Decolonizing the Documentary, Virtually: IDFA 2020

Cross-posted from

The  International Documentary Film Festival at Amsterdam in late 2020, the largest documentary film festival in the world, managed to host some live events, while most of the activity was virtual. Even so, almost as many film professionals attended as in previous years, and the socially distanced live events were nearly sold out.

The recurring theme of this year’s festival—one that has been building ever since Orwa Nyrabia took over the festival from its founder, Ally Derks—is that of decolonizing the documentary. That was as evident in the films as in the many panels, post-film discussions and talks.

Who Can Speak for Whom?

The question of how to tell untold or undertold stories, and how to capture the perspective of the underrepresented, haunts film festivals these days—and it should. Not only does this unasked question mark the genre’s origins and run through its history, but it surges into the present with issues of racial reckoning.

They were fully present on opening night, when Nothing but the Sun debuted. The memorable, moving film travels with an elder of the Ayoreo indigenous group in Paraguay. Unlike larger indigenous groups (Paraguay’s second national language is an indigenous one, Guaraní), the Ayoreo lived in the forest until very recently, and some still do. They have been lured into settlements largely by Christian missionaries. The film, by Paraguayan-Swiss director Arami Ullón, follows the elder as he records traditional stories and stories of contact on his antique tape recorder, in an area plagued by drought. The close-up look at people in the process of losing their language, memory and heritage is poignant, troubling, and an important document and contribution to the larger conversation about Indigenous rights. It does not, however, engage the question of how these people manage to survive at all under circumstances so brutal that they amount to a slow-motion genocide. A rising movement among indigenous peoples is promoting a narrative of survival (seen vividly in the US in the permanent exhibits of the National Museum of the American Indian).

When Nyrabia praised Ullón for bringing authenticity of voice to the project, she argued with affecting honesty that she was an outsider as much as a European to the Ayoreo reality. She bonded with the elder she focused on, she said, because, like him, she cannot return to her home and also, as a woman and an artist, she also cannot command respect there. But she grew up in a white world, she said, and got European funds to make the film. It was spending time with the Ayoreo that allowed her to be able to tell the story, but she acknowledged that it was still her story. Her story is one we need to hear, and so is that of the Ayoreo, not least for themselves—as Ullón argues in the film.

The Value of Connection

It’s hard to imagine Cecilia Aldorando’s Landfall, about the two years between Hurricane Maria and the downfall of the corrupt Puerto Rican governor, from anyone but a Puerto Rican. It tells a story that is brutally, appallingly American and specifically Puerto Rican. (The film came to IDFA moments after winning a DOC NYC jury prize.) Aldorando leverages her connections with family and friends to tell two stories. One is about utter dispossession and disenfranchisement—an entire people abandoned by the Puerto Rican and US governments, even though they putatively live in a democracy and are US citizens. The other is about real estate entrepreneurs seizing upon the opportunity to construct “an entirely new Puerto Rico,” pitching gated estates with private airports to “people who want to protect their wealth.” Besides the usual collection of criminals and grifters, a group of blockchain enthusiasts shows up, spouting millenarian rhetoric to a group of people who just dream of getting a job. Fueled by outrage, a ragtag collection of college students, activists and entirely fed-up citizens finally depose the governor and hold elections. But the film asks a question that presages the question now facing all Americans watching the end days of a Trump Administration: Now what?

From Dieudo Hamadi’s ‘Downstream to Kinshasha.’

Congolese Dieudo Hamadi’s Downstream to Kinshasa was drawn from Hamadi’s own terrifying memories of horror. Two decades ago, Uganda and Rwanda fought over minerals in the region of a border town in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a massacre left generations of trauma in its wake. Hamadi was 15, and says that he cannot forget the smell of corpses in the street, being gnawed at by dogs. Downstream, as expected, is the cinema vérité chronicle of a group of survivors, demanding a long-promised disability payment from the Congolese government. Unexpected was the engaging quality of the intense and often funny interactions among the many disabled people, managing not only their disabilities but a wide variety of cranky personalities and outrageous challenges to accomplishing their journey. I had no idea how much fun I would have getting to know extraordinary people, who want you to know not only who they could have been but the amazing humans they are.

Hamadi got his film made with European funding, and he acknowledged, both on a panel and in post-film interview, that it comes with strings. For one, you have to spend the great bulk of the money in the country that gave you the funding. But for him, alternatives don’t exist; his own country has no capacity or political will to fund the arts. But he also worries that international funding relieves his own dysfunctional government from assuming any responsibility. His own approach is to tip his hat to political realities and continue his work.

