Many films are never heard of again after the festivals. Some land on TV but I don’t know which, where and how because I don’t watch television.
I get a good part of my yearly documentary dose from festivals. And the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam is a good place to be for that. Since my new plan for this blog is to write it more personal, here are some of the films I watched at the last IDFA and I didn’t get to write about them anywhere else . Some I liked, some I wish I watched and some I wish I didn’t.
Song from the Forest (directed by Michael Obert) won the VPRO IDFA Prize for Feature Lenght Documentary this year, so there’s a good change we will hear of it again (First Cousin Once Removed won last year and I swear I haven’t heard of it again until I saw it on the nomination list for the next Oscars). This doc tells the extraordinary story of Louis Sarno who, almost three decades ago, heard a song on the radio and followed it to the jungles of the Central African Republic. And then he stayed. For 25 years. He collected more than 1000 hours of music from the Baaka tribe and made a life for himself there.
I loved the intimacy you can feel with this very special man and the many layers of his story, told without judgement and cliches. For example, the fact that even if he’s been there 25 years and helps everyone around, he’s still ‘the white guy’. At the same time, going back to the US doesn’t feel like home. The camera follows him on his trip to New York together with his son (and they visit Jim Jarmush?), a boy adopted from the tribe, a boy who never went anywhere outside the jungle. Now here there’s a lot of potential for cliches and exoticism, but it’s not the case. There is something simple and honest inside Luis Sarno, this ‘foreigner’ who made an unusual choice and lived it. On the overall the film is about the beauty, the perils and the dimension of the unusual choice he made 25 years ago. And the trip to the US tells a big part of the story, it somehow balances what we’ve seen until then, it’s the part of who Luis Sarno is. And watching this trip makes you see the boy’s experience as well, in a very simple way, and somehow makes you look at the traffic and the logic of Western life through the eyes of an outsider.
Ai Weiwei the Fake Case (directed by Andreas Johnsen) was nominated for the VPRO IDFA Prize for Feature Length Documentary. I really think Ai Weiwei is somehow an easy subject and a goldmine for a documentary maker. He has such a personality and he is so open and honest, that you only need a camera to follow him around and you’ll get enough interesting shots to make a film.
The first film I saw about Ai Weiwei was Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, directed by this American girl, Alison Klayman, who went to China for several reasons and part of the immersion in the Chinese culture experience, she also made this documentary of Ai Weiwei. Never Sorry follows Ai Weiwei to the point of his arrest in 2011. Now The Fake Case takes the story from about where Never Sorry left it, with the 81 days of detention uncovered, obviously, and it also brings it further. His life changed and the film shows that. To be honest there’s not much style difference between the two films, and whether the film is made by Alison Klayman or Andreas Johnsen. That’s because essentially Ai Weiwei makes the film.
Ai Weiwei is captivating enough that if you manage to be the one to continue the Fake Case, you’re probably gonna make a pretty interesting film by default, be nominated to some prizes and people will watch it even if you drop the camera on the floor a couple of times and don’t manage to find a clear storyline. Because Ai Weiwei himself is the storyline. and the subject, and the film. And everything.
Now why I mention this film is because Ai Weiwei really is interesting, his work is original, his position is unique, and his strength seems to come from his vulnerability. And you can feel this while watching him in the film. His honesty, candor, straightforwardness are not only charming but also break some stereotypical perceptions of how Chinese people are. It’s a worth seeing film.
Ne Me Quitte Pas (directed by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorder) is the greatest surprise I had at this last IDFA. I reviewed this film extensively for DOX Magazine, so I will just say that I am glad I watched this, because when I read its description, I fell asleep half way through reading it. And when I saw it also takes 1:46 minutes to watch, I felt true pain. But I did watch it. And realized what I could have missed! It is a funny, unusual documentary about Marcel and his older friend Bob who make a pact to kill themselves together. There’s some alcohol in between and some pseudo-drama and the two are so loveable and funny.
Everything is Possible (directed Lidia Duda) is a documentary about Teresa, this Polish lady in her eighties that likes to hitchhike and she travels/traveled all over the world with hardly any money. As the story unfolds we find out about her past and more about how she feels and thinks and she is truly admirable and fascinating. By the end of the film it all makes sense, the whys and the hows, how she began to travel, the darkness behind certain choices she made and the incredible life that surfaces this old lady. It’s a bittersweet story with some extraordinary person in it, just my kind of thing.
Kismet (directed by Nina Maria Paschalidou) was nominated for the IDFA Prize for Mid-Lenght Documentary. And it didn’t win. Pussy vs Putin won and I found that a very bad idea, but well. This is a film about how those cheesy-easy Turkish soap operas that you’d never admit knowing, are actually changing minds and lives in the Middle East. This documentary shows the unanticipated impact of films with names like ‘Gumus’ and ‘Suleiman’, through several stories of their women-fans and several interviews with actresses from the films. These soap operas tell stories women can empathize with – of marrying too young, of being abused – only that the heroines in the films move beyond that and take charge. And so do the women who admire them.
