x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

International Documentary Festival Amsterdam highlights

The annual documentary festival sets the stage for the forthcoming festival season.

A scene from Mads Brugger’s The Ambassador, which views corruption in Africa through the eyes of an opportunistic businessman. Courtesy Johan Stahl Winthereik
A scene from Mads Brugger’s The Ambassador, which views corruption in Africa through the eyes of an opportunistic businessman. Courtesy Johan Stahl Winthereik

The sheer range of films at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam ensure that, if not the largest, it is the most closely watched documentary festival in the world. Documentaries from the 12-day festival, which wrapped up on Sunday, will go on to be shown at festivals and in cinemas throughout the coming year, while the same films will be broadcast on television.

The offerings in Amsterdam this past week extended in multiple directions, from a Palestinian do-it-yourself doc, 5 Broken Cameras, a cinematic evocation of everyday clashes under occupation, to Bad Weather, a meditation on the ways that worsening floods in Bangladesh shape the natural and human landscapes.

The festival's top prize for a feature documentary went to Planet of Snail, a poignant film from the South Korean director Seung-jun Yi, about a deaf and blind young man's relation to the world around him. Tall and lithe, Young-chan writes poetry and makes sculptures of figures and flowers that reveal his tactile refinement and a gentle sense of humour. Guiding him through what would be the most ordinary of tasks for an able-bodied person is an eternally patient girlfriend of half his height, Soon-ho, who is also disabled. They are an odd, but loving, couple.

Set mostly in ordinary interiors, Planet of Snail unfolds with a quiet rhythm and a tender visual elegance as it explores the space between what the camera can observe clearly, and what Young-chan can sense with his companion's help.

If tactility becomes language in Planet of Snail, the blunt assaults by Israeli soldiers on fragile video cameras create the visual texture of 5 Broken Cameras, by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, which received a special jury prize at IDFA.

Emad Burnat became a filmmaker by accident. He lives in the village of Bil'in, on the West Bank, west of Ramallah. When Israeli soldiers seize land nearby and build a wall to cordon off Palestinian villagers from a Jewish settlement, Emad and his neighbours take to the streets. Emad's camera documents the encroachment on their land and the villagers' protests against it. Time and again, the unarmed Palestinians throw stones, and the Israelis respond with tear gas, and later with live ammunition. No camera lasts for more than a year in the demonstrations.

The film 5 Broken Cameras gets as close as is physically possible to one village's reality of life under occupation. For the film to be observed at that range, the camera itself becomes a casualty. It took five of them to shoot this documentary, which also records the toll on human lives over five years. Burnat's son, Jibreel, is born after he gets his first camera. The film lurches between rare quiet moments in the family home and confrontations with soldiers outside, which is the only outdoor environment that the children know.

The documentary is sure to travel widely, as will The Ambassador, IDFA's opening-night film by Mads Brugger of Denmark, which views corruption in Africa through the eyes of an opportunistic businessman (a character created by Brugger) who buys an ambassadorship. Brugger, a television satirist in Copenhagen, buys the title of Liberian ambassador to the Central African Republic. He then manoeuvres to open a factory to manufacture matches in Bangui, the troubled capital, while positioning the business as a front for the diamond trade.

The Ambassador is high satire with the poker-faced Brugger filling hand after outstretched hand with bribes in a labyrinth of crooked deals that he says are needed to accomplish anything. He's far from the only European buying influence. The Central African Republic is often called "a failed state", he tells us in a deadpan narrative, "but that assumes that it can be considered a state". What everyone knows for certain is that the country is rich in minerals. The tale of one man in the stampede for its riches gets a laugh in almost every frame. The flip-side of this odd story is despair in the face of rampant corruption.

Brugger takes the first-person documentary into satire, in the style of Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Bruno), with the filmmaker/narrator not only telling the story, but inserting fictitious elements - inventing the character who tells it and shaping a madcap script.

The first-person doc-narrative also explores new territory in Unraveled, an extended talk with the American lawyer/embezzler Marc Dreier that was filmed before he went into federal prison in the US in 2009 after confessing to defrauding clients of hundreds of millions of dollars. Sometimes the brazen lawyer impersonated those clients, including a billionaire Manhattan real estate mogul. He also tried to rob pension funds.

Among the recent documentaries and feature films that address the US financial collapse, Unraveled got unprecedented access to a confessed criminal. The director Marc Simon, a former lawyer in Dreier's firm, conducts interviews with his former boss in a high-rise Manhattan apartment where Dreier waits under house arrest for his sentencing. With remarkable parallels to the recent comedy Tower Heist (produced long after the Dreier crimes), the film follows Dreier's account of his own spectacular misdeeds as his lawyer and young son go in and out of the conversation.

Dreier's admission of guilt comes in a seemingly heartfelt letter to the court, which we witness him drafting. It earns him a reduced sentence of 20 years, of which he will have to serve at least 17. Yet the film stops short of being a confession. Even when Dreier is faced with the certainty of prison time, he minimises the seriousness of his crimes and wonders whether he should have fled the US. The audience exits wondering how much this man has really learnt.

Midway through the festival, IDFA's prize for a music documentary went to Last Days Here, a portrait of the notorious drug-addicted heavy metal singer Bobby Liebling, whose band Pentagram were hugely influential among hard-core metalheads.

The film by Don Argott is unflinching in its observation of the 50-ish Liebling, incapacitated by crack and living off his parents. Liebling's father, a retired US defence department official, is as helpless as anyone to reverse his son's downwards spiral. Yet the rocker still has devoted fans, who help him stage a miraculous comeback. Will it last?

For the director of the oddly elegiac Paul Williams Still Alive, Stephen Kessler, it's a sweet surprise that his 1970s boyhood hero, the diminutive blond songwriter, is still living after years outside the limelight. Kessler's bittersweet documentary which, like Last Days Here, should have a long afterlife on television, follows Williams stumbling through the aftermath of fame, with a wry commentary from Williams himself on celebrity.