Struggling with Privilege, Overcoming Silence

The question of the social position of the filmmaker is confronted directly in Toni Venturi’s In My Skin. Brazil has an extraordinary heritage of Blackness. As a colony, it was founded and burgeoned on African slavery for sugar, tobacco and daily life. It was the last nation in the world to abolish slavery. Its culture is rich in African-grounded syncretic practices. A national myth posits a post-racial society in which “racial democracy” reigns, while police brutality against residents seen as less white is scandalous and notorious. It is also accepted as tolerable to many less brown residents.

Venturi early acknowledges his position as the scion of Italian immigrants, who collectively were recruited to “whiten” Brazil in the early 20th century. His driving question is, How does a white filmmaker make an anti-racist film? Throughout the film, Brazilians who are a wide variety of skin tones provide Venturi approaches at an answer. (Unfortunately we foreigners are not given a tipsheet about how complex Brazilian racism is, and thus can’t read the privilege implications of different appearances.) At one point, a scholar reproves him for having a co-director of color but not giving her control. Brazilian history facts that are probably as shocking to Brazilians as actual American history is to most Americans are interwoven.

Venturi gets amazing artists, singers, scholars, and composers to tell their story of racism. But his film isn’t really about them, but about his problems finding how to be anti-racist, and by extension Brazil’s elite not finding a way to continue its privilege while asking dangerous questions about it. Black people have certainly done the hard work in Brazil for a long time, but this may not be something they can do for the elite; scholar Ibram Kendi provides helpful approaches for those who want to get to work. One thing the film shows is that Brazil needs more anti-racism films by some of the people featured in his film.

IDFA itself is collecting stories about the politics of the position of filmmakers. IDFA’s Tessa Boerman is leading the effort to look at, in particular, the “gaze of ethnography through which docs are often made. Filmmakers themselves have a colonial gaze.” Boerman and colleagues discovered in programming this year that there is fierce resistance to talking out loud about this, so she put out a call to share experience, at [email protected]: “Funders, commissioning editors, filmmakers, share your story with us. Not just about ethnicity, but class, sexuality, ability. How can filmmakers of all identities feel welcome?”

Memory and Image

Aesthetically rich use of archival footage was another welcome theme in the festival. Nothing but the Sun puts the endangered audiotape archive of Ayoreo memories at the center of its story. Radiograph of a Family was celebrated twice at the festival for its storytelling with archival material; it won both the top jury award and an award for best use of archives. The film was one of my personal favorites of the festival, and possibly of the year. Filmmaker Firouzeh Khosrovani’s father, a suave and secular urbanite who studied radiology in Europe, married her mother, a deeply religious Muslim woman. During the Iranian revolution, the roles reversed; the mother transformed into an activist leader of Muslim pro-revolutionary women, while the father retreated further into the house.

Khosrovani’s film uses her family’s archives of material strategically and evocatively to tell this story; she complements it with elegantly constructed reenactments. The archival materials provided a complex challenge, since after the revolution her mother had destroyed any pictures in which she was not veiled. Radiograph powerfully uses metaphor, including that of the X-ray—her father’s medium, and one that she leverages to refer to deep structures and fissures in family life—and the home. She also films an initially empty house, divided between her mother and father. As family dynamics change, so do the furnishings and feel of this home. The highly specific circumstances of this family evolve along universal themes.

Form and Content

One of the most precious and also poignant realities of a film festival is encountering films that explore the form courageously and with purpose. Radiograph does that; I want to believe it has a place somewhere beyond festivals. So does The Magnitude of All Things, by Canadian Jennifer Abbott (National Film Board of Canada funded it). It ambitiously links the immensity of the climate change challenge to the incomprehensibility of the loss of a loved one (Abbott’s sister). It didn’t always work for me, but the film’s pace and narration style may suit others more. I consistently admired the project to name and challenge our feelings of helplessness, and encourage us to draw strength from the intense experience of wonder in the present. Among the elements: a reenactment of the sick sister’s decline while savoring the world around her; spectacular shoots of still-breathtaking and endangered places—the Australian Great Barrier Reef, the Ecuadorian rain forest, the unique Tasmanian ecology, the soon-to-be-swamped island of Kiribati; and the statements of people organizing to act to address climate change. I hope the film finds a home with aspiring climate activists.

You can also view experiments at a festival that make you wonder if it’s you or them, but you suspect it’s them. Mexican Rodrigo Reyes’ 499 imagines an arrogant, clueless 16th-century conquistador who magically lands in today’s Mexico, and is baffled by a series of tableaux of Mexican misery under corrupt government and gangster capitalism. Intrigued by the concept, I was unable to finish the film, defeated by a combination of obviousness, clumsy writing and languid editing. But your mileage may vary.

