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The 10th IDFA: A Truly International Festival

By Stephen Peet

A black-and-white photo of a violinist from 'The Underground Orchestra.'

The International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam is now firmly established in Documentary Europe as the Big Event of the year. The 10th IDFA was held last December, and I've been going to it ever since it began in 1988. It was small then, relaxed and informal. Now it is huge. But, miraculously, it's still relaxed and informal. And that, with a thousand or so international guests, is no mean accomplishment.

One of the many established features of the festival is a daily gathering at 6 p.m., charmingly called "Guests Meet Guests." One afternoon I found myself having an animated discussion with three other guests about a film we'd just seen, called Kora kull Black Ashes by Shukhrat Makhmudov (Russia, 1996, 14 min.). It had been made in the desert of far-off Uzbekistan and was about the systematic slaughter of three-day-old lambs, for their wool. We each had very different feelings about the film but were united in agreeing that its strength lay in its brevity. The director had put across a powerful message in a mere quarter hour. And we all agreed that this made a very welcome change after the heavy diet of many excellent—but overlength—documentaries that we had been fed for several days.

Talking with these three was a memorable experience because we were a quartet from such different lands: Beijing in China, Angola in southwestern Africa, Bhutan on the borders of Tibet, and me, from London, England. Yet we had this one thing firmly in common—a love of documentary. I realized that afternoon just how truly interna­tional the Amsterdam Festival has become.

Amsterdam is a lovely city to visit at any time. An added treat is being able to indulge in an orgy of documentary... viewing every day for a week, being able to choose from a plethora of films from all over the world, screened in eight cinemas from mid-morning until way past midnight... and not only that: all the films are repeated on subsequent days, most of them shown three times. Word gets about.

That's how I came to see Heddy Honnigmann's The Underground Orchestra (The Netherlands/France, 1997, 105 min.). This was one of the many films that had their world premiere at the festival. Although at times it feels too long (like so many of the films shown), it tells a really moving story about a Venezuelan harpist, a violinist from Sarajevo, an Argentinean pianist, a singer from Mali and a Rumanian zither player, among others-all living in Paris as political refugees and scratching a living by performing in the Metro, in the streets and occasionally in concert halls. The film was enthusiastically received and seemed a strong contender for a prize, perhaps the Audience Award.

At the start of each screening, each IDFA visitor is given a card or cards on which they can enter their opinion of the film or films they have come to see. They have the choice of "hopeless", "very bad", "bad", "fair", "good", "very good", or "superb." The film with the highest score wins the Audience Award. The winner this year was Vision M an (Sweden , 1997, 50 min.), shot and directed by William Long. I scribbled in my notebook that it was "a magnificent and worthy update of Nanook of the North." At the time, the reasons I felt so attracted to this film were, perhaps, personal. I used to be a director-cameraman myself and was particularly struck by the superb camerawork of this film. Also, for many years I ran an oral history TV series where we used the "direct to camera" storytelling techniques that Vision Man does so brilliantly. In this case the narrator is Utuniarsuak Avike, an 87 year old Inuit living in northwest Greenland, telling stories about his past life as a hunter of seals and polar bears.

Altogether, there were more than 180 films and videos being shown at Amsterdan (selected from 1,400 that had been submitted). Only about a third of them were competing for a prize. 25 films were in competition for the Joris Ivens Award; 17 videos vied for the Silver Wolf Award; and 15 films and videos were by new young directors competing for the Fipresci Jury Prize. The remaining 120 or so films were grouped in numerous other categories, including "Highlights of the Lowlands"—a showcase for the most popular Dutch documentaries of 1997. Then there was "Reflecting Images" which, according to an advance publicity flyer, was "a variegated programme of 25 documentary films that stand out for their specific subject matter or striking style."Amongst other films, I was able to catch up with Jo Menell and Angus Gibson's pow­erful and engrossing Mandela (U.S., 1996, 120 min.) and Alan Berliner's remarkable Nobody's Business (U.S., 1996, 60 min.).

Ally Derks, the exuberant director who has masterminded the festival since its inception, feels strongly that "a documentary film festival should zero in on important political, social and global problems and should show interest in the Third World, where the documentary genre has ail extremely hard time." So another whole group of films was presented under the title of "Platform '97." We were told that this was "to give filmmakers from virgin docu­mentary areas the possibility to present their documentaries to IDFA's international film audience." I regret that I missed seeing most of this group. But two that I chanced upon turned out to be good old-fashioned political protest movies—and none the worse for that—shot and directed by veteran filmmaker Anand Patvardhan: We Are Not Your Monkeys and Occupation: Millworker, (India, 1996, 5 min.; 20 min.). Patvardhan made his first film in 1970, about an anti-Vietnam demonstration, while he was studying at Brandeis University in Boston. The film cost him his visa, and he's still carrying on the good work.

A group of films by young filmmakers was called "First Appearance." These were in competition for the Fipresci Jury Prize, chosen by an international group of journalists. And the prize went to Anthem, An American Road Story (U.S., 1991, 124 min.). It is the directing debut of two young women from Hollywood, Shainee Gabel a.Ild Kristi n Halm. Begun as a filming experiment with two Hi-8 cameras , it slowly developed into this "disarming road movie about the turbulent nineties." The jury awarded the prize to this film "for its freshness of approach and courage i n which the filmmakers pursued answers to questions affecting their generation."

