As non-fiction filmgoers and industry representatives continue to sample the nearly 300 documentaries the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) has on offer at this year's edition (which runs through November 28), indieWIRE continues its coverage with eight new noteworthy titles (and a couple of bonus mentions), that have screened thus far, supplementing an earlier report.
Three of these are films which screened recently at Sheffield or elsewhere before making their IDFA debuts, but have yet to appear Stateside: Jerry Rothwell's "Donor Unknown;" Nic Dunlop, Annie Sundberg, and Ricki Stern's "Burma Soldier;" and Andris Gauja's "Family Instinct."
World Premieres covered below include "Agnus Dei," by Alejandra Sánchez; "Kano: An American and His Harem," by Monster Jimenez; "The Other Chelsea: A Story from Donetsk," by Jakob Preuss; "My Barefoot Friend," by Seong-Gyou Lee; and "iThemba," by Elinor Burkett.
Rothwell's film was introduced as covering a lighter topic than many of the more social issue-oriented selections, but while perhaps not as ultra-serious in approach, its core is still thought-provoking. The titular figure is Jeffrey, a Venice Beach RV dweller who used to make a substantial amount of money by donating sperm to the California Cryobank. After some of his many biological offspring find one another thanks to an online registry database, leading to a New York Times cover story, he reveals his identity. The film focuses on one of his daughters, JoEllen, as she explains how she found more than a dozen half-siblings (so far), and sets out to meet Jeffrey in person for the first time. In the process, the film explores concepts of family and parenthood, and attains poignancy when Jeffrey's kids and their mothers confront the reality behind who he is versus their idealized fantasies based on his donor questionnaire.
Like "Donor Unknown," "Burma Soldier" premiered at Sheffield and received funding from both the Sundance Documentary Fund and Cinereach - with such support, the film is bound to have a healthy life on the festival circuit and perhaps beyond. Focused on Myo Myint, a former Burmese soldier, the film offers powerful first-hand testimony about the abusive totalitarian system seen in films like "Burma VJ," but from the unique perspective of a man who was one of the abusers. After he turned against the oppressive regime he once supported, Myint spent 15 years in prison, enduring torture, before finally seeking asylum in Thailand. As perhaps suggested by having three directors, the film isn't as focused as it could be - despite this, it's worthwhile for its remarkable access to its courageous subject. At IDFA, producer Julie leBrocguy noted that, through the help of underground activists, the film is being smuggled into Burma so that it can be shown to the Burmese people and perhaps help motivate them to fight back against their oppression.
The fact that Zanda has had two children with her brother Valdis is presented immediately and in the most matter of fact manner in Gauja's film. This hardly seems to be the main problem faced by the poor, rural Latvians in "Family Instinct." Valdis is in jail, from which he sends his sister increasingly disturbing and threatening letters. Zanda shares her small home not only with her kids but with other family members and neighbors prone to drinking, disruptive arguments, and violence. A quiet, but also alcoholic, neighbor might be her salvation, but he fears retribution from Valdis, and Zanda fears losing her kids. Stark, at times painful to watch, but always gripping, "Family Instinct" suggests an intriguing pairing with another unorthodox portrait of a dysfunctional family, Eva Mulvad's "The Good Life."
Dealing with another taboo, Sánchez's film investigates the spectre of the sexual abuse of a young altar boy, Jesús Colin, now a young adult, at the hands of his priest, Father Carlos. Now an adult, and determined to confront his former father figure, Jesús can discuss what happened, but retains deep scars from the betrayal he suffered, as do his parents, who finally accepted the truth. Still in denial, or, better yet, active complicity, is the Catholic Church, whose representative interviewed here makes a bizarre argument that the boys were simply fondled and not penetrated, so no abuse happened. Asked at the screening about whether exposing these abuses put her subjects or herself in danger, Sánchez noted, "At the moment in Mexico, everything is dangerous, but I had to make this film, and I hope nothing happens to Jesús or to me."
