International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam
Review by Skip Stone
What do you believe in? That theme was one of the deeper questions answered by dozens of documentaries competing at the 15th Annual IDFA. It's an interesting query for these turbulent times, when whole belief systems are being politicized and many people around the world are sacrificing their lives for what they believe in.
The domination of commercial film by American corporations has created a situation where audiences expect movies to entertain, rather than inform, inspire or critique. Documentaries on the other hand, seek to fill in these huge media gaps by presenting more stories that effect us on a deeper level, challenging our existing beliefs and stimulating intellectual debate. A good documentary will go beyond just updating your data, but will involve you in the life of the participants, and leave you asking more questions about the subject.
What is it about human nature that turns our quest for meaning into a cultural phenomenon? The answers I viewed ranged from the timelessly moving Prayer to an exploration of contemporary artistic rituals in Modern Tribalism to the post-modern EVO. It seems everyone needs to believe in something. Social alienation and anomie has led many to seek their personal identity in novel ways. I've reviewed several of the films that follow this theme below.
The IDFA screens entries for various awards, and the participants get to vote for their favorites. The Joris Ivens award is the most prominent, and this year's winner, Stevie, was an excellent choice. It was up against some other great entries including Michael Moore's hit, Bowling for Columbine.
In addition to the awards given out at the IDFA, the event also hosts Docs for Sale, a marketplace for documentaries, where distribution deals are struck. Workshops and seminars enable the more experienced in the field to share their knowledge and techniques with newcomers.
Another feature of the festival is the Top 10, where selected filmmakers get to screen their favorite films that influenced them. This year Brazilian Walter Salles and Joćo Moreira Salles got their turn, screening such gems as Bob Dylan's Don't Look Back.
Each year the IDFA features the work of one director, and this year they selected Michael Moore. Indeed, this year should go down as the Year of Michael Moore. He has attained heights no documentarian has ever achieved. With a best-selling book, a hit movie, and a London stage show, all at the same time, what more can he do? Let's hope his success inspires more young filmmakers to follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, Moore's absence at this year's IDFA, has left me with a list of unanswered interview questions.
There were so many films to see, I regret I couldn't get to all on my list. But those I did see represent a good cross section of the documentary scene today. Innovative, insightful, political, and sometimes risky, these films represent that non-commercial, independent style of journalism so important to ensuring the free flow of information and ideas, and helping keep the free world, free.
My Reviews and Ratings:
***** Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore. Michael strikes again, with another biting critique of American society's preoccupation with guns and violence. Seeking answers, Moore explores the reasons why Americans feel they need to own guns and even gets to confront the head of the NRA, Charlton Heston, in his own house. The film reviews the history of private gun ownership in the US, statistics on gun ownership and crime in the US and compares it with other countries. Moore examines the political pressures that continue to make guns easily available, the way children are taught from an early age that guns are their "friends", and the underlying fear that motivates gun ownership. The closest Moore gets to a solid answer is that it's these irrational fears that Americans have learned from their peers, the media and organizations like the NRA that continues to fuel gun ownership.
Using the Columbine High School tragedy as a reference point, Moore points out that violence is so prevalent in American society, that children killing children has become a common occurrence. And gun ownership is so politicized that even this event couldn't keep the NRA from visiting the Columbine area to provide spin control and turn such a horrible tragedy into a rally for gun owners.
It seems everyone underestimates Moore's ability to get what he wants from his subjects. Like a hawk, he stalks his prey, sees through the lies, and zooms in for the kill. His mildly abrasive yet highly intrusive style of journalism is tempered by his Midwestern manners, easily charming/disarming his intended victim. Moore comments, "I never know why these people talk to me. I would not talk to me." Yet they do, and this film adds another big notch on Moore's cinematic rifle.
***** Don't Look Back - This gem of a documentary follows Bob Dylan on tour through Europe in 1965. It captures the essence of young Dylan just as his career catapulted into superstardom. It reveals that streetwise, incredibly creative and thoughtful, yet confrontative personality just as we all would like to remember him. This portrait of Dylan is as revealing as any, especially since Dylan was soon to become more of a recluse.
