IDFA 2013: Wintonick, Interactive, Pitches and, Oh Yes, Documentaries
Peter Wintonick, who passed away from cancer a week before the International Documentary Festival at Amsterdam (IDFA) began this year, was ever-present at the festival.
The larger-than-life filmmaker, programmer and all-around doc booster, who had become a festival fixture, was celebrated at daily afternoon gatherings and at the opening of the Forum (the granddaddy of pitching events), and was remembered in many conversations. Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen, head of IDFA's industry programming, pointed out that Peter always seemed as eager to learn from the people he was mentoring as he was to teach them. Fest director Ally Derks reiterated her sense of loss: "He was my soulmate and my partner in crime. We were on the same wavelength."
IDFA is big, with 292 new documentaries and 100 older ones on display. (Think that's too many at a time for one small country? Well, they sold 220,000 tickets in 10 days.) Then there were the filmmaker training programs, a mini-hackathon just for Dutch and Belgian makers, an interactive program that is quickly becoming a parallel festival, a market that attracts global product, a pitch forum attended by virtually all European and Australian broadcasters, and many American ones, and networking opportunities to the max. "It just seems like it gets bigger every year, and more business is being done," said Women Make Movies' executive director, Debra Zimmerman.
"IDFA is a key venue for us," said FilmsTransit's Diana Holtzberg. FilmsTransit was repping 22 films, either at the Docs for Sale market or in the festival. Among them was The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, a true-crime story by Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond, with a compulsive jewel thief as an unlikely heroine. The company was also repping Henry Corra's cinema vérité feature Farewell to Hollywood, which debuted at IDFA. It raised eyebrows about possible exploitation and undue intimacy in his story of a dying girl's journey toward death (Regina Nicholson, the girl, was also the co-director.). Corra pointed out in a Q&A that his co-director had welcomed controversy, "because it's good for the film." "Easy for you to say," he recalled replying. "You won't be here."
"It's hard not to feel overwhelmed at first at IDFA," said Dan Rybicky, a Chicago producer with Kartemquin Films who was pitching a project on outsider art. Meanwhile, Kartemquin's executive director, Justine Nagan, had no sooner arrived than she successfully negotiated a sale for another Kartemquin film, Usama Alshaibi's American Arab, which competed in the Mid-Length strand.
New and newish players included representatives from Al Jazeera, which is spending big on documentary in the US, Sky Atlantic, and CNN, all of whom participated in the Forum along with virtually every European broadcaster and NHK.
The well-organized IDFA staff, which this year has truly gone digital (you could order your own press tickets online, for instance), reduces the confusion with lots of opportunities to network. Daily afternoon teas, later afternoon business gatherings and nightly parties give attendees a touchdown point, especially for those whose phones were not working in the international environment.
Many European documentarians develop their projects with resources from their national governments, which fund with a strong cultural-nationalism interest. They tend to be less market-oriented in their design than American producers, and some of the most interesting IDFA selections bear that out. Michael Obert's Song from the Forest, a German production that won for Best Feature-Length Documentary, follows an American who long ago ran away to live with Pygmies in Central African Republic and now has the largest recording of Pygmy flute music in the world, as he returns to the US for a visit with his Pygmy son. Song from the Forest is more slackly told than a US doc typically would be, but the character and his plight—he is watching the haven he found among the Pygmies fall to modernizing forces—are poignant.
Ne Me Quitte Pas, by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden, follows two middle-aged Belgian drunks with molasses-slow pacing through a few months of alcohol-fueled bumbling-an unpromising scenario. But the level of intimacy that the fly-on-wall filmmakers won allowed them to be present at scenes so immediate and improbable that you could be forgiven for mistaking it for fiction. Screenings were packed, and many among the IDFA audiences found the two characters engaging in an all-too-human kind of way.
IDFA also showcases highly topical work, work that is relevant to human rights issues, and personal stories, whether or not they're finely crafted. Pussy versus Putin, by activists around the Russian punk rock troupe Pussy Riot, collects raucous and often hilarious on-the-run, underground footage of the group's combo of performance art and political activism. It's not quite a movie, but what an assembly! The jury awarded it the top prize for Mid-Length Documentary. Return to Homs, the opening night film, is a jerky personal diary by Talal Derki of a stint with ardent young militia men in Syria, without a shred of context.
