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Festival Focus: International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

By Agnes Varnum

From Pernille Rose Gronkjaer's The Monastery: Mr. Vig & the Nun, which won the Joris Ivens Feature Award at the 2006 IDFA.

Along with unseasonably warm temperatures and frequent blue skies, International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), which ran November 23 to December 3, was a breath of fresh air. In its 19th year, the festival has truly become a massive gathering of the international documentary community. It's the "community" aspect, rather than the films, that was most striking at this year's incarnation.

At an early panel discussion, "State of Documentary," IDFATalks producer and Canadian filmmaker Peter Wintonick asked various producers, funders and festival reps to step up to the microphone and speak about the state of docs from their perspective. Contributors from Denmark, Israel, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, United States, India and China shared similar sentiments: docs are proliferating and money for production is dwindling, but there is fantastic work in progress and a lot of enthusiasm for the form. This gathering set the stage for a dearth of information sharing and networking over the 10-day festival.

Another panel, programmed as part of the IDFAcademy for new producers, reinforced the feeling of a globalized documentary community. "Copyright & Fair Use" was moderated by IDA's 2006 Preservation and Scholarship Award honoree Pat Aufderheide and included Kirby Dick (This Film Is Not Yet Rated), Michael McNamara (Documentary Organization of Canada), Kamiel Koelman (Vrije Universiteit) and Hubert Best (Best & Soames). With the conversation initially dominated by American topics--the American University project "Documentary Filmmakers' Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use," a handbook based entirely on US copyright law; and Dick's film, which utilized fair use to include clips from other films to explore the MPAA rating systems--one wondered how the discussion would translate to an international audience. It turns out, right at the heart.

Canadians are now facing an opportunity to rewrite copyright law in their country, and legislators have turned to the artistic community to find out what needs fixing. The Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC) polled its members and issued a white paper, "Censorship by Copyright," to address issues of documentary production and copyright. One of their conclusions: "Eighty-five percent of respondents said copyright is more harmful to them then beneficial." European filmmakers suffer from copyright law, though varied from country to country, that has narrowly defined terms of use of copyright protected material. Both European and Canadian filmmakers expressed interest in utilizing the "Best Practices" model within their own communities.

While the networking was at a peak, there wasn't a trove of undiscovered material for industry folks to take back to their festivals and channels. US contributions like Jesus Camp by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady from the Joris Ivens Feature Competition as well as When The Levees Broke by Spike Lee and A Lion in the House by Steven Bogart and Julia Reichart in the Reflecting Images program, had already proven their chops with audiences and critics prior to IDFA. Exceptions included IDA's Courage Under Fire winner Andrew Berends' newest film, When Adnan Comes Home, about a young Iraqi who was arrested for a minor crime and then suffered serious burns during a prison fire. The film received its world premiere in the fest's feature competition.

International standout projects included First Appearance Competition and Audience Award winner We Are Together (Thina Simunye) by Paul Taylor, which follows orphaned South African kids singing their way to financial success and stability. The Joris Ivens Feature Award winner was The Monastery: Mr. Vig & the Nun by Pernille Rose Gronkjaer, which follows Mr. Vig as he establishes a Russian orthodox monastery on a decaying Danish estate under the guiding hand of Sister Amvrosija, a nun with her own ideas about how to run things. In the Silver Wolf competiton (under 60 minutes), the award went to Enemies of Happiness (Vores Lykkes Fjender) by Eva Mulvad. The film follows Malalai Joya, an outspoken female political candidate running for office in the loya jirga, the traditional Afghan representative body, in 2003. Both The Monastery and Enemies of Happiness were announced as part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival while IDFA was ongoing.

Other awards went to ITVS-funded New Year Baby by Socheata Poeuv, which chronicles her family's return to Cambodia for the first time in almost 30 years after leaving during the Khmer Rouge genocide. The film took home the Movies that Matter Award (formerly the Amnesty International-DOEN Award). The MovieSquad DOC U! Award for the best film from the DOC U! youth program went to A Lesson of Belorussian by Miroslaw Dembinski (Poland).

In a program of 267 films, that so few should rise above the crowd is unusual for the typically strong slate from IDFA. One possible explanation might be the festival's stalwart efforts to enable films from diverse communities, resulting in arguably weaker filmmaking but stories, perspectives and opportunities beyond the typically Western, broadcast-oriented field. The festival's Jan Vrijman Fund, a funding program established "to stimulate the documentary climate in developing countries and countries in transition," provided 16 selections. Additionally, 14 films produced in and about China were included as part of the China Transit program. Other programs that included work that could be considered outside of the mainstream were ParaDocs for experimental work (29 films), IDFAcademy screenings of student documentary work (13 films) and Kids & Docs, a program by and for young people (18 films).

The size and scope of IDFA continues to grow, and it's impossible to cover it all in a short festival report. One of the best additions to this year's festival was the expansion of its online presence and commitment to new media exploration, from DocAgora, a special conference on new media and documentary, to film trailers online to "vlogs" (video blogs) from the fest to the daily paper being published online. Here are some navigation tips to the festival's website:

Go to and click on the British flag for the English version. Selecting "Filmlist A-Z" will bring up an alphabetical list of films with descriptions and links to trailers where available. From the main page, you can navigate through an overview of all the festival has to offer by clicking icons across the top of the page: the Forum (the three-day funding forum that takes place concurrently with the festival), Docs for Sale (the sales market), Jan Vrijman Fund (information on applying for grants) and Education (more on IDFAcademy).

To access news, articles and video reports from the festival daily, go to Short videos include filmmaker Cameron Hickey at DocAgora presenting a new website creation tool for documentary filmmakers, Jonathan Stack (Liberia: An Uncivil War) on how to launch your documentary career, and Alan Berliner (Wide Awake) watching Joris Ivens' city symphony masterpiece Rain for the first time. Building out the interactivity of the website, along with the presence of film bloggers like Eugene Hernandez and Brian Brooks (indieWIRE), Matt Dentler (SxSW), Doug Block (doc blog "Around the Block" and director of 51 Birch Street, who served on the First Appearance jury) and AJ Schnack (doc blog "All These Wonderful Things" and director of Kurt Cobain: About a Son, which screened in the fest) assures that even if you are unable to get to Amsterdam, it is easier than ever to plug into and connect to the international documentary community.


Agnes Varnum is a freelance writer and programmer in New York City. Visit for more information.