Celebrating its 25th anniversary with gusto (and a party), the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) rolled out upwards of 300 films over 12 days, in addition to the usual array of industry events, performances, and exhibitions. Despite its size and scope, the thriving fest oddly does not boast broad recognition in the U.S. to match its industry profile internationally (most notably as a marketplace for films seeking broadcast acquisition) or its status among nonfiction mavens as an especially convivial anchor on the doc circuit. But between new discoveries, a Victor Kossakovsky retrospective, a concert by (a band called) Death, a selection of past IDFA highlights including Ulrich Seidl’s Losses to Be Expected, and sundry other enjoyments, this correspondent’s visit to the warmly welcoming festival proved rewarding.
Smash & Grab
Perhaps the flashiest entry, though nonetheless edifying, Smash & Grab lays out the modus operandi of the “Pink Panthers,” a group of international jewelry thieves responsible for multimillion-dollar hauls. By concealing the identities of the Panther interviewees, the filmmakers manage to get an unusually detailed scoop on how it all goes down, and director Havana Marking (Afghan Star) finds a way to keep the chronicle visual: the ex-Panthers are represented through rotoscope animation and voiceover (not their own). Bookended by extraordinary video of a Dubai heist and testimony by investigators, the film is virtually a manual for jewelry theft and what hackers call social engineering—especially through the female Panther’s fascinating tell-alls about her activities as a scout and femme fatale. It's also a fable of postwar chaos, since the criminal enterprise of the Panthers are traceable back to the violent haven for smugglers that arose in the Balkans through the Nineties. As with The Imposter, this ground was previously covered by a New Yorker article, but it’s snappily told and rich with procedural detail and grit.
Not as readily attention-grabbing and thus all the more worthy of highlighting is the atypical music documentary Karsu, Mercedes Stalenhoef’s exquisitely shot and edited film about Dutch-Turkish singer-pianist Karsu Dönmez. The 22-year-old chanteuse, who is usually marketed in Norah Jones terms, is shown waiting tables at her parents’ Amsterdam restaurant-café, paying her dues with stutters and leaps of musicianship, performing in concerts that grow from the intimate to the grand in scale (Carnegie Hall), while balancing life and career and handling the courtship of record labels with her father. But what Stalenhoef understands with such warmth and depth is the complicated role of family in Karsu's journey: the film is really a kind of family love story. The performer's charming, supportive, but protective father (who has his own doc-worthy history as a leftist in Turkey) and her sounding-board/underminer mother, are equally part of her story, all within the context of traditional Turkish family values. The documentary's rhythms often evoke a staged fiction feature, and there are some truly inspired moments—a slow zoom on the faces of three emoting audience members during a tiny university common-room concert, or Karsu’s father’s impromptu anxious explication of the distinctions between private love and public expression, which encapsulates much of the tension in the rich, centuries-old tradition of romantic poetry and song.
Futures Past zeroes in on a father-son bond, intertwined with a very different professional pursuit, namely, commodities trading, in this case on the now-defunct floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Director Jordan Melamed logged his own years hollering and hand-gesturing through thousands of dollars in trades a day, before detouring into independent filmmaking. His father Leo, a pioneer in financial futures and a Polish Holocaust survivor, is a riveting performer, a master of no-bullshit analysis and guilt-tripping. His muscular philosophy of money and life—“It wasn’t a mistake at the time” he says of loss-making trades he does not waste time regretting—outweighs the director’s own plodding framework and voiceover, in a provocative, maybe unwitting echo of their relationship (cf. My Architect). But Melamed the younger also has his own rapport with floor traders to drawn upon, one that yields an engaging view of the rough-and-tumble personalities facing obsolescence in the face of computerized trading—a rather unexpected discovery, like finding artisans employed in a bank.
