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Once Again, IDFA Attracts the International Documentary Community

By Patricia Aufderheide

Simalo (left) and N'Daisi, featured in Kim Longinotto's 'The Day I Will Never Forget.' Courtesy of HBO.

The International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam, (IDFA,) at 15 years old, has become the major annual event for European documentary filmmakers, and is no longer a secret among North American doc producers and programmers.

"It's an extraordinary festival," said Steve James, whose much-acclaimed Stevie went on to win the Joris Ivens Award for best long-form documentary. This was James' fourth time attending IDFA, which was held in late November. "It's so much more than a chance to see docs from all over the world. In fact, it was at an earlier IDFA that I got the idea for this film. I was talking about the way media never take up the stories of the white poor, and I mentioned my relationship with Stevie. Someone said, ‘You could make a movie about that!'"

The buzz about Stevie was evident long before the jury announced its award. At the Docs for Sales market, murmured recommendations in several languages often included the word "Stevie." Docs for Sale brings together buyers and sellers in a cloistered environment. It is run by endlessly patient personnel, is well stocked with banks of viewing booths and is topped off each day by a cocktail hour with free drinks and hors d'oeuvres. This year the market featured 400 documentaries, a list that overlapped the festival list. "This is my favorite festival," said Deborah Zimmerman, executive director of distributor Women Make Movies. "Everything is conveniently located, and they make it all so easy."

Convenience is a striking feature of the festival, which pirouettes on one busy intersection in Amsterdam. Facing one another, and overlooking an array of trolley lines, sits a seven-theatre multiplex, which the festival uses for the week, a public hall that hosts panels and discussions, a reconverted municipal building that serves as the administrative center of the festival, and a reconverted church that hosts the three-day pitch session, The Forum. Just behind lie several hotels, one of which houses Docs for Sale.

Conversations—at parties, panels, after-film discussions, workshops and pitch sessions—add to the viewing and create a powerful sense of belonging among the participants. "It makes me feel part of a real international community," said Jennifer Dworkin, director of Love and Diane. "There is such a wide variety of docs about a wider spectrum of issues than I've ever seen before."

Indeed, the films ranged in tone from high-church journalistic (UK director Leslie Woodhead's Milosevic: How to Be a Dictator) to raucous and impudent (US director David Thomas' rockumentary recovering lost political history, MC5*A True Testimonial) to the intimate and personal (Lebanese Danielle Arbid's Aux Frontieres, about her journey along the borders of a Palestine-to-be). The festival included occasional experimental films such as Norwegian Margreth Olin's My Body, and featured 21 feature-length documentaries. But the great majority of the 221 films in the festival came from Europe, and were destined in form and length for international television.

The theme for programming this year, in a deliberate attempt to address the geopolitical crisis, was "What Do You Believe In?"  "The world is on fire," said festival director Ally Derks at the opening, featuring Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine,  which won the Audience Award. "So there's an even greater need now for the reflection that documentary makers can provide." Expressing her alarm about global conflict, Derks also said, "There are infinite ways to keep on fighting for truth via media." She noted that the festival prides itself on "raising a critically minded generation of film consumers." Festival attendance from locals was impressive, with most public showings packed; the festival sold close to 100,000 tickets.

The theme of belief created a broad umbrella for a wide range of subjects and approaches. Kim Longinotto's The Day I Will Never Forget was one of the most talked-about films at the festival, and co-winner, with Eugene Jarecki's The Trials of Henry Kissinger, of the Amnesty International-DOEN Award. The film takes viewers into a conflict between young African women and their parents and communities over "female circumcision. Shocking many for its (shot-from-the-waist-up) scene of a clitoridectomy, it heartened many as well for its supportive and hopeful portrayal of women and organizations working for women's rights. The film features a striking nine-year-old girl, who begged the filmmakers to film her reading a poem to her mother. The girl reads the poem, asking her mother why she had abandoned her to a savagely painful and pointless ritual, and uses the presence of the filmmakers to make her mother promise not to do the same to her younger sister.

The Amnesty International-DOEN Award (DOEN is a Dutch government fund for a sustainable world) is new this year. "Having Amnesty International's film festival join forces with IDFA is a terrific idea," said Diane Weyermann, director of the Sundance Institute's documentary film program and a member of the Amnesty International-DOEN jury. "IDFA affords a tremendous platform for important international human rights documentaries, increasing their exposure in the industry and, hopefully, to larger audiences."

Another widely discussed film was the Iranian film And Along Came a Spider by Maziar Bahari. In an understated, deliberate and assured style, the film introduces viewers to a serial murderer of prostitutes who remains convinced that he has done the right thing, and has upheld Islamic religious righteousness. More shocking and revealing is the fact that his family and neighbors share his belief. The film interpolates this righteous conviction with portraits of the hard-pressed working women he murdered and their surviving children and other family members. The filmmaker received funds from the festival's Jan Vriman Fund, which supports documentary filmmaking in the developing world with funds from the Dutch government and Dutch private foundations; this year 33 projects were funded.

Several films showcased the growing prevalence of amateur and surveillance video as a resource for filmmakers with a passionate commitment to justice. Poland's Piotr Morawski's Secret Tapes combines footage of Communist-era surveillance film with commentary from the state's spy filmmakers themselves on the images. The impenitent secret agents wax nostalgic, and at the end one woman expresses regret that most of the film was burned in the last two weeks. The hour-long essay film by Canadians Peter Wintonick and Katerina Cizek, Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and The News, profiles the use of citizen video for human rights. Covering issues as far flung as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the Rodney King incident, and Slobodan Milosevic's war crimes trial, the film uses as its main subject and thread the work of WITNESS (, an organization using video for human rights. It follows the tragic story of Filipino land rights struggles, with landowner cruelty and even murder documented on camera. The festival also featured a 20th anniversary salute to international film distributor Films Transit, based in Canada and run by Dutch businessman Jan Röfekamp; IDFA screened such Films Transit titles as Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's The Celluloid Closet (1995) and Ray Müller's The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993).

One of the marks of IDFA's significance is the way appendage events are growing up around it. The Shadow Festival, now in its third year, showcases quirky, off-IDFA documentaries. The European Broadcasting Union holds a two-day meeting in which broadcasters get a unique opportunity to pitch to other broadcasters. And the French export organization TV France International holds a breakfast where six projects—all with partial French backing—are pitched to potential co-producers.

"IDFA opens the doors," said Rod Pitman, whose short film Obscura, about late rocker Jim Morrison's days as a film student, showed in the strand "Reflecting Images." "I had no idea how big a deal this festival is. I'm humbled by having my film selected."


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