ANETTE OLSEN journeyed to the most distant corners of the world through the films shown at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam last November. She reports on some of her cinematic adventures.

Documentaries are hot – and people are willing to do whatever it takes to see them, as a colleague of mine experienced at the IDFA festival in Amsterdam last November. Ten minutes after receiving her guest pass and festival catalogue, both were stolen! (Probably by some documentary addict.)

As always, IDFA is a cinematic treat and a window on the world. The programme included some 200 docs and reflected the usual concern for representing films on or from distant corners of the world, this year with a special focus on Iranian cinema. I went for a combination of eye-opening experiences and emotions and was cinematically fulfilled through a variety of documentaries. Quite a number of films expressed a distinctly epic quality (although all films are essentially epic) by the use of voiceover narration. Voiceover is a real challenge, and I saw several examples of films that suffered from bad voiceovers (but fortunately examples of the opposite as well).

Authentic voice

The Amazon rain forest in Brazil was the first stop on my cinematic voyage, and here I met The Charcoal People (Brazil). Director Nigel Noble has made a photographic poem and an appealing documentary on a doomed people whose existence depends on the forest. A man lifts heavy trunks of wood into a kiln, a circular oven where wood transforms into coal in a slow burning process. One does not immediately link the creaky voiceover of an old man telling about his life as a coal worker with the strong body on the screen. They are one and the same however, and this 76-year old has been working with charcoal his whole life.

In spite of the stunning imagery – dark bodies working in the red glow of the fire and the smoke with great music by Joaõ Nabuco – the film does not indulge in aesthetic sentimentality. In classic documentary style, the film portrays the ‘carvoeros’ in their work and family situations. The sad fact is that the coal workers will soon be working at the limits of destruction, since the Amazon forest is dramatically diminishing due to overexploitation. Since most charcoal workers are illiterate, they are excluded from jobs that require an education. Their children’s prospects are no better, if there’s no money for education. Still, when one of the charcoal workers, a father of three, asks his eldest son what he wants to be when he grows up, the son answers, “A charcoal worker.” The film ends with a 12-year-old boy building an oven with his bare hands. His brown body is half the size of the old man’s we saw in the beginning, and one wonders whether the boy will last till he’s 76.

In Kindergarten (Russia) by Victor Kossakovsky, the children’s lives are more fortunate, yet not free from sorrows. The film depicts love between children, and the filmmaker succeeds in capturing some precious and delightful moments of their budding affection. Kossakovsky also made Pavel and Lyalya (screened at IDFA in 1998) about the love of an elderly couple. Kindergarten opens with 7-year old Sasha telling us that he is going to get married today. He has chosen Katya to be his bride and she loves him very deeply. Ten minutes later however, the wedding is called off. When Katya is dismissed by Sasha, she can’t hold back her tears, but claims, “I’m not crying, the tears are just dropping”. The rest of the day brings dramatic scenes of jealousy, break-ups, reconciliation, and tragic last farewells.

Kossakovsky’s camera remains discreet and does not systematically follow the children into their private corners, but “hides” respectfully while the micro records what the children talk about. The film is a respectful look into childhood intimacy and the relationships and heartaches of childhood love. The sequence showing the anniversary of former kindergarten children (now adult women) felt somehow disturbing in the middle of the children’s universe, and was an unnecessary contrast. Nevertheless, Kindergarten is a lovely, poetic film.

Poetry and aesthetics are not the main concern of Palestinian filmmaker Nizan Hassan. In his film Cut! he unravels the power relationships among the families in the Jewish settlement Ajur in northern Israel. Turks and Iraqi Kurds came to the country in the fifties and became farmers as imposed by the Jewish Agency. The settlement became a cooperative, members were elected to the community committee and rivalries broke out between the families. These rivalries flare up from time to time, and the filmmaker tries to get to the bottom of the villagers’ motivations in the game of influence and power. Initially, the villagers are reluctant to talk about it openly. They too are trying to figure out whether they are in a ‘racist’ film. As one says: “What idiot doesn’t know we’re sitting on Arab land.” Eventually the filmmaker succeeds in establishing a certain trust that loosens up the tongues, unless his questions stir up painful memories. Then the dialogue is stopped by a “cut!” It is a film that also makes a point of revealing the filming process: we see the film crew shooting and we see the bad takes. In its own ‘rough-cut’ style, the film becomes a tool for revealing the truth.

Dissociated voice

Reed Dance by Polish Andrzej Fidyk focuses on AIDS that in the years to come will eradicate half of the younger generations in Swaziland. The celebrations of the traditional reed dance, where young virgins present themselves to King Mswati III, frame the film. We follow a group of young women and ‘overhear’ their conversations on how to protect themselves from AIDS, whether condoms are useful and the risks of rape, polygamy, etc.

It’s all rather well done except for the narration. Instead of translating what the girls actually say into subtitles, a dreadful male voiceover summarizes their discussions in English, drowning out the real voices. If voiceover really is needed, why not use the characters’ own voices instead? Presumably because of the cost of adding English subtitles. Short-cuts are regrettable in this field however, since good voiceovers are just as important as good images, because a voice tints the mood and atmosphere of the whole film. I saw worse examples of badly functioning voiceover narration, but we’ll let them pass for now.

Just a few more positive comments on Reed Dance that seemed annoying to some by its amalgam of different issues. Andrzej Fidyk initially intended to make a documentary on King Mswati III, but encountered difficulties with filming permits. He does manage to film the King briefly though, in a hilarious scene that takes place in the King’s palace. The camera crew respectfully crawl around on their knees manipulating camera and micros while trying not to turn their backs to the King. The director asks the King why a woman can’t marry more than one man since the opposite is possible. The King simply laughs at the absurdity of the question. The film is full of contrasts, but somehow Fidyk manages to assemble the pieces in a colourful mosaic. The fascinating exoticism of the reed dance does not overshadow the main idea of showing how old cherished traditions contribute to the spread of AIDS.

Voice of God and the Eyes of Tammy Faye

In the ‘Reflecting Images’ section I met a full-blooded, authentic survivor with the same determination and spunk as Norma Rae.

By looking into The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato, USA) I learned something about American television history and was entertained for all 79 minutes. The main character, a popular television evangelist, was completely unknown to me. But in the world of Christian television in the eighties, Tammy Faye was a star. She built up a successful religious network PTL (Praise the Lord) with husband Jim Bakker, who was later accused of embezzlement and adultery. When the network empire collapsed and things fell apart, Tammy herself became addicted to medicine and later developed cancer, but got back on her feet.

The story of the rise and fall of the first lady of religious TV is done in a fast-paced newsreel style, structured in chapters (presented by two muppets) with titles like: ‘A Star is Born’ and eventually, ‘The Shit Hits the Fan’. The film borders on ridiculing the main character, but remains loyal, mainly because Tammy Faye herself is well aware of the reactions her personality provokes. We learn to like and admire this woman with eyelashes as thick as brushes and the voice of a seven-year-old. She is what she is, in spite of her religious convictions: an open-minded, generous person who is (perhaps because of these traits) incredibly resilient. So yes, I was charmed by the Eyes of Tammy Faye and the dynamics of a truly creative documentary. God bless Tammy Faye – and documentaries.