Veteran directors Frederic Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus are among the documentary mavericks attending the 22nds International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), which opened last night in the Netherlands’ largest city. The festival is considered the most important in the world for spotlighting non-fiction film, debuting such movies as “Afghan Star” and “Burma VJ” last year before those films headed to Sundance and the North American festival circuit. Festival programmers from the U.S. and Canada typically make IDFA a part of their worldwide search for films, getting a first look at films here, and this year is no exception. Though the festival may not deliver the kind of flash of other worldwide festivals of such stature, fans of documentary would do well to be familiar with IDFA and its bright edge spotlight of non-fiction film.
The world premiere of Dariusz Jablonski’s “War Games and the Man Who Stopped Them” opened the festival last night at the ornate Tuschinski Theatre with nearly 1,000 people crowding into the historic building in the heart of Amsterdam. Recounting the last decades of the Cold War, the film centers on Polish Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, who provided the CIA with over 40,000 strategic documents from the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. To the Colonel’s supporters, he defended Poland that was being used by a regime in Moscow, while helping to overt World War III in Europe by balancing power that was militarily weighted toward the Eastern Bloc. To his detractors, he was simply a traitor. The film recounts his initial contacts with NATO, to his eventual exile and tragic death. His memory sparks passionate reaction back in Poland. Though he was eventually pardoned, both emotional supporters and protestors greeted him back in his native country during a visit.
“Thanks to Colonel Kuklinski we sit in one Europe today safely,” Jablonski said following the screening. “I hope you will all remember him and other silent heros who helped create peace here.”
“The most hilarious, confronting and touching films have been selected for this year’s festival,” IDFA Director Ally Derks said from the stage, reflecting on this year’s lineup of 306 long and short form docs. “The films born here will make their way around the world.” Derks dedicated the opening night to the late producer and co-founder of Fortissimo Films, Wouter Barendrecht, who has received festival tributes around the world since his untimely death last Spring in Thailand. She recounted her time in school with him and even recalled holding hands with Wouter while aboard a plane that nearly crashed. “It’s incomprehensible he won’t be here to be a light upon the world,” Derks said.
With that, Derks went on to praise documentary, and cheerfully saying, “Thankfully the days of boring documentaries are no longer upon us.” She said that despite the economic crash, the form has survived, and even said she expects this year’s edition of IDFA to be a “turning point” for the festival. Before introducing the film, she gave a surprise award to Wiseman who was sitting in the audience, praising him for his past work and “the work to come,” presenting the 79 year-old director the first “Living Legend Award,” complete with a €5000 prize. “I will put it in the bank,” said Wiseman who is currently working on a film in Texas. Wiseman will present a Master Class at the festival later this weekend.
International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam Competition lineups with descriptions provided by the festival
IDFA Competition for Feature-Length Documentary
“9 Months 9 Days”
Ozcar Ramírez González, Mexico, 2009
In early August of 2006, three Mexican fishermen were rescued from the sea. They were found near the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, more than 5,000 miles from home. After an accident on their boat, they were swept away and drifted for nine months and nine days. Once their identity was established, their story went around the world. In 9 Months 9 Days, journalists and camera crews are waiting for them when they come ashore. They explain that they survived by eating raw fish and birds, and by drinking rainwater they collected in empty gas tanks — not to mention their faith in God. They are received as heroes, but it does not take long for people to start doubting the truth of their story. While some say they are drug couriers, an American publisher is convinced that a miracle has occurred, and that God has called on him to adapt their story for the screen. The fishermen sign a movie deal and a new adventure begins, one in which the danger is coming from a very different perspective. With the help of archive footage and interviews, this documentary reconstructs their tale.
Noa Ben Hagai, Israel, 2009
In the early 1940s, 14-year-old Pnina disappeared nearby her house in what is now Israel. Years later, she started sending letters to her family. It turned out that she had married an Arab and had children with him, but it is never completely clear if she ran away or was kidnapped. Director Noa Ben-Hagai found her great-aunt Pnina’s letters and asked her uncle, a retired colonel in Israeli intelligence, to find the unknown family in the Palestinian Territories. Blood Relation chronicles the various meetings between members of this Jewish-Arab family over the course of three years in both Israel and Nablus. Needless to say that these reunions do not go smoothly: the Arabs ask their family for help to get work permits, and the Israelis feel used. Conversations with family members from both sides illustrate how difficult it can be to bring people from such different and conflicting backgrounds together. The director begins to wonder if it was a good idea to have her uncle get in touch with their Arab family. And if reconciliation within just one family is so complicated, what does that mean for the reconciliation between the people of the Middle East?
Bentley Dean, Martin Butler, Australia, 2009
Contact features unique archive footage of an exceptional meeting that took place in 1964, in a desolate area of Australia. Yuwali is one of the Martu, a community of women and children who spent their whole lives living in the desert, until the area had to be evacuated for missile testing. In Contact, 62-year-old Yuwali vividly recalls how frightening it was to see white men for the very first time. She fled the area with a group of 20 Aborigines, afraid of the white “devil men” whom they believed would surely eat them. Yuwali’s eyewitness testimony is interspersed with the stories of the Australians who explored the area. It was a strange meeting for them as well, encountering a group with “absolutely no world sense at all.” Once the Aborigines had been found, their desert existence was at an end. They were given clothing for the first time in their lives and driven out to a Christian Mission. The Martu community now seems accustomed to its new way of life: watching archive footage of their people clad in nothing but a belt leaves them in stitches.
Andri Snaer Magnason, Thorfinnur Gudnason, Iceland, 2009
Iceland is an attractive spot for investors in green energy. The financial returns are enormous for this sparsely populated nation, but the negative impact on nature conservation is also significant. The American company Alcoa has convinced the Icelandic government to give up a large portion of the island’s eastern region for “green” aluminum production, leading to the loss of natural beauty, vegetation, animal life, and agriculture. Environmental activists view these actions as criminal, while left-wing economists believe they will bring only a temporary boost to the economy, rather than structural growth. As one economist says in Dreamland, “After this project, a new one will be needed, otherwise the economy will collapse again. It’s like keeping on drinking so as not to feel the hangover.” But the authorities can nonetheless be swayed by this kind of plan, even when it involves a company such as Alcoa, which is involved in the weapons industry in the United States. As another critic explains, “The company just promises a well-paid position to the politician after his term is over.” This claim gains credence when we learn that the mayor involved later worked as a project manager for — you guessed it — Alcoa. The film is an ode to a threatened landscape, with magnificent helicopter shots of breathtaking, rugged terrain where waterfalls, geysers and vast green steppes still abound — for now.
