Cross-posted from Documentary.org
The new era for the International Documentary Festival at Amsterdam (IDFA) has begun, and its theme is inclusion. New IDFA director Orwa Nyrabia, (in above photo by Roger Cremers) who first became inspired by the power of documentary in his home country of Syria, has structured the fest as an annual gathering place for a movement that aims to inspire and act toward inclusion.
You could see it in the opening night film, Kabul, City in the Wind, by Aboozar Amini, which won a Special Jury Prize for First Appearance. Like some other festival choices, it didn’t fit a three-act, high-production-values, emotionally cathartic model of broadcast-ready documentary. It follows uncertain, imperilled daily lives—including those of two young brothers—in a violence-ridden, gutted city that has been the tragic intersection of geopolitics for decades. While its protagonists ask nothing of us, the film demands a response.
“The world is entering a new era of recognising the post-colonial heritage, so it is a question of the people’s rights to represent themselves, the people’s rights to tell their own stories,” said Nyrabia. A festival these days has to “go the extra mile.” That includes, he stressed, not rejecting films for technical standards or unfamiliar structure: “We have to begin to see with a more open eye.”
You could also see inclusion in hosted conversations throughout the film festival, aimed at encouraging a community of filmmakers to see itself as a movement, and themselves as leaders in it. There was a session on how to provide solidarity with filmmakers whose work and lives were threatened. Another featured the challenges of ethical co-producing. Yet another raised the question of “the canon”—which films deserve to be preserved and recognized as core works within the form. (IDFA is pledging to work with the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands on preserving films.)
IDA hosted a meeting of international documentary professionals. On the dark side, Israel’s proposed “loyalty law” threatens to censor documentary makers who make films with strong critical views of Israeli policies or actions. On the lighter side, a pan-African documentary organization, DOCA, is launching next year, partly funded by the Ford Foundation. And a Brazilian network of 400 African-Brazilian producers, APAN (Associacao dxs Profissionaes do Audiovisual Negro), has launched.
Film festival organizers also met to discuss how to build inclusion into every choice they make. IDFA itself is pledging to move toward a gender-equal workforce by 2020.
And you could see the theme in the programming. From last year, there was a pronounced dip in total films shown at IDFA from North America and Western Europe, and a pronounced rise from Eastern Europe and Asia, with a slight rise in Latin American and African films.
Anand Patwardhan’s eight-part, four-hour film Reason, which won the top award for Feature-Length Documentary (it comes with a €15,000 prize), exemplifies Nyrabia’s convention-defying expectations: It coolly creates a historically grounded argument about the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, and in an investigative spirit, it both links atrocities to the fascist ideology of the nationalist movement and introduces us to its survivors and victims. In particular, an anti-casteism and pro-worker leader, Govind Pansare, becomes a figure whose model and ideals we can follow.
Patwardhan was grateful for the IDFA showing. “It’s rare for such a film to be showcased in a festival,” he said in a Q&A after the screening. “And of course, the real struggle is how to get films like this shown in our own countries.” A filmmaker who came of age in the New Indian Cinema days of politically charged and anti-commercial documentaries, he cast a cold eye on pitch-driven documentary-making (IDFA is famous for the pitch sessions in its Forum). “If that’s what documentary gets reduced to, we’ll only get that which we already know,” he maintained.
Other films also showcased social movements for justice, in a climate of creeping fascism. Everything Must Fall is an action thriller of a documentary, by Rehad Desai. Drawing on remarkably intimate access to organizers, it describes a student movement for lowered university fees that grows into a civil society movement for social justice. The movement partially succeeded, and has quieted down, but Desai suggests that this mobilizing was the beginning of something big.
Natasha Neri and Lula Carvalho’s Police Killing powerfully documents the rare criminal trial for police murders in Rio de Janeiro. In the process, the film also documents a cresting movement in Brazil to protest both the prevalent police killings, typically of poor African-Brazilian young men, and the profound racism that justifies them. In one of the most breathtaking moments of the film, the defense lawyer confidently makes openly racist arguments to the jury. When it was first shown in Brazil, at Doc Society’s Global Assembly for impact producers, the film triggered a counter-movement led by police officers to blackball the film on social media and the press.
The Human Rights Award went to Gabrielle Brady’s The Island of Hungry Ghosts, previously profiled in Documentary. It’s a poignant portrait of a psychologist who helps asylum seekers trapped on an island off Indonesia, owned by Australia.
Two popular films at the festival featured innovations in investigative journalism. The Panama Papers, a Field of Vision production, continues the sharply analytical documentary work of Alex Winter. Fascinated with the intersection of tech and politics, he previously made Downloaded, about the lost promise of Napster, which was sacrificed to the interests of incumbent media empires, and Deep Web, about the dangers of government overreach, using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in trial of Ross Albrecht, the “Dread Pirate Roberts” of the dark website Silk Road. The Panama Papers tracks the gigantic investigative journalism project that exploited a leak of financial documents revealing how the super-rich and their friends dodge taxes, thus leaving the little guys to fund the essential government services they enjoy. The project involved hundreds of journalists, who built a secret encrypted network and swore themselves to secrecy until the big reveal.
“I wanted the audience to experience an extraordinary moment in time,” Winter explained. “There has never been global coordination of journalists at this level. I also wanted people to see what was at stake. When Trump says to Clinton that not paying his taxes is smart, that is theft of your money, your health care, your drinking water, your ability to have an education. What the journalists exposed—at great risk to themselves—was the system at play. “We can’t expect to abolish kleptocracy,” Winter continued, “but change does come. The band of secrecy has been ripped off. And documentaries are effective, often in localized ways.”
