“You bump into experiences, films, each other, opinions…on the internet you’re always searching for something, but during a festival you’re not looking – you’re finding.”
– Martijn te Pas, IDFA Program Coordinator

Despite recent government spending cutbacks in the Dutch cultural sector that will massively reduce the amount of support available for film productions and festivals beginning this year [2012], the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) keeps growing in size and ticket sales. This past November, the world’s largest documentary festival broke its own admissions record, with a conservative estimate putting individual ticket sales at over 200,000. That’s about seven times the size of Europe’s next largest doc fest, DocLisboa. With well over 2,000 industry passholders, one of the main drivers behind IDFA’s immensity is its status as mecca for documentary types working in countries as far flung as Palestine, Uruguay, Kosovo and Finland. In addition to exhibiting more than 300 films, IDFA features the grand daddy of all pitching forums, the Docs for Sale market, an intensive three-day academy for young filmmakers just catching the doc bug, loads of industry panel discussions on topics like financing and digital distribution, and more cocktail hours than you can shake a martini at. In a nod to its American attendees, a turkey was served on Thanksgiving at one such event.

Funnily enough, though, all of these organised industry events don’t necessarily guarantee that the filmmakers themselves get to spend much time hanging out. Bram van Paesschen, director of the excellent Empire of Dust, said that because IDFA is so industry-based, “It’s not that cozy…you don’t have that much interaction with other directors.” Natalia Almada, who won a production grant from IDFA’s esteemed Jan Vrijman Fund for her quietly meditative doc The Night Watchman, agrees. “It’s hard to meet other directors,” she told me during an interview in the aptly empty Escape Cafe. “Last year I saw some people I knew, but I didn’t meet any new filmmakers. But I don’t expect that here.”

The festival opener stirred controversy before festival director Ally Derks even gave her opening speech. The Ambassador, starring and directed by Danish journalist and 2010 Sundance winner Mads Brügger, takes “hidden camera” to a new level. In an attempt to expose the endless corruption and infallible power of blood diamond money in African governments, Brügger decided to infiltrate African diplomat society by buying a consul title. After basically blindly letting his finger fall on a map, he chooses the Central African Republic (CAR) and, with the help of a European agency that sells such services, starts the process of securing papers that name him as the consul of Liberia. The Dutch man Brügger paid for the consul title,  Willem Tijssen, flew to Holland from Africa just to protest the film’s inclusion in IDFA the week of the first screening. (1) He appeared on TV, decrying the film and appealing to Derks to remove the film from the festival. She didn’t comply, of course, and a couple of days later, I found myself one of some 800 people at a sold out screening to be handed a print-out of a pitiful page-long letter of protest and self-defense written by Tijssen.

The controversy surrounding the film only compounds the ethical liberties Brügger took in making the film, almost all of which was shot on hidden cameras. Part satire, part undercover journalism, part performance piece, The Ambassador displays Brügger decked out in proper neo-colonialist style, complete with thousand-euro knee-high boots, elegant cigarette holders, and thick red suspenders that might be found in one of his original sources of inspiration, Tintin. To seem like a legit consul-businessman, Brügger recruits a bunch of pygmies to work at a match factory that he knows he will never build. Brügger claims this move was necessary, although the pygmies-only bit strikes me as excessive as the Hitler joke he casually cracks to a CAR politician who does not possess the cultural background required to “get it” even if he wanted to. To his credit, Brügger is upfront about his agenda, readily admitting that he has long desired the superhuman investigative powers the diplomat enjoys compared to the humble journalist.

“I think maybe it’s an ego document,” van Paesschen responded when I asked whether he looked forward to seeing Brugger’s oh-so buzzed about film. Van Paesschen came to IDFA with a very different outsider-in-Africa documentary. Meet Lao Yang, a supervisor in the Chinese Railway Engineering company, who has travelled with some of his colleagues to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His mission: to oversee the logistics of restoring a road between two cities in exchange for mineral-mining rights. As the only employee of his company whose job requires dealing directly with the Congolese, Lao Yang depends on his Congolese translator, Eddy, who himself exists in a sort of limbo between the Chinese bosses and the Congolese workers. Van Paesschen stumbled upon the odd couple unexpectedly, but immediately recognised their on-screen potential.