The highlight of the movie is the excellent concert footage of Dylan at his most passionate, which moved me to tears. It includes some of the best singing ever from Bob, Joan Baez & even a lightweight (but beautiful) tune from Donovan, which Dylan promptly wiped from everyone's memory, with the most moving version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue". He had a hotel room full of stars (like Allen Ginsberg & Donovan) dropping their jaws, speechless. Dylan's guitar playing & singing was perfect & the look of supreme confidence in his eyes as he realized he had everyone on the edge of their seats was priceless.
And to think how influential this one man was at that moment in history. Dylan was very confrontative with the media and reduced two journalists to tears with his biting attacks (one of them was a senior writer for Time Magazine!). Boy did Dylan EVER have Time magazine and pop media pegged back in '65! No wonder he got a bad reputation with the media. He fought them every time, challenging their motives and constant labeling. This was the same year that the media coined the word "hippie". The last scene of the movie shows Dylan pondering his newly bestowed label, "anarchist". He seemed to try it on for size, then rejected it, as he's rejected every label since. If you ever get a chance to see this, don't miss it!
***½ McLuan's Wake - Just around the same period, another pundit took aim at the media's marketing of culture. McLuan's Wake, an in-depth study of the mind and life of Marshall McLuan, a man who sought to find meaning in the new media phenomena. During his time, McLuan was greatly admired, yet always misunderstood. He saw what few others would even acknowledge today. That what we think and value is so intimately tied to our social programming thru various media.
McLuan felt the now all pervasive corporate media was trampling our once sacred value system, perverting it to it's own ends and thus sacrificing our most cherished beliefs in the process. As media blurs the distinction between entertainment and news, we lose our moral reference points, and become lost in a quagmire somewhere between truth and fiction, unable to sort out reality.
In a way Marshall McLuan is similar to Michael Moore, with his broad, scathing critique of media and society. In his view a new program was being introduced into American society which veered far away from traditional social values, in an exploitative and manipulative fashion. Indeed! His life was a cautionary tale, warning that we must be more objective and concerned about what kind of programming we allow in our culture. McLuan's Wake is a satisfying study of the man and his ideas who was way ahead of his time.
**** Modern Tribalism - What do tattooing, body piercing, and the Burning Man festival have in common? Answer: The need for ritualized activities that bring meaning, identity and community to people's lives. This documentary provided good insights into the psychological and spiritual needs being satisfied by such rituals.
I'd always wondered what people got out of tattooing and piercing, given the pain and permanence of the process. Modern Tribalism followed various artists and their clients showing the procedures endured and the social rituals involved in the various methods used. I was unaware that for many it's an important rite of passage, often signaling an significant change of status for the person. Usually it's a symbol of the individual adopting a new identity as part of a subculture. This follows traditional rituals long studied by anthropologists, and understood to be essential to human culture.
What also fascinates me are the shamanistic roles taken on by those who perform these rituals. Like their counterparts in "primitive" societies, these people have a certain status and power within the subculture. They reinforce and sometimes develop the rituals and share their knowledge with their apprentices. They also provide an appropriate psychological context for the rituals to be performed, one that enhances the meaning for all participants.
The Burning Man segment illustrated the way subcultures help unite their members through symbolic communal rituals. Social events like Burning Man reinforce group identity while giving free reign to individual expression and creativity within the group. It focuses community energy towards common goals; goals that the larger society might deem suspect or reject out of hand. "Primitive" society may be long gone for most humans, but we are still subject to the same desires and needs, many of which modern society fails to meet. Modern Tribalism succeeds in illustrating exactly which ones we've been missing in our lives.
****½ Cyberman - I really enjoyed this excellent story about a man, his love for technology and his creative vision for joining man and technology. For 20 years, Cyberman has been linked one way or another to a computer. In this documentary, he records his experiences using his latest rig: an undetectable live video linkup to the Internet, which he wears everyday. Cyberman takes his setup into some challenging situations to test not only his equipment but also the reactions of people to both obvious and surreptitious recording.
