You Can't Always Get What You Want

in 17th International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

by Flavia de la Fuente

The IDFA is a very special event. It is amazing that a documentary film festival has been able to become a major attraction for the city and the professional world. Not only more than 230 films were screened this year in Amsterdam, but almost every screening was a sold out, totalizing more than 110.000 tickets. Not only 2000 guests attended, but they created an intense atmosphere of work and exchange. The audience was so warm that big applause after each film seemed mandatory, and the Q&As (they followed almost every screening) left the public in their seats. Under the always enthusiastic direction of Ally Derks (a red headed, permanent warm smile), the organization was very efficient and the amount of workshops, talkshows and special events was outstanding (80 volunteers hosted these activities under the also volunteer work of the filmmaker Peter Wintonick who stayed in Amsterdam for 2 months to prepare the social-professional gatherings). Not to speak about the Forum, probably the main world co-production market for documentaries.

Unfortunately, the pleasure of participating in such a happy going film festival was much bigger than the pleasure I had with the First Appearance selection that our jury had to judge. Probably, this has to do less with the program itself than with a certain tendency that can be observed in present day documentaries: the idea that film should imitate television in its more banal and sensationalistic aspects. There was a time when the discussions around the IDFA and other documentary venues was the distinction between creation and reportage. Also, years ago, the IDFA was criticized for its excess of humanistic or politically involved films in detriment of form. In certain ways you can look at the weakest of these films with certain nostalgia: a film based purely in content or information is better than the new trend (strongly based on American models) of documentaries which only purpose seems to be to shock the audience with the emotion of spying other people’s private lives, as TV has been doing from Big Brother on. Not all our films were like that, but it seems that filmmakers and producers think more and more that the audience has lost a main virtue of the filmgoer: patience. That’s why maybe, the short film we awarded (The Very Best Day by Pavel Medvedev) was considered by some as “too classical”, meaning too slow, too beautiful, too old fashioned. Or why another interesting short of the selection, Outcaste by Jonathan Bland, that consists in fixed camera long shots of a very intriguing beggar (or holy man) in India was unacceptable for many. In this film, the power of cinema as an instrument for observing the world was fully employed. And fully rejected. It seems that many people don’t want to watch in the movies, they want to be told. Or they want to be overwhelmed by what they see: extreme experiences, disturbing images, endless footage of people suffering. At one point, during the IDFA’s 10 days I thought that I got more pleasure from looking at the audience enjoy than from the images that this very audience was watching on screen.

© FIPRESCI 2003