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DISPATCH FROM AMSTERDAM: At a Leading Doc Festival, Surveying the Global State of Documentary Film

By Eugene Hernandez | Indiewire November 27, 2006 at 6:22AM

Some 600 Q & A sessions are ongoing throughout the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, yielding a considerable amount of doc talk at a festival with the slogan, "Film For Thought." Organizers kick-started the chatting over the weekend with a special "UnDebate" on the state of documentary at the GroteZaal inside the fest's DeBalie homebase. Moderator Peter Wintonick invited reps from numerous countries to step up and share insights on the doc scene back in their homes, with participants highlighting a number of higher profile IDFA films along the way.
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Some 600 Q & A sessions are ongoing throughout the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, yielding a considerable amount of doc talk at a festival with the slogan, "Film For Thought." Organizers kick-started the chatting over the weekend with a special "UnDebate" on the state of documentary at the GroteZaal inside the fest's DeBalie homebase. Moderator Peter Wintonick invited reps from numerous countries to step up and share insights on the doc scene back in their homes, with participants highlighting a number of higher profile IDFA films along the way.

Welcoming a mix of filmmakers and insiders from around the world, Wintonick began by asking attendees to shout out keywords for the conversation, with audiences members offering such topics as: lack of humor, innovation, movies that inspire (rather than despair), YouTube, dumbing down, storytelling, reaching audiences, too many talking heads, community, and docs that inspire action.

China

From China, Wang Yi and Yang Gancai ("Transformation") offered a unique first-person history of documentary in the country, distinguishing between propaganda films made prior to 1949 and those movies created after 1980, which tended capture the daily lives of Chinese people. Meanwhile, more recent work, they said, sometimes incorporates a filmmaker's own life into work.

Wang Yi and Yang Gancai, makers of the film "Transformation" (right), chat with an IDFA programmer at this weekend's festival session on the state of documentary. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

In the case of Wang Yi and Yang Gancai's "Transformation," the IDFA world premiere looks at the daily lives of a small community of people living in a remote Chinese village on the country's border with Myanmar. It is one of 14 new movies from modern-day China on display in the China Transit section of this year's festival.

Sitting in the back of the room, IDFA festival director Ally Derks added that such topics as democracy, human rights, and divorce are among the topics addressed in new films, a big change from just a few years ago she explained. The challange for the Chinese work, according to others is the lack of a market for documentaries in the country. The primary distribution outlet in the emerging non fiction market is pirated DVDs and CDs, with filmmakers looking to the West for funding and seeking audiences via the international film festival circuit. The filmmakers agreed that creative people are much more free these days.

Australia

From Australia, Jennifer Crone of SBS Television weighed in with the state of docs down under, sounding hopeful that the increasing audience for non fiction work will lead to more challenging work. "I would say that in Australia, documentary is really thriving at the moment," offered Crone, "Particularly on television."

Crone noted that the ratings for docs on TV are bigger than ever and added that there is a thirst to see work created by Australians, or projects that present local content. Via her own television initiative she is embracing edgier, experimental and animated work, but is sometimes frustrated that filmmakers tend to play it safe. "We don't get as many that excite us," she concluded.

India

Citing a "ray of light" in India, director Nishtha Jain ("Six Yards to Democracy") noted that the use of talking heads back home is fading and she added that technology is changing filmmaking, with documentarians exploring new approaches and telling their stories in unique ways. And she added, "In terms of numbers, we are making a lot of films," and acknowledging newer approaches, she added, "I think we should see something new in the next couple of years."

Her film, also having its world premiere here at IDFA, was funded in part by the festival's Jan Vrijman Fund and looks at the ultimately tragic decision by a politician to try to lure impoverished voters by offering free saris. The move caused a stampede and left some women trampled and killed. "The story is really something else," Jain explained, adding that beyond the specific incident, it offered a deeper window into the society and its poor.

Israel

Philippa Kowarsky from Cinephil in Israel highlighted a pair of competition films from Israel in her dispatch. "Often our media is always part of the system," she explained, noting that on occasion a more political work comes along that depicts deeper, more profound, and often intimate stories.

