If I were to identify a theme at this year’s International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam—at least in the films I saw—it’d be the human element amidst vast political change. Not “human” in the trite marketable sense of heart-swelling uplift, but rather the often contradictory variations and idiosyncrasies in personality and belief that made for the best films on display at the Amsterdam festival. Amidst the hundreds of screenings in the 27th edition was a cadre of strong documentaries and very rare retrospective revivals that might not leap out immediately to casual observers of the robustly attended 10-day event.
A standout, Camilla Nielsson’s excellent, richly ironic Democrats avoids policy-paper treatment of its subject—the making of Zimbabwe’s new constitution in a not-really-quite-post-Mugabe era—to give a breathtakingly candid, on-the-ground view of people in action. Granted extraordinary access in a country known for police-state tactics and prone to banning foreign media, Nielsson’s (talking-headless) verité one-ups the classic horse race of Primary (60) with its two larger-than-life personalities and life-threateningly high stakes. During a competitive public-comment process that the Mugabe government exploits by busing in claques praising strong central rule, democracy itself is fiercely re-negotiated. The chief players, whom we follow from dusty city outskirts to conference rooms (if not to prison), are Mugabe crony Paul Mangwana of the ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition, Western-educated lawyer Douglas Mwonzora of the Movement for Democratic Change. Mangwana, a toothy rotund Tammany Hall type, and Mwonzora, diligent idealist in glasses, can even chuckle over disagreements, but any smiles come with the awareness of menacing forces lurking just offstage. That goes for both sides, as Mangwana is justifiably paranoid about how his government views his cooperation; while able to keep up appearances, he’ll also huff and puff against “this level of disobedience” during the constitution-writing process. Whereas another filmmaker might have stuck with Mwonzora—we do see his touching sense of triumph, albeit limited, as the constitution is put together—Nielsson lets Mangwana give perhaps some of the truest, double-edged editorializing: “If you don't change, you will be changed. Politics is about doing what is popular and what is popular changes.”
Abner Benaim’s Invasion, about the 1989 military incursion by the United States into Panama, is another documentary about a political process—that of memory and history. Benaim portrays the stories of anguish and pride behind the greater narrative, assembling a mosaic of recollections, and mapping the sites and rough timeline for the seizure of that “tropical Saddam Hussein” Manuel Noriega—all the way up to el jefe’s flight (under a tarp in the back of a car) and refuge-at-gunpoint in the Vatican Embassy. Traversing the city, which is periodically shown in snow-globe long shot, Benaim foregrounds his evenhandedness without getting pious or bogged down in wartime anecdotes by Panamanians, who run the gamut from a family who saw a missile land in their home, to a diplomatic Canal Zone official, to passersby on the street, to an upper-crust woman who served a soldier a T-bone steak. The invasion’s haunting central image is that of corpses strewn in the streets during the covered-up assault—a morbid tableau Benaim reenacts with eager participants, along with other incidents such as the looting of a refrigerator. All of which is recounted with rich and strange detail that should enlighten even those familiar with the 1992 Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary The Panama Deception. Influenced by The Act of Killing in his dogged, reflexive approach and his use of shock cuts, Benaim helps retrieve the invasion (again) from the memory hole. In a broader context, his film made a good other-end-of-the-bomb companion with another IDFA selection, Drone, which shows how the disconnect of modern warfare is only increasing. But as Benaim balances anti-gringo and pro-democracy sentiments, he reclaims the ordeal as a Panama story first.
