The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam 2012
by Richard Porton

Juliet Lamont’s  Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls

Juliet Lamont’s Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls

The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, which celebrated its silver anniversary in 2012, is, without question, the world’s largest annual showcase for nonfiction cinema; in 2012, three hundred and seventeen films—and ninety-seven world premieres—were screened. Like festivals devoted to primarily narrative films such as Berlin and Cannes, the documentary milieu attracts its own array of sales agents, producers, and familiar auteurs. In recent years, the IDFA Forum has provided opportunities for filmmakers to pitch projects in a public setting, a festival component that appeals to both seasoned filmmakers and relative novices. A visitor to IDFA inevitably encounters many of the nonfiction films that will eventually end up at specialty cinemas such as Film Forum in New York or broadcast on prestigious television outlets like PBS’s POV series. The festival venues in central Amsterdam attract sizable crowds of both area residents and foreign visitors; it’s not unusual to find hordes of spectators lining up for documentaries on the situation in Bahrain or the history of the Federal Reserve Bank. Under the direction of Ally Derks since its inception, IDFA has gone from being a maverick festival in its youth to an event that is regarded as slightly stodgy by some of its upstart challengers within the small, incestuous world of documentary festivals.

Although there are a variety of styles and themes on display at IDFA, many of the films, especially in the official competition for feature length documentaries, tackle social and political preoccupations—although it’s increasingly true that some sort of provisional non-fiction narrative provides the ballast for these social issue docs. (To cite not untypical examples, within the last few years, Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras and Luc Coté and Patricio Henriquez’s You Don’t Like The Truth—4 Days Inside Guantanamo won the Special Jury Award while Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home won the Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary in 2009).

While some critics have faulted the competition films for eschewing experimentation and hewing to formulaic rhetorical strategies, a fair assessment of 2012’s roster reveals that competition filmmakers strive to avoid the pitfalls of didacticism while delivering a certain quotient of “entertainment” —efforts that admittedly yielded a mix bag in terms of aesthetic achievement. Juliet Lamont’s Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls, the first competition film I viewed at IDFA, has surprising affinities with both reality television and rags-to-riches show business narrative films. Nikki May, a young Australian woman on hiatus in Burma, becomes a mentor to a ragtag, hastily manufactured girl group—the Tiger Girls. For the puritanical, repressive regime, on the verge of loosening hidebound strictures after years of dictatorship, an all-girl group resplendent with colorful wigs who sing suggestive, if ultimately innocuous, songs, represents a vague threat—it’s incumbent upon the Tiger Girls to prove they’re mere entertainers, not prostitutes. All of the young women, moreover, possess identifiable quirks e.g. —one is tone deaf, while another’s unorthodox beauty is considered “ugly” by conservative Burmese standards of attractiveness.

Lamont’s film exemplifies a certain strain of infotainment within documentary; the assumption seems to be that audiences must have some sort of American Idol—like emotional uplift as an entry point into the Burmese political morass.

Nadav Schirman’s In the Dark Room, a more substantial competition entry, belongs to another increasingly popular documentary subgenre—the “biodoc,” or non-fiction version of the biopic. Schirman’s film focuses on Magdalena Kopp, the German radical best known for her marriage to the notorious “Carlos the Jackal.” After sketching Kopp’s roots in the German New Left and the origins of her sado-masochistic relationship with Carlos, most of the film dwells on her, and her daughter Rosa’s, fraught relationship with the aging, imprisoned terrorist. Rosa’s plight is especially poignant; she grew up with a simplistic assumption that her father was a heroic freedom fighter and must gradually come to terms with the awareness that most of the world views him as a pariah. Just as Miss Nikki borrows motifs from the movie musical, In The Dark Room often resembles a politicized family melodrama.

David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton share a smoke in  Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction

David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton share a smoke in Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction

Sophie Huber’s Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, which was screened in a sidebar devoted to highlighting the best of other documentary festivals, “Reflecting Images—Best of Fests,” is a more stripped-down variation on the standard biodoc formula. Huber demonstrates that the much-maligned “talking heads” documentary subgenre can be eminently worthwhile if a filmmaker’s craftsmanship can capture the essence of a solitary, but compelling, subject. In Huber’s case, her subject is eminently taciturn; Stanton, often lauded as one of Hollywood’s most skillful character actors, is known as a man of few words and his legend is at least partially based on the fact that his reticence perfectly suits his roles in such films as Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke, and David Lynch’s The Straight Story. Whether regaling Huber with stories of wild times with Jack Nicholson, his former roommate, croaking verses to songs in his inimitable style, or merely staring blankly into the camera, Stanton ,a distinctively American performer and eccentric, impresses by dint of his singular indifference to making any sort of impression at all.