Sylvie Van Brabant, Canada, 2009
Eco-activist Mikael Rioux from Trois-Pistoles in Québec is looking for ways to create support in his own community for the creation of a more sustainable way of life. Having shorn off his dreadlocks at the beginning of the film, the young father decides to pursue a more constructive course of action than continuing his battle against the local authorities. Inspired by his mentor Christian de Laet — an old hand in the environmental movement — Rioux travels the world to seek the counsel of his mentor’s sympathizers in poverty-stricken India, in wealthy, progressive Sweden, and elsewhere. The problem is clear: there is a crisis on the way. Leaving the car at home once in a while is not going to be enough to avert an environmental disaster — not by a long shot. Earth Keepers shows that there are still opportunities for sustainable action, but only if we are prepared to change the way we think. Rioux’s voice-over, the talking heads, and the animations that elucidate the film’s sometimes complex issues all combine to convey a single message: “We need to start living in a way that provides for everyone’s needs.” And this is what makes Earth Keepers a worthwhile journey for outsiders as well as insiders.
“The Edge of Dreaming”
Amy Hardie, Scotland, 2009
If you dream your own death, can it come true? Director Amy Hardie thinks so. At least if you really start to believe in the dream. The Edge of Dreaming shows how this happened to her. One night, she wakes with a start after dreaming that her horse has died. The next morning, she finds him dead in the fields near her house. When, shortly afterwards, the deceased father of her oldest child comes to her in a dream and tells her that her next birthday will be her last, she starts to worry. She doesn’t want to believe it, but the thought just won’t let her go. The seed of fear has been sown and it starts to grow, particularly when she gets sick and can’t pinpoint the cause. While she films her family life and the changing of the seasons around her, she also dives into her richly documented past. Little by little, she becomes obsessed by the idea that she is going to die. Her search for a solution leads her to neuroscience, psychotherapy, Shamanism, and the insight that she cannot ignore the ravaged state of our planet. Her final conclusion is that she doesn’t want to live as if each day may be her last, but as if we will all be here forever.
“Enemies of the People”
Rob Lemkin, Thet Sambath, England, Cambodia, 2009
Enemies of the People takes a peek at “the project” of Thet Sambath, whose parents were among the approximately two million who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. In an attempt to win their trust so they will admit to their deeds on camera, Sambath now spends more time and money on the erstwhile murderers than on his wife and children. We watch as Sambath contacts the culprits and confronts them with their past; one of them even demonstrates how he cut people’s throats. The filmmakers allow the horrific stories to speak for themselves, in contrast to the propaganda newscasts from back then, full of happily singing farmers. The only commentary is a recurring image of water in a rice field that flows so slowly, it is agonizing to watch. As the film progresses, it gradually reveals the scope and importance of Sambath’s hard work. The biggest fish in Sambath’s net turns out to be “Brother Number 2” Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s right-hand man. When he gets arrested and tried by a Cambodian court in 2007, we see a series of ghastly images of the torture chambers that were his own creation. Meanwhile, Sambath has put an end to his project so he can concentrate on his own future.
“Eyes Wide Open – A Journey Through Today’s South America”
Gonzalo Arijon, France, 2009
In his 1971 standard work Open Veins in Latin America, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano describes the centuries of economic exploitation of his part of the world. Almost 40 years later, Uruguayan documentary filmmaker Gonzalo Arijon reevaluates the situation in Eyes Wide Open — A Journey through Today’s South America. His search takes him from the soybean plantations of the Brazilian Amazon and the tin mines of Bolivia to the deep jungles of Ecuador. Arijon, winner of the Joris Ivens Award in 2007 for Stranded, shows how the current crop of leftist leaders in these countries are attempting to resist the squandering of natural resources by large, international companies. The principal culprits he identifies are the neoliberal ideology and the ensuing wave of privatizations. Arijon’s politically committed film allows the local populations to speak for themselves, interspersing this with archive footage of speeches by the likes of Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Lula da Silva (Brazil), and Evo Morales (Bolivia). Galeano himself also talks — sometimes in poetic language — about how the rise of socialist governments in the early 21st century is benefitting Latin America, and what more can be done.
Ditteke Mensink, The Netherlands, 2009
Constructed entirely of archive footage, Farewell is the story of English journalist Lady Grace Drummond-Hay. In August of 1929, two months before the stock market crash would plunge the world into the Great Depression, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst added Drummond-Hay to the passenger list of the Graf Zeppelin as the only female. This impressive airship would be the very first to make a voyage around the world. For this prestigious project, a symbol of hope and progress, Hearst was looking for someone who wanted to write about the trip “from a female perspective.” Drummond-Hay was ecstatic: “I shall write for him as if my life depended on it.” Under the supervision of her colleague and ex-boyfriend Karl Henry von Wiegand, she spent 21 days reporting on the flight, which started in New York and went to Friedrichshafen, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and ended back in the Big Apple. Needless to say, it was a trip that did not go off completely without a hitch. Using Drummond-Hay’s diary entries and newspaper articles as a basis, the film sketches a picture of the occasionally tough journey and a changing Europe. Drummond-Hay makes the viewer part of her impressions of the devastated continent. She tells of the funeral wreaths thrown from the Zeppelin over Verdun, riots in Berlin, and the rise of Communism in Russia, struggling with feelings for her ex-boyfriend all the while.
Mika Ronkainen, Germany, Finland
During a rugby match, Matti broke his pinky finger. It hurts something awful, but his friends just make fun of him: a real man would at least break an arm or a leg. In Freetime Machos, we meet Matti, his best friend Mikko, and a couple other members of the most northern and third worst rugby club in the world. What motivates a Finnish man? As depressing as the opening quote might make us think — “The bedroom is a place to sleep and to copulate, not to get pleasure through sex” — it is not all that bad. In a casual, lighthearted fashion, director Mika Ronkainen observes these melancholy men who are much more boyish and mild-mannered than they would like us to think. After losing the umpteenth match, they confide in each other on the bus. Company turmoil at Nokia plays a role, as do the suicide of a friend and changes in the family. One moving scene is the meeting with a foreign girl who wants to play on their team. She is pretty good, but the rules do not allow for coed play. When it is time for her to leave, one of the men takes her to the airport and embraces her. “At least one of the guys touched me to say goodbye,” she laughs.
“Jaffa, The Orange’s Clockwork”
Eyal Sivan, Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, 2009
The orange may not seem like the most obvious point of departure for an examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but during the last century, the disputed border area between Israel and the territories was one of the world’s biggest exporters of this “orange gold.” In Jaffa, The Orange’s Clockwork, director Eyal Sivan reconstructs how Jaffa started out as a Palestinian place name before becoming an Israeli brand name, and how the orange harvest shifted from a joint undertaking into a symbol used by both parties in the escalating conflict. The filmmaker uses a great deal of archive footage, from the very earliest photography in 1840 right up to crisp, modern video. The images are accompanied by commentary from a range of experts, who watch them projected on the walls of their offices or on tablecloths hung up in their living rooms. From historians to art experts, poets to political analysts, each gives his or her perspective on the archive footage, which over the years has become increasingly laden with ideological significance. Orange eaters and pickers — many of whom remember the more harmonious times when Jews and Arabs still worked side by side in the orchards — also have their say.
