In a Year of Docs, More to See: 15 Films from IDFA '04
by Eugene Hernandez
With the theme "Films for Thought," the 17th International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam wrapped up on Sunday in The Netherlands. More than 200 documentaries from around the world screened at the event, which boasted some 120,000 admissions (a jump of 4,000 from last year).
Writing that 2004 may have indeed been the true "year of documentary" and citing such American films as "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Control Room," "The Yes Men," and "Super Size Me," festival head Ally Derks said in her welcome remarks in the festival catalog, "It seems that the lack of adequate information in that land of infinite possibilities is taking its revenge. But filmmakers are no longer prepared to accept this." Continuing, she definitively, "The documentary is the supreme means of discussing, questioning and examining the world we live in."
For this final look at IDFA '04 we offer a highly subjective list of just fifteen films. We've assembled a sampling of the best films we saw, alongside a few that had attendees buzzing and debating during the event. They are presented here in alphabetical order.
"Bruce and Me" (world premiere) - As with many of the personal docs that populated IDFA this year, films like Oren Siedler's had moviegoers talking about the conventions and approaches to documenting one's own experiences. In this doc Siedler confronts her father and comes to terms with his crimes and her own life.
"The Center" (Die Mitte) - With a perceptive eye, filmmaker Stanislaw Mucha travels throughout the middle of Europe to find the true center of the continent. Visiting numerous landmarks and the people, in often-small towns, who live and work near those landmarks, Mucha creates a unique document of Europe and its people during a time of change for many.
"Darwin's Nightmare" - Looking at, in the words of the festival, "the current consequences of social Darwinism," the film includes an examination of the Nile Perch, a fish that was introduced into Lake Victoria a few decades ago. Hubert Sauper looks at capitalism and globalization by examining the nearby town of Mwanza, in Tanzania, where the Perch has become a major export, yet the people who live there are starving and the planes that export the popular fish to the dinner tables of Europeans also deliver arms back to Africa.
"Georgi and the Butterflies" (Georgi I Peperudite, world premiere): Andrey Paounov's one-hour long look at the head of a psychiatric institution in Bulgaria was a crowd pleaser among many in Amsterdam, winning the Silver Wolf prize, with the jury saying that, "Avoiding the commonplace approach of a film on the mentally disabled, Andrey Paounov shows us that documentary filmmaking can be entertaining, moving and funny."
"Highway Courtesans" (world premiere): Made over a period that spanned nearly a decade, Mystelle Brabbée's film is a documentary about the descendents of Central India's palace courtesans who now live in small roadside villages. In her first feature, Brabbée finds compelling characters early on and sticks with them over time, revealing the complexities of the lives of these contemporary women.
"House of the Tiger King" - Perhaps its best not to try to describe too much of David Flamholc's new film, in fact, I am not exactly sure how to characterize it. The filmmaker follows noted explorer Tahir Shah on a search for a lost city and along the way the project apparently falls apart. Truth and fiction seem to be mixed in this at times hilarious, always entertaining expedition diary. But Flamholc was quick to clarify during his IDFA visit, "this film is not a mockumentary," contrary to the way it was described by festival organizers. There is no better tagline for the movie.
"Liberia: An Un Civil War" (European premiere): Jonathan Stack's latest doc, described by the festival jury as "a film whose very creation was an act of bravery -- or, some might even say, suicidal insanity," takes viewers to the front lines of the battle for Liberia, between oppressive leader Charles Taylor and a rebel group known as the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). With interviews and sometimes-brutal verite footage of the fighting, Stack and co-director James Brabazon go inside an emerging rebellion in this IDFA special jury prizewinner. Stack said in Amsterdam that he is planning a return to Liberia to pick up the story.
"Mana - Beyond Belief" (world premiere): Filmmakers Peter Friedman and Roger Manley look at an array of situations and objects that, in the minds of various people or groups, possess power. Friedman and Manley's juxtaposition of portraits of people and objects had moviegoers buzzing about the meanings and importance reflected in this collection.
"Max By Chance" - How else to describe this sharp, short new exploration of the director's own life, than in the words of the First Appearance jury, "We see a filmmaker who turns navel gazing on its head and follows the umbilical chord all the way to the constellations and back again, in a fast-paced, witty, and entertaining film."
"North Korea - Day In The Life" - Pieter Fleury looks at daily life in the closed society of North Korea, capturing a view of the country that the government wants outsiders to see, however unrepresentative those images are. indieWIRE's Brian Brooks put it simply, "The Korean film exposed the totalitarianism of the regime despite being a propaganda piece."
"Paternal Instinct" - Murray Nossel's "Paternal Instinct" explores the desire by two men who, after ten years together, decide to have a child by a surrogate mother. Over two years they face obstacles but ultimately prevail. indieWIRE's Brian Brooks, who saw the film at IDFA, commented that it "showed that family values is not owned by any group. It was a very uplifting and positive film, which was quite unique for IDFA because many of the films, however good, were of a bleak nature."
"Rehearsals" (international premiere): Michael Leszczylowsky (regular editor for Lukas Moodysson) and Gunnar Kallstrom look at three prison inmates preparing for a play about their own lives, back in 1998. Things go awry along the way when an escape and a crime are committed by one of the participants, tragically changing the dynamics of the experience. Noting the film's "willingness to defy the conventions of the genre," the festival jury noted that the film "recognizes the possibility of human redemption even while acknowledging its elusiveness."
"The Shape of the Moon" (Stand Van De Maan, world premiere): Leonard Retel Helmrich's "Shape of the Moon," winner of the Joris Ivens Competition prize, the top award at IDFA, is the filmmaker's second exploration of life in Indonesia. With some stunning photography and a unique up-close, yet verite approach, this film takes a look at the life of a poor family living amongst the world's largest Muslim population and struggling with everyday life. In honoring the film, the jury said that the movie that it, "Quite simply embodies the pure joy of filmmaking, all the raw intimacy of a drunken relative and the eloquence of a song."
"The Svenkas" (world premiere): In this second part of a trilogy dubbed, "Faith, Hope & Love," Danish filmmaker Jeppe Ronde explores a group of Zulu men in South Africa who compete in a male style contest, showing off their expensive outfits and smooth moves. In recognizing the film as a nominee for the top prize, the jury said, "We honor a film with a pronounced synthesis of subject and style, distinct characterizations and a warm, humanistic approach to a people all too often portrayed as victims of oppression and warfare."
"The Take" - Avi Lewis' feature was the runner-up in audience award balloting, finishing just barely shy of "The Yes Men." In this popular fest doc, director Lewis and writer Naomi Klein visit factories, schools, and other institutions in Argentina and talk with employees about their efforts to resurrect their own companies.
[indieWIRE Associate Editor Brian Brooks contributed to this report.]