FESTIVALS: Amsterdam's Truth Market; Showing and Selling at IDFA
by Michiel Pilgram
(indieWIRE/ 12.11.01) — Organizers of the 13th International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA, Nov. 22-Dec. 2) stuck with their original selection process in spite of the September 11 attacks. The result: the opening film was “Startup.com,” a relatively light look at the rise and fall of an American dot-com. There were also biographies of major artists, sports documentaries, and a surprising number of films about filmmakers searching for their parents. And on the serious side, straightforward films about contemporary life in the Middle East and Asia also dominated the program.
Derek Malcolm, honorary president of the FIPRESCI international film critics group, spoke at a panel discussion about the difficulties facing documentary filmmakers. “You’re already brave to be making films these days, and you’re even braver if you make documentaries,” Malcolm said.
Meanwhile, IDFA organizers were proving that documentaries can attract an audience: festival attendance increased to 90,000, up 35% from last year. And screenings were packed. On the second day of the festival, one of the theaters ran into computer problems and stopped same-day ticket sales for about an hour starting around 5:30 p.m. By 7 p.m., once ticket sales were back on track, even entries for that evening’s student film program were sold out.
Organizers accepted more than 200 films for the festival itself, which took place in venues such as the smoke-filled Balie Café, the City Theater, and the Film Museum, and 282 additional films were screened for the parallel Docs for Sale film market, which took place at a nearby Marriott hotel.
This writer wasn’t just at IDFA to report for indieWIRE, but also at Docs for Sale to sell “Mule Skinner Blues,” a documentary about a group of Mayport, Florida, residents who made a horror movie. The directors, Stephen Earnhart and Victoria, were screening the film at another festival, so when they heard I was going to IDFA, they asked me to represent them — even though I had just been the dialogue editor.
The Docs for Sale “market” was really a large meeting room equipped with 25 video booths for screening documentaries on tape, next to a smaller schmoozing room. Buyers checked out copies of the 282 market films and 80 festival films from a lending desk in the schmoozing room, while sellers tried to lure buyers by putting posters on the walls and postcards on the tables. IDFA tried to lubricate the process by organizing cocktail parties every afternoon. But no matter how faithfully low-budget doc sellers worked at keeping posters visible and working the room, buyers were hard to pin down.
By the sixth day of the festival, the only prospects I’d talked to were an Austrian buyer, who was confused; a festival director from Prague, who only wanted films about the environment; and a Danish buyer, who only wanted films about the Third World. But four people — four! — checked out the “Mule Skinner Blues” tape and wrote on a reaction sheet that they were “interested.” Maybe that means something.
Back at the festival, three world premieres buzzed like alarm clocks: “Justifiable Homicide,” by Jonathan Stack and Jon Osman; Brian Tilley‘s “It’s My Life,” and Christian Frei‘s “War Photographer.” Stack co-directed 1998’s “The Farm: Angola USA,” which won an Oscar nomination, but IDFA organizers said they snagged the “Justifiable Homicide” premiere because Stack and Osman had trouble getting distribution in the United States after the September 11 attacks. The film investigates the deaths of two young Puerto Rican men who died under suspicious circumstances while in the custody of the New York Police Department. Some of their challenges in gaining U.S. distribution: the use of shots of the World Trade Center twin towers for cutaways between interviews; a story that casts the New York police in a less than flattering light; and a scene showing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani telling the mother of one of the dead men that she should have raised her son better.
Tilley’s film, “It’s My Life,” tells the story of Zackie Achmet, the leader of an organization that battles the South African government on behalf of people with AIDS.
The makers of “War Photographer,” a Swiss National Television co-production, follow every move of award-winning war photographer James Nachtwey by attaching a mini-camera to his still camera. The viewer can watch and listen with Nachtwey as he decides when to change his aperture, when to push the button and when to start and stop shooting a funeral. The film could have an interesting postscript, because Nachtwey is now in Afghanistan.
Other fascinating world premieres included Shu Haolun‘s “Zheng Zha,” about a Chinese personal injury lawyer who represents workers who have lost their hands in industrial accidents, and “First Kill,” a film by two Dutch directors, Coco Schrijber and Sander Snoep, about Vietnam veterans who say they came to enjoy killing.
Some of the films that premiered elsewhere but continued to generate buzz at IDFA were “Diamonds and Rust,” by Ruthie Shatz and Adie Barash, a film about the Namibian diamond trade; Manuel Martin Cuenca’s “El Juego de Cuba,” by a film that uses the history of Cuban baseball to explain the history of the relationship between Cuba and the United States; and “Domestic Violence,” a new film by Frederick Wiseman, one of the fathers of the modern documentary, about women who are trying to build new lives after years of abuse by their husbands. Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini, the directors of the ground-breaking “Divorce Iranian Style,” followed up with the equally amazing “Runaway,” a film about young Iranian girls in a Tehran shelter;
The IDFA jury gave the Joris Ivens Award for best feature-length documentary to “Family,” directed by Sami Saif and Phie Ambo, a film about Saif’s efforts to find his long-lost father.
The Silver Wolf Award for best short documentary went to Mohlsen Abdolvahab‘s “Haj-Abba’s Wives,” about two elderly Iranian widows of the same husband. Festival-goers gave the audience award to Barry Steven‘s “Offspring,” a Canadian who went looking for the donor of the sperm that led to his conception.