Since Wednesday, the international non-fiction industry has descended on the Venice of the North for the 25th anniversary of International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, or IDFA for short — the largest such gathering in the world. While the event's FORUM begins today, where new projects are pitched to the leading funders and TV commissioning editors around the world, a number of completed projects screening in the festival have generated some buzz among programmers polled over its first weekend. With literally hundreds of new films on offer, it may be telling that the following are among those that have popped – keep an eye out for them at other upcoming festivals:
"Propaganda" (World Premiere)
The title that seems to have generated the most pre-screening curiosity is this anonymous North Korean entry in the fest's "Reflecting Images – Panorama" section. According to IDFA's program, the film made its way into Western hands via a translator through supposed North Korean dissidents, but, as indicated by its title, seems to be more of an indictment of the world outside of Kim Jong-un's dictatorship. A scientist leads the viewer, Michael Moore style, through a lesson in Western greed, violence, and immorality, offering an alternative in the promised land of North Korea. Using rhetoric not unlike that of the Occupy movement, one wonders if this is actually an elaborate satire, holding an mirror uncomfortably close to the excesses of our society.
"Wrong Time Wrong Place" (World Premiere)
Selected to open this year's festival, simultaneously screening in 25 cinemas around the country, Dutch director John Appel's film explores the events of last year's bomb attacks and shootings in Norway. The contemplative essay film – exploring the randomness of coincidence in dictating our experiences – was noted by some international fest programmers as strong, while others noted a difficulty with its pace and approach. Appel's previous work has screened at the festival several times – his 1999 "André Hazes – She Believes in Me" opened IDFA in 1999 and won the top prize – best feature-length doc. His current film is also in the running for the same award as well as the award for best Dutch film.
"Bravehearts" (International Premiere)
Kari Anne Moe's is also informed by the deadly actions taken by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik in Norway on July 22, 2011. Moe was in the middle of filming her current project, following four young people running school election campaigns representing a range of parties, as a sort of litmus test for the upcoming national elections. When news breaks of Breivik's massacre, each candidate must take stock of his or her position, including one young man who was on the island of Utøya where Breivik killed 69 of his fellow Labor Youth party members. The film is in the running for the First Appearance prize.
"I Am Breathing" (World Premiere)
Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon's main competition entry is an emotionally devastating portrait of Neil Platt, a terminal thirty-three-year-old man saying goodbye to his wife and infant son. Paralyzed by the swift onset of motor neuron disease, Platt is completely dependent on others to tend to him. He's decided that once he can no longer swallow or speak, his ventilator will be turned off. Until then, using voice recognition software, he blogs about his life as a way to leave something of himself behind for his one-year-old. A production of the Scottish Documentary Institute, co-produced by the always inventive Danish Documentary, the film is alternately heartbreaking and disarmingly sardonic.
"Smash & Grab – The Story of the Pink Panthers" (World Premiere)
British director Havana Marking, whose "Afghan Star" won both the World Cinema Documentary Directing and Audience Awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, premieres her profile of the notorious jewel thieves in the main competition here. Interviewing members of the wanted gang, disguised by animation, Marking delves into their origins in Yugoslavia in the war-torn 1990s, where, led by political instability and the lack of available employment, many of the gang members originally turned to crime. Attendees polled were eager to see if Havana could bring the thrill and danger of the heist film to the documentary in the manner of "Man on Wire" or "The Imposter."
"The Staircase 2: The Last Chance" (World Premiere)
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's follow up to his riveting 2004 miniseries also makes its debut in competition here. The original series captivated viewers on the Sundance Channel, detailing the strange death of Kathleen Peterson – did a fall claim her life, or did her husband Michael murder her? As Michael appeals the decision handed down at the end of the first series, de Lestrade offers updates on the major players and where they stand today, while exploring the inner workings of the US criminal justice system. Based on the popularity of the original, this is sure to screen extensively at fests in the coming year, as well as on the small screen on the Sundance Channel.
"In the Dark Room" (World Premiere)
Another main competition title with a darker edge that was mentioned by more than one IDFA industry attendee this weekend is Nadav Schirman's portrait of the wife and daughter of the infamous Venezuelan terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal – most recently the subject of Olivier Assayas' 2010 "Carlos" and also featured in Jacques Vergés' 2007 doc, "Terror's Advocate." Looking at the women behind the legend, Schirman traces his wife Magdalena's path from the radical left into the international revolutionary activities she shared with her husband and his group, and explores their daughter's relationship with Carlos – who she knows only from the media – as Carlos faces a life sentence in a Paris court.
"Who Will Be A Gurkha" (World Premiere)
A real-world, high-stakes modern competition is at the core of Kesang Tseten's compelling film, which offers a fly-on-the wall look at the painstaking process by which thousands of 17-20 year old Nepalese boys attempt to become men in the British Army Brigade of Gurkhas. Tracking the rigorous selection process for six months, this main IDFA competition entry details the physical tests and interviews the boys must excel in to win a place in the storied ranks – which go back to the early 1800s, as demonstrated by fascinating archival footage that echoes the modern day – and, significantly, provide an income far beyond what they could hope to earn otherwise, and an eventual British passport.
"Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls" (World Premiere)
Juliet Lamont's engaging film, also vying for the main prize, follows the first all-girl band in the repressive regime of Myanmar (Burma), from their calculated beginnings as "The Tiger Girls" under the control of a litigious producer to their necessary reinvention as the punny "Me an Ma Girls" with the help of their savvy Aussie choreographer, manager, and de facto mother hen Nikki. As the country takes steps towards more freedom – releasing long time political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi who goes on to elected office – the Girls attempt to push past gender and ethnic prejudices in this poppy, insider view of the nascent awakening of a closed society.
"Elena" (International Premiere)
Making its international bow in the First Appearance section, Brazilian Petra Costa's first feature comes off multiple wins from its debut at the Brasilia festival and praise from her acclaimed countrymen Walter Salles and Fernando Meirelles. The film is a lyrical and partly staged exploration of what happened to Petra's older sister, Elena, who, like Petra, wanted to study acting and live in New York City. As family photos, letters, and video combine, the puzzle of her sister is slowly teased out, and how it informs both Petra's sense of herself, and the viewer's sense of the filmmaker.
IDFA continues through Sunday, November 25. A report spotlighting the FORUM will follow later this week.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, Shorts & Panel Programmer for DOC NYC, and a consultant to documentary filmmakers and festivals. Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).