By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 2, 2013 at 9:0AM
With the Oscar season engine hitting full throttle, it's increasingly difficult to acknowledge any movie that's not being thrust to the front of the awards race. This is particularly true for documentaries, a handful of which manage to land slots on the shortlist, before a mere five titles duke it out for the top honor. If this minuscule sampling were meant to represent the overall quality of non-fiction storytelling today, it would be a pretty limited overview.
In a refreshing contrast, during the past two weeks in Amsterdam, some 292 documentaries from dozens of countries screened at the 26th edition of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam. The festival also screened 100 older films and sold upwards of 200,000 tickets -- 10 times as many as it did in 1988, for its first edition. Now, it offers an ideal window into the expansive possibilities of the documentary form, but it's not alone.
In North America, documentary festivals like True/False, Hot Docs, Full Frame, AFI DOCS and DOC NYC provide further exposure for the widening field of documentary storytelling to supplement the exposure given to the handful of titles in the Sundance lineup. In fact, IDFA isn't even the only significant documentary showcase in the area: Over the past decade in neighboring Copenhagen, CPH: DOX has provided a compelling focus on hybrid cinema that combines elements of documentary and staged narratives, questioning assumptions on existing limitations with regard to the documentary form. This year, CPH: DOX sold some 70,100 tickets, a nearly 75% increase from the previous year.
The global documentary circuit provides a significant contrast to the perceived struggles that documentaries face in the United States, particularly those that aren't in English. Most distributors are wary of all but the most awards-friendly, issue-driven documentaries. A fair amount of traditional documentaries may find lucrative television deals, but the more sophisticated efforts struggle to find audiences willing to embrace them -- except, of course, for the ones filling cinemas in The Netherlands this past month.
IDFA alone presents a promising counter-example to the seemingly tough scenarios that documentaries face, not only with respect to the films out now but those in production as well. Docs For Sale provides a healthy forum for distributors, commissioning editors, sales agents and programmers to check out new projects and survey those in the pipeline during competitive pitching forums. "People are fighting to get in," said IDFA founder and current festival director Ally Derks during a conversation in Amsterdam last week. "It's been a controlled growth."
When IDFA first started, it was a small, disorderly affair that reflected the lack of infrastructure for documentary films at the time. "We had no idea what we were doing," Derks recalled, pointing out that the competition section featured an unwieldy bundle of 44 films, compared with this year's 15. "It was like madness."
However, the festival gradually accumulated its stature as the epicenter of the international documentary industry by its virtue of the platform it provided for the films, many of which now screen in the 900-seat Tuchinski theater. "What I said from the beginning was that we take documentary just as seriously as fiction," Derks said. "We're not going to show these films in art houses, but in commercial cinemas."
As a result, on the opening night of the festival, the Tuchinski was packed for a screening of the dour-but-essential "Return to Homs," a vivid depiction of the Syrian civil war shot from the heat of the battle. By the next day, streets were crammed with audiences zipping from one screening to another. It was a distinct illustration of the demand for quality documentaries that has resulted from a festival of this size offering them up.
With that much in play, the onus has been placed on documentary programmers to figure out which movies deserve the exposure that such events can provide. "I think most of the films in competition are author-driven films, good storytelling, and good cinema," said Derks, by implication distinguishing those films in the selections from the slew of issue-driven ones that tend to hog the spotlight. "It is a stigma," Derks said of the tendencies for documentaries to be perceived as works of activism instead of art. "These films do exist, of course, and we show them. I do think it's important to talk about them. Our reality can arouse some important discussions."
As a result, IDFA's lineup had it both ways: Its 2013 competition titles dealt with heavy issues through innovative filmmaking techniques. In a year when Joshua Oppenheimer's mesmerizing, otherworldly look at unremorseful Indonesian gangsters in "The Act of Killing" stands a good shot at sneaking into the Oscar race, the prospects for filmmakers dealing with big topics in fresh ways are particularly strong.
At IDFA, several of the titles in the main lineup illustrated just that. Competition winner "Song From the Forest," from first-time director Michael Obert, explored the experiences of American expatriate Louis Sarno, who fled New York thirty years ago and started a family with a tribe in Africa. While the movie contains shrewd observations about the contrast between urban and jungle lifestyles, it's largely a gentle mood piece that strives to convey Sarno's zen state of mind. "Don't Leave Me," another well-received competition entry, explores the struggles of alcoholism by foregrounding the antics of its two lead characters in the guise of a disarming buddy comedy. Even "A Letter to Nelson Mandela," which intelligently poked holes in Mandela's squeaky clean legacy, assumed the form of a first-person diary project.
With its own competition winner, CPH: DOX provided an even greater statement on the possibilities of the documentary to explore substantial global issues in compelling ways. Algerian filmmaker Narimane Mari's "Bloody Beans" follows a handful of Algerian children exploring their country's history of colonialism and its battle for independence through an increasingly bizarre series of play sessions. The result is like last year's New Orleans-set "Tchoupitoulas" (in which a trio of boys engage in lyrical adventures over the course of a vivid evening) were framed against the backdrop of "The Battle of Algiers." With its emphatic children guiding the story forward, "Bloody Beans" manages to be simultaneously charming and thematically complex. Over the course of an increasingly wild night, the kids engage in a flamboyant dance to reenact their cultural heritage, take a French soldier "prisoner" and dodge invisible bombs. Through this spectacular choreography of mimicked rituals and liberated energy, "Bloody Beans" keenly illustrates the performative aspects of history as it travels through generations.
Above all else, "Bloody Beans" represents a genuine film festival discovery -- the sort of thing that would simply never find its way into the world without the support system of validation and exposure that such an event has the power to provide. Whether at IDFA, CPH: DOX or elsewhere, such works demand proper context to stand out, particularly when so many narrative features contain more traditional selling points. "Film critics nowadays have no idea how to write about documentary films," Derks complained. "It's really all about the topic, nothing about form."
But with time, IDFA and its ilk have started to alter the perceptions of documentaries around the world. "All of a sudden people wanted to come here, because all of these documentary filmmakers had been struggling by themselves," Derks said. "Suddenly there was was a festival where everybody came together. And there was an audience."