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Top of the Doc: Toasting 25 Years at IDFA 2012

First Cousin Once Removed

Once in a blue moon a festival competition film comes along that’s a masterpiece, so flawless it’s inconceivable that it won’t take top prize. This year at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, that film was Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed (which I actually saw before this year’s 25th edition began), and it did indeed nabb the VPRO IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary, along with a nice sum of 12,500 euros. Fittingly, my reaction towards Berliner’s breathtaking portrait of his mentor and relative, the acclaimed poet and translator Edwin Honig, as he succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease, mirrors my take on IDFA itself. This crème de la crème fest, that in the past quarter century has grown to become the biggest doc event in the world, is simply in a league of its own.

And the festival itself is just one part of a multifaceted, clockwork-run organization. There’s also the IDFA Fund, Docs For Sale, and the Forum (which, thankfully, IFP’s own Rose Vincelli wrote about earlier). I have a hard time just keeping up with the nonstop events while viewing a small percentage of the hundreds of films in the various categories. In fact, if one were so inclined, one could easily fill up the 11 festival days with nonfiction entertainment while never catching one feature-length film, nor spending a euro. In addition to the ritual nightly parties, there are Guests Meet Guests cocktails in the evenings, and afternoon Hi-Teas with Ally and Peter (that would be the tireless IDFA director Derks and Canadian producer and longtime IDFA host Wintonick, one adorable duo, especially with Wintonick dashing around in an apron refilling teacups). Or one could slip back and forth between the two tiny trailers-turned-venues adjacent to the new Marie-Stella-Maris IDFA Café, a popup brasserie on Rembrandtplein. (Or just sit inside one for hours, as it seemed several stoned tourists decided to do.) From noon till eight, the Doc Next Mini Cinema showed short docs by young European media-makers, while the Focus Forward Mini Cinema screened commissioned shorts from Cinelan’s near-perfect program. (Jessica Yu’s brilliant Meet Mr. Toilet, which plays like a Yes Men stunt, was perhaps my personal fave.)

Then there was the free exhibition Expanding Documentary, courtesy of IDFA DocLab (the fest’s new media component, which celebrated its fifth year), Paradocs (dedicated to the experimental), and the Flemish Arts Centre De Brakke Grond. Not only could anyone check out the 15 eclectic web-docs in the IDFA DocLab Competition for Digital Storytelling via flat-screens and iPads, but they could also experience a diverse array of Paradocs-selected artworks. Empire, a multi-part video installation exploring the global effects of Dutch colonialism, was a far cry from My Name Is Jørgen Leth, which showcased the inventive madness of the Danish provocateur (and subject and co-director of Von Trier’s The Five Obstructions, also featured in the piece) and which was as fun as I expected it would be. (I actually stopped by De Brakke Grond after hearing Jonathan Stack and Leth himself discuss Haiti at a Hi-Tea.) IDFA DocLab’s mind-blowingly ahead-of-the-curve curator Caspar Sonnen even brought in M.I.T. this year. Robot artist Alexander Reben and Wholphin’s Brent Hoff collaborated on Robots in Residence, which featured square rolling robots you could hang out with for twenty minutes at a time while they interviewed you, recording your answers for an eventual robot-generated doc. (Yes, one day soon the nonfiction Oscar may go to a cardboard-clad director named Cubie.)

Indeed, with rare rain-free weather and so much going on outside the movie theaters it was hard to just sit back and relax in the dark. The Hi-Tea featuring Lauren Greenfield in discussion with Kim Hopkins, the director of Folie á Deux – Madness Made of Two, which parallels Greenfield’s The Queen of Versailles by following a well-off British couple also with seven children and outsized home dreams, before and during the global economic crash, was well worth attending. Unfortunately, the Hi-Tea with Julien Temple, in town to screen his London: The Modern Babylon, proved less enlightening. The punk documentarian legend chatted about Detroit with director Malik Bendjelloul, whose Searching for Sugar Man nabbed both the Audience Award and Best Music Documentary, and Motor City punk musician Bobby Hackney, one of the subjects of Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett’s A Band Called Death. But without a moderator the effusive Hackney pretty much hijacked the conversation away from the polite Brit and quiet Swede. (And speaking of punk – filmmakers, can we please finally agree to a talking head ban on Henry Rollins? He’s become the Morgan Freeman narration of music docs.)