The result is a thoughtful, attentive and unusual look at a messy but increasingly common meeting point between two cultures. Few documentaries show such interest in the genuine human interactions that mark both by-products and preconditions of Chinese business projects in Africa. Certainly, the tangle of imperial ghosts, language barriers, racist assumptions, cultural impasses – but also the humour-filled exchanges and mutual recognition of everyday absurdities – present challenging material from which to cut a film. But van Paesschen succeeds admirably, thanks in part to the chemistry between his two main characters and in part to his careful consideration of them as people who need lunch breaks and excuses to laugh. Lao Yang berates the Congolese via Eddy for failing to maintain the roads and railroads their Belgian colonisers so kindly gave them. Eddy stays silent, staring stonily ahead, later taking advantage of opportunities to enact revenge during his translation duties. But we aren’t allowed to think the relationship is so simple, as the two banter as much as they bicker. The film neither wraps on a warm note nor rests on a humanist backbone rooted in realism: van Paesschen  fabricated the radio personality that proves more aesthetically effective and truthful than any stream of facts and stats voiceover narration ever could. The focus stays on Eddy, Lao Yang and the dust that envelops them each day.

Van Paesschen stays off-screen, but he found indirect ways to grapple with his identity as a Belgian in a country still so scarred by its colonial past even as new foreign bosses move in. He describes his filmmaking practice as guided by an ethics characterised by self-reflexive questioning: “How does documentary have the right to portray people? It’s necessary sometimes but it’s dangerous…why is it necessary?”

Derks must have had I Am a Woman Now, the latest from beloved Dutch auteur Michiel van Erp, in mind when she wrote in the catalogue’s foreword: “documentaries can be sweet confections, with spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down.” A feel-good doc about a far from simply sugary subject, van Erp tracked down several members of the first generation of transsexual women to undergo sex change operations. Although the pioneering surgeon who performed the operations, French doctor Georges Burou, is long dead, his memory lives on for these now elderly women, each of whom paid him a visit in Casablanca in the late 1950s or early ‘60s. While there’s nothing remarkable about the film’s form or function, the fascinating life stories and on-screen power of the characters could merit any one of the women her own documentary.

The most magnetic of them all, a British socialite who is as regal in old age as she was stunning in her 20s proclaims, “Had I been born an ordinary woman, I would have been the biggest movie star in the world, or a duchess.” It’s easy to take her word for it, as Van Erp films her visiting a long-lost hairdresser at his mansion flanked by palm trees and enjoying the company of Burou’s sexy son over tea at the beach. Another former patient of Dr Burou, a German woman living a comparatively low-key life, has a less glamorous relationship with her gender identity. Less enthused about the performative and biological commitments of normative femininity, she recalls a post-op moment when she was told to decide whether to take female or male hormones in order to address a medical problem. She recalls feeling no particular preference whatsoever, and ended up choosing arbitrarily – a rare and remarkable decision to be reflected on by anyone on camera.

Ultimately, I Am a Woman Now hardly cuts it as queer cinema, given its conventional documentary mode and disinterest in probing the theoretical dimensions of its subject matter (evidenced by the equivalence of sex and gender assumed by the title). But it might be one of the best movies that makes the oftentimes divisive issues surrounding transgender identities so delightfully digestible for a wider audience. Even mostly traditional grandmothers should enjoy it, given its warm heart and primary focus: the life histories of several smart and savvy old women.