“Last Train Home”
Lixin Fan, Canada, China, 2009
“We work far away from home. The old and young are still in the village. If the family can’t even spend New Year together, life would be pointless.” These are the words of one of the countless Chinese workers who make the heroic journey each year from the new industrial areas to their villages in the provinces. In a calm and observational style devoid of comment, Lixin Fan captures two years in the life of one of these families. The father and mother left the poverty of the country 16 years ago to try their luck in the new economic zones, leaving their daughter behind with her grandparents. Now they work long hours in one of the numerous gray factories that supplies the West with cheap clothing. That said, the most toilsome endeavor is the New Year trip. The sight of the multitude gathered at the station is disconcerting, and the couple waits for a ticket for days. When a snowstorm throws rail service into disorder, the chaos is complete. They still manage time and again, but will they also succeed in keeping the family together and ensuring an education for their children, with the money they send home? Painful moments reveal that the patience the Chinese are known for has its limits.
“The Miscreants of Taliwood”
George Gittoes, Australia, 2009
This isn’t Hollywood, and it isn’t Bollywood: this is Taliwood. Australian filmmaker and visual artist George Gittoes spent two years in the Taliban-occupied north of Pakistan. The surreal war situation there doesn’t stop local filmmakers from making lowbrow movies with large doses of half-naked women, action heroes, and pulp fiction. “We want to see the local breasts,” one Peshawar video store owner declares, in reference to the need for local film production. The prevailing Taliban moralists are less appreciative of this, expressing their discontent by burning video stores to the ground. Gittoes gets to know the actors and actresses who play roles that put their lives in danger. Summing up the mentality of the fundamentalists, one actor remarks that “Making bombs is good, making movies is against Islam.” When Gittoes hears that the production of a TV movie only costs $4,000, he decides to make two of them. This leads to a film shoot full of hilarious gunfights, fake blood, and scenes with dwarves and action heroes. At the same time, he discovers that the Taliban is also disseminating a form of entertainment that people are just as greedy for: recordings of real beheadings and executions, not to mention propaganda films about Al-Qaida training camps. In the end, the largest film industry turns out to be the war on terror.
“The Most Dangerous Man in America”
Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith, USA, 2009
During the 1960s, Daniel Ellsberg was one of the most promising analysts in the U.S. Department of Defense. This all changed when he was asked by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to draw up a secret report on the American presence in Vietnam. At the time, the war in Vietnam was in full swing. The outcome of his investigations led Ellsberg to realize that five successive U.S. Presidents had lied to the American people about their country’s role in the Vietnam conflict. He therefore decided to leak the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971. The Most Dangerous Man in America is a portrait of a highly intelligent man who chose above all to remain true to his principles of openness and justice — a decision that would cost him his career and lead to many years of legal battles with the American government. Interviews and historical footage create an impression of a dispute that eventually had far-reaching consequences for press freedom in the United States, as well as for the course of the war in Vietnam.
John Appel, The Netherlands, 2009
As this film makes clear, its director John Appel has a deeply rooted interest in gambling. His father was an ardent horserace player, which caused problems in the family to say the least. Shortly before he died, Appel’s father wrote him a letter while he was still at school. This letter serves as Appel’s point of departure for an investigation into the causes of his father’s destructive gambling mania, which he blends in the film with the stories of several other men, alter egos of his father. Interestingly, it is almost exclusively men who suffer from this dependence on gambling. Using family photos and films, Appel relates anecdotes to characterize his father and shed light on the events that led to his downfall. In between, we visit the horse races, where we meet an extremely good-humored bookie named Harry. Another Harry is a compulsive liar and gambling addict who is in jail for the umpteenth time. Even there, he cannot resist being deceptive. And we see a poker player who makes his tragic way from a Spartan hotel room to the casino each day. In Appel’s psychological portrait of his father, it gradually emerges just what drives the gamblers and why their addiction is so difficult to put a stop to.
Christian Frei, Switzerland, 2009
In pursuit of their ultimate dream, more and more multimillionaires are traveling to Kazakhstan and the remote, hidden rocket launch site Baikonur and accompanying training centre, Star City. Here, Russian cosmonauts celebrated their achievements until Gorbachev pulled the plug on the space program in the late 1980s. Nowadays, the doors stick and the money is gone. In order to finance trips into space, the Russians now sell the third seat in the capsule to extremely wealthy Americans, who with a ticket costing $20 million, cover almost half of the cost. American businesswoman Anousheh Ansari is one of these travelers. Space Tourists shows, non-chronologically, how she prepares for the journey by Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station. In the meantime, Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen is searching for space debris for a photo series, along with the inhabitants of the neighboring, isolated villages on the steppes. They earn a little extra from the waste, which is often made from the very best materials. They use the titanium tanks as soup pans and sell the rest to China, where it is used to make aluminum. The worlds of the cosmonauts and the shepherds hardly touch at all. And when Ansari returns to Earth, Charles Simonyi, the principal designer of Microsoft Word and Excel, is ready and waiting impatiently for the next flight.
“War Games and the Man Who Stopped Them”
Dariusz Jablonski, Poland, Slovakia, 2009
A uniquely constructed portrait of the Polish Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, who provided the CIA with more than 40,000 strategic documents from the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. Was he a traitor, or the savior of Poland? The Polish documentary filmmaker Dariusz Jablonski begins his story of the colonel in 2004, when he was supposed to interview him for the very first time. It turns out that Kuklinski has just died, and at the request of the colonel’s wheelchair-bound wife, Jablonski agrees to take care of his ashes. He talks with a considerable number of closely involved ex-servicemen — from the U.S. head of espionage General William E. Odom to the Warsaw Pact Commander-in-Chief Viktor Kulikov, the Polish General Wojciech Jaruzelski, and former Polish President Lech Walesa. These interviews paint a picture of an idealistic man who saved Europe from a Third World War, but who also led a tragic life. In addition to the extensive archive footage, Jablonski expounds on the initial meetings in voice-over, which he films with a small, often half-hidden camera. Subsequently, we see the official, tightly-framed interviews, over which he invariably employs an effect that suggests the shadow of Venetian blinds. Photos of Kuklinski come to life with 3D motion effects, and the recurring theme of a war game calls on the viewer to actively pass judgment on Kuklinski’s choice.
