The Emperor's New Clothes

in 34th International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA)

by Elena Rubashevska

For a festival section that prides itself on a competition with the crème de la crème of first time documentary makers, Elena Rubashevska felt there was something lacking, something guarded, and ultimately a selection not brave enough to be daring in the twelve entries this year.

The 34th edition of IDFA was taking place at a very strange time. A week before the starting date, both crew and guests didn’t know if the festival would be there at all: the Dutch government was to announce the lockdown measures, and the situation looked rather ominous. And the day came, and the word was spoken; but despite quite harsh restrictions that provoked a wave of protests in the Netherlands, the cinemas stayed open, allowing documentary lovers from all over the world to join the feast of IDFA. Among them, the FIPRESCI jury composed of Danish, Croatian, and Ukrainian members was judging the promising debut selection of twelve films.
There is something special about watching first features: though less experienced filmmakers they may be, and less sophisticated in chosen tools and technics, and maybe often tight with budget, nevertheless, the incomparable force of sincere feelings towards the topics they’ve chosen and the characters they are following cannot be denied. We were very curious to discover what they had to offer, and how the problems bothering them reflect the peculiar reality we are living in now.

Remember the famous tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen? Deceived by the two swindlers, the Emperor goes out wearing nothing at all, and though people are obliviously seeing him being fooled, no one says a word out of fear to be called stupid. The procession goes on until a child blurts out the truth… And that is precisely what the filmmaking community is waiting for from the young directors: to speak out fearlessly and expose absurdities and injustices of the world, pointing out the sore spots of the collective consciousness and encouraging dialogues crucial for positive social changes.

These first-time filmmakers of IDFA created a diverse portrayal of a society, showcasing clashes of modernity and tradition, struggles of searching for identity, the importance of reconciliation with the family, the flip side of the migrant crisis, the state of the female agenda, and the ways of coping with traumas. And though the chosen topics were all of potential importance, the way they were delivered would leave one with rather confused impressions. Though beginning intriguingly, the plots of most of the movies would eventually lose their ambitiousness, and narrow down to predictable stories with incoherent endings, trying in vain to save themselves with often pretentious and dubious artistic decisions. The inability to clearly articulate chosen problematics and evident lack of confidence became a uniting feature for young directors from all over the world, leaving the audience with the very rare treats of truly fresh perspectives and innovative decisions that one would expect to encounter watching the debuts at such festivals as IDFA.

Under these circumstances, even the timidest filmmakers’ attempts at being more daring and explorative were highly appreciated. But the general feeling one was left with after finishing watching the program was: “Haven’t we just seen the Emperor walking down the road wearing nothing at all?” And even if we all cowardly took part in the action and were too afraid to be judged for speaking out, there was an aftertaste of regret and deep longing for the bold and candid child’s voice proclaiming the obvious truth: “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

Saying goodbye to IDFA 2021, we’re also saying a few parting words for the first-time filmmakers: Speak out! Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Go for your most daring visions. Don’t think of the film festival’s agendas. Don’t limit yourself to any trendy tendencies. Experience the world. Be present out there with your cameras. There are still so many emperors out there to be exposed, and your sincere voices are desperately needed to be heard.

Elena Rubashevska
Edited by Steven Yates