Realities Old and New

20 mins read

Peel back the layers of winter wear and Christmas cheer, push past the portable skating rink and numerous stands selling hot snacks, decadent cheeses and Sinterklaas paraphernilia and you’ll find a world-class arena for documentary cinema at the centre of Amsterdam, tucked away behind all the holiday schmaltz.

It seems the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) has finally settled into its newer location in the city centre of Rembrandtplein, even if it has to share the spotlight with Christmas. Like any travelling circus or carnival, a standard film festival blows into town, holds hostage the city’s main square or district, disrupts the natural flow of society, lures performers and spectators of all kinds and ignites a type of ballyhoo characteristic only of its own chaos. Days later it will exit the city as swiftly and stealthily as it arrived.

Take a look at the calendar. IDFA, running from November 17th to 28th, is almost half a month long. That’s 12 days of screenings and nearly 300 documentaries in four different programs, not to mention the Docs For Sale market, the pitching Forum, and a slew of industry events, talk shows, an installation exhibition, parties and receptions. For such an unassuming location, it is surprising that an event of this magnitude can be stuffed inside three venues strewn about a dense conjunction of streets and speedy bike lanes. Regardless, each year the show goes on and on, crammed with snaking ticket queues and rush lines for both the public and pass-holders.

Trip to Market

For those industry guests who missed the most sought-after docs circled in their program guide, the Docs for Sale market offered 60 booths to screen a selection of over 450 films on digitalized screening facilities. Some 250 TV buyers, sales agents, distributors and festival programmers were quick to nab the daytime slots even if travelling all the way to Amsterdam to sit in front of a computer screen in a semi-enclosed cubicle tended to dampen the festival glow. These folks were in town to do business and acquire films, so sitting in the luxurious opulence of the Tushinski theatre for three sessions a day could be considered the snail approach to optimizing doc-consumption and thus rather counter-productive.

Iranian IDFA

Among a hefty selection of documentaries that spanned hot-button issues, niche stories, political whistle-blowers and esoteric cultural tales, the obvious themes and hot topics surfaced to accommodate several points of view around a common subject.

Look to Iran, for example. A country whose turbulent history and political climate do nothing to improve relations with the Western world took the unofficial spotlight in numerous timeslots across the IDFA schedule. Through the lens of both foreign and Persian filmmakers, the intricacies of the Islamic Republic of Iran rotated like a prism in the light, beaming from all fractured angles. Perspectives concerning the country’s electoral processes, however, seemed to shine the strongest.

The German-Iranian film The Green Wave, by Ali Samadi Ahadi, reconstructs the 2009 Green Revolution, when supporters of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who became the symbolic figure of the Green Revolution in Iran that year, were jolted into activist mode when the ultra-conservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retained office. The film animates the various blogs and tweets of the protesters, along with footage from their mobile phones and digital cameras. Similarly, The Silent Majority Speaks, composed by an anonymous collective, follows the 2009 presidential elections and subsequent fraud, picking up pieces of demonstrations, disturbances and violent opposition also caught on cellphone cameras.

On a smaller scale, It’s Confirmed —a 40-minute film by Jamshid Mojadadi that chronicles the democratic voting processes of a student council election—preceded the mid-length Our Summer in Tehran, which follows Jewish-American mother and filmmaker Justine Shapiro and her six-year-old son, Mateo, on a summer-long visit in the capital of Tehran. Shapiro is seeking an Iran that is rarely depicted in the media, one that emphasizes a modern and growing youth culture where two-thirds of the country is under the age of 30 and the literacy rate is on the rise, already at 83 per cent. In the first weeks of their stay, Shapiro and her son befriend three families and with each one, a distinct and endearing relationship is formed. Simply told from a light-hearted and personal perspective, Our Summer in Tehran comes to an abrupt halt when Shapiro and her son’s visas are mysteriously made redundant. When her attempts to be patient, careful and nonjudgmental prove to be in vain, Shapiro and Mateo are forced to leave Iran, cutting short their summer trip along with the film’s full circle.

