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November 29, 2006 1:03 AM
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DISPATCH FROM AMSTERDAM: "Together" Tops at IDFA (So Far); and Berliner's Best

"We Are Together" director Paul Taylor (center) with producer Teddy Leifer (left) during the IDFA Q & A following their premiere. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

A number of films have stirred audiences and industry alike here at IDFA this year and based on informal surveys of insiders attending the festival, the taste of general attendees seems to be in line with that of the professionals. Perhaps the most buzzed about title at mid-week is Paul Taylor's debut feature "We Are Together," a crowd-pleaser that has just secured a deal.

The story of the Agape orphanage for children abandoned by parents who have died of AIDS, Taylor's "We Are Together" delves into the sometimes tragic tales surrounding the children. But he ultimately finds an inspirational story when the children literally lift their voices to sing. The film drew rousing cheers at its debut over the weekend and it solidly tops IDFA's regularly updated online tracking poll of audience favorites. Showing in the First Appearance section for first-time feature directors, the movie is currently the shoo-in to win the audience award later this week.

Funded by the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation, the doc was quickly nabbed by HBO, which confirmed the deal Tuesday in a conversation with indieWIRE. "It includes some of the best documentary scenes that I have ever seen," HBO's Nancy Abraham told indieWIRE during a break at the IDFA Forum on Tuesday afternoon. Chatting in the foyer alongside Channel 4's Jess Search, Abraham hailed the movie's verite footage and expressed tremendous enthusiasm for the new doc. HBO came on board with finishing funds and director Taylor (along with producer Teddy Leifer) told indieWIRE that they are close to concluding a final cut of the film in time for an intended Spring film festival debut.

Taylor spent three months volunteering at the Agape orphanage before deciding to tackle the project, getting to know the children quite well along the way. Without giving away too much of the story, the children are selling a CD of their own music to support their South African home and copies were going fast in the lobby after Sunday's debut showing. Expect to hear much more about this film down the road; for more information on the movie, visit the film's website.

Another popular festival title, which currently ranks at number 3 on the festival's audience award list is Pernille Rose Gronkjaer's "The Monastery - Mr. Vig & The Nun." Expected to have its U.S. debut in January at a high profile American festival, has had audiences and industry buzzing here at IDFA. Striking-looking and quite quirky, the aging Vig is pursuing his dream of building a Russian orthodox monastery in an old Danish castle (with the help of group of nuns). Along the way, Vig offers unique insights into his life and views, emphasizing his reasons for pursuing the plan. He says, "I want to make something enduring.

IDFA Audience Award Voting Results (as of November 28, 2006):

1. "We Are Together" 9.425
2. "Souvenirs" SOUVENIRS 8.965
3. "The Monastery - Mr. Vig & The Nun" 8.955
4 "Bridge Over The Wadi" 8.912
5 "Thin Ice" 8.906

Berliner's Best

While IDFA showcases some of the best new documentaries, alongside festival favorites from earlier in the year, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam is also highlighting doc classics. Veteran documentary filmmaker Alan Berliner chose a list of eleven films as his top picks to be screened at this year's festival, including a half-dozen from the early days of cinema, which he described as films that helped shape the fundamentals for not only documentary but for cinema in general. "I chose films that were very important to me," said Berliner, in a crowded smoky room at IDFA's headquarters, during a daily evening conversation. "These films decided film itself... [these] are the precursors that started the dialogue for how films are made."

Alan Berliner at IDFA this week. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Every year, IDFA offers an acclaimed filmmaker the chance to screen his or her personal top ten favorites. Berliner chose eleven, including "Lumiere Compilation" by Auguste and Louis Lumiere (1895), Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's "Manhatta" (1921), Esther Shub's "The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty" (1927), Walter Ruttman's "Berlin, Symphony of a Great City" (1927), Dziga Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera" (1929) and "Enthusiasm" (1931), Joris Ivens and Mannus Franken's "Regen" (Rain, 1929), Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid's "Meshes of the Afternoon" (1943), Bruce Conner's "A Movie" (1958), Stan Brakhage's "Window Water Baby Moving" (1959) and Jonas Mekas' "Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania" (1971).

"I think it's important for people to see films that are inspiring, and these were pillars. I'm humbled in the face of them," Berliner said on Sunday night.

In addition to introducing his top ten (or eleven in this case), IDFA showed some of Berliner's own films, including his latest, "Wide Awake," which is one of nine of his films screening in the "Retrospective Alan Berliner" section this year. After showing a clip of "City Edition" (1980) at Sunday's event, Berliner said there were common illustrations linking the two films in addition to his other work. "I like to recycle images to give them new meanings. I like to have images show up in more than one of my movies so those threads are interconnected. They're like DNA, [and the films] are 'cousins.'" In "Wide Awake," Berliner takes on his personal struggle with insomnia via a multi-tiered diary, including, in part, interviews with family, testing various remedies, archival footage and the connection between sleep and death.

"I want this film to represent the incessant beleaguered thoughts that go through my head when I can't sleep," said Berliner who went on to give statistics about the modern age. "The Victorians slept on average nine hours, but Westerners on average get 7 1/2 hours today.

Berliner also praised HBO for giving him such wide latitude in creating "Wide Awake." "I was shocked HBO just funded my film and said, 'make your film.' I had total creative freedom, [and] they even encouraged me to make it weirder then I was prepared to go." Continuing, Berliner said that beyond common images, there was emotion that he uses in all of his work. "I try to use humor with this film--as I do with all my films--but this one in particular because you cannot [deal] with your problems unless you can 'play' with it."

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

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