The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, now underway through Thanksgiving weekend has become the Cannes of nonfiction film events.
The documentary world annually descends on the Dutch city to catch the latest docs from filmmakers worldwide. With around 300 films, not every title is a world premiere, but most films — aside from retrospective screenings, including a spotlight on director Steve James this year — have had little to no outtings.
Here are 12 debut titles (both world premieres and international premieres) that Indiewire predicts will hit the film festival circuit Stateside in 2012. A caveat: Not all 12 have been watched by Indiewire (yet), but the list is based on insider observation with people familiar with the films here in Amsterdam. And while we picked an even dozen, there's undoubtedly more titles playing here that will also head to U.S. screens.
12 titles in no particular order. Some descriptions are provided by IDFA.
"The Ambassador," directed by Mads Brügger (Denmark)
IDFA's opening night film, "The Ambassador" was not without its controversy among fest-goers at IDFA's nightly "Guest Meets Guest" cocktail party, with some people asking how "real" the events in the film really were. The film shows "the dark side of Africa, an underworld that cannot be recorded in any other way." Brügger, a Danish journalist and master satirist who won the 2010 Sundance World Cinema Documentary Award for "The Red Chapel," dresses as a neo-colonialist and heads the Central African Republic to impersonate a Liberian diplomat. He sets up a match factory run by pygmies as a cover for his ambitions in diamond trafficking. But Brügger is really there to show how the power in the country is allotted and traded. (International Premiere)
"¡Vivan las antipodas!" directed by Victor Kossakovsky (Germany, Netherlands, Argentina, Chile)
Technically not an international premiere, the film is getting its second showing at IDFA after debuting at the Mar del Plata Film Festival, but multiple fest-goers have pointed out this title as a must see. In the film, director Victor Kossakovsky fulfills a fantasy by taking a journey to four corners of the world. The film asks the question, where would you end up if you dug a tunnel through the earth? While he doesn't do that, he picks four pairs of antipodes: Argentina and China, Spain and New Zealand, Hawaii and Botswana, and Russia and Chile. Per IDFA: "There is no narrative to provide direction — instead, Kossakovsky lets us wander around the world while the music tells us where we are."
"Putin's Kiss," directed by Lise Berk Pedersen (Denmark)
IDFA head Ally Derks told Indiewire that Denmark is currently a country to keep an eye on for producing great documentary work, and this film is certainly an example of that. The film spotlights Russia's "special democracy" — the cult of the country's President turn Prime Minister (and likely turn President again) Vladimir Putin. Per IDFA: "To many Russians, he embodies all the qualities of a strong and charismatic father figure. An entire new generation has been united in the patriotic youth movement Nashi, which seeks to rid Russia of its 'enemies.' And quite naturally, these turn out to be anyone who does not support Putin and President Medvedev. Marsha, an intelligent 19-year-old, is the spokesperson for Nashi. She once kissed Putin on the cheek, and after that she made no secret of her adoration. But things change once she came into contact with members of the liberal opposition." (World Premiere)
"Planet of Snail," directed by Seung-Jun Yi (South Korea)
Even before arriving in Amsterdam, we heard this film is a must-see and the chatter about this doc from Korea continued after arriving. Deaf and blind since childhood, Young-Chan has difficulty taking part in society until he meets Soon-Ho, who also has a physical handicap. "He marries her and learns to communicate with the outside world through her. By softly tapping each other's finger, they can understand one another; it is sometimes as if they are tenderly playing a piano. This documentary follows the couple in the same gentle tempo as Young-Chan moves through his life." Now that we've seen it, "Planet of Snail" is simply one of the most endearing and quietly powerful docs we've seen in a long time. (International Premiere)
"They Call It Myanmar – Lifting the Curtain," directed by Robert H. Lieberman (United States)
The southeast Asian country of Myanmar (or Burma) is one of the world's most isolated states, and a place of scorn by the U.S. government. However, the country lately has won some favor in the West with reforms; papers worldwide carried headlines that U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton will be visiting the country — the first such visit in decades. In the film, "writer and filmmaker Robert H. Lieberman secretly filmed the everyday lives of ordinary citizens over a period of two years – lives defined by food shortages, power cuts, and a lack of health care and education. This land of countless golden pagodas that not so long ago was renowned as the "rice bowl of Asia" is now a place of terrible poverty, which has led to widespread child labor and trafficking. In a remarkable interview, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi talks about the recent history of Burma and her many years under house arrest for her political activities." (World Premiere)
"Township to the Stage," directed by David Paul Myer (United States)
Following its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival last month, the film is having its international debut in Amsterdam. Post-apartheid South Africa forms the backdrop to this film. During white minority rule, arts and culture were censored; today, people are still not used to the idea that they are free to express themselves. "As a stand-up comic, young Trevor Noah finds himself in a tradition that was historically nourished by whites. As the child of a white father and a black mother, he doesn't belong to either of the categories that were always so strictly separated — he's neither black nor white. In his shows, the history of his country and his youth, a time when interracial marriages were unheard of, play prominent roles. Trevor has only been at it for a couple of years, but he decides that it's time for a one-man show." (International Premiere)
