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."