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DISPATCH FROM AMSTERDAM | Never mind the Economy and Fickle Tastes, IDFA Carries Forward

DISPATCH FROM AMSTERDAM | Never mind the Economy and Fickle Tastes, IDFA Carries Forward

During a party last night hosted by various film sales companies attending the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) a group of attendees commented that the festival seems to have regained its footing after the event’s move to new venues near Rembrandtplein in the center of the city. Attendance at the festival’s nightly “Talk Shows” and its evening cocktail get together have been noticeably more crowded and the some observers noted that there were fewer Americans in town in the past (though it was a group of Americans who made that observation). But, while the commercial prospects for documentary continues to be a topic for discussion, crowds have been packing screenings and filmmakers have continued to churn out compelling product.

“The Glass House”

Along with this year’s festival focus on India, Iran also is getting attention here with a pair of docs examining the social and political. Hamid Rahmanian‘s “The Glass House” focuses on a Tehran crisis center for teenage girls established by expatriate Marjaneh Halati, a London-based psychologist. The film tells the story of a group of teenagers and their gloomy lives including cases of drug addiction, sexual abuse and adolescent rebellion. Halati becomes a substitute mother-figure for many of the girls who have troubled relationships with their own families.

“Our goal is to create awareness of the center for expatriates living outside Iran,” commented Rahmanian following the screening. “The film shows the [universal] problem of the mother issue – this could be a story anywhere in the world.” The film also points out a sad fact that girls who runaway from home are considered hopelessly troubled and are often shunned by the larger society as “damaged.” “Girls who run from their situations are considered worthless and not worthy of help, the the center does see them as valuable,” concluded Rahmanian.

“The Queen and I”

Expatriate filmmaker Nahid Persson Sarvestani (“Prostitution Behind the Veil”) fled Iran following the revolution. She and her brothers participated in the uprisings against the Shah as one of the thousands of demonstrators taking the streets, though their personal participation was low level. After Ayatollah Khomeini took control and abandoned earlier promises of democracy, the regime began crackdowns including the arrest of Sarvestani’s brothers who were slated for execution. When her parents were unable to raise the necessary amount of money to pay off corrupt officials to stop the death sentences, her oldest brother was executed, though they did get the money in time to save the younger sibling. Sarvestani eventually made it to Sweden and years later reflected on that period. She contacted and eventually met the Shah’s widow, Farah, who herself lives in exile in Paris. In the film, Sarvestani figures prominently herself in the film as she struggles to develop the film all the while growing closer to Farah personally and fearing the 70 year-old former empress will stop cooperating with the project.

“I was conflicted with my growing affection for Farah [and] with my desire to ask about the Shah’s own brutality,” commented Sarvestani. The film is a great examination of how a doc filmmaker must contend with a subject imposing their will and to what extent a filmmaker allows the subject to create their own persona. Additionally, “The Queen and I” is an interesting parallel story of two women on opposing sides of Iran’s social strata who are forced into exile as a result of history.

“Rough Aunties

Director Kim Longinotto (“Sisters in Law”) returns to IDFA with her latest doc, “Rough Aunties,” which will be released in the U.S. via Women Make Movies. Longinotto also returned to Africa for her new film, about an organization called Bobbi Bear, which helps rehabilitate and fight for justice on behalf of children who face abuse. Longinotto’s film emotionally captures the complex work of the “aunties,” offering psychological and physical support for children. Despite the grim stories of victims, the film is also a portrait of hope seen through the work of this organization which is a beacon of light in Durban.

“I very much trusted the people I was working with, and if they told me that [filming] wasn’t working for a [certain] child I’d stop,” commented Longinotto who first heard about Bobbi Bear from fellow filmmakers at IDFA last year. “We’ve been filmed before and it’s normally a pain the butt,” offered up one of the aunties during a post-screening Q&A. “But with Kim – she was sent by the God I believe in… I didn’t know she was there half the time, but she [also] became a part of the team.”

“Afghan Star”

Not long ago, singing was a punishable offense in Afghanistan. Under Taliban rule, music along with many cultural expressions were banned, even punishable by death. Following the 2004 elections, the restrictions were finally lifted and though cultural attitudes die hard, the resurgence of music in the conservative society has returned. One obvious sign is popular television show “Afghan Star,” modeled after “Pop Idol” (and “American Idol” in the United States). Nearly 11 million people, about one-third of the population watch the show every week, voting and supporting their favorites – often outside ethnic lines – who pursue glory and the contest’s $5,000 cash prize, the equivalent of about ten times the average annual wage. Director Havana Marking personalizes the stories of several of the contestants, some of whom still risk reprisals from an ever present Taliban. One contestant from the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar even rehearses in secret because her participation is so dangerous.

“There were three bombs in the first week I was there,” said Marking in Amsterdam. “It was really frightening, but seeing the staff working so hard at Tolo TV and their dedication just made me forget what was happening.” Tolo TV is Afghanistan’s network which produces “Idol.” Because entertainment, like so much else was banned during the Taliban era, the staff are learning as they go. Marking also explained that the network’s news department is aggressive in highlighting the current regime’s shortcomings, so it too is facing harrassment from the government which has threatened to shut down “Idol.”

“We cannot show this film in Afghanistan. A lot of the women wouldn’t appear [in it] if they knew it would show in their country.” Continuing Marking added, “The vast majority of people ant freedom, want safety, and simply want to be able to talk about a TV show and not have to talk about how many of their family members have been killed…”

indieWIRE’s coverage of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam continues throughout this week.

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