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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam: Cinema as a means of survival

The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, or IDFA for short, was overshadowed by the war in the Middle East. The films were rarely discussed.

Armenian soldiers spray water on other soldiers in a truck

Scene from “1489”, a film by the Armenian Shoghakat Vardanyan Photo: IDFA

The political, but also very tangible daily politics, have always been an integral part of documentary filmmaking, and so it is no wonder that the largest documentary film festival in the world has always been known as a particularly political event.

But this year the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, or IDFA for short, which ended on Sunday after eleven days, was much more influenced by current world events than usual. Which is probably hardly a surprise in heated times like these.

On the opening evening, a small group of activists stormed the stage, holding a banner with the anti-Israel slogan (and now banned in Germany) “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” loudly calling for a ceasefire in the Middle East to demand the East. The situation in the Royal Theater Carré was resolved relatively quickly, but because it looked as if the Syrian-born festival director Orwa Nyrabia had applauded the protest, there was great excitement.

After an open letter from various Israeli filmmakers, Nyrabia and the festival released a statement distancing themselves from the slogan and apologizing to anyone who was hurt by the event. IDFA is a safe and open place for debate and freedom of expression, democracy and the negotiation of complex worldviews.

Distancing statement

The Palestinian Film Institute promptly condemned the artistic director’s statement as a blanket and unjust criminalization of Palestinian voices and stories, prompting a renewed statement from the festival side. Recognize the pain and losses on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides in this ongoing conflict and call for a ceasefire.

Nevertheless, as a result, at least 18 filmmakers, not only Palestinians, withdrew their films from the current festival, in solidarity with the population in Gaza or because the handling of the protest at the opening event was perceived as cowardly. The fact that Greta Thunberg caused a stir in Amsterdam in the immediate vicinity of the IDFA with her recent statements about the Middle East war also contributed to the fact that it was rarely the films that were the most talked about at the festival this year.

What was shown on the screen often had a direct connection to the crises and conflicts that dominate our world these days. The opening film “A Picture to Remember” by Ukrainian director Olga Chernykh begins with the Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Withdrawn again

She spent the evening with her mother in the basement of the morgue: she actually wanted to make a film about his work as a pathologist. But Chernykh cannot escape the war, and so it is now the reason for her to create a poetic film essay that uses everyday observations, archive material, family videos and telephone conversations with her grandmother, who still lives in Donetsk, to talk less about the immediate situation in Ukraine than about to reflect on your own biography, homeland and Donbass.

In “1489,” which ultimately won the main prize in the international competition, a director deals directly with the consequences of war on her family’s life. The Armenian Shoghakat Vardanyan began filming with her cell phone camera in the fall of 2020, not long after the second Nagorno-Karabakh war began in Artsakh and her younger brother disappeared. The direct fighting ended after a few weeks, but Vardanyan continued filming.

Very personal grief

Her debut, the title of which refers to the number that was assigned to her brother in the register who was considered missing, is an extremely intimate, very touching engagement not only with everyday reality in a region of constant crisis, but above all with very personal grief and tangibility a void torn into life. “Cinema as a means of survival,” the jury judged very aptly, “that allows us to take a look at the things we don’t actually want to see.”

Meanwhile, the directing award went to the Palestinian director Mohamed Jabaly, who also tells a very personal story in his film “Life Is Beautiful”. In 2014, he was in Norway for a cultural exchange program when war broke out in Gaza and the borders were closed. He now talks about the not uncomplicated situation of being stranded in Scandinavia less with direct political impetus or a well-founded analysis of the situation in his homeland, but with a surprising amount of hopeful humor, as a testimony to the paradoxes that come with being a Palestinian.

“I want to be heard,” Jabaly told the Guardian when asked why he too had not withdrawn his work from the IDFA program. “Because everything else is now being destroyed, all we have left are our stories and our freedom of expression.”

Just like the film industry

In addition to so much politics, it was also possible to observe in Amsterdam that documentary film as a business model has long since functioned according to the same principles as the rest of the industry. With its convenient November date, IDFA has long since become a must-attend event for all those producers and filmmakers who want to get involved in the race for the Oscars and similar awards.

Films like “20 Days in Mariupol” or “Kokomo City,” which had already caused a stir elsewhere, were shown again, the Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania once again promoted her Cannes competition entry “Olfa’s Daughters”. And Netflix spent a lot of money – partly in the official program, partly in private screenings – to place the rousing “American Symphony” about musician Jon Batiste and Roger Ross Williams’ well-founded analysis of racism “Stamped From the Beginning” as award favorites.

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