By Brian Brooks | Indiewire November 24, 2009 at 7:22AM
A man who travels to small villages making movies, a Japanese boy who leaves his village to join a sumo group, and American millionaires who pay huge sums to have the chance to experience outer space with the Russian space agency are three films screening here at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) that turn the spotlight on lifestyles.
Argentine directors Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano and Adriana Nidia Yurovich's "The Peddler" (El ambulante) profiles a filmmaker who brings new meaning to the DIY approach. Daniel Burmeister drives around in a beat-up car approaching the local mayor in a village with a proposal: He will film a feature in the town using locals in exchange for room and board and using a camera he already owns. The doc follows this very charming man as he undertakes one project in a small Argentine town. Using his seductive charisma, he captivates the towns people and they become a part of his project. After filming, he even drives through the town with a loudspeaker offering screening times as part of his own marketing blitz. The town comes out to see the film, and they are the stars.
"There is a saying in Argentina that if there's a problem, you fix it with a string," said Marcheggiano referring to how Burmeister devised clever but basic ways to repair technical snafus that inevitably occur when filming. "He's made over 50 films in 11 years, using a [rotation] of about five scripts."
Eighteen year-old Takuya leaves his village in Japan's northern main island of Hokkaido for the capital, Tokyo, to train as an apprentice sumo wrestler in the world premiere of Jill Coulon's "A Normal Life: Chronicle of a Sumo Wrestler." Despite trepidation, Takuya enrolls in a sumo school to please his father. Typical of Japanese, Takuya hides his emotion as his father tells him "not to fail" and says before he leaves that if he drops out of the program "there is no place here for you." His mother died three years prior to cancer, and his only other close relation is his sister. Coulon, who undertook the project originally planning to follow a Mongolian sumo wrestler who moves to Japan but then found Takuya, goes into the secretive and insular world of sumo, following Takuya's preparations for tournaments, sponsors' dinners. He misses his friends from his hometown, and as a new wrestler, he has to act as a personal assistant to the more established wrestlers. He reveals his doubts about his new life in phone conversations with his sister at a laundromat at night as he washes the other wrestlers' belts, saying he just wants a normal life.
"Finding Takuya was a very long process," said Coulon after the world debut screening. "It took three years before we found Takuya. It's hard for women to be accepted - it's a very insular world. You have to get through a lot of authorization, there are a lot of rules, so it's a very complicated process. Filming in Japan can be very hard..."
Swiss director Christian Frei also had huge bureaucratic hurdles to deal with for his look at the rising number of space tourists who pay millions for the chance to reach orbit via the Russian space agency. Frei takes his camera to remote Kazakhstan where the Soviet Union built its "Star City," a secretive but once proud town that was the center of the USSR's thriving space program where the first satellite, Sputnik, launched the space race back in the '50s. Though the Russians still use the facilities, its a shell of its former glory when tens of thousands of people lived there and the nation looked with pride on its achievements. Gorbachev pulled the financial plug in the '80s. To help defray the costs, the Russian space agency has taken on "space tourists" to accompany their cosmonauts on their missions.
"Everything was difficult with this project, nothing seemed possible at the beginning," said Frei after a screening of his film in Amsterdam's lovely Tuschinski Theater. "The Russian secret service wanted me off the project, and they never let me film the way I wanted." Though he originally wanted to profile a Japanese space tourist, he later settled on Iranian-American Anoush Ansari who had dreamed of going to space as a little girl living in Tehran. She paid $20 million for the chance to go into space, half the cost the Russian space agency incurrs for a launch. "What is the price of a dream?" asked Ansari in the film addressing criticism that the money was a lavish expenditure. "One month's salary? Two months? If I could go into space but not come back, I would still do it. It's my life's dream."
The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam continues through Sunday.