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Present-Day Anxieties Reflected in Films at IDFA

By Henry Lewes

James Nachtwey, lower right, the subject of Christian Frei's <em>War Photographer</em>. Photo courtesy of Films Transit, Inc.

The ancient houses that overhang Amsterdam’s misty canals seem to exist in another world from New York. The clanging trams proclaim good order and a reassuring sense of calm. Yet the calamity of the New York’s twin towers cast its shadow over the festival. Terrorism, and how documentarists should respond to it, was the first topic for discussion as old friends met. And later it became the subject of several seminars.

International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam (IDFA) remains arguably Europe’s premier documentary fest for several reasons: First, for its imaginative choice of more than 200 films from 50 countries; second, for the Docs for Sale market, which offered prospective buyers 350 titles; and third, for its brilliantly organized Forum, where 42 proposals were pitched in the hope of obtaining finance.

Among special events were master classes, including one led by Frederick Wiseman; a “Mediamatic Workshop” concerned with the creation of non-linear stories; and a press seminar provocatively titled “Docs in the Dock,” where filmmakers confronted press and TV critics. New this year was an imaginative installation, with access to 10 monitors that incorporated numerous online experiments. Digital technology and its future also formed the subject of several debates, as did “How to Deal with the Present,” where the inherent difficulty documentarists have in reacting rapidly to events was considered. With respect to the challenge of distribution, American Rick Rowley explained how his tapes were shown in more than 50 cities, using available spaces ranging from university lecture theaters to parking lots, and selling tapes over the Internet at $25 per copy.

Are documentarists prescient, or is it that they are simply more aware than most people of what threatens the world? Whatever the reason, IDFA’s director Ally Derks observed that this year’s entries noticeably reflected present-day concerns and anxieties. “Films about religion, the Middle East conflict, terrorism and wars predominate,” said Derks. “As a consequence, the task of documentary filmmakers in this rapidly changing world, in which objective news coverage is sometimes indistinguishable from outright propaganda, is becoming more important every day.” Prominent among films that tackled these problems head-on were Aftermath: The Remnants Of War, A Crisis Of Faith/The American Dilemma, First Kill and War PhotographerAftermath (Daniel Sekulich, Canada) deals with the hazards remaining when the fighting is over. In France, 60 years after the First World War, teams are still involved daily in the dangerous business of digging up shells. In Bosnia the countryside is strewn with land mines; in Vietnam children are still being born mutilated as a result of herbicides used to destroy trees and ground cover. Questioned afterwards, Sekulich felt, “The world did not change much on September 11. It was dangerous before, and it’s dangerous now.” Someone in the audience thought that such a straightforward report would be unattractive to telecasters. It says much for the Canadian Film Board that it ever got made.

A Crisis of Faith, (D.J. Kadagian, USA), searches for an answer to the question of what’s wrong with American society. Seven themes are broached, including progress, secularization, oppression and commitment. The combination of talking heads and a collage of historical footage concludes, rather inevitably, that Western man is predominantly driven by fear and greed. In the screening, the film’s relentless pace—and its unremitting solemnity—combined to induce a noticeable restlessness in the audience.

First Kill (Coco Schrijber, The Netherlands) and War Photographer (Christian Frei, Switzerland), both reveal how these filmmakers were affected by their subjects. In First Kill, Schrijber investigates, by way of interviewing war veterans, what the attraction is of legitimate killing. “Better than any drug,” says one former soldier. Schrijber was herself a conscript in Israel. “It was 1982 and the Israelis invaded camps like Sabra and Shatilla,” she recalled. “I was totally shocked to see my side, the good side, committing atrocities. The naiveté of people who still think in opposites was the most important reason for my making First Kill.”

In War Photographer, Frei followed photographer James Natchtwey for two years, to Kosovo, Indonesia and Palestine. He obtained a unique view of what Frei shot by attaching a miniature film camera to Frei’s photo camera, while at the same time filming Frei from a few meters behind. Questioned by Nic Fraser of the BBC, who chaired the morning talk sessions, Frei said: “For me, the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke humanity. If war is an attempt to negate humanity then photography can be seen as the opposite of war. So the photographer places himself in the middle of the war to communicate what is happening, which is like trying to negotiate peace.”

Meanwhile, the Docs for Sale market ran in the Marriott Hotel nearby. Unlike some markets, there were no stands, and no organized way to meet up with buyers, except during happy hour. Some buyers said they seldom made on-the-spot decisions about purchasing rights. They liked to speak with sellers in order to get a preliminary feel for what was on offer, but usually returned home to have discussions with partners or head offices before making any final decisions.

A good idea for introductions, either for selling to or meeting with co-producers, is to contact the Danish-based organization European Documentary Network. Its very detailed analysis of what broadcasters want lists 29 countries, ranging from Albania to the USA. Names of buyers and commissioning editors are regularly updated, along with “strands,” time slots, and program lengths. Themes are particularly well-summarized in terms like “international social issues” and “painting, sculpture, photography.”

The other major event, the Forum, takes place in a former church, known, perhaps optimistically, as the Paradiso. The atmosphere, which is friendly but serious, is mindful of a court of law mixed with a theater, The center of action is a vast horseshoe table, with the applicants—usually the producer and director—sitting at one end, while 30 to 40 commissioning editors are spread around the remaining space. Seated behind them are observers, journalists, and festival directors. Fifteen minutes is allowed for each proposal, seven for the pitch -- which often includes projecting a sequence onto a big screen -- and eight for questions. Success depends on uniqueness, presentation andsalability. If you are thinking of making an application, it is wise to attend the year before as an observer. The Forum organizers can then help filmmakers develop the presentational skills and confidence they need.

For further information, contact IDFA at: Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen, 10 1017 Amsterdam, The Netherlands; tel:.+31 20 627 3329; fax: +31 20 638 5388; e-mail: ; European Documentary Network: e-mail: 


For over 30 years, Henry Lewes has researched, written and directed documentaries fir the BBC, CBC, Film Australia and the United Nations.