But at the end of the day, film festivals are still about the films. Regrettably, this year’s opening night Dutch flick paled in comparison to last year’s savvy choice of Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador. “Dutch Docs Conquer The World!” may have served as the optimistic title to a special day-long IDFA Congress dedicated to doc-making in The Netherlands (and featuring non-Dutchies such as German director Tom Tykwer), but if John Appel’s Wrong Time Wrong Place, a bland and insular examination of fate through the lens of the survivors of the 2011 Norway attacks, is any indication, this is a dubious proposition at best. Though I’m a huge fan of IDFA, any Holland-produced discoveries I make – such as last year’s Meet The Fokkens – are too often the exception not the rule. I could devote an entire column to why this is, but suffice to say, a filmmakers’ foreign exchange program with the risk-taking Danes might do wonders for the conquering cause.

Nevertheless, undaunted I did my reporter’s duty, shuttling between the grand, nearly century-old Tuschinski theater and the nouveau mainstream Pathé De Munt, catching as many buzz-about and yet-to-be-discussed docs as my eyes could handle. Included in the former were two Alex Gibney flicks (PBS’s Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, which I actually thought was a tighter film than his Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, which felt more like the filmmaking equivalent of trying to stuff an over-packed suitcase); Ken Burns and family’s headline-grabbing The Central Park Five; and Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s long-awaited The Staircase 2. The Last Chance. And I can say with certainty that not one of these docs stayed with me in the way that several under-the-radar gems did. (As for that last film, another chapter in the French director’s quest to clear North Carolinian Michael Peterson of the murder of his wife, it is indisputably riveting – but for reasons opposite to Berlinger and Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost series. Though the filmmakers likewise seem to be on the side of the wrongly accused, I’ve never been able to shake the suspicion that Michael Peterson is, well, at the very least hiding something. With the Paradise Lost flicks, Berlinger and Sinofsky approached their subjects as skeptics – indeed, HBO originally had pitched the idea to them as a story about teens that kill – but with The Staircase series Lestrade goes in with the presumption of innocence, and doesn’t seem to be digging for any dirt that might truly obscure his lens. Ultimately, skilled filmmaking matched with questionable journalism just makes me uneasy.)

And although I missed several “important” films (including Patrick Reed’s Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children, about a former UN commander’s battle against the use of child soldiers, and which featured an extended post-screening Q&A with none other than General Romeo Dallaire), I continually found myself delighted and surprised by all the big things that came in smaller packages during this 25th edition. So without further adieu, here’s to a future golden anniversary – and here are ten IDFA flicks that kept me on the edge of my seat, capturing both my heart and mind.

Here One Day

Zen and the Art of Mental Illness

Not since seeing Willem de Kooning’s work that was painted while the artist himself was suffering from Alzheimer’s have I felt another artist get this close to such an elusive subject. In Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed the various stages of his cousin’s decline (rebirth?) are so well edited – including not just recent interviews, but archival photos and Honig’s own poems – that a whole picture of a fragmented state emerges. At once heartbreaking and absolutely exhilarating, Berliner’s doc takes us where few have gone before, inside the mind of a man with end-stage dementia, when life becomes as simple and as profound as a poem.

