Documentary Darkness

in International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA)

by Carolin Weidner

There was something morbid and heavy about many of the ten films that IDFA had selected from various sections for this year’s FIPRESCI jury. What they also all had in common was that they were primarily early works by the respective directors. The festival wanted us to look at younger, as yet unknown perspectives. Our journey took us right across Europe, but also included stops in Lebanon and Latin America. We even crossed paths with a completely hidden domicile that cannot be found on any map: Amor.  

It is the place where director Virginia Eleuteri Serpieri suspects her mother, who jumped into the Tiber a few years ago and died. Her debut Amor (2023) embeds the suicide in the history of Rome, but also reflects motherhood and the depression that may result from it. Eleuteri also makes explicit reference to herself, describing her own experience within a family that is increasingly overshadowed by her past. In the film, she is often seen driving through the city at night in a car. And like her, Amor is constantly on the move, searching, longing for closure – yet, at the same time clinging on to the memory that perhaps letting go also means a loss.

In Echo of You (2023), Zara Zerny found a much easier way of dealing with the themes of death and transience. It is a portrait of various people of advanced age who have all lost their partners. Zerny provides space to pause, evoke and commemorate, but also enters into a playful, performative dialog with her protagonists. Here, the director attempts to illustrate the images of memory in an audio-visual way, to make complex feelings tangible that would otherwise remain hidden. Echo of You speaks to the audience and was therefore possibly the most accessible entry in our selection.

Yaser Kassab’s Chasing the Dazzling Light (2023) captures his pain more subtly, though no less clearly. As part of a trilogy, Kassab once again deals with his escape from Syria and life in the diaspora. His film is a constant dialog with the family he left behind in Aleppo, with his father in particular playing a central role. Video calls resonate with the Swedish winter, which Kassab and his partner show from a small radius. The film conveys a rigidity, a paralysis resulting from grief and uprootedness, while at the same time finding a concise, serious filmmaking position.

Sebastían Peña Escobar’s The Last (2023) was perhaps the pinnacle of a gloomy, even nihilistic view of the world. The film is set in the Gran Chaco region of Paraguay, which is being researched by a German etomologist and a Paraguayan ornithologist. Deep inside the gigantic forest, they not only study insects and birds, but also philosophize about the state of the world, talk about capitalism, the self-destructive nature of mankind and come to the conclusion that it would be better if humanity would extinguish itself as quickly as possible, because then more of nature would be preserved.

Escobar’s debut has a rough, booze-swilling appeal, which makes the topic at hand more bearable and often even extremely entertaining – it’s an aspect that Mohamad Sabbah and Danielle Davie’s Embodied Chorus (2023) completely lacked. It’s a performative essay on sexually transmitted diseases, their stigmas and how to deal with them. The diseases appear here as extremely threatening, even life-threatening, incisions in the lives of the protagonists, who are embodied by actors and actresses. A stylization and exaggeration that perhaps does not always do justice to the subject, but which was nevertheless attempted to be dealt with in many different ways.

The most direct, immediate and brutal confrontation with oneself during an ultimate crisis, however, was 1489 (2023) by Armenian director Shoghakat Vardanyan, which not only received the FIPRESCI award, but also won the main prize in the competition. Vardanyan portrays herself and her family during the difficult months where her brother seems to have disappeared after a military operation. 1489 is about the difficult pain that uncertainty brings, the stress, hope, resignation and fear. Vardanyan does not spare her audience the emotional impact, but also conveys an essence of the documentary on a stylistic level. Together with Yasser Kassab’s Chasing the Dazzling Light, it was a discovery that will remain with us for a long time.

Carolin Weidner
Edited by Pamela Jahn