In a much more subdued film about old ladies, Best First Appearance winner The Vanishing Spring Light by Chinese cinematographer-turned-director Yu Xun chronicles the final days of Grandma Jiang, spent in her home on the city of Dujiangyan’s West Street in Sichuan Province. The ancient West Street neighbourhood follows the stroke-afflicted Grandma Jiang into decline, with all of its residents facing impending displacement at the time of filming. The neighbourhood has since disappeared, and The Vanishing Spring Light is the first of four films that Yu Xun (or “Fish” as the West Streeters call him) shot about the demise of the old community. Yu’s cinematography background serves the film well, and the scenes following Grandma Jiang’s death offer a rare glimpse of traditional Chinese funeral practices (which, Yu explained after the screening I attended, were largely pared down versions of even more elaborate rites).

Yu would be content to watch and listen from behind the camera, but is on one occasion called into action by Grandma Jiang herself on one of the last days of her life. As she lies essentially paralysed and bed-ridden, her unstoppable smoking habit gets the better of her when the cigarette falls from weak fingers onto her hand. Yu reacts quickly, reaching into the shot to remove the lit cigarette. Grandma Jiang, though basically lucid, is unfazed by the burn. The moment captures a duality of experience during the wait for death that cinema typically neglects to contemplate. For the observer of a loved one’s decline, the waiting period is littered with cigarette burns and the efforts to prevent them. For those ready to die, however, such minor mishaps that have no impact on the final moment closing in simply no longer matter.

Attempting to locate a central narrative in Mexican filmmaker Natalia Almada’s documentary The Night Watchman (El Velador) is like trying to detect the spot where chisel first touched rock in a sculpture: interpretive energies would be better spent elsewhere. Almada herself likens the crafting of her film, which tracks the nocturnal jaunts of a security guard in a Mexican cemetery,  to the “very organic process” of sculpting. Organic is an apt descriptor for a film about the return of dust to dust, a documentary that rejects conventional narrative construction in favour of contemplating the atmospheric side effects of the violent Mexican drug war. It would even be a stretch to say that the film’s focus is its titular character, a quiet man who watches alongside the spectator as much as he functions as a subject of the camera’s gaze. The “real” story behind the graveyard’s rapid intake of slain drug war lords never explicitly enters the frame: in a film about violence that does not contain a single shot of bloodshed, rhythm – not logic – gudies the creation of a collection of visual and aural moments linked by points of tension and release.

“Why do you put the dog when you put the dog?” Almada wondered aloud,  referring to the rhyme rather than reason that structured her editing process. The Night Watchman engenders a sense of context through the lyrical sculpting of mood. Lingering shots of mausoleums, too magnificent to be built without blood money, rub up against close-ups of the paint-splattered boots of construction workers busily erecting more marble tombs. A skinny dog trots across the orange dust, a coconut vendor hatchets open his wares, the night watchman waits out a late night rain storm under a tin roof. The jangling performance of an off-screen marching band accompanies a scene of men carrying unwieldy funeral wreaths through the graveyard, the bright flowers matching the confection-coloured mausoleums they will soon adorn. “It’s more like music in terms of finding the right balance or rhythm between moments of tension and moments of release,” Almada explained.

Through its focus on the oftentimes quotidian aftermath of death – even gruesome murder – The Night Watchman challenges visual representations of the astronomical levels of violence produced by drug trafficking in Mexico. “The news about the drug war is full of very very graphic images and I think they make us not able to really respond,” said Almada. “They’re so shocking that you can get numb…And so I was interested in how to talk about violence in a different way, where you’re in the context – to understand what it means for someone like the night watchman to have to work and function in that context.”

Almada, whose background is in photography, “was very interested in going back to just the image, and working alone, being patient, making a film out of nothing.” By stripping down the messy, complex, and overwhelming nature of a drug war too vast in scale and damage for any film to sum up, The Night Watchman lets the images speak for themselves. No wonder the film won a special award at the Bratislava Film Festival,  “for demonstrating how long it takes to water the dusty road to heaven.”

