The International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, or IDFA, piles a selection of the year’s docs into a window in mid-November–this year during its recently-wrapped 25th edition. The films are not all new, but enough of them are being seen for the first time that IDFA becomes a showcase for next year. Here are some docs that you can expect to see in 2013.
"First Cousin Once Removed" Dir. Alan Berliner, USA, 2012
Alan Berliner makes no-budget films that tend to be about himself and his family. In this one (which premiered at the New York Film Festival and won IDFA’s feasture doc award), Edwin Honig (1919-2011), a poet and Berliner’s mother’s first cousin, is losing his memory and his mind. He doesn’t even recognize pictures of himself. “I’m not impressed,” is his opinion when he sees one. Often, when Honig speaks, what comes out sounds a lot like someone’s odd poetry. Does a “poetic soul” trump dementia? Berliner filmed his poignant doc over five years, with plenty of improbable laughs — even assisted-living lyricism, as the camera observes the trees outside Honig’s window changing with the seasons. This may be the film to see after Michael Haneke’s Amour tears you apart. Honig’s warning on aging: “It’s worse than what you think.” Remember that even a broken clock speaks the truth twice a day.
"I Am Breathing" Dir. Emma Davie, Morag McKinnon, Scotland / Denmark, 2012
There are fewer punch-lines in this Scottish doc than in First Cousin Once Removed. Neil Platt is the father of a young son. Neil is diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease in his early thirties. The filmmakers follow bedridden Neil’s blog as the disease worsens and he looks back at life with good spirits. Two supporting characters will win over the audience – his wife, whose mood sustains Neil’s, and his Oscar, who experiences his father’s affections in the only way that he knows the dying man, attached to a machine that enables him to keep breathing. This wins the reality check award.
"Soldier on the Roof" Dir. Esther Hertog, Netherlands, 2012
As a truce holds, barely, in Gaza, Esther Hertog’s film (winner for Best Debut and Best Dutch Film at IDFA) watches a deeper crisis, the Israeli occupation of Arab lands. In the West Bank city of Hebron, some 800 Israeli Jewish settlers lives under military protection in the center of that town of 120,000 Arabs. Israeli soldiers are everywhere the settlers go. The soldiers also watch the town from atop its buildings. Arabs who walk nearby are stopped, made to stretch their arms against the walls, and searched. While that humiliation persists, the settlers’ kids throw rocks through the windows of Arab houses with impunity. The Gatekeepers, the jolting doc by Dror Moreh now in theaters, gives you the pessimistic legacy of the occupation from former leaders of the Shin Bet (military intelligence) who believe that negotiating for peace is the only solution. Soldier on the Roof gives you ground truth from settlers who couldn’t disagree more. It’s likely to be a fixture at Jewish film festivals in the US.
"Propaganda" Dirs. The Coming Crisis (from North Korea by way of New Zealand)
This shock-umentary about Hollywood Babylon is a mockumentary. Imagine a film warning you away from the sins of the West by showing you capitalism’s evil in all its grotesquery. Sex, drugs, greed, Hollywood, and religion, are all explained by a narrator who we’re told is a North Korean academic. This spoof of systematic theology is a satire from New Zeeland. Look for the Spinal Tap spectacle in the Midnight sections of film festival around the world. Or you can watch it on youtube.
"In the Dark Room" dir. Nadav Schirman, Israel/Germany/Finland
What was it like to have been the wife of Carlos, the brazen gunman who took oil minsters prisoner and terrified the world (eventually filling his own pockets) with the highjackings of airplanes? We find out from Magdalena Kopp, who is portrayed by glamorous Nora von Waldstatten in Oliver Assayas’s epic. Here we have Kopp herself, telling of moving from one German activist to another (without a deep interest in politics) and finally connecting with Carlos. She did time in a Paris prison after French police caught her and another militant with explosives in an illegally parked car, gave birth to a daughter in a taxi stalled in the gridlock of Damascus (sheltered by the Assad family), and fled to the beaches of Venezuela, where Carlos’s family kept her out of the spotlight. Carlos turns out to have been a heel and no proponent of women’s rights. What a surprise. While he’s serving a life sentence in French prison, Kopp’s sentence for the rest of her life is to tell the world about him. We see her Damascus-born Rosa struggling with the same fate. Will the appetite outside Germany and France for more Carlos lore (this time from the aggrieved wife) sustain this one? Schirman is the director of The Champagne Spy (2007), a portrait of Wolfgang Lotz, who posed as a German horse trainer in Egypt while spying for Israel from 1960 to 1965.
