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Documentary Film——Politics, Aesthetics and Ethics

IDFA, 18th edition
24 Nov.-4 Dec. 2005; Amsterdam
Event website: http://www.idfa.nl

Shadow Festival
, 6th edition
22-30 November 2005, Amsterdam
Event website: http://www.shadowfestival.nl

Reviewed by Martha Blassnigg
University of Plymouth


The International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA) has already been introduced to Leonardo readers as one of the world’s largest documentary film forum (see Leonardo reviews March 2005 and Leonardo 38/5). Last year the review’s focus was on debates and workshops around new media and documentary film form, which again this year culminated in the Mediamatic workshop, a forum for interactive political film and its multi-linear forms and dialogues between the maker and the player (for more information, see http://www.mediamatic.net). This review will discuss this year’s festival and contrast it with the Shadow Festival, which has been set up as IDFA’s counter festival. It will in particular discuss some aspects of creative, innovative or unconventional contemporary documentary filmmaking and emphasize the inherent tensions between aesthetics, content and ethics.

The discourse on the documentary film genre, in retrospect, has often suffered from a neglect of discussions around form, structure, and composition in an aesthetic and ethical framework. In contrast, the content has not only been overemphasized but sometimes even been manipulated for ideological purposes. IDFA has more than once used the festival to promote the rights for free speech for documentary filmmakers and the subjects appearing in the films; the festival along with a selection of European and American propaganda films the Second World War stimulated a critical and self-conscious discussion of propaganda within contemporary documentary filmmaking with regard to documentary as means for ideologically driven goals. In particular, due to the fact that on a subtle level many documentary films on the market can be criticized for their lack of reflectivity and the neglect of spaces for the audiences interpretations to make up their own mind.

The apparent difficulties of IDFA to come to terms with the balancing act between film content and film form reflects a growing imbalance of the festival in which the socio-political agenda——manifest in a variety of IDFA’s activities——dominates over a critical reflection of the subject of film form. IDFA’s mission statement on their website addresses these issues and the festival seems to show a shift in sequence of the ideas starting with film form, followed by content toward communication with the audiences where shock and sensation constitutes an important part in the description. Through this imbalance, the festival does not acknowledge sufficiently the critical agency of the audience, especially those who expect documentary film to express an intelligible, reflective, and critical approach in the very form and construction of its medium and the festival’s self-conscious communication and address in this matter. At IDFA, slightly too often, one gains the impression that the festival is displaying and selling the "better television programs", which director Ally Derks seems to confirm when she stated in her opening speech: "After all the incoherent media violence that we get served up, a bit of depth is a welcome change."

No doubt with more than 3000 submissions a year, one can see the festival’s potential to not merely distance itself from the general populist media market, but to develop into a serious forum for documentary film as an intervention not only with regard to content but with regard to film form and characteristics inherent in its medium. The broadness of the IDFA every year includes a number of films who’s makers are informed by such a subtle understanding of film form, ethics of the approach, and a healthy tension between aesthetic, visual pleasure and a critical discussion of the content. Two of the highlights of this year’s edition were a retrospective of French photographer and filmmaker Raymond Depardon, to whom the Netherlands Filmmuseum dedicated a retrospective, exhibition, press-conference and a Master class in collaboration with IDFA, and the premiere of Dutch filmmaker Jos de Putter’s How Many Roads, which follows the previous success of Dans, Grozny Dans (The Damned and the Sacred, 2002). (For more information on the film program, see http://www.idfa.nl)

While IDFA’s engagement with political and social issues deserves special recognition, in order to fulfill the festival’s aim to become a true forum for "films for thought", it seems necessary to reflect more consciously within the festival program, the contextualization and the selection of the films on the awareness that films is able to raise through emotional involvement and through intelligent filmmaking. Examples such as KZ by Rex Bloomstein or Our Daily Bread by Nikolaus Geyrhalter as well as those previously mentioned, open up a discussion of an intellectually sophisticated, self-reflective, ethically conscious style alongside the possibility of an emphatic involvement of the audiences. Alas, it is only in some of the programmed films themselves where these underrated topics can be found and evaluated rather than in the festival communications and address. Despite this apparent lack of contextualization and critical self-awareness of the festival’s public interface, the program of IDFA comprises more than 300 films and as such does offer a rich variety for every taste. To be sure, critical discussions are provided in the special debates and forums (for more information, see IDFAcademy (sic) at http://www.idfa.nl), but rarely after the film screenings since the programming is often too tight for a meaningful Q&A. IDFA never seems to have invested much in these discussion sessions, which could be a vital aspect of the festival and serve as a direct interface with the audiences. As a consequence, it never reveals itself as a fully thought through event.