Voted high on the list of festival favourites by IDFA’s massive audiences, The Island President tells the tale of an underdog fighting to keep his country from going underwater. After defeating the decades-long dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in a democratic election, Mohamed Nasheed became president of the 1,200 islands that make up the Maldives. At only 41 years old, the charismatic leader immediately prioritises the critical environmental situation that holds his country captive: if climate change continues to raise ocean levels, the world’s lowest lying country will be submerged in water. The film follows Nasheed throughout his first year in office, the whole time building up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009. The indefatigable Nasheed goes head to head with Indian officials, who in turn point fingers at the US and China as the more egregious producers of sky high carbon emissions. But Nasheed stresses that the big picture won’t change without collaborative efforts that involve every country.

Director Jon Shenk ‘s camera ruminates on Nasheed’s idiosyncrasies: he walks with his hands clasped behind his back just so, strains his tea bag the same way every time, and is as stubborn about ordering food as he is about the best environmental policy for his country. The Copenhagen summit required compromise from everyone, but without Nasheed’s relentless appeals and savvy use of media attention, there’s a chance that no agreement would have been reached at all. Soundtrack appearances by Radiohead complement the tone without distracting attention from the luminous Nasheed, while sweeping aerial shots of the lush green islands both capture the pristine natural beauty of the Maldives and imply the menace of the cerulean sea that threatens to swallow it.

The latest in “digital documentary storytelling” is showcased in IDFA’s live DocLab events, where filmmakers or digital pioneers (or whatever) share their interactive web docs on the big screen by navigating and narrating their websites for the audience. Having someone play clips from a website in a cinema is hardly worth ten euros, regardless of how good the content is. And unfortunately, most of the content was disappointing. Goa Hippy Tribe, which consists of a bunch of interviews with aged ex-hippies who reunited via Facebook and then regrouped at their old haunt in the now tourist-covered Indian beach state of Goa, qualifies as downright offensive. The withered ones recount sob stories about drug use gone wild and then critique techno for robbing trance music of its groovy spirit, man. Not only is this material boring, but given their (and filmmaker Darius Devas, himself the son of two former “tribe” members) utter lack of self-awareness about living carelessly and recklessly in a country as socially, politically and economically fraught and culturally diverse as India, it’s intolerable. For a project that was apparently filmed in India, you’d never know it from the deluge of wrinkled white faces that clog the camera with self-obsessed nostalgia.

The best of the DocLab lot, In Situ, includes an unforgettable dance number (2) featuring a man and a large construction vehicle. Overall, due to its emphasis on humanist story docs, I found IDFA a bit too skimpy on experimental fare. Most unconventional docs were relegated to the sidebar program Paradocs, which contained a mere fifteen films, most of them under thirty minutes in length.

Israeli/Palestinian co-production 5 Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi won the IDFA Audience Award as well as a Special Jury Award. Palestinian villager Burnat documented the Israeli invasion of his homeland in the West Bank, filming everything from peaceful protests to escalating violence that led to the deaths of more than one main character. The screening I attended ended with an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience (and a barrage of “boo”s in response to an audience member who critiqued Burnat for allowing his small children to participate in the oftentimes dangerous protests). The film’s winning power certainly comes from its high-octane humanism rather than any cinematic inventiveness.

The last film I saw was festival special guest Steve James’s The Interrupters. Earlier in the week, the release of the Academy Awards shortlist for best documentary nominees caused a stir for snubbing James’s heart-wrenching and expert look at the brutal violence that characterises daily life in the drug-laden neighbourhood adjacent to James’s own upper crust Chicago community. In the IDFA daily paper, James admitted he was dissappointed about the Oscar snub, and rightfully so; not only is The Interrupters a should-see for anyone even marginally concerned about American inner city violence, but James’s classic 1994 high school basketball doc Hoop Dreams was similarly neglected by the Academy. If the audible sniffling that rippled throughout the crowd during the packed Sunday morning show was any indicator, not an eye stayed dry.

While IDFA focuses much of its energies on industry happenings, at the end of the day, its devoted audience defines its success. “That’s what IDFA is the best at,” van Paesschen declared. “10:00 on a Saturday morning and it’s a full house, there are 200 people and that’s amazing, heartwarming and very motivating.”

About The Author

Courtney Sheehan is Executive Director for Northwest Film Forum, an independent film centre in Seattle.

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