"Meet the Fokkens," directed by Gabriëlle Provaas, Rob Schröder (The Netherlands)
Another film that has had its share of talk at the nightly Guest Meets Guest cocktail party. "Twin sisters Louise and Martine Fokkens have been working in the red-light district of Amsterdam for 50 years. Despite many setbacks and a great deal of negativity from those outside the world of prostitution, these strong, optimistic and humorous women have managed to survive all those years with verve. In 'Meet the Fokkens,' the viewer gets to visit places in Amsterdam where the sisters' memories reside." (World Premiere)
"The Light in Her Eyes," directed by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix (United States, Syria)
In this world premiere, the role of women in Syria goes under the microscope. The film asks the question, is the role of women a product of the dominant Muslim religion or cultural tradition? "On TV, conservative clerics stress that women belong at home — reproducing and taking care of their families. Are these religious rules or simply a cultural tradition? Under the direction of Houda al-Habash, the inspiring and contradictory female principal of the Al-Zahra Koran School, women are trying to find the answer to that question. As a spiritual leader in this Islamic women's movement, Al-Habash advocates a thorough knowledge of the Koran, a good education and women thinking and being responsible for themselves. She drives a car, supervises other mosques, and counsels women in domestic conflicts. By teaching her students to interpret the Koran, she gives them strength and self-respect."
"Bob and the Monster," directed by Keirda Bahruth (United States)
While technically not an International Premiere after screening at the Edmonton Film Festival, this American film (which premiered at SXSW) is having its second international outting at IDFA. The film turns the spotlight on former front man of the '80s cult band Thelonious Monster and his private world of drug addiction in Los Angeles. With the numerous interviews (including Red Hot Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis and Flea, Jane's Addiction's Stephen Perkins and Courtney Love), these images paint a picture of Bob Forrest the artist and Bob Forrest the junkie and alcoholic. While the film contains a wealth of archival material (including disturbing footage of a completely drugged-up Forrest), we also see how his addiction led to his current role as a drug counselor — albeit one who's still bucking the system.
"I Am Woman Now," directed by Michiel van Erp (The Netherlands)
A tender portrait of courage with portraits of four pioneering ladies who were among the first to undergo sex change in the '50s, the film is ripe for hitting the gay festival circuit come 2012. "Starting in 1956, people who wanted to have a sex change operation could go to gynecologist Georges Burou in Casablanca – without having to undergo any psychological assessment. Filmmaker Michiel van Erp asks some of these pioneers, all old women now, if the choice that they made back then has changed their lives as they had hoped. How did the outside world react to this first generation of transsexuals?" "I hope this film will give young people the courage to follow their dreams no matter how impossible they may seem," a moved Michiel van Erp told the audience following the film's debut Saturday to a loud round of applause from the packed house. [World Premiere]
"Pink Ribbons, Inc.," directed by Léa Pool (Canada)
This shocking portrait of the group behind the pink ribbon movement had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and will surely turn heads after its U.S. premiere in 2012. "Women diagnosed with breast cancer in Western countries inevitably come into contact with Pink Ribbon: a movement that seems at first glance to be a sympathetic source of resistance, hope and action. In cooperation with companies, dedicated fanatics organize marathons and other sponsored activities to collect funds for research into a cure. But in spite of all the billions this brings in, the cure remains elusive. This critical, investigative documentary gives a platform to a range of scientists and opinion makers to talk about the origins and the mechanisms behind Pink Ribbon. Patients and feminists also cast a light on this pink power movement, which turns out to have powerful marketing potential. Breast cancer, it seems, is a "dream cause" with a huge, homogeneous group of potential customers: all women. Research has shown that in 80% of homes in North America, women determine how the money gets spent — a fact that paints a somewhat less than rosy picture of this combative movement." [International Premiere]
"Becoming Bert Stern," directed by Shannah Laumeister (United States)
Photographer Bert Stern shot all the sirens of the silver screen in the golden age of film. Sophia Loren, Liz Taylor, Shirley MacLaine, Barbra Streisand, Madonna, Scarlett Johansson, Marilyn Monroe: the famous American photographer Bert Stern has snapped them all. In his own words, "Making love and making photographs were closely connected in my mind when it came to women." Stern is particularly famous for his portrait series of Marilyn Monroe and his "Lolita with heart-shaped glasses" for the poster of Stanley Kubrick's Lolita. What begins as a conventional portrait of a celebrity photographer gradually turns into a playful mirror gag between the 82-year-old and his muse Shannah Laumeister, 40 years his junior, who also directed the film." "Becoming Bert Stern" had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and will surely make the rounds Stateside in 2012. [International Premiere]