One could have spent all 12 days of the 24th International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam (IDFA) covering any one of its programs. Eighty-eight world premieres screened across competition and non-competition sections, while other docs enjoyed their International or European premieres. Steve James was the subject of a retrospective, and he also curated his own Top 10 program. Finally, there were off-screen activities such as the IDFA talk shows, industry panels and the IDFAcademy. In a festival of over 300 films, no two experiences were the same. But almost everyone had something to say about the festival opener, The Ambassador.
Directed by Danish filmmaker and journalist Mads Brügger (whose previous film, The Red Chapel, won the 2010 Sundance World Documentary Competition), The Ambassador follows the provocateur's ambition to buy a diplomatic passport and see where it gets him in the Central African Republic (CAR). To his amazement, it gets him farther than is morally responsible. Cultivating the air of an eminent diplomat and the dress of 19th century explorer Henry Morton Stanley (knee-high boots in full effect), Brügger goes to the heart of Africa under the pretense of setting up a match factory, while actually trying to gain access to the country's diamond mines. Attracting a host of characters bizarre enough to fill the pages of a Graham Greene novel (in particular, a gold-toothed diamond trader with machete scars), Brügger infiltrates the criminal world of diamond trafficking. And not just that; he partakes in that criminality--bribing his partners with millions of dollars in perhaps the murkiest conceivable use of documentary financing. The broker who arranged for Brügger's diplomatic passport tried to shut down the film's premiere at IDFA, which helped the film more than hurt it.
Winning the Special Jury Award and the Audience Award was a film of perhaps greater personal risk, 5 Broken Cameras, by Palestinian Emand Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi. The title refers to the number of cameras it took a Palestinian man to record his village's attempts to resist encroaching Israeli settlements. Burnat, a self-taught cinematographer, bought his first camera to record his son's upbringing. That purpose soon coincided with filming the clash between his village and the Israeli Army. Weekly non-violent demonstrations become violent when the Israelis resort to gas and live ammunition. Over the course of filming, three of Burnat's brothers are arrested, two of his friends are shot (one fatally), and Burnat himself barely survives a car accident that leaves him unfit to continue filming. The intensity of that situation is framed through his son's impressionable eyes. As the child grows up over the years, we see the tumultuous future ahead of him. "The only protection I can offer him," says Burnat in voiceover, "is letting him see everything, so he can see how vulnerable life is."
One could find refuge from the festival's heavier documentaries in the aptly chosen Escape Club, where a number of industry panels were held. Alternative release strategies were discussed in the "Digital Distribution" panel, with panelists Alessandro Iacoponi (MUBI), Orly Ravid (The Film Collaborative) Andrew Mer (SnagFilms) and Rob Millis (Dynamo Player). In a festival where less than 10 percent of the total submissions were selected, a question on every filmmaker's mind was how to maximize the visibility of their works. Iacoponi encouraged the filmmakers in the audience to accept the reality of piracy and to try to monetize it. Broadcasting on ad-supported sites such as Hulu or SnagFilms, he pointed out, can be a very effective way of initially building an audience. In fact, he noted that it was in such cases that filmmakers increased their revenues later on (on ticket sales, DVDs, merchandise, etc.). "There's no point in fighting the future," he noted.
Another unseemly source of optimism was Meet the Fokkens, about two elderly twin sisters who have been working as prostitutes in Amsterdam's Red Light District for 50 years. Martine and Louise Fokkens know the stereotypes of their profession, and they couldn't care less. After having spent the majority of their lives getting paid to give men pleasure, they take pride in what they do. Of course, times were never easy in the conventional sense. They disdainfully recall the "bad" clients they encountered, and the pimps they had to free themselves from in order to set up their own brothel. But their faces light up when recalling the "good" men they encountered--and the variety of ways in which they pleased them. Much of what comes out of their mouths is explicit, of course. And the filmmakers do put you in the room. But the film is less concerned with the nitty-gritty details of the Fokkens' work than the grace with which they live their lives. Directors Rob Schröder and Gabriëlle Provaas meet the Fokkens at a time when only one of the sisters is still working. But the pair's history is so bound up in the red-light district that an ever-revealing portrait of the place is possible, and achieved with style.