I Am Breathing
Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon's I Am Breathing originated partly as a blog written by its subject. Our guide on a sadly inevitable death trip, Neil Platt is a witty Scot rendered quadriplegic by a hereditary motor neuron disease, homebound and now reckoning with life and death as upbeat wife and adorable toddler look on. He painstakingly dictates messages to his blog, hangs out with friends who knew him in more mobile days, and laments his greatest fear: the loss of communicative skills, and the ensuing silence that his son won’t understand. Platt’s sense of humor and perspective, and the freedom he finds in writing—and which he faces losing as the illness progresses—are the film's driving force. The theme of entrapment is literalized in Janusz Mrozowski’s Bad Boy High Security Cell, a feature-length monologue-in-pieces by a Polish prisoner held in solitary confinement. He’s not terribly interesting—a teenaged thief who happened to get caught and now submits to being filmed—nor is the film, but its subject undergoes a morbidly intriguing, protracted process of becoming, like a Warholian keep-talking gambit that doesn’t come off. The mirror of this camera yields far less than the actual mirror and camera of Kossakovsky’s 2005 instant classic Svyato, screened as part of the festival’s retrospective. After observing his son encountering a mirror for the first time in his life, the filmmaker shows the towheaded boy bestowing three kisses: on Dad, on the mirror, and on the camera.
Danube Hospital — SMZ Ost
Made for television, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Danube Hospital – SMZ Ost (Donauspital) might drop off theatrical radars, but it’s another lucid anatomy of an institution by a precise chronicler who continues to record the proliferation of moving-image media and automation in both expected and unexpected quarters. Though not carrying quite the same éclat as Our Daily Bread (05) or Abendland (11), Danube Hospital is an HD-shot geometric examination of a Vienna hospital’s treatment rooms, camera-enhanced invasive surgery, cafeteria and other prep areas, and robot-patrolled delivery corridors—behind-the-scenes parallels to the within-the-body mission of the hospital. Not everything is modernized enough for one elderly women, though, who, apparently receiving her last rites, chides the priest: “You should really hurry it up a little.” Echoing Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital, Geyrhalter’s film ends with a coffin on its way out.
Finally, at the cultural center de Brakke Grond, IDFA 2012 also presented a cacophonous one-room omnibus installation of works by Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth, but my attention was drawn down the hall to EMPIRE by Kel O’Neill and Eline Jongsma. A multi-channel installation comprised of screens mounted in a hallway and a separate room with its own triptych, its ecumenical chronicle is accurately subtitled “A documentary project about the unintended consequences of Dutch colonialism.” Part of a still larger endeavor, this chapter spotlights members of the sui generis communities that were byproducts of Dutch trading conquests in ages past. The subjects include a mixed-race photographer in Ghana descended from Dutch-Ghanaian slave traders, Cape Malay inhabitants of Cape Town who still sing Dutch ballads, tombstone workers in Tamil Nadu, and a tiny Jewish community in Indonesia, the latter in a funny-melancholic-baffling segment counterpointing a man who belatedly discovered his Jewish ancestry and a mindboggling group of Waffen SS war reenactors. Hovering around 10 minutes apiece, the uninflected loops don’t need to press the points of the complex human narratives they unearth, each of which short-circuits conventional conceptions of a history long laid to rest. These deceptively calm sketches are micro-portraits of hate, hope, and everything in between, with such occasional editorial flourishes as a man performing a Nederlandsliedje serenade to a girl “barely 16 years old” (per the lyrics of the song) that is edited to match an Aryan-blond girl with a puppy. I finish this report, of course, in another remnant of 17th-century Dutch colonialism, New Amsterdam…
Awards at IDFA 2012 went to features feted elsewhere (First Cousin Once Removed, Searching for Sugar Man) as well as Esther Hertog’s dispatch from a Jewish enclave within Hebron, Soldier on the Roof. Before the festival began, there had been reports of government funding cuts to the Dutch Cultural Media Fund looming in 2017. But the festival's 25th edition surged ahead fearlessly with a diverse selection of international documentaries that bore fruit to any who looked.