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International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam

Peter Rorvik on Film

[This is the second installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Peter Rorvik. Peter is the Director of the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as Director of the Durban International Film Festival.]

Despite widespread funding cutbacks for culture coming from a Dutch government retreating into conservatism, the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam of 2011 looked as strong as ever, entrenching wide acknowledgement that this is the worlds’ leading documentary festival.

For events of this size, IDFA scores big in respect of manageability. Eleven simultaneous screens run in the old and arty Tuchinski and the more modern de Munt cinema complex, just two minutes apart, creating a very accessible film feast in the Rembrandt Plein locale, where you can also find box office and registration facilities, filmmaker discussions and live TV talk shows.

South Korean director Seung-Jun Yi’s heart-warming Planet of Snail took IDFA’s Best Feature-Length Documentary award. It is an inside look at the relationship between Young-Chan, who is both blind and deaf, and his wife Soon-Ho, who herself is physically handicapped. Short in stature, but huge in heart, Soon-Ho is Young-Chan’s principal bridge to the world. We savour the warmth of their communication technique of finger tapping, and enhance our appreciation of the world of touch. We witness the daily challenges of mundane things, such as their joint endeavour to change a light bulb just out of Soon-Ho’s reach, and their pragmatic approach to overcoming disability. Underlying their interdependence is also a refreshing sense of independence, an adventurous curiosity and creative zest that lifts their lives. They host a dinner party for deaf and blind friends, and Young-Chan choreographs a play in which they all perform. Planet of Snail is moving, tender and sensitive, yet never soppy.

Documentary festivals generally embody less of the glamour found at (some) other festivals, but it doesn’t mean everything is deadly serious. Artful filmmakers know how to carry home a message with humour and wit, none more so than Morgan Spurlock. The narrative of his POM Wonderful- the Greatest Movie Ever Sold, is little more than the search to secure sponsorship for a film, but Spurlock’s sardonic touch makes it fun and adventure all the way. The pomegranate juice company that put in the most money is ultimately rewarded with title rights (and we all get a bottle of POM Wonderful after the show). Product placement, marketing, and brand advertising has steadily, and increasingly become an accepted norm in American cinema but its global creep faces legislative limitation and opposition in some countries; UK audiences for example voted (to no avail) against the soon-to-be-implemented use of product placement on television. Spurlock ‘s tongue in cheek approach has you always on the edge, and his prospective clients too, some of them unnerved more by Spurlock himself than the camera presence. His upfront approach may get up some people’s noses, and some might say this movie is a sell-out, literally, but Spurlock has put the thorny matters of product placement on the table – after this you can’t say you never knew. Tight editing and quick-fire pacing makes the film kick, this is not one you are likely to fall asleep in.

IDFA has the whole deal, and off-limits to general public are The Forum and Docs For Sale, two key industry initiatives which drive the production and distribution of new documentaries. The Forum organizes pitching of rigorously selected documentary projects to commissioning editors, TV channels and financiers from around the world; it is the grand industry meeting place for the negotiation of documentary deals. This is one of the crucial hubs where the creative teams put their business feet forward to secure the financial lifeblood that will bring their films to our screens, whether in cinemas or on television. Here are the stories we will see next year. With EuroZone economic jitters at their height during IDFA, a special interjection was permitted to Nick Fraser of BBC, who then spoke about what he termed “the elephant in the room”, namely the absence of new projects addressing the current economic and financial crisis in Europe. Fraser announced a drive by BBC and other interested partners to support documentaries covering this volatile issue. The speed with which these matters change necessitates quick turnaround so as to remain current. Documentaries dig deeper than news reportage, and the making of history is faster than the documenting of it.

Despite Fraser’s comments, in terms of completed films, IDFA did screen a healthy number of documentaries delving into the general state of well-being of the planet, including the economic uncertainties. Ross Ashcroft’s Four Horsemen for example. In four apocalyptic dimensions put to us by Ashcroft we hear opinion on world systems and the economy from a swathe of leading thinkers (this was the 2nd IDFA film including Noam Chomsky, the other being The Kingdom of Survival), but this is no boring talking heads saga. Intertwining issues are lucidly unpacked, entertainingly so, to help us better understand how the world works, and who is really running the show.

A slew of films in the Green Screen section dealt with environmental issues from pollution, corporate collusion and corruption, renewable energy, alternative lifestyles (watch Surviving Progress) to nuclear challenges. Bitter Seeds is one worth highlighting. More than 400,000 farmer suicides have been recorded in India over the past 16 years. Accomplished Bitter Seeds director Micha X. Peled unpicks root causes quickly to the (often-shut) doors of agribusiness and seed selling monopolies such as Monsanto. But it is Peled’s sensitive following of selected characters in debt-trap affected communities that provides the compelling impact, and evokes heart-wrenching empathy and frustrating anger for a people so hard done by.

Let’s then remember that IDFA takes place in one of the world’s great cities. When you have watched your daily dose of three or four films and need a breakout, Amsterdam offers an extraordinary mix of old-world and contemporary cultures to savour. The most dangerous thing that can happen to you in Amsterdam is not getting stoned in the coffee shops, or getting (way)laid in the Red Light district, but getting run over by a bicycle. The tightly packed buildings are constrained by its canals – there is no way Amsterdam will get flyovers and road widening in the forseeable future, and the bicycle is a perfect response, the only possible one, to the narrow roads here. If you are not walking then do a bike tour. Hot tip if you are a music lover: a short walk from the IDFA hub will get you to Concerto, a really great music shop, carrying all genres, vinyl as well as cd, and a vast 2nd hand offering. And of course there is a wide variety of live music in Amsterdam if you tire of films. It is worth noting

IDFA dates for 2012: November 14-25.
www.idfa.nl

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