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Docs Go Dutch: Annual Amsterdam Festival Supports Freedom of Expression

By Patricia Aufderheide

From Peter Raymont's 'Shake Hands wit the Devil,' which screened at IDFA. Courtesy of IDFA

Not even the dismal exchange rate, drizzle or occasional hail could dampen enthusiasm of US visitors last November to the Independent Documentary Festival at Amsterdam (IDFA), the annual cornucopia of worldwide documentary film viewing, business and discussion.

IDFA continues to hold pride of place among docfests for volume and range of documentary, and for aggregating power-brokers. For the 2004 edition, more than 2,000 people could sample from hundreds of films and participate in dozens of discussions. More than 90 visitors were film festival programmers, and commissioning editors from nearly every European television system and some US programmers were present. The Docs for Sale market did booming business, and the annual pitching forum drew funding for some projects.

IDFA Director Ally Derks signaled the theme of the festival with her plea for filmmakers to "stand up for documentary, for free expression and the creative interpretation of reality." The Netherlands has been wracked by violent incidents and clashes between Muslims and other Dutch residents; the murder of the inflammatory sometime-documentarian Theo van Gogh earlier in the month was much on the minds of festival guests.

The festival opener, Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Heimrich's Shape of the Moon, which takes viewers on a leisurely visit inside a working class Indonesian family, won the VPRO Joris Ivens Award, along with €12,500, just before it was announced as a Sundance pick. The short documentary award went to Georgi and the Butterflies by Bulgarian filmmaker Andrey Paunov; it features the hapless attempts by the director of a psychiatric hospital to find ways to support his institution. Jonathan Stack and James Brabazon's Liberia: An Uncivil War won a special jury prize from the Amnesty International-DOEN jury.

The top Amnesty-DOEN prize went to The Three Rooms of Melancholia, Finnish Pirjo Honkasalo's magisterial triptych of the tragedies of the Chechen war—including the betrayal of young people's dreams on both sides. This extraordinary feature, shot mostly in 35mm, functions alternately like a visual poem, a moving painting and an orchestral requiem. It starts in the training rooms of the Kronstadt cadets in St. Petersburg, where young boys are given a home and military ideals. It then travels to Grozny, where rubble marks the devastation of war with the Russians, and we watch a social worker take away the small children of a mortally ill mother. Finally, it visits an orphanage across the border in Ingushetia. Throughout, the camera focuses mostly on silent faces in close-up, sometimes as they watch footage from the Chechen terrorist attack on a Moscow theater. The film evokes a sorrow beyond words, one that presages violence to come.

In a master class, Honkasalo—a Renaissance artist who has made 15 feature documentaries and five fiction films, in addition to publishing books and founding a film school—noted that what drives her is "curiosity and restlessness, and an endless interest in human beings. I have to love the people I film. You see on screen how I look at them."

Honkasalo resists the commercial frameworks of documentary. "I want a T-shirt that says, ‘Not 52 Minutes!'" she said, laughing. "The system of TV encourages intellectual dishonesty. In the US a film is a product—a sausage—and that is now spreading to Europe."  

Several films concerned the consequences of economic globalization. French filmmaker Thomas Balmès explored the subject from the side of management in A Decent Factory, following a Nokia ethical management team as its members tour a Chinese factory. Nokia's search for ethical standards for global outsourcing, part of a corporate movement, is seen by the international managers of the Chinese factory as a problem to be managed. How the team members manage the problem and each other is surprisingly entertaining. Filming almost exclusively in sterile corporate meeting rooms and factory floors, and focusing on people who talk in bureaucratic jargon, Balmès nonetheless manages to find humor, drama and even some suspense.  

In one of IDFA's trademark panel discussions, journalist Naomi Klein faced off with Nokia executives and sharply criticized A Decent Factory, noting that ethical concerns among Nokia managers are no substitute for worker control over their own environment. She further found the panel discussion "enormously offensive" for excluding workers from the discussion. The Nokia executives took the criticism with equanimity.

Another prominent theme among this year's films was peace and reconciliation. Canadian Peter Raymont's Shake Hands with the Devil movingly profiles Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general who headed the pitifully small delegation of UN peacekeeping troops during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In its precise documentation of the decisions that left Dallaire and Rwandans abandoned, the film offers no comfort to those who hope that the lesson has been learned. In Deacon of Death-Looking for Justice in Today's Cambodia, Dutch filmmaker Jan van den Berg charts the confrontation between a peasant farmer who once was a feared Khmer Rouge torturer and murderer and the woman who denounces him. The film raises questions about justice and atonement that go far beyond Cambodia.

The fascinating VideoLetters offers not only engrossing documentary viewing but a provocative model for future docs on peace and reconciliation. Dutch filmmakers Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek have produced some 20 segments of a television series (three of which were shown at the festival) that will, unprecedentedly, show on all state TV systems in the seven countries of the former Yugoslavia simultaneously. Each segment chronicles the video reunion of two friends separated by war and borders.

The virtual reunions are wrenching. "Can you help me find the bones of my children?" asks one woman to a man she believes was her guard in a concentration camp. The segments, crisply and creatively edited, exhibit a rare honesty about the enormous work ahead to rebuild relationships. At the IDFA premiere, one of the video letter-writers tried to respond to questions but found himself unable to talk. The Bosnian public TV representative broke down in tears at the end of the screening. 

When the segments are shown in April, the various national broadcasters plan follow-up programs, and a website will allow viewers to search for lost connections themselves. Internet kiosks and Internet-equipped buses will bring the project to rural areas. The outreach will be funded by the Dutch government, the makers announced at the premiere. 

The Forum this year considered fewer pitches than at previous fests, a move that many thought appropriate given the shrinking funds that seem to be available in Europe for co-production. Following the Forum, Democracy project partners held a pitch session of their own. Some 15 programmers, inspired by the South African Steps for the Future project, which produced 38 documentaries in a North-South collaboration, now want to commission 10 documentaries about democracy (

Hopeful indie documentarians mostly found themselves frustrated by a fuzzy definition of the project, even after getting a mini-lecture on political science from guest speaker John Ranelagh. Filmmaker Stack, however, got positive reception for his pitch to continue to follow the story of Liberia's political crisis.

Along with new work, the festival programmed a strand of classic cinema vérité films, including DA Pennebaker's Dont Look Back and the Maysles brothers' Meet Marlon Brando. Cinema vérité legends, including Al Maysles, Robert Drew, Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock and Joan Churchill, gathered to discuss the form at a session moderated by IDA Executive Director Emeritus Betsy McLane. True to the quirky and idiosyncratic tradition of the genre, the only thing the grand old geezers could agree on was their resentment of being categorized.


Pat Aufderheide is professor and director of the Center for Social Media at American University in Washington, DC.