How many documentary filmmakers does it take to fill a houseboat on a canal in Amsterdam?
If you know the answer to that question, you were probably one of the dozens of docuphile party seekers that flooded the EyeSteelFilm (ESF) houseboat during IDFA last month (November 18-28). This was the first year I was able to attend the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam, the largest doc fest in the world, and we (myself and Cinema Politica Executive Director Svetla Turnin) were quickly initiated into the nuances, tricks and maneuvering of the festival, which of course included nightly visits to the ESF party house boat.
The ESF crew (a band of crackpot documentarians from Montreal, Quebec) had much to celebrate: two of their prodegés, Lixin Fan and Omar Majeed were at the festival with films in competition. Fan’s beautifully shot, hypnotic and powerful Last Train Home won the best feature documentary – a prize worth at least one long night of revelling and raving on the houseboat. To top it off, another EyeSteelFilmer, Brett Gaylor, took home a “best of the fest” prize for his film RiP: A Remix Manifesto, winning the best audience award film for the past ten years of audience awarded films at IDFA.
Islam gets in Your Face
The two awards shouldn’t overshadow the very, very excellent film by Majeed, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, which is like a Muslim version of Hard Core Logo, but real and without the depressing bits. Part road trip, part alternative Islam, and part soul-searching, Taqwacore is one of my favourite political documentaries of 2009. The film follows a ragtag group of punk rockers who tour the US in a bus that proudly displays the message “Fight War not Wars” while making friends and enemies everywhere they go. From conservative Muslims to shell-shocked non-believers, no eardrums are left unassaulted. The doc is based loosely on the book “The Taqwacores” by Michael Muhammad Knight, who is the unsung “leader” of the gang of pink spiked hair, Koran-carrying, chord-bending troubadours in the film. It’s a little heavy on the male meter, but otherwise a pretty kick ass film. It made me pray for a sequel anyway. Other bright spots at IDFA abounded…
Fixing the World, Almost
One drizzly morning I laughed off a late night’s mess of cobwebs at an early screening of The Yes Men Fix the World, the sequel to the first docu-comedy (hmm, that doesn’t work does it) about the world’s most infamous imposters. This film is marginally better than the first, if only for the fact that the Yes Men made it themselves and so it is incredibly funny. After duping the BBC and appearing live before an audience of 300 million, impersonating a Dow big-wig, the Yes Men set off to draw attention to the mega-wrongs done by corporations in the name of the mighty buck. What is so compelling about this duo is that they get away with so much, and in doing so they reveal so much about the internal rot and depraved nature of corporate culture – where men in suits congratulate them (in front of hidden cameras) on a good presentation that argues for a sober weighing of human loss as a cost of doing business, in reference to the Bhopal disaster (favourite quote: “This is good, but can I apply it to terrorism?”).
And on a side note, the Yes Men have struck again, this time shaming Canada at Copenhagen with fake press releases and Wall Street Journal websites announcing the regressive Harper administration’s turnaround on climate change.
Making Fun of North Korea
On another morning we watched the highly entertaining and ethically problematic The Red Chapel. This was the film, it seems, that fest-goers at IDFA loved to hate. I spent an inordinate amount of time arguing the film’s case with really pissed off filmmakers, programmers and commissioning editors from all over god’s green acres. So why all the hate people? The Red Chapel is indeed a giant sham and we learn that in the beginning of the documentary. A Danish filmmaker convinces two young Danish-Korean men to join him on a diabolical adventure, one comedian and one who is a self-described “spastic” (Jacob suffers from some kind of inability to control his muscles, making speech distorted). The plan: convince the North Korean government that the two young men are going to visit North Korea and perform for the people the traditional theatre and literature of Denmark. There is no such intention of course, and instead, the two young men, along with the director, prepare absurd physical comedy, complete with fart jokes and non-sensical musical accompaniment (including “You’re my Wonderewall”). The hidden agenda is of course to show us the unmasked evil regime, the oppression, the robotic servitude and the total fear present in the population. The filmmaker makes this polemic clear in the narration, and he comes across as thoughtful, reflective, and yes, a bit of an asshole.
I’ve been told The Red Chapel is a racist film because it makes fun of North Koreans and reductively represents the country as the same mindless, fearful regime-loving mass. I think this argument is weak – the film is insensitive at times and can feel like you’re watching some dickhead anthropologist who’s just parachuted behind enemy lines and is reporting for Air America (“There’s no one….on the highways….everyone loyal to….the Dear Leader”), and this is of course not without its problems. Another problem is how the film has caused a policy change in North Korea, making it now even more difficult for well-meaning documentarians to go into the country and press record.