Bellingcat-Truth in a Post-Truth World, by Hans Pool, features the group of amateur investigative reporters collectively called Bellingcat, who hack their way to revelation by crowdsourcing, digging into hacked files and social media, and data-sharing. Led by unemployed accountant Eliot Higgins, these guys figured out who shot the missile that brought down the Malaysian Airlines jet in Ukraine, who beat up a black man in Charlottesville and who poisoned the Skripals. The film portrays the reporters as nimble white-hats in a dark world imperfectly reported on by mainstream media, and suggests that this is one future for investigative journalism. Thanks to good editing and an appealing cast of characters, Bellingcat is remarkably fast-moving for a film about impish hackers at their computers.
Other documentaries conducted sometimes unorthodox investigative journalism of their own. Erige Sehiri’s Railway Men earnestly exposes dangerous conditions for both workers and riders on the national Tunisian rail system, getting hard-won interviews with employees organizing for change in spite of fear and internal resistance. Ben Asamoah’s Sakawa simply walks us inside a Ghanaian Internet hustling operation; his incredible access provides unprecedented intimacy. Guys hack computers sent from the global North as e-waste for personal and banking information. They dupe gullible Northerners. Guys pretend to be women looking for love. An unemployed mom pretends to be a sexy single. Their contempt for their prey is as complete as their own lives are miserably impoverished. You actually end up feeling sad for the hard-working hustlers.
Two films used different approaches to refugee problems. Hamada, by Eloy Domínguez Serén, was one of my top festival faves. It is set in the Algerian desert camp that houses generations of refugees from the nomadic Sahrawi people; they lost a war to control their territory in the Western Sahara to Morocco. It stars some of the quirkiest, most charismatic refugees you’ll ever meet, all of them with passionate relationships with the camp’s bizarre car culture (there’s no place to go). Anybody who’s spent time on an Indian reservation will resonate to the characters’ conversations, as they struggle with big challenges—would it be better to be an undocumented worker in Spain?—and smaller ones, like how to drive a stick shift. The story is structured like a narrative film, with humor and surprises.
But Now Is Perfect, by Carin Goeijers, which won the Special Jury Award for Dutch Documentary, is a mid-length documentary that poignantly profiles the Italian village that came back from abandonment by taking in refugees, only to have government abandon it and them. It features a young woman refugee whose death is emblematic both of what is at stake and what is lost. A great example of the value of mid-length docs, its intimate story lingers long after viewing.
Music, Movies and Dogs
If you weren’t in the mood for docs with adjectives like “uncompromising” and “relentless,” IDFA was still there for you. Among my faves was the one-of-a-kind Giacinto Scelsi. The First Motion of the Immovable, which won the award for Best First Appearance. Made by the composer’s second cousin Sebastiano d’Ayala Valva, it celebrates the other-worldly music of the Italian composer. (Check him out on Spotify—I now have a Scelsi playlist.) Was he crazy, or is this music actually a portal to the supernatural? You decide, but the movie’s on the side of the second option, with a haunting style to match. And if you, like me, are a fan of Astor Piazzolla’s jazz-inflected tango, then Daniel Rosenfeld’s Piazzola, the Years of the Shark was a must-see; it’s a biography that locates Piazzolla in his time and places.
The Eyes of Orson Welles is in Mark Cousins’ hallmark personal meditative style. Hunting down archival material and Welles’ own daughter, Cousins composes a poem of loving critique for the legendary filmmaker. Marceline. A Woman. A Century, by Cordelia Dvorák, on the other hand, is an unabashed appreciation for the Auschwitz survivor who learned cinéma vérité with Jean Rouch, married Joris Ivens, and went on to make films about revolutionary struggle around the world. If there is any critique, it is Marceline Loridan-Ivens who brings it; she notes that their paean to the Cultural Revolution was wrong, if well-intentioned.
And then there was the feel-good movie of the festival, Buddy. Legendary Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann made a dog’s-eye view of the world of service dogs, working with people as different as an autistic kid and an elderly blind farmer. “The most important thing for me was to treat the dog as equal to the person in the film,” Honigmann said. As usual, Honigmann was able bring insights into challenging human problems with love and wry humor.
IDFA is also a place to spot current trends. Streaming media representatives were present and active. At the Forum, Netflix, Magnolia Pictures, Al-Jazeera and TenCent were at the table and highly engaged.
But they may not yet be changing much for European documentary producers. The European Documentary Network released results of a survey of more than 200 European producers and directors, showing that they get almost no revenue from SVOD. (The survey researchers, Willemien Sanders and Eline Livemont, noted that the pilot study could not claim to be a representative population, though.) Indeed, public service broadcasters continue to be extremely important in both funding and distribution. The study’s results show parallels to IDA’s recent sustainability survey with The Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI). Incomes are low, teams are small, and often people are doing DIY distribution and marketing. They’re in it because they believe documentaries can make a difference, and they worry about the audience leaving for SVOD and private channels.
Professionals in VR and AR also met to discuss their challenges. Russian festival organizer Georgy Molodtsov bemoaned the lack of subtitling or dubbing in interactive work, which badly skews what’s possible for him to show. The National Film Board’s Hugues Sweeney is frustrated by the lack of an ecosystem for VR; viewers don’t have a sense of context for what they watch yet, or easy ways to find more of what they like.
Jim Ratcliffe of Google’s interactive team—he looks at social impact of VR—was doubtful that VR is a storytelling medium at all. He thought the social-action future of VR is probably more as a tool for implementation of nonprofit programs. Thus, as in one current case, it can offer young men who resist medical treatment for HIV a virtual experience of a clinic visit, to lower fears. It could offer job training, or safe-space training on resisting sexual harassment. As scholar Mandy Rose has pointed out, this is something for which there are decades of practice by medical and military experts to draw upon.
Patricia Aufderheide is the founder of CMSI and a professor at American University in Washington, DC.