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IDFA Day One: Taking Flight

By Tom White

International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam (IDFA) is the sine qua non of documentary festivals, having debuted in 1988, when few documentary-specific showcases existed. Twenty years later, IDFA reigns supreme, having arguably inspired a plethora of fests such as Hot Docs, Full Frame, SilverDocs, Cine du Reel, Sheffield Doc/Fest, True/False, et al.

Although Documentary magazine has regularly published dispatches from IDFA, I have never attended, due to the overlap with Thanksgiving and the proximity to the IDA Awards. But I was honored to be invited to serve on the jury for two competitions-the Silver Wolf, for mid-length documentaries; and the Silver Cub, for shorts-so here I am.

But my first visit to Amsterdam was actually 27 years ago, when I, a college student taking a semester off to study at University of London, traveled there to launch an extended European junket. All I had known about Amsterdam at the time was its Dantesque depiction in Camus' The Fall, and the fact that John and Yoko had staged a bed-in at the Amsterdam Hilton (later memorialized in "The Ballad of John and Yoko.").

Tom's 1981 Amsterdam Epiphany #1: Edward Keinholz's The Beanery.

But there was so much more-and I'm not talking about the famous abundance of pot and porn, Amsterdam afforded me two epiphanies--actually, three, counting the hash-fueled freak-out vision I had at the Melk Veg. But the first two came from a clean and sober place. Number one, at the Stedilijk Museum, was an Edward Keinholz installation entitled The Beanery. So, imagine a young, impressionable post-adolescent walking into a bar like this, where you hear the conviviality and the music...and you see the decay and the depression that envelop the bar patrons-each one alone, with an inoperable clock for a face, and tinged from head to toe in battery-acid brown. This was the kind of transformative experience that comes around like a comet. I knew I had to return to The Beanery, and six weeks later, I did. And six years later, I moved to Los Angeles, and casting about in that new and strange city, I walked into a bar, and everything about it was instantly eerily familiar. But visit after visit, I couldn't quite graft this place to that unmoored memory. But one night, I looked above the bar, and there was a photo of The Beanery. And there I was.

Epiphany number two came courtesy of one of the true Dutch masters, Vincent Van Gogh. The museum in his name had just opened when I arrived in Amsterdam, And it was Wheatfield with Crows, his penultimate painting, that took me to a deeper, darker place. Maybe it was the thick, violent brush strokes of ochre and black that turned a sunny day on the farm into a rural apocalypse. Or perhaps it was knowing that just days after completing this painting, Vincent Van Gogh fired a bullet into his brain. But a print of Wheatfield with Crows hangs above my work space and greets me every morning.

Tom's 1981 Amsterdam Epiphany #2: Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows.

And with those memories in mind, I boarded the plane, whose passengers included IDA director emeritus Sandra Ruch, a juror on the prestigious Joris Ivins Jury Competition; Senain Kheshgi and Geeta Patel, who were showcasing their film Project Kashmir in the First Appearance Competition; Luciano Blotta, traveling with RiseUp, a Reflecting Images-Panorama; and Diane Weyermann of Participant Media, representing Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman's Pressure Cooker. Lots of schmoozing to do, at 10,000 feet!