The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) has long styled itself the world's biggest documentary film festival. Each year, a number of world premieres here will make their way to Sundance in January (in international competitions) and beyond. At the same time, IDFA faces some European festival competition, coming just weeks after both the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX) and Sheffield Doc/Fest, though Sheffield will be moving to June starting in 2011.
Nevertheless, IDFA continues to be an unpretentious magnet for world class documentary veterans and up-and-comers. North Americans - many festival programmers - continue to flock here despite its close proximity to US Thanksgiving. The program this year again offers topics covering almost every continent, though a couple fellow attendees noted to me that this year's selection has more material that tugs at the heart then usual. One returning American film vet noted, after I ran into her outside the new tented festival headquarters in Amsterdam's Rembrandtplein area (this year surrounded by a gaudy "Winter Village with tacky Christmas knickknacks), "My compassion levels are already running low."
This year's IDFA opened with Leonard Retel Helmrich's "Stand van de maan" (Position Among the Stars), the final installment in his trilogy about modern Indonesia. I was en route to Amsterdam from New York the night of the opening, so missed this film, though I've heard surprisingly little about it - not sure if that's a reflection on the film, but I did hear one person say it seemed a bit "staged" at times. The doc is a look at modern Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, through the view of the Sjamsuddin family who live in a suburb of the capital, Jakarta. The country took the media spotlight recently with a visit from American President Barack Obama, who lived in the country for a number of years growing up. Indonesia also has strong cultural links with The Netherlands. The over 17,000 islands that make up the country was once known as the Dutch East Indies and one remnant of its former colony easily found in Amsterdam are the ubiquitous Indonesian restaurants that dot the city.
With about 280 titles screening at IDFA, it can be a challenge navigating the landscape, but the festival's more narrow feature-length competition offers some focus. Canadian director Jeff Prosserman's ("Snapped") look at the Bernard Madoff scandal "The Foxhounds" lured a sizable audience Friday afternoon to the beautiful (and cavernous) Tuschinski Theatre in the city center for its world premiere. Perhaps a bit overly dramatized at moments with images of burning $100 bills along with ominous music, the film nevertheless successfully tackles international finance - admittedly not the easiest of subjects for most - and crafts a story that is the most scandalous of rip-offs in generations. The film tells the story through several individuals who were at the heart of uncovering the $50 billion theft, including fraud expert Harry Markopolos, who exclaimed in the film, "You don't get straight lines in finance!"
"Obviously there are areas of high finance that fall out of the interest of most," Prosserman noted after the screening when describing how he decided to tell the story of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. "So we decided to do intensive interviews with five people. After that, we were able to pinpoint the areas of the narrative."
Equally scandalous as the theft itself was the complete and utter failure of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to identify the theft despite being tipped off by Markopolos years before Madoff's arrest. No stranger to the SEC (Madoff was once the head of the NASDAQ), Markopolos figured out in hours after learning of the swindler's "investment company" that something was terribly amiss, yet the SEC chose to ignore the theft, which ruined thousands of people.
Noted Prosserman, "I believe there's something more than just incompetence on the part of the SEC. But I'm not a lawyer, I can only speak to the film itself." "The Foxhounds" could very well be a contender for a Sundance slot when the lineup is announced after Thanksgiving.
Another Sundance possibility - though perhaps more of a long-shot - is Serbian director Mila Turajlic delightful "Cinema Komunisto." The film spotlights the remains of the country's once proud film industry, with a parallel narrative of the ascent then descent of the cinematic illusion of Yugoslavia. Told via old footage from some of the 750 films that were made after Yugoslavia's leader, Marshall Josip Broz Tito, ordered the construction of a massive studio city, "Cinema Komunisto" recreates the narrative of the country united under Tito's charismatic authoritarian rule that united the disperse ethnic groups of the once united Balkan state.
Stars such as Richard Burton, Sophia Loren, Orson Welles and others added Hollywood panache to what became a source of national pride - and foreign currency - as productions from around the world traveled to Yugoslavia to utilize the state studio's massive sets.
"Originally, I wanted to make the film about the studios because they will soon be gone," noted Turajlic in Amsterdam. "I just wanted there to be a record of the studio itself because none of it had been documented, but as I was shooting, I realized that the entire place was like a fictional set that had collapsed, and it was a metaphor for the story of Yugoslavia."
Tito himself was an avid film fan. "Komunisto" shows some priceless images of the dictator and his wife, Jovanka, kicking back in La-Z-Boy recliners with two martinis and their two poodles resting at their feet preparing to watch a movie. Tito watched at least one per night according to his longtime projectionist who is interviewed in the film.
Tito's film industry triumph culminated in "The Battle of Neretva" (1969) which received a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination. The film tells the story of a decisive battle against the Germans by Tito's partisans in western Bosnia.
As Tito' life came to a close in 1980, so did the country's film industry. A decade after his death, the country plunged into a civil war separating it on ethnic and religious lines and the once proud state unraveled in tatters.
"I wanted to show how you make a narrative about a great nation," noted Turajlic. "The tragedy of Serbia today is that there is no narrative..."
As the festival headed into its first weekend, large crowds queued to see Danish director Eva Mulvad's "The Good Life," described as a Danish "Grey Gardens." Judging by the massive crowds jamming into to see the film today, it will surely either hit Sundance - perhaps in its international competition - or one of the other festivals soon after. iW covered the film out of CPH:DOX and spoke with its director earlier this month.
iW will continue its coverage of IDFA in the coming days, taking a look at additional films and at the projects participating in the international co-production market, the FORUM.
Finally, one thing that may distract locals and visitors alike beginning Sunday is the 23rd High Times Cannabis Cup competition opening in this most tolerant of cities. But if the IDFA banners around the city and large crowds at screenings are any indication, the next weekend at the festival should also offer attendees an equally good trip.