I'm not a veteran film festival goer, partly out of habit, mostly out of geography. But the opportunity arose for me to attend the IDFA documentary film festival in Amsterdam so I eagerly pounced on it. I didn't attend the whole stretch, and there were many films I didn't see, but here are some trends and motifs I noticed:
- Investigation: I had tweeted that investigation might be thought of as an ur-ideology of contemporary doc. That's a hypothesis that will need more exploration, but it was striking to me how many of the films I saw were about crime - C.K., about a dutch embezzler, Smash and Grab, about the Pink Panther jewel thief ring - or generally took the form of an investigative structure - Men at Lunch or Seconds of Lead. Much like the chase was a winning formula for transitional narrative cinema, the investigation captures the epistemology of narrativized doc. In fact in Seconds of Lead, an Iranian documentary reflecting on the revolution, the process of tracking down a projectionist stands in thematically for the spectator's understanding of the forgotten history of Iran's past.
- Narrative: Speaking of narrative, it was interesting to see the various ways that docs drew inspiration (consciously or not) from narrative film. The Ridge and Sofia's Last Ambulance would make a terrific double bill, not only for what they say about emergency health care but also for their divergent approach to narrative. The Ridge was an unabashed action-adventure film based on suspense, with clearly differentiated and psychologized characters, whereas Sofia's Last Ambulance was an art film, premised on key gaps of knowledge. Somewhere in between, Camp 14: Total Control Zone, alternated between the clarity of flashbacks (about life in a North Korean labor camp) and the anomie of the present (an escapee's life in Seoul today).
- Economic life of the peasantry: Remarkably, three films I saw were about the economic struggles of the peasantry under globalization. Winter Nomads and Sons of the Land provided the clearest comparison, both about European farmers. But whereas Winter Nomads was lyrical and redemptive in its humanist theme, Sons of the Land looked at the microfoundations of macro economic collapse. In another context, Where Heaven Meets Hell traced the lives of Indonesian sulfur miners.
- Documentary ethics: The question I heard time and again was how did the director or producer find the social actor ("character"). And usually this was the questions I most wanted to hear! Mostly the documentaries relied so much on the social actor, Camp 14, Sons of the Land and Where Heaven Meets Hell all relied on an intimate rapport between filmmaker and subject. Other films, however, Seconds of Lead and Story for Modlns, seemed to disregard documentary ethics so much, they were almost textbook examples. In the Dark Room, about Carlos the Jackal's wife and child, took what I'd call a postmodern ethical approach, both exploiting and being exploited by the subject in order to throw up the question of truthful representation to begin with.
In all, it was refreshing to see so many terrific new documentaries in one go. Perhaps the film festival life could become more of a habit with me.
p.s See also Julia Barbosa's report at Keyframe.