special Programs
“Don’t film if you can live without filming” is the cinemanifesto of this year’s special guest. Russian director Victor Kossakovsky presented his top 10 favorite documentaries, which included old and classics of the genre, like Dziga Vertov’s ‘Man With a Movie Camera’ (1929) and new and innovative films like Leonard Retel Helmrich’s ‘Position Among the Stars’ (2010). Kossakovsky also presented a retrospective of his own films which he discussed during the masterclass he held on Thursday the 15th.
‘RE:constructing history‘ was one of the festival programs that not only marked IDFA’s 25th anniversary but also acknowledged documentaries’ role to record and remind of important issues. The program was a retrospective of the most important historical moments from the last 25 years through the lens of 15 documentaries. “Last Train Home” is one of the films in this program, a documentary about China’s economic boom which created the largest migration phenomena in the World: the chinese worker’s migration from the cities to their home villages for the Chinese New Year. I found this film moving and visually impressive and you can watch it online here.
Another retrospective program was ‘25 Years Highlights of the Lowlands‘, which screened some of the best Dutch films from the last 25 years, films that either won prizes or caused international stir. In this last category is Renzo Marten’s controversial ‘Episode 3 – Enjoy Poverty‘ which is one of my favorite documentaries for its raw and unapologetical way of showing how poverty is a commodity and fighting poverty is an industry which benefits everyone but the poor themselves.
IDFA hosted its first congress this year and unfortunately I had to be at another event (Why Poverty? – for more about it see the next issue of DOX). “Dutch Films Conquer the World” gathered professionals, journalists and everyone interested in documentary culture to discuss issues such as why certain films have more success than others, what has changed in the last 25 years in terms of image making and storytelling and what is the place of Dutch films on the international market. The day was a mix of inspirational keynote speeches, interlocking panels, feedback and clips, co-moderated by Jess Search from the BridDoc Foundation and Jan Jaap van der Wal, the famous Dutch stand-up comedian.
The “Digital Storytelling conference” was an imagination exercise on what the future of documentary storytelling in the digital age looks like and how the new forms relate to the traditional documentary industry. Some of the guests were Hugues Sweeney from National Film Board of Canada, Jane Burton from Tate Modern, Alexandre Brachet from Upian and Andrew de Vigal from the New York Times and 2nd Story.
This year’s winner of the VPRO IDFA Prize for Feature Lenght Documentary is Alan Berliner and his film “First Cousin Once Removed”, a portrait of Berliner’s cousin, friend and former mentor, Edwin Honing. Honing used to be a poet, playwright and translator, but in the last years of his life he suffered from Alzheimer and lost almost all connection with his own past. This bitter-sweet film tells the story of his life as it used to be and of his last years marked by his mental decline.
‘First Cousin Once Removed‘ had been shortlisted for the prize together with Dror Moreh’s much discussed ‘The Gatekeepers’, a documentary in which six former Israel security service heads discuss Israel’s war on terror and Polish director Janusz Mrozowski’s ‘Bad Boy High Security Cell‘, a film about the claustrophobic life of Damian, a young Polish bank robber who lives in solitary confinements in Tarnow Prison in the south of Poland, without privacy and any other human contact but his guards.
Malik Benjdjelloul’s “Searching for Sugarman” won a prize both in the IDFA Competition for Music Documentary and the BankGiro Loterij IDFA Audience Award. The film reconstructs the story of Rodriguez, the mysterious and controversial American singer who was famous in South Africa in the 70’s without him knowing that. He sold more than 500.000 in this country in times of boycott and social unrest. He ended his career as a forgotten artist, even though he is regarded as one of the greatest talents of his generation.
Debut film “Soldier on the Roof” a film about the life in the small Jewish enclave in Hebron, directed by Esther Hertog received the IDFA Award for First Appearance and the Dioraphte IDFA Award for Dutch Documentary.
The NTR IDFA Award for Best Mid-Length Documentary went to Linda Chan and Guillaume Suon for their film, “Red Wedding”. The documentary tells the story of Sochan Pen, who, as a sixteen-year-old was forced to marry a soldier of the Khmer Rouge.
Last, one film I really liked was “Rafea: Solar Mama” directed by Mona Eldaieft and Jehane Noujaim tells the inspiring and touching story of Rafea (see the image below), a Jordanian Bedouin woman, mother and wife. She has the chance to go to the Barefoot College in India to become a solar engineer. The Barefoot College trains illiterate women to become solar engineers in only six months. Even though her husband is against the idea and even though she has children to take care of, Rafea understands imediately that this is her once in a lifetime chance to get an education and change her life and her family’s life for the better. “Rafea: Solar Mama” won the Oxfam Novib Award and I will write about it in the next issue of DOX Magazine.