By Indiewire | Indiewire January 7, 1999 at 2:00AM
Amsterdam Doc Fest Strong in Euro-Product, Awards
By Ann Kaneko
Coming from Los Angeles, the supposed entertainment capital of the
world, it was a revelation to attend the International Documentary Film
Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), a festival solely devoted to documentary
films where many tickets sell out in advance. Some locals plan around
the festival for months, a love for the form that would be highly
inconceivable in Los Angeles where docs only get minor art house play,
if any at all.
Eleven years since its inception, the IDFA has expanded into a respected
and important festival on the documentary circuit. This year boasted
over 200 films and brought together international filmmakers,
programmers and journalists. Taking place November 25 to December 3,
Amsterdam's dreary, cold weather was less than ideal, but it kept many
filmgoers (film attendance was tabbed at 56,000) from straying from the
eight theater venues. Amsterdam's informal "small town" atmosphere
characterized the IDFA and de Balie, the smoky cafe across from the City
film complex, was a hub where filmgoers gathered between screenings for
meetings and interviews.
Big names in US independent documentary like Albert Maysles and prolific
Brit director Nick Broomfield, who received a 17-film retrospective of
his work, were in attendance, but they were overshadowed by many
European filmmakers. The festival had a European flavor, and audiences'
tastes were in accordance. Eastern European films, characterized by
beautiful long takes, no talking heads and the under-stated presence of
the filmmakers, would be hard-pressed to find a U.S. market. However,
it was a breath of fresh air, coming from the land of TV-style docs.
This year's VPRO Joris Ivens Award, awarded to the best documentary
film, went to "Fotoamator" (Photographer) (Poland, 1998), directed by
Dariusz Jablonski. The film is a moving study of the Jewish ghetto in
the Polish city of Lodz and utilizes early color photographs taken by a
German bookkeeper. The photos alternate with black and white interviews
of one of the few survivors of the ghetto. The film is an interesting
account of the systematic tabulation of production and survival in the
ghetto and is the only film I know of which contains confessions of a
Jewish survivor who admits his complicity with the impending horror.
Seventh Art Releasing will debut "Photographer" theatrically in the U.S.
at New York's Film Forum this April.
The Special Jury Award went to Victor Kossakovsky for "Pavel and Lyalya
(a Jerusalem Romance)" (Russia, 1998). A beautiful ode to Lyalya's love
and devotion to her dying husband, the film is a meticulously
photographed metaphor for his impending death. It was shot during the
last day of the filmmakers' Jerusalem visit with the couple, who are
both respected Russian filmmakers. Also notable, director Sergey
Dvortsevoy's well-received "Hlebni den" (Bread Day) (Russia, 1998). In
many long takes, the camera watches a group of elderly residents of a
remote Russian village push an un-coupled train car full of bread, and
the ensuing bickering at the bakery for the sought-after loaves.
Amazingly patient images of village goats and dogs would make any nature
photographer envious. Another finalist was English director Paul
Wilmshurst's "Mob Law" (USA-England, 1998) which looks at mob lawyer
The Silver Wolf, awarded to the best documentary video, went to Curtis
Levy for "Hephzibah" (Australia, 1998), a portrait of Hephzibah Menuhin,
talented concert pianist and sister of the world-famous violinist,
Yehudi. Unlike her brother, she abandoned her life as a musician and
moved to a remote Australian sheep farm; the film attempts to understand
why. Also of note in the video competition was Mosco Boucault's "Un
crime a Abidjan" (A Crime in Abidjan) (France, 1995), an unflinching
look at the brutal methods employed by the Abidjan police chief to
investigate a police officer's murder.