— additional IDFA competition film lineups continue on page two —
IDFA Competition for Mid-Length Documentary
“The Accidental Terrorist”
Miki Mistrati, Nagieb Khaja, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Denmark, 2009
Cem Aslan is an integrated Danish Muslim of Turkish origin and a student at the University of Aalborg. In The Accidental Terrorist, he wonders how it is possible that Abdulkadir Cesur, a young man of about his age and with a similar background, ended up in a Bosnian prison charged with terrorism. Aslan visits one of Abdulkadir’s former classmates at primary school and interviews Abdulkadir’s sister about how he became a fundamentalist after 9/11. In road movie style, The Accidental Terrorist follows Aslan’s search for the cause of Abdulkadir’s radicalization. We hear his thoughts and reflections as he watches suicide terrorists’ farewell videos or makes his way to interviews. And then we see him talking separately with Abdulkadir’s former classmate, his sister, and a friend. Archive footage from news broadcasts showing Abdulkadir’s arrest provides background, and several times we see Abdulkadir declaring his innocence to a judge.
Claudia Lisboa, Sweden, 2009
At first glance, filmmaker Claudia Lisboa’s family doesn’t look all that plastic. That said, almost every member of the clan has gotten to know the knife of her plastic surgeon-brother Sergio. Her sister Juliana can’t look angry thanks to her anti-wrinkle injections, Sergio himself has undergone four nose reductions, their mother has had so many facelifts she is ageless, and even their dad got his eyes done. Claudia is the only one who has been spared from the knife, and that’s a real eyesore for the rest of them. She calls herself a “beauty refugee” and lives in Sweden, far away from the obsessions of her Brazilian family. In this personal documentary, Claudia Lisboa visits her parents, brother, and sister in her country of birth. They tell her in plain words that she needs an urgent breast augmentation, nose correction, or Botox treatment. The camera follows the filmmaker as she interviews her individual family members. She asks her father why he would want a girlfriend who is 26 years his junior over someone his age (“because they didn’t make me horny”), and her brother Sergio informs her that no one wants to have sex with “a grandma.” In conversations with her parents, Claudia tries to reconstruct her youth and examines her own penchant for perfection.
“The City of the Dead”
Sergio Tréfaut, Portugal, Egypt, Spain, 2009
In the vast El Arafa cemetery in Cairo, a city has arisen among the tombs and mausoleums. This “city of the dead” has a living population of one million. There are many funerals each day, while life goes on all around: a young shepherd drives his cattle through the small streets, a market woman tries to sell plastic laundry baskets, and children play among the tombstones, flying their kites. No respect for the dead, then. There is, however, an all-pervasive sense of realism: in this necropolis, the living and the dead are bound together into a pact of peace. Directed by Sérgio Tréfaut, The City of the Dead presents us with various aspects of this strange and wonderful enclave. We see the serene and beautiful sand-colored graves as well as the turmoil of a place where a predominantly poor population struggles to survive. The camera movements are calm and measured, as is the voice describing the attractions of this city of the dead, where the rhythm of life is defined by the Koran. Allah may be omnipresent, but that does not stop someone from leaning against a tombstone and burping, calling a passerby a bastard, or openly speaking of a yearning for sex before marriage. As a local woman says, “Living so close to death is bound to bring wisdom.”
Evgeny Solomin, Russia, 2009
All Soviet passports have to be replaced by Russian identity papers. This means lots of work for an unusual photographer with bushy eyebrows, a round, wrinkly head, and an immaculate handlebar moustache. He travels along barely passable roads of mud to remote villages in Siberia to provide everyone with a new passport photograph. We follow him everywhere: at home, on the road, and at work, in a succession of static, black-and-white shots. The film camera focuses on bystanders or the interior, or shows the final photographs while we hear the process that led to their taking. Old women pour out their hearts to the photographer, complaining about aching knees; a man says that, apart from an advance, he hasn’t been paid in eight years; the photographer compliments a young woman, and lends a couple of workmen his jacket. After all, they have to look a bit respectable for the camera. Replete with observations of everyday life, the film provides an impression of a tough, simple, and above all old-fashioned existence. Mercifully, there are also lighter moments, such as when the photographer takes pictures at a wedding and ends up dancing with the guests. Whether the new passports will also bring modern Russian culture to this simple life remains to be seen.
“The Face of the Enemy”
Erik Pauser, Sweden, 2009
The Face of the Enemy is an anti-war film about the personal suffering behind the hard statistics, which show that more than four million Vietnamese died during the Vietnam War, as opposed to 58,000 Americans. We hear South and North Vietnamese, including émigrés to the United States, describing how huge numbers of friends met their deaths, caught as they were between government forces, the Vietcong, and the Americans; how political boundaries divided not only the country, but also families; how mothers deserted their children because their fathers were American soldiers; and how the war cruelly lingers on long after hostilities ceased, in the lives of children born crippled by chemical weapons. The talking heads’ stories are underpinned by family photos of friendly, smiling Vietnamese in uniform that contrast shrilly with the sometimes extremely horrific archive footage of bombardments and battlefields. The aural backdrop of modern soundscapes and music make the stories chillingly easy to identify with. Occasionally, a commentary provides some background information, but basic knowledge about the parties involved is assumed. The film gives equal attention to the stories of both men and women, particularly those in the Vietnamese resistance.
“The Girls of the Ruins”
Xavier Villetard, France, 2009
The Second World War was drawing to a close by the spring of 1945, but the Battle of Berlin was still to claim countless victims. In The Girls of the Ruins, we hear entries from the diaries of young German women, describing the horrors of the final phase of the war. The accompanying archive footage shows ruined buildings and the people living in Berlin at the time. Even when the war ended with German capitulation, there was no peace for these women, because the Russians then occupied Berlin. Interviewed today, five German women look back on this period. An elderly woman tells of how the Russian soldiers laid claim to any women they encountered. There was a wave of suicides throughout the city, with many of the women choosing to slash their wrists rather than submit themselves to rape. In one diary, a woman writes how she thinks she will never again be able to desire a man. Nonetheless, many of the women know that it was they who reconstructed Berlin after the war — illustrated by the idealized images of women in brightly colored dresses among the ruins of the city. Hope was not entirely crushed: “Now that’s everything’s been bombed flat, we can see the sky again at last.”
“Girls on the Air”
Valentina Monti, Italy, 2009
Twenty-five-year-old Humaira lived through the Taliban regime, but she now puts on lipstick for the camera, full of self-confidence. She studied journalism and started her own radio station, Radio Sahar, back in 2003. It becomes clear how much has changed since the fall of the Taliban when we see a group of female journalists interviewing people at the fair, their djellabas flapping in the wind. This carefully made documentary intersperses atmospheric shots of Afghanistan with footage of Humaira as courageous editor-in-chief. In a country full of illiteracy, she understands the importance of radio to convey the news to the people. In the local courthouse, women openly discuss their often harrowing situations. These stories have been told before, but the fact that they are getting broadcast all over Afghanistan is new. Unfortunately, the post-Taliban years have not only seen improvements: Humaira talks about the political unrest, the increasing violence against women, and the suicide attacks. Will Afghanistan ever become the “women-dominated place” that a man jokingly calls it at the end of the film? The future is uncertain, and it will probably remain that way.