Taking a step back into history, first-time director Joe Ayella’s American Coup recounts the historical steps of the Iranian democratic election in 1953, when the CIA staged a coup to remove the democratically elected Premier Mohammed Mossadegh after he nationalized the oil trade, thereby severing Great Britain’s tapline into Iran’s most lucrative natural resource. Although the documentary lacks creative flow and plays out like a live-action history textbook, the facts are enthralling and not well known among average North Americans. The most provocative and contemplative facet to American Coup is its implication that both Great Britain and the United States paved the way for the Islamification of Iran, which can be directly linked to the country’s continual struggle and controversy over human rights.

Segueing into Islam, IDFA also offered the lexicon of renditions. Holy Wars, a Canadian-American co-production by documentarian Stephen Marshall, follows two religious extremists over three years: a fanatical Christian missionary from the Missouri Bible Belt and a radical Irish-born Muslim residing in London. Marshall’s hand-held documentation takes him from the United States and the U.K. to Lebanon and Pakistan. Muslim Khalid Kelly attempts both to exemplify and to defend his beliefs and his Muslim brothers, while literally trying to find his place in a world where his extremism can be tolerated; meanwhile, Christian Aaron Taylor pursues a common ground on which he can engage his fellow Christians in a discourse on understanding the Islamic world.

Taylor’s drive gains momentum when Marshall arranges a face-to-face confrontation between the two extremists in a battle of beliefs—a private holy war, if you will. The results are quite surprising, on behalf of the Christian at least, who is so profoundly struck by Kelly’s convictions that he is prompted to write a book, Alone with a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War, about his encounter with Kelly and their consequent religious debate. As a vehicle with which to explore religious extremism, Holy Wars can only go so far, as we are only hearing from two heads, neither of whom was born or raised as a Muslim in an Islamic country. The film does, however, reveal a valuable (if myopic) lesson about unwavering fanaticism that can be subject to transformation if the individual is willing to think for himself, beyond his disposition of belief.

Not so much a film about Iran, or even Islam, Feathered Cocaine, by Icelandic filmmakers Örn Marino Arnarson and Thorkell S. Hardarson, takes an extended route around Middle Eastern culture through a look into falcon trading in the Arab world. Falconer trainer and activist Alan Parrot was once considered the go-to man for everything falcon. But according to Parrot’s own history, he regrettably opened a Pandora’s box many years ago that has turned a tradition of the Orient into a fight against animal cruelty.

Moving from a natural history lesson to an animal-rights speak-box and finally into a suspenseful political drama, Feathered Cocaine flies into a much large arena when Parrot’s falcon expertise leads him to one falconer who, in disguise on tape, confesses to having spent several months each year in the south of Iran with Osama Bin Laden, hunting prey with his five falcons, all of which are equipped with radio tracking devices. Parrot’s several failed attempts to present this evidence to the U.S. authorities leaves him and us questioning how determined the United States is to capture the world’s most wanted terrorist.

Training Day

In the tradition of the IDFAcademy, the festival’s exclusive three-day training program for international film students and emerging documentarians, two master classes with seasoned filmmakers were offered to both the industry and the public. The first showcased the work and idiosyncratic camera techniques of Dutch director Leonard Retel Helmrich, whose Position Among the Stars, the third installment of his trilogy about the Christian-Islamic Sjamsuddin family in Indonesia, won the Best Feature-Length Documentary. The second master class featured Finnish filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo, who curated a carte blanche selection of 10 documentaries that had a profound effect on her filmmaking—including Earth by Alexandr Dovzhenko and Kyoto, My Mother’s Place by Nagisa Oshima, which accompanied an IDFA retrospective of her own work.

The films of Pirjo Honkasalo are considered some of the most important in contemporary documentary cinema. In 1996 she received the IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary for Atman, which followed two Indian brothers who, after the death of their mother, set out on a 6,000-kilometre pilgrimage from the river Ganges to the holy town of Haridwar in the Himalayas. In 2004, Honkasalo was granted the IDFA Movies That Matter Award for The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, a meditation on the ruin created by the second Chechen War, and the devastation that fell upon the child victims of that war.

In a relaxed but thoughtful conversation with Finland’s YLE producer Iikka Vehkalahti, Honkasalo talked introspectively about the seedlings of her films and the drive that brings them to fruition. Abiding by her own philosophical truths, Honkasalo admitted that before making a film, she routinely asks herself if a world already so cluttered with noise and images really needs one more picture. Honkasalo looks in the external world for ideas or situations that reflect a personal theme within her—she equates this to an inner burn that needs to be answered when seeking her next subject. “Documentary is subjective,” says Honkasalo. “You’re expressing yourself using other people’s lives.”