To show interesting, politically "urgent" and critical films is a task of high value in itself, and IDFA certainly provides one of the biggest but also most productive markets for documentary film, but this engagement may not be considered as sufficient if IDFA has ambitions to be taken seriously as a critical discussion forum for documentary film beyond developing its markets. If it is serious about the development of the IDFAcademy, then it would do well to take advise from the broad range of its own constituency.

For those visitors seeking the more subtle discourses within the genre documentary film in a dialogue with——and not separated from——the socio-political discussions raised by the content, may find more common ground at the Shadow Festival, founded by Stephen Mayakovski as counter festival to International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA) running at the same time. The Shadow Festival focuses almost entirely on radical, critical, and artistic approaches to film form and claims to show creative, innovative or even unconventional contemporary documentary filmmaking and establishes a critical podium for contact and dialogue between the filmmakers and the public.

While the IDFA film program invites to cherry pick from a broad range of documentaries, the critical film viewer may find herself commuting to the Shadow Festival for more radical experiments with film form and in particular the extended and well informed discussions after each screening. Despite its innovative, creative, and radical claims for the documentary film genre, in its sixth edition it still has remained a festival in the shadow of IDFA. This could be due to the lack of a clear profile outline, or possibly the necessary acknowledgement of an impossibility of detaching form from content, without running the risk of emptying the film of any content. To its credit the Shadow Festival compliments a full 10 days visit to IDFA by enriching the viewer’s critical thinking about the documentary film as genre in addition to a collection of innovative films. One of the strategies and merits of the Shadow Festival is to invite documentary filmmakers who’s work lies at the edge of the genre every afternoon for a two hour ‘master class’-type presentation with discussion and to take at least 30-45 minutes for a panel discussion after each film screening. This edition’s special guests for the workshops were Cherry Duyns, Albert Elings and Eugenie Jansen, Joe Gibbons, Mike Hoolboom, Clemens Klopfenstein, Ken Kobland, Stefan Kolbe and Chris Wright (for more information, see http://www.shadowfestival.nl).

Some of the outstanding contributions to the Shadow Festival 2005 were Sergei Loznitsa’s Fabrika (Russia), a documentary on a steel and plaster factory in which for part of the time the film runs backwards, reminding of Vertov’s use of film aesthetics as political statement. The color compositions and sounds of the film made it an intense physical experience and reminded the audiences of the powers of cinema in its early days. Malerei heute (Painting Now——‘heute’ meaning today and nowadays) by Stefan Hayn and Anja-Christin Remmert (Germany) has been described by Mayakovski as a "typical Shadow Festival film": 156 hand-painted watercolors of billboards by Hayn in the city of Berlin between 1998-2005 stand in contrast with intermittent moving image footage constructing a chronological collage that explores the social and political changes in a coalition of public and private domains. With a voice over on an intellectual account of impressions, opinions, and political facts of the time, this film expresses a true "cinema of thought"- while another highlight of the festival appeals to discussions of consciousness: Taimagura Baachan (Taimagura Grandma) by Yoshihiko Sumikawa (Japan). While filming Masayo Mukaida and her husband over the course of 15 years, Sumikawa was not merely interested in showing us their rural lives and interconnectedness with nature and the spiritual world in this last village to receive electricity in Japan, but also his interest lies in discovering the reasons for Masayo’s happiness. He explained that he only could stop filming when he not only understood her happiness, but once he was able to experience it himself. This jewel of a film made transparent how film in its form and content is constructed by a network of individual conscious interactions between film subject, filmmaker and audiences.

The most obvious overlap between the Shadow Festival and IDFA is in IDFA’s Paradocs section, which focuses on media artist’s productions and a connection between the cinema and art-galleries. While at IDFA this still has remained a peripheral event, the Shadow Festival embraces programs with short films, installation pieces and audio-visual experiments and integrates these into the main program. As both festivals earn their own merits, my suggestion as a devotee of both would be for the Shadow Festival to come out from under the shadow of the IDFA to shine in its own right, which without doubt it deserves.

(For the even more experimentally oriented viewer, it should be noted that in the week after IDFA and the Shadow Festival, the Impakt Festival took place in Utrecht, with the subtitle "adventures in sound and image"——for more information, see http://www.impakt.nl/)


International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam: http://www.idfa.nl
Shadow Festival, Amsterdam: http://www.shadowfestival.nl
Impakt Festival, Utrecht: http://www.impakt.nl
Netherlands Filmmuseum: http://www.filmmuseum.nl




Updated 1st January 2006

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