The Business in Pandemic

Panels and industry talks focused on issues of hair-raising concern in the documentary business. The news was surprisingly optimistic. Several staffers at streaming firms reported not just good business but consumer appetite to pay premium prices for new releases. Europeans were a little worried about varying prices for top-tier tickets (the UK is high, the Netherlands is low), but generally they were finding that virtual premieres made good money with low overhead. Don’t forget the importance of marketing, though.

They’re also finding that people will add a streaming channel if they have a reason—for instance, getting access to a desired film. And there are so many to add: general interest, nationally-focused, doc, niche doc and niche-within-niche. In Europe, streaming services vary by country. All these mini-revenue streams can add up to real money, and they’re all non-exclusive, but it’s a lot of work, and you might want to work with a sales agent or consultant (Gunpowder & Sky, The Rights Stuff, Kinonation, Dogwoof and more).

Filmmakers who coordinated engagement campaigns have seen astounding results during the pandemic. Sarah Mosses from Together Films, an engagement specialist, said that a human rights festival that had to pivot to virtual within days expected a tiny turnout—perhaps 25 people per screening. Instead, the top number at a single screening was 750, and more than 20,000 people watched, far larger than expected for in-person. She leverages Q&A sessions after a screening as marketing. Coded Bias was able to generate simultaneous interest in 22 countries using this technique, for instance.

Anabel Rodriguez, whose Once Upon a Time in Venezuela elegantly uses the decline of a small town riven by politics as a metaphor for Venezuela’s plight, was initially daunted by the pandemic’s challenges. But she has found that virtual screenings are reaching her target audience—overseas Venezuelans—in numbers larger than she had hoped for with in-person screenings. And each viewer comes with a rich body of data, which she can mine for the future. That’s a creepy thought for viewers, but filmmakers are delighted to finally get their hands on data that’s collected anyway when a film is shown digitally, but usually held close by distributors and exhibitors.

For Taghi Amirani, whose Coup 53 tells the inside story of an English spy on the ground during the overthrow of a democratically elected leader in Iran in 1953, “COVID was the greatest gift for our film.” He self-distributed the film he had been making with donations over ten years, leveraging that decade of support with a professional marketing campaign. It opened in four countries, at 118 theaters. Using the Eventive platform, he split proceeds 50/50 with any entity—indie theaters, nonprofits, schools, radio stations—that wanted to partner. In three weeks, the film did $100,000 in box office, and of course the trove of data is priceless. An anti-war group in the UK sold the most tickets of all. Targeted marketing campaigns for different countries have garnered unexpected interest. The film was temporarily not in release because of a defamation lawsuit, which Amirani believed is yet one more attempt to stifle the film. (He maintains he has seen such efforts from the beginning of the process.) The lawsuit was resolved, and the film is back.

“We need to decolonize the world of distribution,” Amirani said. “The indie filmmaker needs to be in a transparent world where they can stop being screwed.”


I spent much less time with interactive exhibits than in the past, partly because I lacked the relevant headsets for some of the VR and was only attending virtually. But there was still plenty to play with. Weirdly, at a time when even your grandmother has seen The Social Dilemma and is worried about her privacy, interactive creatives at IDFA’s Doc Lab seem downright insouciant. I couldn’t tell critique from collaboration most of the time.

Lauren McCarthy continues to experiment with the experience of surveillance, with Later Date, where COVID conversations are archived for her future use. With Vincent Morisset’s Motto, you can use your phone to play a kind of scavenger hunt and share pictures of your intimate environment with the app and other users. The pictures are used to tell a crowdsourced story. David O’Reilly’s Coronavirus Voicemails is an audio-collage made out of COVID-19 dreams that people volunteered on a recorded line. Of everything you might do with openly sourced hacked emails, Demetria Glace went hunting for recipes, which she used in scheduled sessions with attendees. (Curious about how else those emails are used? Listen here.) In Kyle McDonald’s Facework, you the job applicant can have AI read your facial expression and see if it’s good enough to get the job. The exercise points, among other things, to the well-known encoding of racial bias. One silly but fun crowdsourced project was Moniker’s Do Not Touch, a kind of next-level music video that lets you use your cursor (thanks to tracking) to play with others.

I wish that I had been able to participate more fully, as I was curious about how DocLab is exploring the question of decolonizing the form. I also look forward to next year’s IDFA, where it seems that the theme may gain momentum.


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