Winning "Best Green Screen Documentary" (the section showcasing environmentally-themed docs) was Bitter Seeds. The final installment of Micha X. Peled's Globalization Trilogy (following Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town and China Blue), Bitter Seeds furthers the director's interest in how multinational corporations project their influence abroad. Peled focuses on a small agrarian community in central India, where locally grown, renewable seeds have been phased out by genetically-modified (GM), non-renewable seeds. In a region where the majority of farmers are rain-dependent and can't afford the expensive fertilizers that GM seeds require, the influx of GM seeds into the market has caused extreme indebtedness--leading as many as 25,000 farmers to take their lives since 1997. Bitter Seeds asks the question of whether Ram Krishna, a peasant farmer, will be next. The director follows Krishna over a year, instilling in us his same desperation for rain to fall. Meanwhile, he discovers an aspiring journalist named Majusha Amberwar, who is covering the farmer suicide crisis that claimed the life of her father. Peled lets her journalistic process place Krishna's situation within a broader context. Where her inquiry reaches its limits, Peled picks up by interviewing a range of subjects from seed providers to environmental activists. The end result is an indictment of the agricultural biotech industry tightly wrapped within a gripping character drama.
Less political but every bit as emotional was Ballroom Dancer, ostensibly a competition film that overcame the constraints of its genre. The film began with archival footage from 2000, when the Ukranian dancer Slavik Kryklyvyy was named the World Latin American Dance Champion. Ten years later, after having been out of practice due to injuries, he strives to reclaim his former glory. Teaming up with Anna, also his lover, he prepares for the international dance competition circuit. But the intensity of his ambition soon creates friction in his relationship. Working in a profession where the goal is to express the internal through the external, the mending of his relationship becomes central to his success. The film's laser-beam focus on Slavik and Anna's personal lives, then, turns every dance into a symbolic test of wills. Directors/cinematographers Christian Bonke and Andreas Koefoed play with that dynamic through tightly shot camerawork. When not standing back to present the dynamism of Slavik and Anna's movements, they're up close and personal, scrutinizing the hints of truth in their faces. The underlying question becomes whether Slavik and Anna can convince the audience, and themselves, of a perfect communion.
There was no ambiguity about the relationship in Seungjun Yi's Planet of Snail, winner of the VPRO IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary. Planet of Snail chronicles the marriage between Young-Chan, a blind and deaf man, and Soon-Ho, a woman disabled by a past spinal injury. Before meeting his wife, Young-Chan described his life as one of cosmic slowness: "We call ourselves 'snails' because we cannot hear or see and our lives are as slow as the snails." But through Soon-Ho, the features of the world become real to him. The two communicate by delicately tapping on each other's fingers. The sight lends itself to a film that is largely silent, with extended scenes of physical gestures. Laying bare the obstacles that decorate their everyday lives--changing a light bulb, navigating the streets--the filmmakers insist on a new way of looking at life. Hardly a tale of misfortune, Planet of Snail is just the opposite. When Young-Chan leaves his wife for a day to practice his independence, the weight of that separation evokes a relationship untranslatable to words, but translatable to an affecting documentary.
From Seungjun Yi's Planet of Snail. Courtesy of IDFA
Culled from over 3,600 submissions, IDFA's program conveyed but a slice of the documentaries being made amidst the deepening Eurozone crisis. Film producers and television broadcasters tried to explain how this was possible in "The Future of Documentary Financing" panel. "It takes two to three years today to finance a documentary," EDN's Mikael Opstrup observed, compared to the one or two years it took previously. As television funding becomes scarcer by the day, the panelists suggested film funds, foundations, ministries and private donors as possible alternatives. While debating the relevance of old models of financing, they all agreed on the endurance of the audience for documentaries. "The independent documentary is a very sexy thing right now," said Jess Search from The Good Pitch. "These are the thought leaders, the opinion formers, the intellectuals who are [filling] that role that used to come from print journalism and television." More than filling that role, however, it should be said that IDFA's documentaries created new ones.
Daniel James Scott is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. Based in Brooklyn, he writes for Filmmaker magazine, Cinespect and other publications.