He sees the day when everyone will have the means to record their life's experiences in a way that can be shared with others. You can tell that Cyberman has had a lot of time to explore every possible ramification of this union of man and machine. The implications he discovers are both frightening yet liberating. Cyberman is a truly unique, inspiring, mind-blowing look at our new "Big Brother" society and where it's heading.
**** Stevie - Winner of the Joris Ivens Award! This is the story of the consequences of three generations of abuse and the difficulties of ending the cycle. It's an extremely honest, involving documentary that follows a period in the life of a young man on his way to prison. It's an all too realistic human tragedy.
This film asks: Who creates the criminal? Society, family, friends, do-gooders? How effective is social intervention in repairing the damage? Director Steve James not only revisits his subject (part of his involvement in the Big Brother program), but once again attempts to intervene and aid Stevie. This time to keep him out of jail on a child abuse charge. James' frustrations with Stevie's lack of cooperation with his efforts to help are somehow symptomatic of society's awkward attempts to assist and reform those who lives have gone wrong. This film is very affecting on many levels.
Stevie is a difficult character to like, yet James can't help but identify with him and take us along for the ride. Putting yourself in the shoes of a child molester is hard to do, but essential if one is to try to understand their motivations. At times it seems Stevie wants to be punished as if that is a way to hurt those around him trying to help, including James. You can see the frustration etched in James' face as he fails to convince Stevie to cooperate. Indeed, the director's part in this film is highly unusual and his subjectivity succeeds in getting himself and his audience even more involved in Stevie's plight. The issues raised by this film remain unresolved and thus a necessary subject for more debate.
*** ½ Sacred Sex - This intriguing documentary explores sex as a path to enlightenment and self-knowledge. Sacred Sex contrasts the sacred & profane approaches to sexual activity. A group sex encounter on Maui where participants get to relive their sexual fantasies and work out their sexual agonies illustrates a new age approach to sexual therapy.
A look at a popular show where former porn star Annie Sprinkle does such lovely things as masturbating to full body orgasm on stage, and lets the audience peer into her cervix is meant to demystify sex. Her fetish workshop helps women experiment with sexual roles thus liberating them from their hang-ups.
Other segments of the documentary review the Tantric and Taoist sexual teachings, where we see that the art of sex is something held sacred in various cultural traditions. These traditional yet exotic religious approaches to sexual activity lend ritual and meaning for those seeking more out of sex and life too.
The film pandered a bit but it also discussed some positive ways to approach sex and even to heal oneself through sex. Human sexual response is subject to so much conditioning that we need to first get back in touch with our primal sexual identity to rediscover ourselves as sexual beings. Only then can we transform our sexual energy into a transcendent experience for our partners and ourselves.
Other Documentaries Reviewed at the IDFA
*** Prayer - This three minute sequence features Sheherazade played against a backdrop of thousands of Muslims praying, mosques and minarets. A bizarre twist at the end adds a modern context. Evocative & beautiful.
*** EVO - Moving words, geisha, techie, full of ideas and profundities. It's a bit over the top with the effects and gimmicks. I found this interesting, but difficult to watch.
** A2 - Documentary about trying to get into film the Aum cult in Japan. Bizarre, but rather boring for the topic.
*** The Reporting From the Rabbit Hutch - Flawed, but important look at a new tyrant, Alexander Lukashenko, who rivals Stalin as a ruthless dictator in the former Russian province of Belarus. Interviews with those who survived his intimidation. Brave portraits of those who stood up to this dictator and paid with their lives.
**** TV Nation - This was a TV series produced by Michael Moore in the late 90s that parodied American society. Timely and hilarious, mostly spontaneous spoofing, Moore should be deified.
*** Only The Strong Survive - This documentary follows the lives of former Motown legends: Wilson Pickett, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), Mary Wilson (from The Supremes) and Isaac Hayes. They learned the hard way that black entertainers are often the victims of unscrupulous managers and record companies. Despite many setbacks, their talent still shines and their live performances are the highlights of this film. While they never got their due, they seem to still be surviving well into their older years. An interesting subject, yet I found it hard to feel sorry for these artists as they've all had their time in the spotlight, and ultimately they must (and do) accept some responsibility for their personal failures.