The FIPRESCI prize, awarded to a debut filmmaker in the "First
Appearance" program, went to Dan Alexe for "Les amoureux de Dieu"
(Howling for God) (Belgium, 1998), about two sheiks in Macedonia
contending for power in the Sufi brotherhood. Jurists also made special
mention of Olga Krylova's "Rasskazio o szivotnikh" (Tales of Animals)
(Russia, 1997), about elephant keepers in a Russian zoo. Another
standout was Julia Loktev's Sundance premiere "Moment of Impact" (USA,
1998), a family document about her mother who cares for her invalid
Many outstanding films were made by women about women. In the
international program, "Reflecting Images," Kim Longinotto and Ziba
Mir-Housseini's "Divorce Iranian Style" (England, 1998) and Vicky
Funari's "Paulina" (USA-Canada-Mexico, 1997) were favorites. Among
"Platform 98" films by directors working in developing countries, Li
Hong's "Out of Phoenix Bridge" (China, 1997) and Felipe Cordero and
Hilda Hidalgo Xirinachs' "Bajo el limpido azul de tu cielo" (Blue Under
Your Sky) (Costa Rica, 1997) were of note. In these films, women
struggle for respect and identity in their own societies. Hitomi
Steyerl's "Die leere Mitte" (The Empty Center) (Germany, 1998) in the
"Visions II" student program is an important and complex document which
examines the geography and history of Potsdamer Platz and the
reconstruction of German identity after German reunification.
The highlight of the festival was the work of Hara Kazuo. Although
well-respected, Hara's work is hard to catch outside of Japan. Marked
by an intensity and relentlessness that make many viewers uncomfortable,
there seems to be little distinction between filmmaking and real-life in
Hara's work. He has made only five documentaries over a 25 year period
due to his commitment to each project over several years as well as a
lack of Japanese independent funding. Although he has been getting more
international recognition, financing remains difficult, and he waits to
produce a fiction film. His most famous film is "Yuki yukite shingun"
(The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On) (Japan, 1987), about a man on a
personal crusade to make the Japanese emperor take responsibility for
war crimes committed during World War II. "Sayonara CP" (Goodbye CP)
(Japan, 1972), the director's debut film about an ostracized group of
people afflicted with cerebral palsy, screened here for the first time
with English subtitles.
Hara also programmed an interesting group of 10 Japanese films, mostly
from the 1960s and 70s. Disgusted with the de-politicization of recent
Japanese films and the numbness of today's young people, Hara chose
these films as a kind of challenge to young Japanese filmmakers to open
their eyes to the vigor and power of the turbulent 70s. Many Westerners
may be unaware of the international fever of activism which also reached
Japan. Among these films were two by Ogawa Shinsuke who was key in
organizing the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, and
Shohei Imamura's "Ningen johatsu" (A Man Vanishes) (Japan, 1967), which
questions the lines between documentary and fiction in a search for a
businessman who disappeared.
Aside from the festival, many had come for the three-day Forum, a
high-profile meeting of producers and prospective financiers of
television documentaries. Participation in the Forum is highly
selective, and all projects had to be linked to a broadcaster and have
at least 25 percent financing. Pitches lasted seven minutes, followed
by a brief question and answer period. Commissioning editors from the
main European television stations were in attendance so the place was
abuzz with deal-making. Among those pitching were Belgian independent,
Chantal Ackerman. These sessions were very exclusive and held at the
Paradiso, next door to de Balie. Only participants or those who had
applied to be observers were allowed entrance. Judging from films in
this year's festival, a spot at the Forum would guarantee entrance into
the festival later.
Another arm of the IDFA was Docs for Sale, a market which included a
videotheque with 20 viewing booths for prospective buyers and
commissioning editors. The catalogue included more than 300 titles for
viewing. The atmosphere was very relaxed as buyers and sales agents did
business, chatting over cookies in plush rooms at the Marriot Hotel.
Visiting the IDFA for the first time, I was impressed by how
expansiveness of the European documentary market. It is definitely
another resource to be explored. I had attended hoping to find buyers
for my film at Docs for Sale. However, because of the exclusivity of
the Forum and the structure of the market, it seemed difficult to access
buyers without knowing them in advance. Also, since my film was not in
the festival, it was hard to approach buyers. Although it is difficult
to gauge how useful a trip to the IDFA was, it certainly is eye-opening
to see the amount of attention bestowed on docs in the European market.
[Ann Kaneko is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker. She is seeking
distribution for her feature-length documentary, "Overstay," about
foreign migrant workers in Japan.]