Even with a jammed program of some 300 documentaries screening through Saturday here in The Netherlands, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) was able to take a step back to look at the big picture during the fest’s first weekend. At a nearly four-hour anniversary lustrum celebrating and exploring the past, present and future of documentary, IDFA presented a unique doc vaudeville-style show that included live music, discussions, film clips, lectures, a comedian, and even a cartoonist celebrating its 20th year. Over the course of the afternoon, attendees were provoked by conflicting messages about the role of the non fiction film and lead through range of topics, including war, social engagement, and truth in mass media and non fiction film.
Filmmakers, their subjects, and a host of musicians and other artists took the stage during the packed program on Saturday afternoon. IDFA’s birthday party was staged for a surprisingly less than capacity crowd inside the festival’s new home at the large, main venue at the Tuschinski theater near Rembrandtplein.
“Images are born as a moment in history, and then these images are transported across the world,” noted acclaimed Argentine/Chilean writer and activist Ariel Dorfman, who was exiled after a coup against Salvador Allende and is subject of Peter Raymont‘s new documentary, “A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman.” “All documentaries begin with a moment of resistance around the world.” And for him, documentary film also played a very personal role. During an on-stage conversation, Dorfman explained that the film helped him, “reach some sort of peace.” It follows him from the U.S. to Chile and Argentina and coincides with the death of former dictator Augusto Pinochet. “The film is a good way to help me bury my dead in some way,” Dorfman explained.
“How can you mobilize people using documentaries,” wondered “Darfur Now” director Ted Braun on Saturday. His Participant Productions film is aimed at raising awareness about the ongoing tragedy in Sudan. A subject of the film, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, spoke on stage about the situation and elaborated on his efforts pursuing Sudanese officials and Janjaweed militia leaders. He will travel to New York to testify before the United Nations Security Council early next month on the current crisis and emphasized that documentaries play a vital role in raising awareness about the situation.
“Don’t ever think you are not important enough to change the world,” encouraged Marion Cloete, subject of Louise Hogarth’s “Angels in the Dust,” later in the event. As depicted in the Participant production, she spoke of abandoning her life of comfort and investing her savings to create an orphanage in South Africa. But, while films can sometimes capture exceptional lives on screen, filmmakers were also critical of the impact that these movies can ultimately have.
Iranian journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari, recipient of a retrospective at IDFA this year, candidly noted later in the day, “Our power as documentary filmmakers and journalists is limited.” Asked about the impact documentaries can have, Bajari responded flatly during a discussion, “Documentary filmmakers would say, ‘a lot’. But unfortunately, not much.” Seated nearby filmmaker Richard Rowley added, “Films don’t change the world, movements of people change the world.”
Countering such comments, however at the end of the program, Doctors Without Borders president, Dr. James Orbinski — winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — said more optimistically, “I absolutely and profoundly disagree,” adding, “The first political act is to speak.” He encouraged arists, singers, filmmakers, writers and audiences to “refuse to walk away” and, “to make a choice and to act.”
Anniversary event participants also wondered about the longterm impact of documentaries at a time when YouTube and Facebook are emerging as primary outlets for distribution and communication among an ever-growing number of people. “Deserted” director Richard Rowley emphasized that documentary distributors must develop new outlets to maintain any sort of connection with younger audiences. Derk Sauer of Dutch television and online outlet b>Het Gesprek — who will become the new board chairman of IDFA in January — agreed and worries that for many, “news has beome entertainment” while documentaries are becoming marginalized.
Then and Now at IDFA: VIetnam and Iraq
Among the unique moments during Saturday’s IDFA anniversary event was a dialogue between Bill Courturie, director of “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam,” which opened the first IDFA fest twenty years ago, and Richard Robbins, director of this year’s opening night movie, “Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.” Both films have walked such a fine line in their exploration of the Vietnam and the Iraq wars that they have been embraced by those in support of, and against, each war.
“This was just after ‘Rambo’ and ‘Platoon’ and I didn’t think either one got it right,” Courturie recalled, when asked why he made a film about Vietnam in the ’80s. Explaining that he wanted to “separate the war from the warrior,” Courturie was probed further about whether he felt guilt, thus motivating him to make the movie. “I did,” Courturie said, “This was my way of giving something back.”
“I was very anti-war,” Courturie explained on Saturday, adding that at the same time, “I tried as a documentarian, to be true to my sources.” But he added, “It was a film where you could see in it what you wanted to see.” Likewise, Robbins has had similar response to his doc, finding supporters on both sides of the political divide. He said that watching “Dear America” twenty years ago and again recently, “was one of the things that convinced me that it was important to make this movie without having to be intensely political.”
“I think there are people who feel that the film is supportive of the military in a way that is positive about the war and I hope that there are people who feel that it’s supportive of the military in a way that’s negative about the war.” Continuing, Richard Robbins commented about the Iraq war’s divisiveness, “There has been so much debate about the politics of the war, I just didn’t feel like that was necessary in this film.”