As her own camera operator, Honkasalo never attempts to cover a scene in its entirety. In the opening 10 seconds she will decide the scene’s focal point and devote her camera to it. As for a film language, Honkasalo believes documentary, in its earliest incarnations, was often paralyzed by aesthetic limitations in order to protect some kind of truth. With her own work, she feels strongly about employing a brave film language and trusting the simple poetry of image. “Documentary scripts can be about anything,” says Honkasalo. “And the better the film, the longer you need to wait before you start talking about it.”

Wholph it Down!

Another installment of the IDFAcademy included industry meetings where specific subjects could be addressed and ideas exchanged between participants and experts. During the first morning of the training program, Brent Hoff, editor and co-founder of Wholphin — the quarterly DVD magazine published by the literary anthology McSweeney’s — along with co-editor Malcolm Pullinger, presented a section called “Fuck the Formats.” The two revealed their secrets about how short films can be cut different ways to suit a variety of markets, while still staying true to the core of the story.

Pullinger, also the producer and editor of the award-winning documentary Winnebago Man (IDFA 2009), explained how he and Hoff work closely with Wholphin filmmakers to re-cut and reshape their work, sometimes including only excerpts of a longer documentary. “In eachcase,” says Pullinger, “the filmmakers found that the alternate version enabled the film to reach different viewers who might nothave seen the feature-length version. Some have even gone on to screen the shorter version at festivals and beyond.” Wholphin’s philosophy, especially in the age of newly emerging digital platforms, is one of the ‘multiple-format film,’ which expands upon the capabilities within its genre and subsequent category. “We think if a film can exist at a variety of lengths, there will be many more opportunities to reach audiences,” says Pullinger.

The guys at Wholphin absorbed a wealth of good vibes and positive feedback from their IDFAcademy pupils. “There was a certain relief from some participants to hear about alternate ways to make films and get them seen, and to know that the TV-driven format doesn’t have to be the only way,” continues Pullinger. DIY approaches to formatting, distribution and financing are on the rise, from video-on-demand portals to crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter. The evidence shows that “f*cking formatting” is surrounded by a general sense of optimism about breaking free of redundant practices and implementing newer methods as a means to experimentation and spontaneity. Says Pullinger, “We hope the session played a small role in inspiring more documentary badasses.”

Expanding the Doc

Documentaries can be on any format and, according to Pirjo Honkasalo, about anything, which lends itself to concepts of expansion. IDFA’s Expanding Documentary, an exhibition in cooperation with the festival’s DocLab and Paradocs and the Faculty of Fine Art at the University College Ghent, combined the work of both visual artists and filmmakers. The installation stretched the documentary form into commenting, repeating and transforming its initial intentions through experimenting with several ways a subject can be framed, ultimately creating new realities instead of representing one.

Among 11 works that criticized and liberalized the genre, the piece that made the biggest noise was Katerina Cizek’s Highrise/Out My Window, which takes the 360-degree Web documentary project into a physical space. Viewers became voyeurs and were invited to gaze inside the windows of highrise buildings in 13 cities across the globe, assembled by countless 360-degree photographs and videos. Creating a ‘spatialized cinematic experience,’ High Rise/Out My Window was granted the IDFA DocLab Award for Digital Storytelling.

Scream for Culture

On November 20th, the first Saturday of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, hundreds of city residents demonstrated on the Leidseplein in the centre of the capital under the banner‘The Netherlands Scream for Culture.’ The nation-wide ‘scream’ loudly protested the country’s new conservative coalition that intends to cut back arts and culture funding in the coming years by an estimated €200 million. The timing could not have been better, as the world’s largest festival for documentary cinema coincided with the cross-country howl. If the protest goes unheard, the cutbacks will directly affect IDFA, along with every other event that champions culture in any capacity.

While hundreds of filmmakers shared their labours of love and celebrated their collective form, just streets away the future of their support system looked particularly glum—a weighty sign of the changing times. But as IDFA rounded out its 23rd year with more films and attendees than ever before, it looks as though it might take the mightiest storm to sink this ship of dreams—and realities.

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