"Kano: An American and His Harem"
Accusations of sexual violence are central to Jimenez' portrait of Victor Pearson, the (Ameri)Kano Vietnam vet of the title who has lived in The Philippines since 1969, and the many, many native wives and mistresses that he assembled to live with him over the years. Nearly ten years ago, he faced over 80 charges of rape against the women, and despite most of them eventually recanting their testimony and dropping their claims, he is still serving time on two counts. Giving equal time to both Pearson and the women's stories, the film gradually reveals a system of sexual subservience predicated on economic exploitation - a system that most of the women (or their families) may have entered resignedly, but, sadly, fully aware. What the film's production values occasionally lack are made up by an intimate candor that the director achieves with all of her subjects.
"The Other Chelsea: A Story from Donetsk"
Preuss presented the world premiere of his film (pitched two years ago at IDFA's FORUM) on his 35th birthday, and, accompanied by a spontaneous audience chorus of "Happy Birthday" in mellifluous Dutch, celebrated by passing around shots of Ukrainian vodka to everyone - appropriate for a film looking at Ukrainian politics through the microcosm of soccer, as suggested by its too-European, too-insider-sports title (likely to be lost on US audiences, so a retitling would seem in order). In Donetsk, virtually everyone supports the soccer team, Shakhtar Donesk, and everyone hates President Yushchenko and his Orange revolution. Club owner, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, supports the anti-Orange Party of the Regions, so, for his career, ambitious young local politician Kolya does too, despite having little interest in sports. Coal miner Sasha, on the other hand, has been a team supporter for more than 50 years, and becomes fanatical when Shakhtar seems set on the road to winning a major international cup. Preuss succeeds in making a sports doc that is not really about sports, but instead about the mechanisms of political power, and how they are influenced by the wealthy oligarchical elite.
"My Barefoot Friend"
Korean director Seong-Gyou Lee presents a portrait of Calcutta rickshaw pullers that achieves a level of immediacy and clarity that often strangely feels like a fictional narrative - the appearance of two flashbacks during the course of the film at first suggest re-enactments but turn out to be a product of years of filming. The main subjects are middle-aged Shallim, who has been saving to purchase an auto-rickshaw but finds his nest-egg quickly vanish due to his family's medical problems, and young Manoj, hailing from the same poor region as Shallim, and facing his own demons related to the murder of his father. As these men and others struggle to earn enough to barely survive, they face an impending law that might make their profession illegal, leading to a particularly affecting on-camera sequence between Shallim and the director that bookends the film. On the lighter side, at a dinner celebrating the film last night, it was revealed that Lee owns an Indian restaurant in South Korea, so on one side of his business card it reads "Director," and on the other "Indian Cuisine."
"iThemba" is one of the more anticipated debuts at the festival this year for those who noted that its director is the same woman who raised eyebrows by rushing to the stage at the Academy Awards to claim the Oscar for Best Documentary Short, interrupting the speech of her collaborator, Roger Ross Williams. Burkett briefly referenced the incident during the Q&A for her debut feature, saying she "misbehaved" that evening, and citing the short, "Music By Prudence," over which she did not ultimately have final control, as leading to the dissolution of the Zimbabwean band, Liyana, because it betrayed the band by focusing only on one performer. In contrast, "iThemba" (translated late in the film as "hope") profiles all of the members of the band composed of physically disabled young people, with Prudence and charismatic lothario Marvelous as lead singer/songwriters trying to inspire others during a national economic crisis and show their own capabilities and self-worth in the process. Burkett also noted that the version of the film that will screen in Zimbabwe has excised the occasional criticisms of President Mugabe in an effort to protect its outspoken and always genial subjects from criminal prosecution and jail.
Finally, as a bonus, a brief mention and recommendation for a couple of strong films that have already made brief appearances on the festival circuit in the US and elsewhere and shouldn't be overlooked: Hans Dortmans' "Divine Pig," an unusually charming story about the strange bond between a butcher and a pig which may or may not end up slaughtered; and Briar March's "There Once Was An Island: Te Henua e Nnoho," an affecting portrait of a small, isolated Papua New Guinean island community which faces potential displacement due to climate change elevating sea water levels and flooding their ancestral home.
Still to come from iW's coverage of IDFA: a look at some of the pitches seeking support at the FORUM co-production market.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, consults with documentary filmmakers and festivals, and recently co-produced Cameron Yates’ feature documentary “The Canal Street Madam.” Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1 and @CanalStMadamDoc) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).