in 17th International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

by Michel Euvrard

The FIPRESCI jury was assigned to the first appearance section, through which “IDFA supports new and young film makers with a separate competitive programme for which twenty debut films have been selected. During the festival, their directors are offered classes in research, production, marketing and other subjects, taught by experienced professionals. An international FIPRESCI jury chooses the winning film and presents its director with the International Film Critics Award of 2.500 euros.” (IDFA catalogue)

This is obviously a risky section, with films by untried directors; several films, as was to be expected, failed to make their point clearly, or were self-indulgent, or sagged in the middle, or could or should have been shorter. None, with the exeption of the Big Durian, the Malaysian entry by Amir Muhammad, were formally daring and provocative, while several were pleasingly competent in a traditional way in technique and presentation. Of these, My Flesh and Blood, by Jonathan Karsh (USA), was the most ambitious in its scope, its choice of subject and protagonists, it overcame the most obstacles and displayed the most control of the most complex material; conversely, the very best day by Pavel Medvedev (Russia) was shsort, simple, quiet and meditative, and these were our choices.

The very best day is a 28 minute portrait of a former rock musician who left the city to start a new life in the country as an organ-builder. Medvedev is attentive to the texture of objects – the fruit and vegetables at the local market, the wood and metals used in the making of the organs – and to sounds- the narural sounds of the country as well as the music of the organs. Time seems suspended. The film resembles a well-crafted short story; “I wanted to show another side to Russia than alcoholism” Medvedev said.

My flesh and blood depicts the daily life of a household of single mother and thirteen adopted children, several of them severely handicapped; it is an emotive material that could easily have lent itself to an overly sentimental and melodramatic treatment, and some may consider the film an invasion of privacy; Karsh, they may feel, rushes in where angels fear to tread, and indeed he embraces his large and complex material with characteristically Amercan assurance, with unflinching engagement, but also with respect and evenhandedness.

Karsh weaves together the stories of Susan Tom, the mother, and several of the children – Faith, who was severely burnt (but after a while, as Susan says, what you see is no longer her burnt skin, but “her beautiful blue eyes”) ; Xenia, who was born without legs but displays an unconquerable zest for life ; Anthony, whose congenital disease causes his skin to blister at the slightest touch; Joe, abandoned son of a drug addict, who suffers from cystic fibrosis and bipolar disorder (the manic depressive illness) and often makes a nuisance of himself out of jealousy and frustration; Margaret, Susan’s one remaining biological child, who at 18 is called upon to share in the care of her siblings and knows that their difficulties and needs are greater than her own minor ones, but would like sometimes to be indulged nonetheless; Susan Tom herself, her loneliness and her dignity, reasonableness and patience…

Searching for the wrong-eyed Jesus by Andrew Douglas (G.B.) completed our shortlist; it is a combination road movie and musical documentary: Jim White, a performer himself, roams through the southern United States in a borrowed car looking for practitioners of white spirituals, blues and country music. “We were trying, says writer Steve Haisman, to pin down what it is about this baffling place that inspires musicians and writers”, “to lift the lid on America’s little-known white subcultures” adds co-producer Martin Rosenbaum.