Of Men and War
Veterans endure their own traumatic memories in Of Men and War, perceptively programmed in apparently its first festival appearance since its premiere at Cannes. Perhaps Iraq fatigue and the film’s own exhaustiveness in depicting a gradual therapy-driven recovery process have accounted for the low profile. Director Laurent Bécue-Renard (whose De Guerre Lasses focused on Bosnian war widows) films how the experience of violence continues to rip apart the patients of The Pathway Home, a treatment center in Napa Valley. Group therapy sessions, which are the emotional centerpiece of the film, seethe with frustration, survivor guilt, and despair; dark shades are worn indoors, and chair-flipping walkouts are not uncommon. But Bécue-Renard hangs on—as does chief counselor Fred Gusman—without pretending that all of the men will recover. Bécue-Renard’s work won an IDFA award for Best Feature-Length Documentary, and, while it might seem perverse to mention both in the same sentence, so did Tea Time, another film facing the formal challenge of portraying group conversations in a room. Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi (The Lifeguard) shoots her subjects—high-school classmates who have been meeting regularly over tea for over 60 years—mostly in extreme close-ups, letting us read their experienced faces as we listen to their banter. Friendships and class dynamics, through snipes and sidesteps, go on display (and doll-house-perfect table sets are arrayed). The attitudes mingle conservative and let-it-all-hang-out viewpoints, making for a group portrait that’s a faithfully amnesiac crowd-pleaser without getting too cutesy (despite some way-too-easy reaction cuts to an embittered spinster).
Something Better to Come
IDFA also had the world premieres of a couple of showy, variably successful documents of stamina against all odds. In Something Better to Come, Hanna Polak, telescoping 14 years of coverage into a single film, follows a pale teenager and her family and companions who live in a dump outside Moscow. It’s as poignant and eye-opening as one might expect (though I prefer Eduardo Coutinho’s Boca de Lixo), and perhaps headed to one-liner comparisons with Boyhood, but Polak’s arduous work manages to be stubbornly resistant when it comes to the psychology of its main subject especially, and adds in some ill-advised music cues. But if that film’s shortcomings could partly be attributed to the unusual challenges of its shooting conditions, Those Who Feel the Fire Burning is a maddening example of a filmmaker who hobbles his work with a misguided artistic conceit. Featuring a Leviathan-esque cold open on a refugee boat on the high seas, director-cinematographer Morgan Knibbe takes a Wings of Desire approach to chronicling the sufferings, indignities, and loves of immigrants to Europe. Overusing what might be called a FloatiCam simulated-angel technique, and voiceover musings that seem to come from beyond the grave, Knibbe chooses a distracting, hamhanded poetics to tie together this urgent material.
How to Live
Better sleight-of-hand could be found among IDFA’s retrospective presentations, specifically within a selection curated by Dutch artist Aernout Mik (who had a show of installations at MoMA a few years back). Mik’s own 2006 installation Raw Footage, showing at festival’s De Brakke Grond space, was a jaw-dropping channel-surfing collection of war rushes from Bosnia in the Nineties that reveals, among other things, female soldiers fully made up for battle. But my favorite was Marcel Lozinski’s How to Live, a deeply unnerving and at times hilarious hybrid documentary about a summer camp for young families run by the Union of Young Polish Socialists. Amid rickety lakeside cabins, husbands and wives are observed and graded on their political commitment and their participation in activities, with nosy supervisors awkwardly dropping by to ask questions. Lozinski, a leading light in Poland’s rich history of documentary, is keenly attuned to the satirical and dramatic possibilities of the bizarre situation, pitting one overeager official (who neatly illustrates the tendency toward cronyism) against an outsider couple who couldn’t care less about the whole charade. Which, arguably, might describe the film itself (without insult): Lozinski freely staged scenes and constructed his narrative in seeking to expose the perpetual window-dressing and conformity demanded by Communist rule.
1974, une partie de campagne
IDFA 2014 also programmed a series at the EYE Film Institute based on reenactments entitled Framing Reality, which I had the pleasure of Q&Aing and which accordingly I’ll leave at that, with just a brief special mention for one revival title: Jon Bang Carlsen’s enduring 1981 hang-out in the demimonde of Hollywood extras, Hotel of the Stars. One final, rare treat: Raymond Depardon’s droll early feature about a French presidential campaign, 1974, une partie de campagne, awaiting its double feature with Primary, or Democrats, for that matter. Depardon’s film spotlights a 48-year-old patrician candidate for “change in continuity,” Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who’s first seen wandering a forest in his suit, and later adored by crowds despite his bureaucratic campaigning skills (albeit with the help of Charles Aznavour at a rally). It’s a dispiriting and all too apt record of the political process as a mundane and weirdly lonely drive to power. Quite literally: at one point, d’Estaing beetles along at the wheel of his own car, and away into the night.