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.

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