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IDFA 2012: Documentary as an Event Born by Accident

The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) celebrated its 25th edition with an unforgettable program. John Appel’s Wrong Time Wrong Place, a film about the finality of existence and the force of coincidence set against the backdrop of the Utoya Island tragedy in Norway, was screened on opening night and later in 25 different cinemas throughout the Netherlands.

The cutbacks and austerity measures were felt, in among other things, the abandonment of the daily talk shows in the Escape Club. The large venue, a weekend favorite for teenagers and tourists who love techno, always felt at odds with the IDFA crowd and I don’t think many people missed it. Instead the festival built a café in the middle of the square around the statue of Rembrandt.

In lieu of the absent talk show the festival planned extended Q&As and daily Hi-TEAs with IDFA director Ally Derks and documentary filmmaker Peter Wintonick. The Hi-TEAS were part of last year’s program, too, and are a casual, coming together of guests who discuss any old thing that comes to mind, while they enjoy tea and sweets. The first one on November 15th featured John Appel and the guest of honor of IDFA 2012, Victor Kossakovsky. Kossakovsky (see here for his IDFA history) brought Russian chocolates for the occasion and handed them out to the audience in the Tuschinski VIP Lounge.

Being the guest of honor means that Kossakovsky was swept away to many obligations and engagements. He gave a master class; he was present for Q&A sessions after screenings of his entire body of work; he selected a personal top 10 favorite documentaries; and he was present at many other special events, however anything with Kossakovsky is an event. The entire festival seemed to have upped the ante on events. It wasn’t just the usual drinks and get-togethers. The festival made screenings into more of an event by adding live performances and, as I mentioned, having more than 500 Q&As. Add to that a conference, DocLab events, and a late night show with musician Tom Barman.

This year I saw a lot of music documentaries and found that a common theme was the attempt to redeem the forgotten artist, in the broadest sense possible. From locating a proto-punk band named Death, in A Band Called Death, to telling to story of techno music and Belgium, in The Sound of Belgium, from finding a mythically lost singer-songwriter known as Rodriguez, in Searching for Sugar Man, to giving voice to the first all-girl band from Myanmar/Burma, in Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls. These films not only tell their subjects’ story but also manage to use interesting tools of cinematography.

I had already been tipped off by people who had been at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June that the film Searching for Sugar Man is one to look out for. The opening shot visits the coast of South Africa and is guided by the music of our protagonist Sixto Rodriguez with cinematic skill that is lost in many straightforward talking-head-style documentaries. Sugar Man is a search for a mythical musical hero of the South African anti-apartheid movement: An American singer-songwriter bigger than Dylan or Elvis, who captured a nation to come into resistance against an oppressive unfair regime. He’s also a man with a guitar who killed himself on stage after a failed career, or so the story goes. The Swedish filmmaker, Malik Bendjelloul, came across this story while backpacking the world. He had quit his job in order to find subjects for docs and as he told IDFA audiences, this is going to be the first of many. The film won both the IDFA Melkweg Award for Best Music Documentary and the Bankgiroloterij IDFA Audience Award .

When I saw Seaching for Sugar Man it was programmed with a concert by local singer-songwriter Case Mayfield, which followed a Q&A session with the director in a large room in the Melkweg Venue. Mayfield performed Rodriguez’s music. It was a nice attempt at adding something to the film, however in my opinion this particular performer left the audience stiff.

Finding one’s subject by accident, as in the case of Searching for Sugar Man, is also how the documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America came about. Its makers found Bradley’s music by accident on a site for soul music. Producer Alexander Brough told in an impromptu Q&A that he and director Poull Brien contacted Bradley’s record label to do a music video. It was purely by accident that they happened to check their email that day, “because they are artists and usually don’t bother with such a thing,” he said. After meeting and talking to Bradley about his life, in which he performed as a James Brown impersonator, they quickly revised their plan to a documentary. The result is a portrait of a fascinating character who has had a hard life and is finally enjoying the recognition he rightly deserves.

The accidental also played a role in the case of the director of Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls. Filmmaker Juliet Lamont went to school with Nikki May, a former child star in Australia who moved to Burma to get away from commerce and ended up falling in love with a rich expat oil baron. Nikki made a Facebook update that said she’d started the first girl band in Burma. Lamont’s interest spiked and the resulting documentary was shot in Burma with a Canon 5D in order to subvert the suspicious eyes of the government. It is a fusion between a musical and a documentary, where the girls sing about their troubles instead of talking about their ideas and feelings, all not to get them into trouble. Only after the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the recent parliamentary elections are the girls are willing to comment on the political situation they are in.

The accidental nature of finding one’s subject was used in a supreme manner in Tinatin Gurchiani’s The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear. The filmmaker held open auditions to find the ideal protagonist of Georgian youth and ended up with a collage-like portrait of modern Georgia. As one of the audience members commented, “Every country should have such a portrait of their country.”

When it comes to watching music documentaries, there is the added bonus of ending up listening to a lot of new music. Many people I knew at IDFA are now listening to the work of Sixto Rodriguez (Sugar Man). I myself am listening to the sounds of Death after seeing A Band Called Death. This three-piece rock band from Detroit produced noise that echoed punk before punk was born. The band includes three African-American brothers who were surrounded by Motown in the mid-1970s. Their music was lost to the world, only to be resurfaced by the magic of record collectors decades later.

Most documentaries, even non-music ones, are fueled not only by accidental findings but also by luck, according to Victor Kossakovsky. As he tells it, everything will be normal but as soon as he starts filming, two men will start to make out and three people in the corner will start to fight. He´s lucky in that way. But in taking a step back from IDFA’s line-up, it is also a type of attention, of being on the lookout for these stories, and it is the masterful filmmaker who is able to capture it by using interesting tools of cinematography: animation, photo manipulation, beautiful scenery and fascinating interviewees. And if those tools aren’t at hand, to quote Nadav Schirman, the director of In The Dark Room: “Sometimes what is not in the film is more interesting.”

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