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One of the best things about the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, which took place November 16th–27th, is how community-inclusive the fest is, with most activities, from interactive exhibitions to informal master classes, open to the public free of charge. (Indeed, it’s possible to get your cinephile fix on a daily basis without ever buying a movie ticket.) And one of this year’s truly informative events was a Meet the Makers discussion at the Escape Club on Rembrandtplein hosted by Canadian documentarian Peter Wintonick. IDFA guest Steve James, who was honored with a retrospective, was there that Saturday morning to shed light on his diverse selections for this edition’s Top 10 – showing a clip from one of his choices followed by a scene from one of his own films that that particular documentary had influenced.

A sequence from Chris Smith’s American Movie led to another from Reel Paradise, both films filled with accidental humor and the chutzpah of lead characters hell-bent on following a celluloid dream, whether completing a horror flick in Milwaukee or revamping a cinema on the island of Fiji. Barbara Kopple’s Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson gave way to No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, and James’s admission that though he played basketball in high school his black teammates were always just that – colleagues but never actual friends. It was in his Hampton, Virginia hometown (which also happens to be Iverson’s) where his fascination with race began.

Next up was the Maysles brothers’ classic Grey Gardens paired with Stevie, which allowed for a discussion of the big nonfiction question “What is exploitation?” as well as about the issue of class. James also noted that Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans premiered the same year as his own doc about his protégé who was similarly accused of pedophilia, but that the films are strikingly different in approach. Where Capturing the Friedmans takes the Rashomon angle of “Who is at fault?” James already had his answer, forcing him to focus instead on “How did this happen?” As he later told the audience in response to a question about shooting footage, “Usually what I get is way more interesting than anything I thought I’d get…It’s in the particulars that films are interesting.”

And interestingly, The Times of Harvey Milk coupled with At the Death House Door likewise led to a contrasting with a third film, Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss. James said he’d pursued his doc solely because he was fascinated by the Reverend Caroll Pickett, and wanted to learn how one man, for over a dozen years, emotionally handled the job of standing by almost 100 condemned prisoners in their final moments. (“Give (your subjects) a feeling of more control and they will reveal more,” he later told us in response to a question I’d posed, wondering how he got people he seemingly had little in common with to trust him so much.)

On the other hand Herzog, who also interviewed Pickett for Into the Abyss, was driven not to delve into the psyche of any one person, per se, but into the nature of crime and punishment in America. As much as I like Into the Abyss, it suddenly became clear as to why it didn’t deeply move many folks, myself included (and I’m guessing will go down in history as minor Herzog). The masterful Bavarian – who I saw speak at the DOC NYC gala opening prior to IDFA – himself admitted that he spent very little time getting to know his subjects, nor did he want to. Unfortunately, that calculating distance comes across onscreen.

Lastly, James – who views documentary filmmaking as a “passport to explore” – paired Chris Marker’s Le joli mai with his own latest The Interrupters (which far more deserving of an Oscar nomination than Into the Abyss, was similarly snubbed by the Academy). What at first glance might seem an odd juxtaposition makes perfect sense in relation to possibly my favorite sequence in The Interrupters, a beautiful poetic series of images capturing the staggeringly numerous shrines to Chicago’s homicide victims. The scene is a heartbreaking short film in its own right akin to Ira Sachs’s Last Address. As James reflected about his own process, “I tend to make films about people who don’t think they need a film made about them.”

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