"Red Wedding" Dirs. Guillaume Suon, Lida Chan, Cambodia / France, 2012
If In the Dark Room isn’t enough for you, get ready for Red Wedding, the remembrance of Sochan, who was chosen to be the wife of a Khmer Rouge soldier. Not that she had any choice. The purposes of the forced marriages – there were 250,000 of them –was to increase population, we’re told. Archival footage of farming by hand by thousands of those who weren’t exterminated keeps any nostalgia from creeping in. With all the other crimes of the Khmer Rouge, mass rape hasn’t gotten much attention. You’ll hear a lot from one victim here in this austere portrait of a campaign for accountability after decades.
"Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls" Dir. Julia Lamont, Australia, 2012
Another South East Asian outlaw state is the backdrop for this doc about an improbable girl band. In Myanmar, where pleasure was effectively banned for all but the brutal ruling military elite, the Tiger Girls are a band synthesized by an enterprising Australian and a local purveyor of kitsch pop. At least one of the girls can’t sing at all, and most of them are just a step away from village life than wasn’t anywhere near what we would call the modern world, and most of the country assumes that a girl group is just a front for prostitution. Like Myanmar, the group is a work in progress, and a window onto the opening of what had been one of the world’s worst dictatorships. This doc will be nothing if not a curiosity on the festival circuit.
"Money for Nothing – Inside the Federal Reserve" Dir. Jim Bruce, US, 2012
Is there a more uncinematic subject? Money for Nothing takes on a subject that you expect might require industrial strength No-Dose. Instead, the filmmakers take us back to the origins of the Fed, which was created to protect American citizens from crises in the financial marketplace. They bring us through history to sharp cuts in interests rates and collapses in the housing and real estate markets which the Fed helped bring about. You’ll look as skeptically at experts as you do at politicians after seeing this doc. But you’ll wonder whether Money for Nothing can have any effect after the presidential election. (Same for Still, this old news is worth watching. You won’t see a quote for this doc from Ben Bernanke, but you’ll find it all over festival programs.
"In the Shadow of the Sun" Dir. Harry Freeland, UK, 2012
In Tanzania, where there are some 170,000 albinos (and where the 2010 soccer-doc Albino United was filmed), local witch doctors have declared that the body parts of albinos can cure disease or make your business a success. Even more outrageous than this canard is the fact that people believe it. Albinos are chased down and killed, and their graves are robbed. You walk through this doc horror movie with charismatic Josephat Torner, who has survived attacks and describes them in chilling detail. In his first feature doc, Harry Freeland tells a story that few knew. Even sadder is that it’s not over.
"Winter Nomads" Dir. Manuel von Sturler, Switzerland, 2012
After winning in Berlin, Winter Nomads has traveled the festival circuit, but still has no theatrical deal in the US – probably due to the fact that it is in French. We journey across Switzerland for months with shepherd Pascal, his partner Carole (a 20-something French woman who left an office job for this life) plus their four dogs and about 800 sheep. The doc’s charm prevails, despite snow, rain, and every other inclement element, with a sweetness and softness to the camera’s view of it all. Intrepid Carole looks like the Bjork of shepherds, but Leon, the puppy who can herd hundreds of sheep with the best of them (carried in her coat pocket when we first met him), steals the show. It’s genuine family entertainment, but is it a road movie, an eco-doc, or a western?
"Smash & Grab: the Story of the Pink Panthers" Dir. Havana Marking , UK, 2012
A story of a crime wave, told by the criminals who drove cars through the facades of jewelry stores and mostly got away with it. The Pink Panthers take their name from the bumbling Inspector Clouseau series starring Peter Sellers. These crooks are no amateurs. Marking (Afghan Star, 2009) traces their origins to the war that tore Yugoslavia apart and spawned a black market for anything that could be stolen. Most of the thieves are Montenegrins but, as in the movies, nothing produces imitators like success. Smash & Grab is a bracing true crime doc, with plenty of reflections on the mechanics and ethics of crime (no kidding) from alumni of the Pink Panthers, whose identities are animated to conceal them. Detectives in Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates join in the discussion. And it’s not over, just google “smash & grab” for the latest heists. Somehow I smell a feature remake here, and not only because one of the criminals tells great tales about seducing her way inside the jewelry business. This should be a festival circuit hit.