IDFA's respect for documentary elders had mixed results this year. Anyone who admires Marcel Ophuls for grand docs like The Sorrow and the Pity and The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie probably should not watch Ain't Misbehavin, a sad and sometimes embarrassing personal memoir. Thomas Balmes' Happiness, a hybrid doc about life in Bhutan, is agonizingly slow and not always believable.
IDFA also showcases little-guy voices and first projects. Among them was Michele Josue's personal film, Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, which she funded on Kickstarter. The film shares insights into the complex character and personality of Shepard, from his friendship network that grew in the wake of his 1998 murder. Josue was thrilled to be able to premiere the film internationally at IDFA.
Several films excelled in linking local issues to international ones. Marc Bauder's Master of the Universe is a horror film of the financial world. A laid-off European banker, who designed some of the more complex trades of the last few years, explains on a deserted and empty trading floor how financial trading works—and doesn't. His presentation is calm; the news is ever creepier; his prognosis is grim. The movie has a hypnotic appeal. Lech Kowalski's Drill Baby Drill follows an unprepossessing group of Polish farmers in a bulldozer v. bulldozer fight with Chevron, which is trying to install a fracking rig. Kowalski also draws on his interviews with Pennsylvania residents who've had water polluted and health impaired. The movie has made the fest rounds, has also been used in organizing, and was shown at the Warsaw Climate Change Conference in November. Katiyabaaz Fahad Mustafa's Powerless takes us into a head-to-head struggle between a government electrical utility reformer, fighting internal corruption, and a neighborhood clandestine electricity siphoner. It's one way to get a look inside corrupt bureaucracy in India, and at a critical problem in developing economies.
Two of my personal favorites were Madeleine Sackler's Dangerous Acts and Shaul Schwartz' Narco Cultura. Dangerous Acts follows a theatrical troupe in Belarus whose work is a courageous and dangerous challenge to unaccountable power, as they face exile and a life in the US, where no one even knows where Belarus is. It's a story about why art matters, and what the price can be. Narco Cultura is a sometimes-uneven but rewarding look inside the making of the latest Latino pop music trend: corridos, or story songs, celebrating the gangsta life of Mexican drug gangs. One top performer is pulling down $45,000 per performance. Like country and western songs, corridos often feature the working stiffs of the business, but they also glorify the narco-celebrities. We meet the singers, the songwriters, the fans, the journalists and others who are alarmed by the celebration of thug life. And speaking of music, Morgan Neville's Twenty Feet From Stardom continued to win over crowds, as it has everywhere; it won the IDFA Melkweg Music Documentary Audience Award.
The Interactive Documentary Conference at IDFA, now in its second year, was packed with filmmakers, programmers and funders looking to grasp the emergent interactive documentary phenomenon. The speaker list was star-studded, including IDFA's Caspar Sonnen (an organizer of the event), the NFB's Kat Cizek (who most recently produced a New York Times Op-Doc, History of the High-Rise), Tribeca's Ingrid Kopp, Jason Brush (he designed the interface for the PlayStation4), and a clutch of others, culminating with artist/computer scientist Jonathan Harris, who delivered the keynote address.
One big takeaway: if you want to make interactive, it helps to be Canadian. The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) is far and away the most enthusiastic funder of the stuff. It launched a new game documentary at the conference: Fort McMoney.
If you're looking to catch up quickly on interactive doc, MIT Open Doc Lab's Sarah Wolozin is here to help. At the interactive conference, she formally launched Open Documentary Database, for which I'm proud to be a curator. The database, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the NFB and IDFA's DocLab, among others, has participatory aspects, and is available for mobile. Right now it's restricted to English-language projects.
Tribeca's Ingrid Kopp and POV's Adnaan Wasey teamed up to provide their top lessons from interactive doc hackathons:
- Be open to collaboration; don't come to a hackathon with a fixed idea.
- Failure is essential, but learn from failure, don't repeat it.
- Dream big (Adnaan) or let a small idea grow (Ingrid).
- Process and product are both important; without a process that defines a meaningful result, a product is just a waste of time.
Pat Aufderheide is University Professor in the School of Communication at American University and directs the Center for Media and Social Impact there.