Kathy Leichter’s Here One Day, playing in the First Appearance Competition, was one of those happy accidents that I always look forward to at film festivals. Though the flick screened at IFP’s Independent Film Week, a doc about Leichter’s bipolar mother (and her suicide – which, to add to the personal tragedy, made national news since Nina Leichter was the wife of former New York State Senator Franz Leichter) culled from family photos and audiocassette recordings and journals that Nina left behind, just didn’t seem like a universal story that would grab me. My skepticism, though, was soon vanquished via top-notch editing – juxtaposing home movies with emotionally honest interviews with family members – and the treasure trove of Nina’s inner world, forming a blueprint into the manic depressive mind, much like Berliner’s award-winning film. Most striking, however, is that Here One Day actually plays like a mystery. “Who is Nina?” is the question asked in every frame, the elusive answer a Rosebud for the entire Leichter clan.

“The film the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t want you to see!” should be the tagline of Phie Ambo’s Free the Mind (which screened in the Reflecting Images – Masters category). Having tackled robots and the humans who love them (and vice-versa?) a few years back with Mechanical Love, the Danish documentarian has now trained her lens on University of Wisconsin professor Richard Davidson (who Time magazine named one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2006 – and who showed up for an extended Q&A), and his test subjects, two young war vets suffering from PTSD and an adorable but anxiety-ridden preschooler with ADHD. Ambo has artistically crafted – through the use of space imagery wedded to Davidson’s words in voiceover and riveting on-camera results rather than boring talking heads – what amounts to an engrossing propaganda film for the mindfulness movement. At first glance Davidson, an expert in “contemplative neuroscience” – who credits his career move to the Dalai Lama, who once asked him why the tools of modern neuroscience weren’t being applied to the study of kindness and compassion – might seem like a heady (no pun intended) and academic subject. What grounds the film – and gives it its heart – are the real-world changes that unfold before our eyes. Over the course of Ambo’s film, through what seems like the simplest breathing exercises, yoga and meditation, both a terrified boy and two traumatized grown men shed their darkest, most debilitating fears (and in one case, reliance on Ambien).

Anarchy in the U.K….and China!

London: The Modern Babylon, (selected for Reflecting Images – Masters) was originally commissioned as part of the Cultural Olympiad sidebar to the London 2012 Olympic Games. But what could have been a dry British history lesson in less creative hands is anything but with punk doc pioneer Julien Temple at the helm. Indeed, two-plus hours of archival footage spanning the First World War right up through the present (and interspersed with interviews with lifelong Londoners that watched that history being made) is much more entertaining when images of suffragettes are set to X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” and the Battle of Cable Street is fought to the tune of “Holidays in the Sun.” Which also teaches another important lesson – history happens on a continuum, not in disconnected events past and present. (Now if only Ken Burns could find a way to use “Blitzkrieg Bop.”)

Though London: The Modern Babylon wasn’t up for Best Music Documentary, Dunstan Bruce’s This Band Is So Gorgeous!: Sham 69 in China did screen in the Music Competition, receiving a nomination only to lose to Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man. Which is a bit of a shame, since beneath that director’s indisputable filmmaking artistry and the film’s tangential apartheid politics, Sugar Man is just the story of a bunch of South African fanboys – who we never really get to know – waxing nostalgic about a musician named Rodriguez who we’ve never heard of. And who, subsequently, we also never really get to know. (Since we have no stake in the outcome of these emotionally distant strangers, Sugar Man makes for one very boring “mystery.”) Contrast this with Bruce’s tale of four middle-aged British rockers invited to play a tour of China by a member of its young punk scene. (Yes, the communist country has a punk scene, and as the lead singer of one Chinese Oi! band points out, Doc Martens are also actually made there.) What sounds like the setup for Mads Brügger’s next flick instead turns into a poignantly narrated travelogue in which East meets West, old dogs learn new tricks, and not one character remains unchanged.