Zippi Brand Frank, Israel, 2009
An Israeli entrepreneur by the name of Doron has discovered the advantages of globalization. Thanks to a surrogate mother from the United States, he and his boyfriend have a daughter named Talia. Seeing that this relatively simple route can be very expensive, Doron decides to start a business that will cut costs. In this way, he can get a child for 57-year-old Irit at a reasonable price — after all, she is single and has already gone through menopause. Egg-cells are ordered online through the American company Egg Donation, Inc, and customers can choose from a lively brunette to an “overall great person.” Sperm cells are available for online purchase as well. Once fertilization has taken place, the embryos are outsourced to India, where Indian women take on the role of surrogate mothers. The reasons to participate in this modern-day baby trade vary from place to place. Katherine is an American egg-cell donor who wants to renovate her house and to finance her firearm hobby, while most Indian surrogates need money to pay for their children’s education.
“I Dreamed About Pol Pot”
Julia Stanislawska, Michael Krotkiewski, Sweden, 2009
In 1978, Gunnar Bergström believed that the Khmer Rouge revolution was a good thing, although Cambodian refugees were telling a very different story at the time. As a member of a small Swedish delegation, Bergström made a friendly visit to a country that was otherwise hermetically sealed off to Westerners. Following his return, he defended Pol Pot’s regime, having met the man himself. The footage he filmed at the time takes on new meaning in this emotionally charged account of a more recent visit to Cambodia. Thirty years later, Bergström returns to visit places that were hidden from him on his earlier visit — places such as the Tuol Sleng torture center. He approaches people on the street to ask about their experiences and to express his guilt. Almost every person he meets can recall something about the horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. The unassuming Swede’s expressions of regret are warmly accepted and viewed as a mark of respect, if not entirely comprehended. At a meeting, Bergström attempts to explain how he came to be so misled: the anti-Vietnam War movement had become radicalized and he viewed Pol Pot’s Maoist revolution as a positive development. He now recognizes how blind he was.
“The Invention of Dr. Nakamats”
Kaspar Astrup Schröder, Denmark, 2009
Dr. Nakamats himself is our guide as, without comment from the Danish filmmakers, he shows us his many inventions. The 81-year-old Japanese has 3,300 patents to his name, including the first floppy disk, the aphrodisiac Love Jet spray, and Dr. Nakamats’s Brain Drink. He always gets his best ideas — as he demonstrates — underwater and “0.5 seconds before death.” (He invented an underwater memo pad to make immediate note of these ideas.) A moment later, we see Nakamats bouncing past on springs intended to make jogging less strenuous. He seems remarkably sprightly for a man born in 1928, and he intends to live to the age of 144. With this in mind, he has carried out a daily examination of the effect of his meal (of which he takes a photograph) on his blood since 1971. This work received the Ig Nobel Prize in 2005, for achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Nakamats is proud of the award, just as he is of a letter from George Bush, Sr. He is also vain (he sings a song in praise of his own tenacity) and unwilling to be contradicted. Nakamats gives a severe lecture, Japanese-style, to a noncompliant staff member at the hotel where he is intending to celebrate his 80th birthday — it is an elaborate display of great honor, respect, shame, and apologies. Nonetheless, Nakamats jokingly predicts that the filmmakers will “edit out all the good stuff and only show the weird scenes.”
Bong-Nam Park, South Korea, 2009
Under torrential rains of sparks, blowtorches tear through the thick steel skin of a ship. As they are cut lose, the pieces of metal plummet to the ground with a roar. This is the ship graveyard that serves as the final destination for a significant part of the world’s fleet. Here, crows make their nests from pieces of iron wire. In Iron Crows, South Korean documentary filmmaker Bong-Nam Park shows how workers risk their lives for two dollars a day at the world’s largest ship demolition yard in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Ekramul is only 12, but poverty is more powerful than the law against child labor. Rufik remembers how it all began back in the 1960s, with a ship that washed ashore. Twenty-one-year-old Bilal barely escapes death with the camera rolling. The impressive footage evokes an atmosphere of menace and danger, but the faces beam when a new ship comes in. Most of the workers send a portion of their meager salary back to their families, and they are proud of that. But Bilal has not succeeded in saving $700 in 10 years, as he had dreamed he would. His visit home to his wife, where he sees his undernourished, blind child for the first time, is heartbreaking.
“The Matilda Candidate”
Curtis Levy, Australia, 2009
Australians are part of the British Commonwealth, and Elizabeth II, Queen of Great Britain, is their queen as well. But not everyone is happy with this situation. Experienced filmmaker and confirmed anti-monarchist Curtis Levy decides to run in the parliamentary elections. His goal is to elevate the folksong “Waltzing Matilda” to the status of national anthem of an independent Australia. This song is a popular ditty from 1895 about a hobo with a knapsack, or “Matilda.” It is commonly held to be the unofficial Australian national anthem — or at least, everyone whom Levy speaks to confirms this. With a wry sense of humor, the director documents his election campaign and reflects on the issues underlying his mission. Why, for example, do white Australians seem to have so little interest in independence? “Perhaps they think that their allegiance to the British crown gives a certain legitimacy to their occupation of this country,” Levy speculates. During the campaign month, he actively lobbies for votes. His bizarre campaign ideas come to life as animation during semi-irritable interludes with his campaign manager Jo, who is as much in favor of the queen as Levy is against her. Meanwhile, Levy examines what “Waltzing Matilda” means to various kinds of Australians. This is a portrait of a fragile Australian national identity.
Elham Asadi, Iran, 2009
Carpet weaving is one of the oldest trades in the Persian world, but just as with so many traditions, the craft is under fire these days. Many of the carpets that end up on the European market are mechanically manufactured in China or India, and the handicraft is becoming less attractive because people can earn more money in other occupations. The Iranian documentary The Poot reveals how in some places, carpets are still woven by hand. We follow the production process from start to finish, without explanation or comment, in a film that has the same visual magic as the Persian carpets it depicts. From the grinding of plants into powders of a dozen different colors and washing out the bales of wool in the river to the delicate, dexterous weaving and the smoothing out of the final product with a sharp knife. We see this all in deep, saturated colors, under the red morning light of the rising sun and with a razor-sharp eye for detail. In this way, the documentary provides a loving, romantic homage to an age-old tradition, one that is slowly but surely losing importance.
