The International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) opened its 18th edition on Thursday evening here in Amsterdam amidst an Arctic blast from the North Sea that sent shivers through the canal city, nevertheless, crowds turned up for the start of the event — one of the world’s leading, and largest, documentary festivals. IDFA director Ally Derks opened the event with a short history lesson on the linguistic origins of “democracy,” “documentary,” and “politics.”
“The word ‘documentary’ derives from the Greek word meaning ‘rule of the common people,’ [while] ‘politics’ comes from the Greek word for ‘city-state,’ and ‘documentary’ was coined by the Scottish filmmaker John Grierson in the mid-20th century, Derks explained. She lamented what she viewed as a growing disconnect between institutions and society, but offered a counterweight to what she believes is a troubling trend. “The rebirth of democracy is arriving when audiences are increasingly aware that the lies that governments, corporations and the mass media serve up no longer serve democracy… Documentary in conjunction with democracy can provide a civil society with information and enlightenment, and help us face the reality of the 21st century.”
Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto‘s Cannes ’05 doc “Sisters in Law” screened as IDFA’s opening night film, providing a perfect backdrop of hope amidst the seemingly depressed world Derks described. Set in a village in the West African nation of Cameroon, the film chronicles the legal proceedings and courtroom drama of several outwardly ‘defenseless’ individuals. One young woman was raped by a neighbor, but decided to mount a case despite societal taboos, while Amina, a shy housewife, decided to seek a divorce from her abusive husband, and six-year-old Grace’s aunt is hauled to court for child abuse. The women find empowerment through the supportive climate created by Judge Beatrice Ntuba and state prosecutor Vera Ngassa. “I’m afraid [the accused] has missed a century. This is the century where women’s rights are respected,” said the judge to one alleged assailant in a particularly dramatic moment in the film. Due process and ancient traditions also clash in the doc in another comical scene. “Do you think just because you paid 80,000 francs and some pig you’re married to this woman?” asked the lawyer pointedly.
“All my films are [about] very strong central characters who are prepared to stand up and fight – they’re ‘rebellious,'” said Longinotto during a discussion Friday evening. “I don’t like traditions that [are debilitating] like female circumcision, which has gone on for thousands of years.” Longinotto directed “The Day I Will Never Forget” (2002) exploring genital mutilation on girls which screened at IDFA in 2002. After a festival run that has already included Cannes, Telluride, the Hamptons fest, and now IDFA, the film will be released next year by Women Make Movies.
Both Ntuba and Ngassa received celebrity-like applause when introduced at a Q&A Friday, which was held at Amsterdam’s opulent American Hotel near the festival’s headquarters in the Leidseplein section of Amsterdam, and both seemed pleased with the film’s outcome. “When I look from ‘outside’ and see the film, it helps me to appreciate the work I do,” said Ntuba. “As a judge I deal with a lot of sad subjects, but I can get satisfaction now when I see [the film].”
Despite the challenges they face in Cameroon confronting what they view as entrenched traditions, both consider their work necessary components in their society’s evolution. “We do look at ourselves as ‘change agents.’ We educate [women] of their rights. They are often unaware of their rights and are dying because of they’re being kept in ignorance,” said Ntuba. Ngassa concurred saying she sees her role as a lawyer as a moral barometer of her community. “I’ve always hated injustice of all kinds, be it [against] women, men or children. As lawyers we have to be the conscience of the city.”
The pair’s convictions ultimately set a legal milestone in Cameroon, splendidly captured in “Sisters in Law” after two women succeeded in their complaints against their husbands for spousal abuse.
“Sisters in Law” typifies a heavy roster of films at IDFA screening this weekend, spotlighting individuals who have gone against societal norms to achieve a greater good, including Taggart Siegel‘s “The Real Dirt on Farmer John,” Marshall Curry‘s Tribeca winner “Street Fight,” as well as Zach Niles and Banker White‘s “The Refugee All Stars,” which took honors recently in L.A. at the AFI Fest.
Derks lauded the ability for docs to solicit change in the world and for their ability to empower the individual. “Documentaries provide people with alternatives. Documentary is the parliament of the street, of the square, one you would expect to find at a place like Amsterdam or a festival like IDFA.”
[indieWIRE’s coverge of IDFA will continue throughout the week, including daily iPOP photos in a special section, and dispatches in indieWIRE’s documentary film section.