While many of IDFA’s selections temper left-liberal politics with aesthetic conservatism, Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed, 2012’s winner of the VPRO Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary, is an unabashed example of the personal documentary. Berliner’s undiluted confessional orientation, while avoiding bogus impartiality, is not without its problems. A warts-and-all portrait of the final years of Berliner’s cousin Edwin Honig, a distinguished poet and translator stricken with Alzheimer’s in his last decade of life, the film proves both intermittently riveting and slightly repellent. Berliner prods the ailing Honig to recall details of his former life as a Brown professor that are largely inaccessible to a man in the throes of dementia. The filmmaker also chides his cousin for being a neglectful, authoritarian parent—accusations that seem accurate but nevertheless cruel in light of the fact that it’s impossible for Honig to offer any sort of apologia for his highhanded behavior. In aCineasteinterview, Berliner maintains that “there was a sense that I had given Edwin a momentary feeling of something close to his ‘memory,’ a resonant connection to his past, even if it was only fleeting.” Yet Berliner does not acknowledge the arrogance, and the obvious suffering, that accompanies this purported gift of reconnecting his curmudgeonly cousin with his past.

IDFA’s retrospective of the work of the Russian documentarian Victor Kossakovsky revealed an equally idiosyncratic, if considerably less narcissistic, approach to personal cinema. For over twenty years, Kossakovsky, a director who should be far better known in the United States, has produced films that often look superficially like stunts but are actually poetic flights of fancy that personify a cogent form of conceptual cinema. Kossakovsky’s conceptual ruses are, more often than not, startlingly simple. Tishe!(2002), for example, offers a brilliantly limited perspective: a year’s worth of footage of a St. Petersburg street from the perspective of a window in Kossakovsky’s apartment. Using what is touted as the first picture in the history of photography—Nicéphore Niépce’s View From a Window— as a tentative departure point, the film luxuriates in an almost Tati-esque comic ambiance. The loopy view from Kossakovsky’s window includes incessant roadwork that almost evokes Gogol in its tragicomic ineptitude and a slightly hysterical woman looking frantically for her dog. With Kossakovsky, strict verisimilitude is paradoxically aligned to a narrative impulse that generates slapstick, melodrama, and subtle political commentary. The inevitable slippage between fictional and non-fictional modes that suffuses the most esteemed contemporary documentaries was also evident in “Kossakovsky’s Top Ten,” a personal selection of the guest of honor’s favorite documentaries that included famous films such as Dziga Vertov’s The Man With the Movie Camera, Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran, Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death, and Alexander Sokurov’sSpiritual Voices, as well as more obscure titles like Herz Frank’s Ten Minutes Older and Pavel Kogan’s Look at Her Face.

Another sidebar—“Constructing History”—allowed IDFA to veer away from its obligation to highlight frequently disappointing new films by featuring a sampling of classic documentaries that tackle historical conundrums on the order of the fall of Communism, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and the excesses of Wall Street. Despite the presence of fine films (e.g. Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread), Ulrich Seidl’s rarely screened Losses to be Expected (1992) was the great revelation of this section. The usually acerbic Seidl modulates his sardonicism in this bittersweet comic chronicle of a failed romance between an elderly Austrian widower and his paramour over the border in the Czech Republic. Cultural and historical differences between the West and former East Bloc countries are enacted in a playful allegorical form through this sometimes cringe-worthy chronicle of one man’s futile search for marital bliss.

Ulrich Seidl's  Losses to Be Expected

Ulrich Seidl's Losses to Be Expected

IDFA’s agenda is admirably eclectic and ecumenical. If the selections in the competition are occasionally banal, there are always alluring sidebars that function as antidotes, most notably “Paradocs,” described in the catalog as a program where the “periphery of the documentary genre takes center stage…it showcases what is going on beyond the frame of traditional documentary filmmaking, on the borders between film and art, truth and fiction, and narrative and design.” (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan, already acclaimed in Locarno, Toronto, and New York, had a place of pride and might be deemed the prototypical “paradoc.”) The IDFA DocLab offered interactive installations, an iPad documentary, and a live event curated by William Uricchio, founder of MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Astute grazing is the best policy at IDFA; before long, it becomes obvious that it’s best to overlook many of the over-hyped competition entries and haunt the retrospectives and low-key sidebars that lend substance to this annual celebration of nonfiction.

Richard Porton is a Cineaste Editor as well as an occasional contributor to Cinema ScopeThe Daily Beast, and Moving Image Source.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2