“Sayed Kashua – Forever Scared”
Dorit Zimbalist, Israel, 2009
It is never easy to live a life caught between two cultures, and this is especially true if you find yourself between Arabic and Jewish cultures. When he was 15, the now 34-year-old Israeli Arab writer Sayed Kashua was sent to a prestigious Israeli high school in Jerusalem. His first week there was, he says, the most terrible of his life. Things have improved since then, though. He became a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and has published two books and written a satirical series for Israeli television about Arabs attempting to build a life for themselves within Israeli society. Sayed Kashua — Forever Scared is the portrait of an author who, writing in Hebrew, repeatedly raises the issue of his uncomfortable position between the two cultures: Arabs see him as a collaborator, while Israelis call him an Arab drunkard. The filmmakers followed Sayed Kashua for seven years, capturing both his successes and failures. Despite ongoing fears of what his opponents might do, he continues to write. He has now moved from his Arab birthplace, the village of Tira, to an apartment in West Jerusalem.
“Sugartown: The Day After”
Kimon Tsakiris, France, Greece, 2009
In director Kimon Tsakiris’s 2006 documentary Sugartown: The Bridegrooms, he observed how, due to the lack of marriageable women, bachelors in the Russian city of Klin were going in search of a bride. The title of this, his latest documentary, suggests it is a sequel, but in fact it has an entirely different focus. In Sugartown: The Day After, Tsakiris examines the political aspects of the aftermath of the terrible bushfires on the Peloponnesian Peninsula in 2007. The fires caused the deaths of 65 people in the small town of Zacharo (loosely translated as “Sugartown” in English) and environs, and reduced 90% of the land to ashes. The dead are not yet buried when reconstruction begins. Donated emergency relief supplies pour in from home and abroad. Before long, the generous gifts disappear into a grab-bag of self-interest, thanks to local politicians. “Stealing will always be part of the Greek state,” sighs one local. “Many people lost a lot, and many people will become better off.” Tsakiris stayed in the area for a year and recorded how duped locals have no say against greedy, macho heavyweights. Chief among them is Mayor Pantazis Chronopoulos, who manipulates everything and everyone and likes to operate on the boundary between legality and illegality.
“Views on Vermeer”
Hans Pool, The Netherlands, 2009
Views on Vermeer is a documentary devoted to the art of the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Over the course of 12 chapters, four contemporary photographers, three artists, three writers, two curators, an architect, an art dealer, and an art historian discuss their admiration for his work. Among them is Tracy Chevalier, author of the historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (the film version of which was directed by Peter Webber); American photojournalist Steve McCurry, who shot the famous Afghan Girl portrait; American artist Chuck Close; and the Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf. Each chapter focuses on a particular quality of Vermeer’s work, helping the audience to look upon it with new eyes: from the way he painted bricks to the hidden political subject matter, by way of the tableaux he chose to depict. Views on Vermeer also explores the probability that he used a camera obscura when painting. The Vermeer aficionados are filmed in their own natural habitat with their own work or that of the painter’s close at hand, and accompanied by their “own” musical theme. Vermeer comes into relief as a direct precursor of photography and cinema, as well as a continuing and important inspiration for contemporary fine arts.
[More IDFA doc competitions continued on page 3]
IDFA Competition for First Appearance
“Addicted in Afghanistan”
Jawed Taiman, Afghanistan, England, 2009
There are more than a million drug addicts in Afghanistan, including a shockingly high percentage of children. Addicted in Afghanistan, the feature-length debut of director Jawed Taiman, is about the teenagers Jabar and Zahir, both of whom are from Kabul and come from families that have been ravaged by drugs. Zahir used opium for the first time when his drug-addicted mother gave it to him at age eight, and the two boys spend their days looking for their next heroin score. The film sketches an intimate portrait of their lives in the slums of the city, where they smoke heroin in their decrepit houses or leave the detox clinic for the umpteenth time. But there are also some lighthearted moments, such as when Jabar and Zahir exuberantly pull the legs of passersby in broken English in the opening scene. And between the lines, the political situation of their broken country also gets adequate attention: while Jabar and Zahir blame the Americans for introducing heroin to Afghanistan, Zahir’s mother knows better — it was the Taliban that got her addicted. Taiman does not try to maintain an objective distance, but makes passionate attempts from behind his camera to change Jabar and Zahir’s literally hopeless lives.
Cecilia Verheyden, Raf Roosens, Senne Dehandschutter, Belgium, 2009
How do you get into Hollywood? Three young Flemish filmmakers are not planning on leaving it up to fate, so they aim for the big cheese in Tinseltown: Steven Spielberg. The diplomas they just obtained from the Brussels Film School are not providing them with the cash flow they need to jumpstart a big, compelling movie career, so Cecilia, Senne, and Raf head to Hollywood to speak with the blockbuster director. Armed with DVDs of their graduation films, they plan to sell Spielberg a screenplay they wrote themselves. Penniless, they spend 40 days hanging posters around downtown Los Angeles, they appeal to radio and TV stations, meet Steven’s hairdresser, sneak into the Academy Awards, and talk to famous people at a benefit. The film becomes a road movie when the brave Belgians decide to visit Spielberg’s childhood home in Phoenix, hoping to learn more about his youth. They even use the same crafty tactics that Spielberg employed himself to get a job as a director. The documentary is organized as a TV series and was broadcast in episodes on the Belgian channel Jim. A voice-over and short animated sequences illustrate the three friends’ quest, and we also find out what they are cooking up next.
Carter Gunn, Ross McDonnell, USA, Ireland, 2009
Colony is a real visual treat, featuring extreme close-ups of bees, flowers, and trees. It presents artistic footage of beehives and beekeepers in a direct, penetrating way that is reminiscent of the work of Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra. These beekeepers and the millions of bees they keep are of inestimable value to agriculture in America. Bees play a crucial role in agriculture and horticulture, and are therefore essential to the food chain. In short: no bees means no pollination, and no pollination means no harvest. Currently, beekeepers are facing an extremely worrying problem known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD); colonies of bees swarm out of their hives but then fail to return. This jeopardizes not only the beekeepers’ livelihoods, but also food production in general. In Colony, Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell examine this problem from a number of perspectives. Beekeeper spokesman David Mendes is the public face of the profession, and as such is putting pressure on multinational companies such as Bayer, which produce agricultural pesticides he believes could be harming bees. A more personal perspective comes in the form of Lance Seppi, a young beekeeper who is just starting out. With a mixture of uncertainty and youthful overconfidence, he tries to keep his business going in extremely trying economic circumstances.