A Face is Worth a Thousand Words

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction

Having already garnered accolades at the Venice Film Festival, Sophie Huber’s Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (screening in Reflecting Images – Best of Fests) lives up to its acclaim and then some. The Swiss director’s portrait of the legendary thespian – whose voice is heard over the opening credits shouting, “I’ve been doing this for 50 fucking years!” – is notable not just for its unprecedented access (Harry Dean being asked a list of questions by David Lynch, Harry Dean reminiscing with Kris Kristofferson about working with Peckinpah, etc.) but also for its pure artistry. The film’s interviews are shot in gorgeously rich black-and-white, which thrillingly contrasts with the clips from the Paris, Texas star’s many iconic roles. Indeed, through the swift editing, which connects the man’s life to his movies, we see that the line between fact and fiction is not just fine for Harry Dean, but blurred. Sam Shepard says that the actor “knows that his face is a story,” which is why he can convey everything by doing “nothing.” As can the doc’s director. By focusing less on the octogenarian’s few words, but instead on his expressive physiognomy, and listening while he sings and plays harmonica (music being his true love), Huber offers up everything we need to know about this quiet Kentucky man who also happens to be one of our most powerful character actors of all time.

Like Harry Dean Stanton, the titular septuagenarian subject of Chico Pereira’s Pablo’s Winter – executive produced by the Scottish Documentary Institute and winning the Student Competition – has a face that tells a heck of a story, and one that’s painstakingly captured in black-and-white. As Pablo smokes and spars with his wife, helps a neighbor in Almadén, a former mercury mining town, dispose of a drowned lamb, and breezily mentions to his doctor that he’s had five heart attacks “that he knows of,” “nothing” has to go on in the frame because everything is happening within the Spaniard’s expressive stillness. While trying to read old telegrams from a worn scrapbook Pablo laments the fact that “all the characters have faded away.” Fortunately, talented young directors are still preserving some on film.

One Man’s Terrorist is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter

Though it lost to Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed, Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers rightly received a nomination for Best Feature-Length Documentary, which is unsurprising given its subject matter’s timeliness. I’ll admit, I was on the fence about checking out a doc that had already played every fest from Telluride to Toronto, not to mention been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, but Israel’s front-page-news crackdown on Gaza during this IDFA peaked my curiosity. Combining in-depth interviews with the former heads of Shin Bet – none of whom have talked on camera before – with news footage and reenactments of specific operations, the Israeli director of 2008’s Sharon manages to reach far beyond mere sensational headlines. But most important of all, Moreh’s strong-willed subjects trust him completely, which in turn allows the director to push these very practical men into tackling the philosophical issues that were never part of their tactical job requirements. Reflecting on the decision-making process behind launching an attack, one former agent offers, “’Don’t do it’ seems easier, but it’s often harder.” Another notes that, “Victory is the creation of a better political reality.” Heartbreakingly, the key to reconciling contradiction in the Middle East has yet to be discovered.

Whereas Olivier Assayas’s Carlos romanticized the life of the notorious Jackal, Nadav Schirman’s In the Dark Room (also in the Feature-Length Competition) brings him back down to earth with a thud. Schirman trains his artful lens on an average, emotionally abused woman who couldn’t leave her husband – except that her husband was one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, and the older lady being interviewed is Magdalena Kopp, Carlos’s German wife. Also featured in this insightful doc is the couple’s smart and sensitive daughter Rosa, who recalls that her own grandmother considered her the spawn of the devil. It’s a fascinating portrait of family as collateral damage, regardless of whether sympathy should ever be allowed.

Finally, from producer Alexandre Brachet, the CEO of Upian, also behind last year’s Prison Valley, comes this year’s IDFA DocLab Award for Digital Storytelling winner. Miquel Dewever-Plana and Isabelle Fougère’s Alma, a Tale of Violence focuses on a former female member of the Maras, one of Guatemala’s most violent gangs. Through interactive web and tablet applications (though there’s also two books, a version for TV, and a photo exhibit – which was also showcased at De Brakke Grond) we can listen to the seated Alma’s chilling accounts of murders she committed, swipe over to photographs of street life in her impoverished hometown, then switch back again to do a double-take at the horrifying recollections emerging from this 26-year-old’s lipstick-painted mouth. It’s enough to make one wonder, why isn’t Errol Morris doing web-docs like this? At this year’s 25th IDFA, the future is now.

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