And there was yet another group of films, called "InterAction"—"where non-Western filmmakers inform us about their personal visions of their (and our) societies. By depicting their communities they play a crucial role breaking through stereotypical images we have in the West."

Every year IDFA gets renowned documentary makers to present their "top 10" favorites. This year it was the turn of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. They presented a very interesting group ranging from Robert Flaberty's Man of Aran, through Richard Leacock's Happy Mother's Day, to Kevin Rafferty's Feed. Pennebaker and Hegedus also presented and discussed a selection of eleven of their own films, ranging from Jimi Plays Monterey to The War Room. A twelfth documentary-their latest, Moon Over Broadway (U.S., 1997, 98 mi n.)—was screened in competition for the Joris Ivens Award.

At the first IDFA in 1988, it was the great Dutch filmmaker Bert Haanstra who had the honor of choosing the "top 1O", and he became a regular guest at the festival every year. Barely a month before the 10th IDFA occurred, Haanstra died: he was 81 years old. But at IDFA 10, he was not forgotten. Five of his films were specially included in the week's screenings. I have seen many of Haanstra's films over the years but not The Voice of the Water (The Netherlands, 1967, 96 min.). It 's a film of amazing beauty.

I wish that I'd had the opportunity to see or re-see all five of Haanstra's films that were screened. For that matter, I wish I'd been able to see all the films being shown at IDFA and attend all the other events. But to have made this possible, the festival would have had to last several weeks. Running parallel with all the screenings were also a multitude of seminars and workshops. Just to take one example, there was a seminar on "The Documentary Filmmaker as Historiographer " in which, amongst others, Marcel Ophuls discussed his film Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (France, 1988, 267 min.). And there were lectures for students, and educational screenings for school children... the list of events is almost endless. And, as though that wasn't enough, as IDFA '97 came to an end, the baton was symbolically passed on to Nymegen where a special four day mini-festival of "Highlights from Amsterdam" was scheduled.

Joris Ivens was born in Nymegen 100 years ago this year, and I wondered what he would have thought about the three films nominated for the Joris Ivens Award at IDFA '97. They were Where Did Forever Go? directed by Michael Dwass (U.S., 1997, 29 min.), Niek Koppen's The Hunt (The Netherlands, 1997, 90 min.) and Aufder Kippel/Wasteland, directed by Andrei Schwartz (Germany, 1997, 75 min.). Where Did Forever Go? is a remarkable visual poem. The jury felt that Dwass had managed to combine "home movies and voice-overs to bring alive an unforeseen turn of events that would startle even the most cynical audience member... The filmmaker transforms a deeply personal story into a poetic universal experience and gives the word 'forever' a new dimension."

I find that I wrote a few cryptic words in my notebook after seeing The Hunt: "It takes no sides—but it works!" I doubt that this fair and even—handed film could have been made by a Brit—few of us are neutral about the British tradition of fox hunting. But here comes Niek Koppen from the Netherlands and, as the jury said, "he allows the audience to see how our own biases are often based on incomplete information; his film reminds us that documentaries play an important part in opening up our minds."

The Wasteland was made by a Rumanian-born German filmmaker. It very movingly reveals the life of a group of gypsies living on a garbage dump on the outskirts of a small Rumanian town. There is something very special about this film, very difficult to define. "As we watch, we are rewarded," as the jury said, "with unforgettable intimate moments in the cycle of life and death." And yet, while watching, one doesn't seem to be in any way intruding. The film, by Andrei Schwartz, was the winner of the prestigious Joris Ivens Award.

The Joris Ivens Jury also gave a Special Jury Award for what they lovingly called "an outrageous film": Werner Herzog's Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Germany, 1997, 72 min.). This film has already been discussed in these pages (Jan.-Feb. 1998), as was Gigi, Monica... & Bianca (Belgium, 1996, 84 min.). This very moving Belgian video, made by Yasmina Abdellaoui and Benoit Dervaux, won the Silver Wolf Award, the award for the best video. "It plumbs the depths of human hardship and scales the heights of human warmth," said the jury. (It is a strange coincidence that the two chief award-winning productions were both shot in Rumania and were both about groups of people struggling to survive on the bottom rung of existence.)

The two runners-up for the Silver Wolf Award included The Farm: Angola, U.S.A. (U.S., 1997 , 52 min.), an extraordinarily powerful work by Jonathan Stack and Elizabeth Garbus, shot in Louisiana State Penitentiary. The jury felt that they "had been given a unique insight into a system which is both barbaric and humane, depending on who you are within it." (The film later won top honors at Sundance '98.) The other runner-up was Larry Weinstein's Solidarity Song: The Hanns Eisler Story (Canada/ Germany, 1996, 84 min.). Composer Hanns Eisler had to flee first from fascist Germany and then, later, from McCarthy's U.S.A. The jury called the film "confident, bold, daring and witty. This is a film to watch—and watch again. Each time new subtleties emerge. Each time the power of the subject gains strength."

What, of the future for IDFA? Festival director Ally Derks is already making plans. She thinks that "the hardest years are probably still ahead; but they say the best stories are immortal, so I feel quite confident that the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam story will last well into the future."

STEPHEN PEET has made documentaries since the 1930s—in Africa, Asia, Europe and the U.S. He started working at the BBC in the '60s and created the award-winning series Yesterday's Witness (1968-80), television's first oral history films.