“Garbo: The Spy”
Edmon Roch, Spain, 2009
A portrait of the Spaniard Joan Pujol Garcia, who fought on both sides in two wars without ever having held a weapon. During the Second World War, he was both the German spy Arabel and the British spy Garbo. He earned his British codename because his bosses considered him to be the best actor in the world — so great was the web of lies that he span to deceive his German superiors. In the words of one clearly impressed espionage expert in the film, “The bigger the lie, the more they believed him.” In addition to these interviews, most of which are filmed in front of multicolored backgrounds, the film tells Pujol’s story primarily through black-and-white archive footage. It interweaves documentary recordings of the events in question with excerpts from various fiction films, from classics like Our Man in Havana to more obscure espionage flicks like the British Pimpernel Smith: a more than fitting form for a film in which the boundary between fact and fiction is fluid and constantly shifting. In the closing credits, Winston Churchill isn’t quoted for nothing: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
“Monica and David”
Ali Codina, USA, 2009
American director Ali Codina made a film about the first year of marriage of her cousin Monica and her husband David: an adult couple with Down’s syndrome. Monica and David starts just before the wedding, and follows the couple from that point up to the celebratory dinner to mark their first anniversary. A lot happens during this year; they move house, and it turns out that David is diabetic. Codina films the day-to-day goings on in fly-on-the-wall style, including interviews with family members that show what a crucial role the two broad-minded mothers play in Monica and David’s lives. Both of their biological fathers abandoned their wives and children within a year of their birth. When Monica and David go to live with Monica’s mother in a new apartment on the Florida coast, we see how heavy a burden caring for them is for her. From its fairytale beginning, the film increasingly focuses in on humdrum everyday reality: from the importance of routine to the dilemmas experienced by close family members, who tend to be overprotective. Much to their surprise, it turns out that David is more than capable of measuring his own blood sugar level. The next step is to find jobs for the couple.
“Moving to Mars: A Million Miles from Burma”
Mat Whitecross, England, 2009
Since the military coup of 1962, the Karen people of Burma have been a persecuted minority. Around 150,000 of them now live in refugee camps over the border in Thailand, which means that their journey is far from over. In Moving to Mars: A Million Miles from Burma, Mat Whitecross, who directed The Road To Guantánamo together with Michael Winterbottom, follows two Karen families who are moving to Sheffield, England. Thaw Htoo studied to be an engineer and married his piano teacher, but he cannot show us his diplomas — together with his house, they went up in flames. Jo-Kae, a simple farmer, helped people escape from the junta, and his wife teaches kindergarten in the camp. In Moving to Mars: A Million Miles from Burma, politics are always in the background. Whitecross first gets us familiar with village life in the camp — “a human community,” as one person puts it. After the tears of saying goodbye, we can truly feel the culture shock. The adults are nervous, hopeful, and uncertain, while the children eagerly take everything in with their curious eyes. The story really begins in the row house in Sheffield, which at first seems like a paradise. There is cheerfulness and boredom, friendships flag, a teenage son finds his own way, and the farmer who speaks no English seems to find his niche faster than the uprooted engineer.
“A Normal Life. Chronicle of a Sumo Wrestler”
Jill Coulon, Japan, France, 2009
Becoming a professional sumo wrestler can be a lucrative career choice for young Japanese men. Eighteen-year-old Takuya gives in to his father’s wishes and enrolls in a sumo school, even though he prefers judo. Takuya swaps his trendy clothes for the traditional Japanese kimono and moves to Tokyo. His father has a warning for him as he leaves: “Do you realize there is no place for you if you come back?” Debut filmmaker Jill Coulon follows the young man during the first nine months of his training. The camera records the preparations for tournaments, sponsors’ dinners, and the routine of the sumo school, allowing the audience to share Takuya’s new experiences. Takuya struggles with the strict training, having to eat huge amounts of food, and the hard work at the school. He misses his friends from Asahikawa, the village where he grew up. As a new boy at the school, he has to act as a personal servant to the older sumo wrestlers, who lie around the training area like beached whales and always seem to be in a bad mood. Takuya talks about his doubts about this new life in voice-over while washing the older wrestlers’ belts in the Laundromat at night. As time goes on, this Japanese teenager starts to long for just one thing: a normal life.
“The Power of Speech”
Francisco Hervé, Chile, 2009
Hardy Vallejos is a hawker of cheap goods on the buses of Santiago, Chile. And he’s not the only one, for a whole legion of peddlers earn a meager income on the city’s public transport system. In 2005, though, the government suddenly decided that Chile should move with the times, and that required a shakeup of the mass transit: it was to be made cleaner, more professional, and elegant. In short, it was to become Transantiago, and that meant the peddlers had to go. The Power of Speech follows Hardy Vallejos as he sets up a union together with fellow peddlers. They do their utmost to build a new and respectable image for themselves — new uniforms, no illegal wares on sale — because they understand that the past is gone for good. Two thousand men and women gather to protest, and they plead their case to politicians. Then there is nothing to do but wait. This is a humorous but primarily critical take on Chilean modernization. The politicians may sing its praises, but it is not providing solutions to all problems. As it turns out, history can have some unexpected outcomes.
“Sins of My Father”
Nicolas Entel, Argentina, Colombia, 2009
Sins of My Father opens with the menacing sound of Pablo Escobar’s voice over images of violent acts in Colombia. In the 1980s, the drug lord was responsible for a slew of murders, including those of the country’s justice minister and a presidential candidate, before he was murdered himself. This documentary depicts Escobar as seen through the eyes of his son Juan Pablo, who fled Colombia with his mother following his father’s death. Juan Pablo changed his name to Sebastian Marroquin and went on to lead a “normal” life. Filmmaker Nicolas Entel met Sebastian and persuaded him to tell his story for the camera. His father’s crimes still cast a shadow over his life and he wants to make amends. And so we see him writing a letter to the children of his father’s two most prominent victims, Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla and the charismatic politician Luis Carlos Galán. And we also learn just how devastating the violent loss of one’s father can be, irrespective of what kind of person he was. Against the backdrop of archive footage, the children discuss their fathers’ lives. Meanwhile, attempts are made to organize a meeting between Escobar’s son and the children of the drug lord’s victims.
Juliet Lamont, Australia, 2009
Juliette Lamont starts her poignant search with a question: “Why did my father go mad?” The man who then shuffles into frame, Jimmy Graham, was once her loving father. But 30 years ago, there was a short circuit in his head. It happened on an expedition to Antarctica, where he was instructing scientists on how to keep on moving under polar conditions. He suffered an acute attack of suspected paranoid schizophrenia that he never recovered from. Ever since, he has been passing his days in a haze of alcohol, trashy books, and incoherent ramblings. Using archive footage, short animations, conversations with people in her father’s circle, and attempted conversations with her father, Lamont travels back in time to the protest movement of 1960s London, to her parents’ journey to the hippie scene in Australia, and to the fateful events at the South Pole. Was Jimmy Graham brainwashed by the CIA? Did LSD play a role? Or did an extramarital affair lead to an unwanted pregnancy and cause the circuits to blow? Lamont does not get a clear answer, but there is a glimmer of reconciliation when, during a dinner party, she confronts her mother and brother with Jimmy, former husband to one and father to the other.