InRealLife (directed by Beeban Kidron) – trailer can be watched here – doesn’t simply ad to the discussion of how technology changes our lives but actually brings some insight and nuance. It is mostly about teens and their connection to social media mixed with comments from all sorts of people/’experts’. A young guy addicted to porn and how this affects his life. A girl that would do just anything to get a phone, and just anything it means literally that. A young generation giving their information for commercial purposes and living their lives staring at a screen with not much time for introspection. It sounds bad and it is bad. But as the film points out, many teens don’t prefer Facebook to real life interaction, only they don’t really seem to have a choice. On the other side of the extreme connectivity, there are kids who find love and community that goes beyond the machine. But what happens to the one who don’t?
Torre David: The World’s Tallest Squat (directed by Daniel Schwartz, Markus Kneer) is a short film and I have the feeling that, unless they put it on Youtube later on, it will be quite difficult to find. Anyway, it is about the tallest squatted building in the world, which is in Caracas, Venezuela. (And if you watched Homeland, it is the place where Brody goes hide after the CIA explodes. Well.) The building was supposed to be an office building but now it hosts 750 families. It is a place with its own particular logic. And some of the shots will be challenging you’re afraid of heights.
Desert Runners (directed by Jeniffer Steinman) is a film about four ordinary people doing something extraordinary, which is to run 4 Deserts in a year: Atacama, Gobi, Sahara and the Last Desert in Antarctica. That is the most extreme ultramarathon series on Earth and it takes quite some strength, discipline and determination to make it. The landscapes are amazing, the temperatures fluctuate to extremes and the whole adventure can be really dangerous, deadly dangerous.
Maybe because I run as well, but I did find this film inspiring. It also made me realize that we hardly hear about sports documentaries, I wonder why. Unless it is something like the new Alex Gibney film, The Armstrong Lie, sport documentaries are largely ignored.
Finally, some films I wish I watched:
A Home for Lydia (directed by Eline Helena Schellekens) – is a short film about this little girl who, even though she was born in The Netherlands, doesn’t have a Dutch residence permit. I saw the trailer and immediately regretted that I missed it. She is so loveable and the subject of the film is close to my heart. Lydia and her mother lived for a while in a shelter provided by STEK, an organization I volunteer for. A Home for Lydia won the Mediafonds Kids & Docs Award 2013.
Ana Ana (directed by Petr Lom) simply because it’s a new Petr Lom film and it seems quite different than what he made until now. The film was nominated for the IDFA Prize for Dutch Documentary.
#chicagoGirl – The Social Network Takes on a Dictator (directed by Joe Piscatella) because I saw it and thought it was another film about the changes in the Middle East and how young people born or brought up abroad relate to these changes, but after reading and seeing more of it I think I was a bit too laid back in my categorization. In fact the film has an original angle and it is about this young girl in the US helping coordinate the Syrian revolution online. She says ‘From my laptop I am running a revolution in Syria’, and that sounds quite big and bold so I’m sorry I didn’t find out what that means.
The Armstrong Lie (directed by Alex Gibney) just for curiosity.
And some films I wish I missed:
In the Wake of Stalin – I watched this one because I have a long term interest in communism and nostalgia and thought I could get some nuanced insights. Well, the main thing I would say about this film is that it was rather long a depressing, and it didn’t make any new point. I noticed that many new docs about Russia are quite repetitive in their themes and portrayals of dangers (including the way they use music, oh my!) and I think that doesn’t really foster understanding and dimension of a place that you don’t get to see or live.
Broadcasting the End: a Tale About Magic Mountain – I had great hopes for this one, especially since I find fascinating the fact that people believe in all sorts of conspiracies. So I was hoping for a juicy and insightful film. But it was mainly about the buzz surrounding this french village supposed to be a place of salvation at the end of the world and the fact that in the end there was incredibly much media and no visitors. I think a 5 minutes collage would have been enough for that.
Pussy vs Putin and anything related to Pussy Riot. The idea of glorifying rebels without a cause annoys me. The only thing that makes these girls interesting is the fact that they have been arrested for something that simple and that absurd. That shows the degree of deviation of the Russian state. They shouldn’t have been arrested. Dot. There should be freedom of expression. Dot. But I don’t think we need to watch documentaries about them and transform them into some sort of modern heroes. Most images of them that come to mind, are images in which they scream something simplistic while disturbing some daily routine. For example in Pussy vs Putin you see them doing their thing on a bus. Now the bus lady is outraged not because she finds the message scandalous or the appearance intriguing. She is outraged cos her bus cannot leave and she doesn’t get a thing of what’s going on. That’s mostly what happens. Now the Russians, the ones who lived most of their life in communism, might be passive and conformist. Might be inherently obedient. Might live some imaginary norms. And poverty ads to that. And fear ads to that. Pussy Riot has now all the premises for a good brand. Especially seen from a decent distance, like the distance between Moscow and the West, there’s a lot of imaginary meaning to add. But that’s all.