In the eclecticism of its 300 films, the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) resists easy trend-spotting. Yet a cluster of films at the event scrutinised the Middle East and the Islamic world, no surprise for an annual event that's always topical. And some filmmakers at the world's largest such event aimed at more than topicality as they experimented with the language of documentaries
This year's winner at IDFA for best feature-length film (and best Dutch documentary), Position Among the Stars, was a déjà vu, the third part in the Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich's trilogy about an Indonesian family making the transition from the countryside to the Jakarta slums in the world's most populous Muslim country. It's a rough adjustment, as grandmother Rumidjah, a Christian, watches her temperamental granddaughter Tari neglect her studies and yearn for a mobile phone with a camera. "My children are all losers," she says, "They pay their debts by making more debts." Yet Tari is drawn to more than consumer goods. She chooses Islam over her grandmother's Christianity.
The fractious family rubs elbows in a cramped city house where Retel Helmrich's tactile camera watches everything they do. It also watches cats, rats and roaches roam through the home, sometimes through a toxic cloud that's sprayed to combat dengue fever. When the spraying starts, the family hides the mosquito larvae that they raise to feed their pet fighting fish.
Nothing seems to go right. Tempers flare when daughter-in-law Sri gets revenge on her inattentive husband by frying his prized fighting fish. A malfunctioning gas stove risks blowing the place up.
It all gets worse when the family gets the bill for a year of education for Tari, and they can't afford it. "We all failed, but one of us has to become a winner," laments Rumidjah. At every step, Retel Helmrich immerses us in the reality of family life, an endless series of small catastrophes. (Part 2 of the trilogy won the same prize at IDFA 2004.)
Encounters between Islam and Christianity were frequent enough on the screen to be a theme at this year's IDFA. In Imams Go to School, by Kaouther Ben Hania of France (with support from the Dubai International Film Festival), Muslim clerics and students from mosques inside France attend courses at the autonomous Institut Catholique in Paris on the relationship between religion and the French state. Their main teacher is a firebrand Catholic sociologist, Olivier Bobineau, who explains that the purpose of the course is to instruct the participants on the official French policy of secularism. The programme, sponsored partially by the French ministry of interior (which oversees police and law enforcement), aims to encourage the message of assimilation within French mosques.
Communication isn't easy between teacher and pupils. The Muslim clerics are trained in Islam and in Arabic, but their French is limited. So is their appreciation of the often-adversarial relationship between the French state and the Catholic Church since the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. Yet Bobineau is an agile thinker with a flair for performance and a respect for Islam. His students listen admiringly, before heading back to their mosques.
Islam dialogues with Christianity in an unusual faceoff in Holy Wars by the Canadian director Stephen Marshall. The Muslim here is Khalid Kelly, an Irish nurse, born Terence Edward Kelly, who converted while imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for selling alcohol and now abhors the drinking that's at the core of Irish social life. Khalid's Christian counterpart in Holy Wars is Aaron Taylor, an earnest missionary from Missouri who takes off for Pakistan. The crescendo of Holy Wars comes in a debate between Khalid and Aaron that resembles a slam-dunk contest in one of Spike Lee's commercials for Nike.
Films such as Position Among the Stars, Imams Go to School, and Holy Wars fit the familiar documentary template - long patient observation, plus candour and drama from subjects that are as nuanced as characters in fiction. The same can be said about Arab Attraction, Andreas Horvath's film about an Austrian feminist who converts to Islam and marries a Yemeni driver whom she meets on an archaeological tour. These docs were vivid, but not visually groundbreaking.
Yet other films at the IDFA broke the visual mold as they examined conflicts between the Middle East and the West.
You Don't Like the Truth - 4 Days Inside Guantanamo (Canada), which won the IDFA's Special Jury Award, told its story of a teenager's imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay through the lens of a surveillance camera in an interrogation room that recorded the questioning of young Omar Khadr by a Canadian intelligence agent. Khadr, a Canadian citizen, was accused of being in a car in Afghanistan in late 2001 with men who threw a hand grenade that killed an American marine. Fifteen years old at the time, he survived harsh beatings when captured by US soldiers and during a stay in Bagram prison in Afghanistan before being shipped to Guantanamo at 16. US authorities called him a hardened terrorist. Inmates who knew him in prison saw him as a teenager who was wrongly arrested and brutalised in confinement.
We see Khadr in tears after one interrogation and hear him begging in the muffled audio track to make a phone call to his grandparents. The film's title comes from Khadr's comment to interrogators who refused to believe his story of events in 2001. Yet he pleaded guilty last month to all charges against him in exchange for a reduced eight-year sentence (coerced, his lawyers say), seven years of which he'll serve in Canada.
The blurred prison images in You Don't Like the Truth, filmed from behind the interrogators (with Khadr facing them) were obtained by the filmmakers Luc Cote and Patricio Henriquez through the Canadian courts from Canada's intelligence agency. The harsh texture gives the film a jarringly realistic sense of place and the smell of injustice. In The Green Wave (Germany/Iran), director Ali Samadi Ahadi gets visceral drama from street footage filmed on mobile phones in the early summer of 2009. At first those scenes show exhilarated crowds preparing for a national election. When police suppressed demonstrations protesting the election results, the phone images are of violent encounters and bodies on the street.
The Green Wave also deploys animation to dramatise events that Iranians reported on Twitter and other social networks. Ahadi chose not to re-enact the scenes with actors in Germany, where he assembled the film that mixes street footage, animated scenes, and interviews with those who watched it all.
Still farther away from any standard approach is HIGHRISE/Out My Window, an interactive web-based experiment by the Canadian director Katerina Cizek, which allows viewers to journey through the experiences of the dwellers of high-rise residential slabs on several continents by clicking on elements of imagery and testimony. The 360 degree documentary, as Cizek calls it, won IDFA's award for digital storytelling.
The project points to a stylistic path - with its own affordable special effects - that a new generation of documentaries is likely to take toward films that bypass the screen for the computer. It looks like we've already found a theme for IDFA 2011.