I saw fewer films than usual at last year’s IDFA: I did my best not to miss the debates. Based on the “Film for Thought” motto, IDFA 2005 proved to be more than just the exclusionary province of documentary film professionals and provided a space for filmmakers, activists, scholars and lay audiences to share ideas… not to mention the young Dutch trend analyst who was virtually everywhere with her notebook and her poignant remarks. One thing to point out regarding this year’s festival is the ability of the festival crew to translate the films screened into issues worth debating in public as part of the side-events that have mushroomed since IDFA teamed up with Peter Wintonick.
Although the age of the politically well-intentioned but unimaginative and poorly crafted doc seems to be long past, most discussions at IDFA departed rather quickly from the films themselves and landed in the broader and muddier realm of US foreign policy, strategic communication or anti-globalization. IDFA was imprinted with a sense of political urgency and engagement of the filmmakers with issues of public interest. On a formal level, this translated into a massive recontamination of the documentary form with investigative journalism, in an attempt to provide an alternative to the mainstream media. Given the packed cinemas for films such as “Why We Figh”t, “Gitmo: The New Rules of War” or “Media Jihad”, the seminar on ‘Propaganda and Media Reality in the Age of Terror’ seemed like a compulsory addition. It was complemented by the “Docs at War”programme, which put into perspective the history of a versatile genre employed as much for social control as radical change.
One film that touched obliquely on the ‘media reality’ issue was the richly textured “The Samantha Smith Project” by Irene Lusztig. It followed the Cold War story of an American pupil who sent a letter to Yuri Andropov and triggered a programme of ‘children-diplomats’ exchanged between the Soviet Union and the US. The film trades on the reverberations of the past in the present and challenges the audience to re-examine particular patterns of US foreign policy, such as the media construction of ‘foreign threats’: “Do you know anything about Russia?” Lusztig asks several school-age girls during a casting session for the role of ‘Samantha Smith’. “Not really… I guess it was a bad country,” comes a hesitant reply. “Is there really such a thing like a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ country? What would a bad country be?” Lusztig insists. “I don’t know… Maybe a country which has terrorists?” replies one of the girls.
There was one particularly poignant moment in Longinotto’s observational piece on the upper-class Fionas locked-up in boarding schools, “Pride of Place”, when another girl was asked about what she intended to do after graduation. “What? You mean when I’m married?” was the reply. It was precisely this predetermined path of life that was the premise of “Smiling in a War Zone”, a film about the Danish artist-pilot who ‘shares a dream’ with an unknown Afghan girl who wants to become a pilot. The film touched on the sensitive issue of the filmmakers’ expectations about distant places and on their responsibility to make room for the unexpected, even when it invalidates the premise of a film. Simone Aaberg refers to that in an interview where she admits to going to Afghanistan with a preconceived idea that Farial, the unknown girl, would be the first in her country to fly a plane, only to be amusingly invalidated by the discovery of not one, but two Afghan sisters, both fighter pilots -and both included in the film. “Smiling in a War Zone” competed for the Audience Award with Kim Longinotto’s “Sisters in Law”. Although Longinotto ultimately won the award, the film by the Danish filmmaker with the pilot cap (Simone Aaberg) made a member of the audience stand up and recite a poem written ad-hoc and inspired by Aaberg’s altruism.
Ethical Aspects of Consumerism
The interest aroused by titles such as “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”, “China Blue” or “Bullshit” testified to the growing interest in organic and ethical cultures among today’s conspicuous non-consumers-people already invested in the subject matter, as the Q&As would suggest and possibly part of the growing segment of “inner directeds”. This trend, by the way, seems to be most prevalent in the Netherlands.
Two of the remarkable films of the festival, “We Feed the World” and “Our Daily Bread”, were often commented on in terms of each other due to their thematic overlapping and different visual syntax. They both dealt with the rupture between supranational management and localized production as a crucial feature of global capitalism. Incidentally, “We Feed the World” by Erwin Wagenhofer also pointed out the risk of collateral damage when pitting “local”against “global” by overlooking specific past contexts. “What fascinates me about this country is the feeling of going back in time about 50 years. It’s like looking at my grandparents,” says one manager acting as a guide through rural Romania. Grandparents always tend to be more real or just more authentic than the rest of us; they are also weak, frequently unable to adapt to the present and therefore need to be protected from themselves. There are historical reasons to explain why Romania is now one of the last ‘authentic’ countries of the former Eastern Bloc unwilling to resist Monsanto’s ‘Round-up Ready’ lure: fifty years was incidentally the duration of Romania’s communist regime.