Doc Fans Find Their Mecca in Amsterdam at the 2003 IDFA
by Karen Cirillo
If you want to network with the filmmakers and major players in the documentary world, you need to travel no further than Amsterdam. For 10 days in November, this Dutch city turns into a mecca for documentary makers and lovers during the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, or IDFA. Showing more than 200 films, maintaining a video library, and conducting a Forum, IDFA proves itself to the premier documentary film festival in the world. Many folks from New York and across the United States travel to the Netherlands to scout movies and commission pieces. Attendees include Sheila Nevins (HBO), Peter Scarlett (Tribeca Film Festival), Karen Cooper (Film Forum), Debra Zimmerman (Women Make Movies), Christian Vesper and Cynthia Kane (Sundance Channel), and the SilverDocs staff — to name a few — as well as a host of other distributors and festival programmers.
I’d been to IDFA twice before, both times a few years back, and I was surprised at how much it had grown. Screenings were held not only in the seven-theater cinema as before, but also in another three-theater cinema a block away and at times two or three other venues. Festival organizers say they welcomed 20 percent more people than last year. The nice thing about the 10-day length and numerous theaters is that each movie is screened at least twice, allowing you to catch the films that are generating the buzz.
This year, unfortunately, it took a long time to hear any of that buzz. Four days into the festival, no one I talked to could identify films that really moved them. Many people noted the opening-night film “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Lost Boys of Sudan” as being on their short lists. In a festival that highlights the best of international documentary, it was notable that the American films were the ones people were most affected by.
As the week continued, some films did find their way to the forefront on many lists. “Checkpoint,” an Israeli film directed by Yoav Shamir, exposed the Israeli army checkpoints in the occupied territories. Filmed cinema veritè style, it’s an unflinching and well-edited look at the youthful soldiers and the wide variety of people that seek passage through their road blocks. Shamir even manages to evoke some humor in the midst of a harsh reality. His efforts were rewarded with the VPRO Joris Ivens Jury Award (12,500 Euros).
The feature films in competition represented both heavy content and light-hearted fare. “The Boy who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan” (Phil Grabsky, England) focused on a family that lives in the caves near the now-demolished stone sculptures. Breathtaking cinematography and the charming eight-year-old main subject Mir made up for a not completely polished structure. “Game Over — Kasparov and the Machine” (Vikram Jayanti, Canada/England) tells the story of Gary Kasparov, Russian International Grand Master of chess, who lost his first match to the IBM computer Deep Blue in 1997. The film is set up like a thriller, taking Kasparov back to the fateful championship match and replaying the course of events. In another story of competition, the long, unfulfilled quest of one Sienna district’s bid to win the Il Palio horse race is chronicled in “The Last Victory” (John Appel, The Netherlands). It runs slightly too long, but it brings you to the heart of Sienna and makes you feel the Civetta quarter’s spirit. The VPRO Jury also awarded a special prize to “The Corporation,” calling it a “brilliantly argued essay which takes us on a scintillating intellectual journey into the heart of global capitalism,” directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott (Canada).
The short films in competition often were succinct capsules of an issue, but in a character-driven story. “Wapienna Street” (Grzegorz Pacek, Poland) looks at the living conditions of residents as interviewed by a poll-taker who goes door to door. In “Putin’s Mama” (Ineke Smits, The Netherlands), Vera Putina, who lives in former Soviet Georgia, lays claim to the fact that she thinks Russian president Vladimir Putin is her son. (This film was the top-viewed title in the Docs for Sale library every day that I checked.) “A Bar at Victoria Station” (Leszek Dawid, Poland) chronicles the trials and tribulations of two Polish men who attempt to find jobs in London. It’s an unassuming film that tackles the troubles of immigration through a personal story. The Silver Wolf Short Film Award was presented to Erik Gandini of Sweden for his montage film “Surplus — Terrorized into Being Consumers.” It’s a fast-paced collage of images and sound bites, noted by the jurors for “its originality, sense of humor, irony, forcefulness, and visual virtuosity.” The prize was 10,000 Euros and a broadcast on Dutch network NPS.
The remaining films were divided into a number of other sections, too numerous to list all — Kids and Docs, the Top Ten Picks of featured filmmaker Ulrich Seidl (as well as a retrospective of his work), Highlights of the Lowlands, and a new program, USA Today. One of the additional Special Screenings, “The Five Obstructions,” was one of the best films of the festival. Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth and Dogma filmmaker Lars von Trier collaborated on a project to remake Leth’s 1967 “The Perfect Human.” Von Trier requested that Leth remake his short film five different times, each version based on “obstructions” that Von Trier concocted (i.e. no shot more than 12 frames, as a cartoon). In between screenings, they engage in conversations and reflections. While it sounds horribly self-indulgent, it was actually quite funny and engaging. And Leth’s five new versions are each quite well done.
In the First Appearance section, Jonathan Karsh’s “My Flesh and Blood” stood out. A moving, yet unsentimental portrait of a California woman who adopts 13 disabled children, the film captured both the International Film Critics Award (2,500 Euros) and the audience award. “The Very Best Day” (Pavel Medvedev, Russia) captured the Film Critics Award for short film. It’s a beautifully shot, lyrical document of the life of a musician who moves to the countryside and builds organs. The director demonstrates tremendous patience and gentleness in his capturing of this man’s life.
Several solid films played in the Reflecting Images section, including “Jockey,” an HBO film by Kate Davis, and “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.” The latter, directed by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill, won the Amnesty DOEN prize of 5,000 Euros and distribution in the Netherlands. The hidden gem that I stumbled upon in the Lowlands section was “The Kiss that Would Last a Billion Years.” The hour-long video by Leon Giesen and Marcel Prins looks back at the gold record loaded onto the Voyager spacecraft. Interviews with the crew that selected the images and songs for the record are intercut with old pictures, new footage, and a soundtrack of the top 20 songs. It’s an endearing piece that draws laughter and puts into perspective censorship and our future.
The films in the USA Today section were billed as “critical documentaries about the United States’ power.” The slate included some competition films, such as “The Corporation,” “Lost Boys of Sudan,” and “Surplus” and others that have played numerous festivals in the states, such as “Power Trip” and “The Weather Underground.” Due to the immense amount of programming, I only managed to see one of the USA Today films — the P.O.V.-slated “Farmingville” (Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini), which looks at a small community in Long Island that has been struck by violence and the debate over immigration policies.
Overall, IDFA is an immense festival to navigate. Aside from all the films there are panel discussions and master classes. Every evening there are Docs for Sale happy hours and Guest Meet Guests events for filmmakers and attendees to meet and greet. And most evenings the main festival office hosts dance parties. The ticket system, which I never really found a problem, bothered some who didn’t enjoy waiting on lines. The festival organizers try to get every filmmaker there and conduct intelligent Q&As after each film. And the volunteers are some of the best I’ve ever experienced. Now if they would just keep people from smoking in the cinemas.