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.

Political Urgency

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.

img_4173-1024x683One 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.

Audience Favourites

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.

A space for reflection on the position of the locals perpetually defeated by globalization only to be further victimized by the media was provided in Peå Holmquist and Suzanne Khardalian’s “Bullshit”. In the sequence of confrontation between environmentalists and biotech farming experts, the passive, confused villagers caught between two political agendas were part of a context acknowledged as a problem in itself.

Reality and Fake

During the Media Reality seminar, Brian Winston made a point about our insufficient knowledge of the ways in which the audiences engage with specific documentaries or factual programmes. What is in fact communicated in those exchanges and how much of that is actually able to challenge preconceptions and further a nuanced understanding of sensitive issues?

I thought about that again when I happened to come across the IMDB discussion board for “Grizzly Man”: “Herzog’s footage is fake. It’s scripted. It’s staged. And it’s NOT a documentary.” “I think we might have someone who faked his own death.” “You can’t fake having half of your body devoured.” “People, it’s fake. It’s well done though. The CGI is first rate. Most of the scenes with Tim and the bears are shot on a soundstage where the bear scene is projected on the wall and Tim is in a set in the foreground.” The fiction/non-fiction divide has stopped being a site for contestation within the academia or the industry, but the postings under the ‘fake’ thread testify to an audience challenged by the recent morphing of the documentary form. The IMDB reactions to Herzog’s film demonstrate once more the mutual dependence between questions of artifice in documentary structure and questions of artifice in identity: viewers tried to unfold the real self of the subject from behind its factual performance, while also questioning the reality of the events.

Poetic Truth

Herzog’s attempt to untangle Treadwell’s inner motivations for his camera-mediated, self-fashioned public persona was informed by a career in which Herzog concerned himself with a cinematic truth frequently reached through stylization and fabrication. “Before Flying Back to The Earth” can be taken as a sample of poetic or ecstatic truth built, rather than grasped, about the human landscape in a hospital ward for terminally ill children. What holds this vision together is the shot of a scenic landscape employed by Arunas Matelis to suggest the deserted spaces of ultimate uncertainty, for which the actual space of the hospital, shot in a reportage style, would not have been powerful enough. One question from the audience referred precisely to Matelis’ decision to employ that visual metaphor.

To me, the question resonated with another one-posed several months before at another festival to Audrius Stonys-regarding Stonys’ film “Countdown” about a forgotten Lithuanian film professional found in an asylum. In this film Stonys inserts a lyrical sequence with the dismantling of a ship, shot in b&w and completely unrelated diegetically to the rest of the film. Both filmmakers employed spatial metaphors which temporarily removed their films from the physical place perceived as the main location. In both cases, members of the audience regarded this as unexpected and potentially disconcerting.

Challenges to the Documentary Canon

These questions point to a need to think about the current resistances or licences occurring in the documentary domain. With the recent proliferation of European training initiatives meant to foster access to the international market for filmmakers coming from smaller national markets, one thing to look into is precisely the challenge posed by various local traditions of documentary filmmaking to what used to be the Western Euro-American documentary canon.

That canon is, of course, still massively challenged from the inside, with one of the most seductive attempts this year being “The American Ruling Class” by John Kirby. In spite of the magnitude of the problem posed, the level on which the ‘dramatic documentary musical’ scripted by Harper’s Lewis Lapham seems truly successful is not that of the answers provided but rather that of the syntax of the questions asked: signed by a team which declares itself to be “frankly bored with the format,” the film is a hybrid that ties up transgeneric connections. It remains to be seen how the future films of the series will work. As John Ellis once put it, “On the border between documentary and fiction, the consequences can be both deceptive and revealing.”

The IDFA Fund

It also remains to be seen how the New IDFA Fund -introduced as “a fund for the thousands of people who populate the big screen, after the film is over,”-will work in the future. It not only proves that IDFA is still an innovator, but also revalidates the subjects as part of the documentary project- an aspect which, until now, surfaced only through incidental acts of charity made by individual film crews, or by exceptional presences of charismatic documentary subjects in film festivals. When ethical investment seems to be the word of the day, rather than only giving money to charity, it remains to be seen whether the Fund will manage to effect a “small change” or rather, a “life change” for those who will benefit from it.
IDFA 2005 Awards
Joris Ivens Award
“My Grandmother’s House” by Adán Aliaga (Spain 2005)
Special Jury Award
“Our Daily Bread” by Nikolaus Geyrhalter (Austria, 2005)
Silver Wolf Award
“Before Flying Back” to the Earth by Arunas Matelis (Lithuania/Germany 2005)
Silver Cub Award
“Butterfly Man” by Samantha Rebillet (Australia, 2004)
First Appearance Award
“The Angelmakers” by Astrid Bussink (Scotland/Hungary/The Netherlands, 2005)
Audience Award
“Sisters in Law” by Kim Longinotto and Florence Ayisi (England, 2005)
DOC U! Award
“Shadya” by Ray Westler (Israel, 2005)

Modern Times Review