Lars Siemens, Ralph de Haan, The Netherlands, 2009
In the United States, a poetry subculture has grown up around a group of young, mostly non-white spoken-word artists. Although the work they produce is widely diverse, it tends to have a strong affinity with contemporary social reality and urban culture. The poets’ work is not aimed at a mass audience, and they perform in small clubs. Each of them has found his or her own way to focus the power of the spoken word. Spitting Ink is a portrait of some of these artists. Interviews and live performances are interspersed with images of the streets of New York — not the orderly, well-to-do neighborhoods, but their lively and sometimes dilapidated backstreet counterparts, with their graffiti-covered walls, subway trains, and bars. Spoken-word artist Mike Ladd speaks about this poetry’s origins and background (its roots in gospel and other forms) and about how it reached a turning point with the arrival of rap. Beau Sia creates poetry both to impress the girls and to rebut prejudices about his Asiatic roots; Celena Glenn only writes once a year, when her head is full to overflowing and dozens of poems suddenly stream out.
Daniel Fallshaw, Violeta Ayala, USA, Australia, 2009
What starts out for filmmakers Violeta Ayala and Daniell Fallshaw as a family reunion in a refugee camp in Algeria turns into a dangerous political game. Initially, the documentary filmmakers concentrate on the story of Fetim and her family, who live in the refugee camps run by the Polisario Liberation Front. The more the family tells about everyday life, the more painfully clear it becomes that the camp is in the grip of a great taboo: slavery. When asked, the Polisario authorities say “that everyone is equal under the law.” They are less than pleased about the news that Ayala and Fallshaw want to share with the world. Following a detainment by the Polisario, the filmmakers flee and bury the tapes they have recorded in the desert. They then go on a long journey that takes them to Paris, Mauritania, New York, and Morocco. Stolen has since become the subject of a great deal of commotion. Fetim has stated her words were wrongly interpreted, and she says she has been used to make up a story about slavery. The filmmakers believe that the Polisario tried to block the film and are now attempting to undermine their story.
Barbara Schroeder, USA, 2009
Back in 2007, it was global headline news when 47-year-old Thomas Montgomery murdered his younger co-worker Brian Barrett because of a girl that neither of them had met, but only communicated with over the Internet. Under the online pseudonym “marinesniper,” Montgomery posed as an 18-year-old marine named Tommy. He embarked on a torrid cyber-romance with teenager Jessica (the “talhotblond” of the film’s title), but Brian (“beefcake”) came between them. For many years, director Barbara Schroeder was a reporter for the Los Angeles TV station Fox 11. And in this film, her debut, Schroeder stays close to the style of true crime reports she made for the station. Interviews with those involved, including Montgomery himself, and experts (psychologists, prosecutors, and detectives) alternate with photographs and reconstructions of online conversations between talhotblond, marinesniper, and beefcake. There is one important difference, however, between this film and standard true-crime reportage: no attempt is made to maintain the voice-over’s customary distance from the subject matter, because the commentary is ostensibly spoken by the deceased. This “deceit” allows for the remarkable opening lines of the film, “You can say anything you want online. And that’s why I’m dead, executed at the age of 22.” This is the starting point for a tale of online identity manipulation and the addictive properties of love and lies.
Barry Ptolemy, USA, 2009
Ray Kurzweil is a difficult man to pin down: he is an inventor, author, futurist, and businessman, all rolled into one. This passionate American is most well-known as the herald of ‘The Singularity’ — roughly speaking, the moment man and machine will become one. According to Kurzweil, realization of this vision is not far away: in 2029, computers will be just as intelligent as people. One of the driving forces behind this is the law of exponential growth, Kurzweil claims. “People underestimate the acceleration of technology.” The film expounds Kurzweil’s ideas and motivations at a rapid tempo, following him as he traverses the globe to promulgate his philosophy. We learn about the world of nanotechnology, genetics, and robots with the help of graphic techniques, archive films, and interviews. Proponents and opponents speak out, from California to Hong Kong. Kurzweil explains why he is interested in the “destiny of the human-machine civilization” and why he is searching for immortality (“I want to bring back my father”). An introduction to a striking man who, as his wife delicately puts it, has an incredible capacity to take pills — some 200 per day.
Ami Horowitz, Matthew Groff, USA, 2009
The United Nations was set up in 1945. Following the horrors of World War II, there was a strong desire for a better world in which peace would be maintained and human rights respected. The ideals, laid down in the United Nations Charter, were lofty, the ambitions likewise. Now, more than 60 years later, the image of the UN has become severely tarnished. Not only are international peace and security in a perilous state, but scores of stories are flying around demonstrating that the UN and its Security Council have done more harm than good. Documentary filmmaker Ami Horowitz takes us on a brutal tour of a number of places where the UN has intervened. Through interviews with those involved — some of whom wish to remain anonymous — and archive footage, he uncovers facts about manifest abuses and scandals surrounding UN missions and personnel. Such as a “forgotten” shooting in Côte d’Ivoire, during which UN soldiers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. Or the “Oil for Food” program in Iraq, which resulted in the wrong people reaping the benefits. Horowitz also addresses the harrowing case of the UN soldiers who stood by, powerless, during the genocide in Rwanda.
“World Vote Now”
Joel Marsden, Spain, 2009
Is it possible to organize a worldwide referendum, applying the principle of “one person, one vote” to create a global democracy? Filmmaker Joel Marsden went in search of the answer to this question, visiting people involved in democratic processes in 26 countries. His commentary describes a search for the essence of democracy, with fluently edited imagery accompanied by punchy music and infographics to illustrate the facts he puts forward. Marsden is an observer at the first elections in Congo. He sees how voting proceeds in the remote Indian province of Kashmir. He charges along through China, Japan, and South Korea. In Iran, religion comes before democracy. If there were free elections in Egypt, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood would win, eliciting the following from one Egyptian: “Yeah, I want democracy. But I would leave.” Realistically speaking, Brazilian democracy ends where the asphalt ends. And in Venezuela, Marsden sees President Chavez admit to losing a referendum — now that’s democracy! On his visit to the United Nations, he is surprised to encounter broad enthusiasm for his idea of a worldwide referendum. Marsden decides to hold a mock referendum with a cheap homemade satellite voting machine. Throughout his film, he intercuts portraits of people from various countries to emphasize what democracy is ultimately about: all votes are of equal value.