On one end of the spectrum, she cited Ido Haar's "9 Star Hotel," an Israeli documentary that is screening in IDFA's Joris Ivens Competition. It looks at Palestinians who work illegally as construction workers in Israel. As Kowarsky explained, the film, which was previously pitched in IDFA's funding Forum, focuses in on young boys working to build a city in Israel.

Another Israeli film that has struck a chord is Shahar Cohen and Halil Efrat's "Souvenirs," which has been quite popular at the IDFA. Cohen and Efrat offer a doc peppered with humor. In the movie, Cohen and his father embark upon a roadtrip to retrace the journey a number of Israelis traveled during WWII, training in Libya, fighting in Italy and spending post-war time here in The Netherlands. As Cohen learned, many of the soldiers left "souvenirs" (or children) with Dutch lovers.

"Souvenirs" has been a big hit with local audiences here in The Netherlands; it led audience award balloting yesterday with a nearly an 8.957 out of 10, according to the festival's daily public prize tally that is posted on a special festival website.

Brazil

From Brazil, Amir Labaki of the It's All True Documentary Festival noted that, "things are moving quite well," calling it, "a very good time" for documentary in his country. He added that a full one-third of films opening in theaters back home are docs. He added that today he sees fewer talking heads and filmmakers are now striving to tell stories in different ways.

"[They are] trying to organize the storytelling a bit differently," Labaki told the crowd, noting that he is personally enthused when he sees filmmakers who avoid the obvious Brazilian subjects or elements: sun, samba, and women. He also highlighted the success of the RAIN network that is converting halls and revitalizing them as movie theaters in his country.

Brazil is represented by Paschal Samora's "Diario de Nana" (Nana's Diary) about a musician's search for the origins of music and unique (often ordinary) instruments, while Joao Moreira Salles' "Santiago" looks (in black and white) at the life of his own family's flamboyant butler of the same name.

United States

From the U.S., a number of filmmakers offered details on the state of documentary in the country. Director Jonathan Stack explained that in his own case, he has become more and more involved in documentary filmmaking as social activism, yet he has also been frustrated by the passive role of the filmmaker. He detailed his work on a film about Snoop Dogg, admitting that he himself played a role in encouraging the rapper to lead a movement of people advocating that California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger overturn a death sentence for Crips gang founder Tookie Williams. Explaining the situation, Stack said he was functioning as both a campaign manager and documentarian in the situation, ultimately abandoning the film work since he was too close to the subject.

"The independent community is alive and well in the United States," proclaimed filmmaker Julia Reichert, in Amsterdam with the long-in-the-works "A Lion In The House," which she co-directed with her partner Steven Bognar. "The activist-engaged, socially conscious (documentary) is alive and well," she added. While the success of activist Robert Greenwald has offered a unique model for DIY and activist work, she shared the spotlight with Bognar who elaborated on challenges for the theatrical side.

"Theatrically, American audiences are paying money to see documetaries," said Bognar, explaining that there are both positive and negative aspects to this growing audience as the larger reach has led to the pervasive growth of a certain subgenre of documentaries: "the contest film." Citing "Mad Hot Ballroom," "Murdeball," "Rise," "Wordplay," and, of course, "Spellbound," Bognar warned of the dangers of following these familiar formulas. "We are already feeling a weariness [from this formula]," he cautioned.

"Part of the news is that docs are in vogue, playing in theaters. It's sexy to be a documentary filmmaker right now," Reichert continued, noting that filmmakers have literally seized the means of production, but the over-present challenge is in finding that distribution. And concluding, Bognar noted another trend in these "sexy times" for documentary (echoing a common complaint of critics and festival programmers). That is, that many documentaries are simply too long.

While the length of Bognar and Reichert's 230 minute "A Lion in the House" seems appropriate to audiences given its examination of many children and their long battles with cancer, such rich stories are not always the case. (At a festival that screens numerous hour-long, made for television docs, one filmmaker specifically admitted the need by many directors to make a movie of at least 75 minutes long in order for it to be taken seriously).

"Every filmmaker wants to make a feature," Bognar offered, "Whether their film should be a feature or not."

indieWIRE's coverage of IDFA continues the week with dispatches from Amsterdam and iPOP photos, all included in indieWIRE's special Documentary section.

This article is related to: Documentary, Festival Dispatch







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