But the real issue is the PC issue, I feel, with Western audiences. The filmmaker lies to everyone, practically ridicules them, and even pushes Jacob into doing things he hasn’t got the heart to do, as he feels his own ethics push him toward escape and coming clean. At one point Jacob asks the filmmaker in front of a dozen North Koreans at a special dinner (only the Danes can understand his “spastic” Danish”) – “Don’t you have any morals?” The answer from the director: “No I do not.” Indeed. But, still a highly recommended film to watch with a group of friends who are particularly bent on debating the ethics of nonfiction filmmaking.
The Rest of the Fest
Eyes Wide Open is a political survey of Latin America in the throws of a paradigm-shift, shaking off some more colonial yoke and edging toward the left. The filmmaker, a Peruvian, travels to some of the leftist-governed countries of “America’s Backyard” and attempts to give the viewers a heartfelt survey. This film should have inspired, but lagged in to many places. A good story editor could have fixed that, with a bit more tweaking on the editing. Still a poetic, passionate piece that will take you to some Latin American stories you may have not already read in the Guardian.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Trials of Daniel Ellsberg is a portrait of, well, you guessed it. Here’s the third doc in the trilogy of famous radical lefties who came out of the sixties with good jobs but still fighting the good fight. Yes, Chomsky, Zinn and Ellsberg were all buddies, and they all have their own films now. TMDMIA is a solid entry into the chronicling of the American elite left, and valorizes direct action and crucially, whistle-blowing, along the way (I’m told the DVD will feature a special piece on “How to Whistleblow”). This is a good, dramatic, riveting and important doc that if it only upgraded that animation, would be, well, even better. And it won the special jury prize to boot.
Winnebago Man follows intrepid filmmaker and film professor Ben Steinbauer as he searches for the infamous web-hero Winnebago Man (from viral video fame – aka “The Angriest Man in the World” – if you haven’t watched it, go now, it’s an order). He finds the pissed off Winnebago Man after hiring a private investigator (a move he’s repeating for his current documentary about a legendary hoaxter who met with Steinbauer at a train station, agreed to give him rights to his life story, promptly took a bunch of cash off his hands and hasn’t been seen since). The film has some analysis of web-culture, cyber-bulling and viral videos which is a plus. There’s really only two problems with this entertaining and incredibly interesting doc: the filmmaker is in the film WAY too much (note to Steinbauer: faked scenes of you lying around your house in a beam of sunlight talking on the phone to your real main character are distracting and make us hate you. Don’t do it in your next film). And number two: fire the camerperson who shook so violently in every hand held shot that I really, really did almost barf.
Tapped is a quintessentially American liberal documentary. But Canadian. Ruthlessly formulaic, the film starts out with a very slick title credits sequence and then descends into the formula we all know too well: talking head, b-roll, talking head, b-roll, infographics. What’s unfortunate is this film is taking aim at the bottled water industry, and could have done so much more with the subject. The water companies are represented by an nondescript green tanker truck, filmed pulling out of wooded lanes, and filtered so high up on the contrast level, it’s distracting. The rest of the film is too many shots of bottled water factories and talking heads. Not a barn-burner to say the least.
Hunger is a sprawling, beautiful documentary that shows its fissures throughout the 90 minutes of its course. The film is about food production, starvation and hunger, and the desperation so many face in our world today. Incredibly well-shot and scored, the film is shaky on structure, and too many oddly-positioned edits and story transfers kept me from feeling totally inspired.
Orgasm, Inc is a fabulous documentary that pries apart the bullshit and secret layers of the pharmaceutical industry and their race to produce the Viagra for women. Funny, poignant, and well-made, this is Liz Canner’s best work to date.
Survivors – Days in Zhari Police Station is another documentary that had so much potential but ultimately fails to please because of one or two devastatingly bad moves. The first is story: this film is in dire need of a great story editor. The second is the narration: we know the filmmaker is Korean, we know this film is personal, and we know it’s her narration. The only problem? They hired an anglo-actress to do it. You can hear her in one scene talking about her landing in Afghanistan in clear American diction, and in the next scene you can hear director Kyun-Ran-Kang asking interview subjects in a completely different voice, with a slight Korean accent. This was a big mistake, and Kang should have narrated this very personal, moving and beautifully shot film about the state of a country ravaged by ongoing war.
Dreamland was my favourite pick at IDFA this year, and will be included in my upcoming Top Ten Political Movies of 2009. For now, I’ll tell you it’s insanely visually stunning. It’s pure visual poetry. It is a political essay and exercise in aesthetic awakenings. It made me want to be a better environmentalist. Lastly, it’s about Iceland and the matrix of big business and government who are conspiring to sell off and destroy the country’s incredibly breathtaking environment.
I also heard great things about The Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island, Garbage Dreams, Fuck Off Police Car, Male Domination, The Accidental Terrorist, and Earth Keepers.
And for those interested in one of the more political discussions at IDFA this year, you can visit the Festival website to watch Canadian filmmakers and documentary advocates Katerina Cizek and Peter Wintonick discuss ten documentaries in the fest that fit their bill of “People versus Power.”