x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Stories to tell

Drug crime, space tourism and Pakistan's film industry are all subjects at the IDFA, the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam this week.

Sins of My Father is a portrait of the Colombian crime boss Pablo Escobar.
Sins of My Father is a portrait of the Colombian crime boss Pablo Escobar.

Though documentaries haven't conquered even a small chunk of the box office, filmmakers are turning them out as never before. There is one about almost any subject. Sometimes two. At the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam, or IDFA, more than 250 films fought for the audience's attention. Just as many were peddled to distributors (mostly for television rather than cinemas), and scores of projects were trawling for start-up funds or completion money. Documentary filmmakers don't expect to strike gold, but they are often looking for it.

It was strange then, to find a documentary that seemed to replicate one of the greatest box-office hits of all time. Sins of My Father, Nicolas Entel's portrait of Pablo Escobar and his son, Juan Pablo Escobar, echoed The Godfather. Before commandos shot Pablo in 1993, the brazen crime boss was arguably the world's most powerful drug dealer and the most feared man in Colombia. He flaunted his authority with near-impunity, ordering his hit-men to murder politicians who could have threatened his empire.

His only son, Juan Pablo, stood in his shadow. Raised in abundant narco-privilege, Juan Pablo fled Colombia with his mother, fearing reprisals after his father's death. He renamed himself Sebastian Marroquin and, at the filmmaker's urging, emerged from anonymity in Argentina to seek forgiveness from the families of his father's victims. We see it all on screen in the poignant meeting between the son of a murderer and the sons of his victims after decades of violence. It was all the more poignant in Amsterdam, when Marroquin, 32, stood on stage sans bodyguards at the film's premiere.

The otherwise uplifting film is a grim reality check. History has leapt beyond Escobar and his son's efforts to change the course of a murderous culture. Colombia's cocaine trade is as strong as ever. So is its murder rate. Another documentary with the epic scale of feature dramas was Space Tourists, Christian Frei's film about space missions that seek paying travellers. It calls to mind The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman's 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe's book on the early US space programme.

In Space Tourists, the right stuff is money. The guest astronaut whom we watch aboard the Soyuz is Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American with a technology fortune who declares that she's dreamed about going into space since her teenage years. The dreams were so intense, she says, that she is prepared to sacrifice her life for the opportunity. And pay $20 million (Dh73.5m). In one of the film's intriguing contradictions, the opportunity is provided by Russia. And as billionaires such as Ansari vie to explore space from the formerly secret Soviet launching base in Kazakhstan, a local trade is built on the booster sections of the rockets that fall to earth as waste. Scavengers collect the metal parts, using smaller pieces in households and selling larger sections to Chinese firms that recycle space trash. Frei, whose last film studied the Bamyan Buddhas' destruction, offers a magical cosmology of rich and poor in a formerly classless land.

Meanwhile, in The Miscreants of Taliwood, the veteran Australian director George Gittoes happens upon the improbable emerging film industry in Peshawar, Pakistan. In Taliwood, as Gittoes calls it in a nod to Hollywood and Bollywood, the Taliban, which operates nearby, react with punitive violence on "miscreants" when films depicting western-style "decadence" are made or sold in the region. A Taliwood feature costs about $4,000 to make. You can make two for $7,000, the filmmaker learns. Gittoes himself stars in two - one about a journalist's killing, and another in which he plays an American villain.

The cheap slapstick melodramas are the one place where guns aren't using live ammunition in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Gittoes's first-person tour explores the movie market: audiences want entertainment in their Pashtun language, Bollywood films are too "immoral" for the Taliban-monitored region, and most of the public can't read subtitles on western movies. The films are wildly funny, yet actors are harassed by the Taliban and stores selling the movies are ransacked.

There's another revelation in this shoot-from-the hip documentary: the Taliban makes and markets movies that show training, bombings and horrifically violent killings. Gittoes and others argue that Taliwood comedies are struggling because the Taliban couldn't tolerate any competition. It's hard to imagine Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock bounding through the NWFP mountains like Gittoes, but what would a documentary festival be without Michael Moore? Even if he wasn't at IDFA, his spirit was. The Lehman Brothers investment banker-turned-first-time-filmmaker Ami Horowitz calls Moore's Bowling for Columbine the inspiration for his film, UN Me, a first-person diatribe demanding accountability on Darfur and other missions from "the most opaque institution in the world", the UN. Like Moore, Horowitz makes no claim to balancing viewpoints. He calls his film a "polemic". Though fellow documentarians may chafe at Horowitz's aggressive attacks, they will envy the newcomer's ability to fund a movie.

For a look at what some would call a UN success story, IDFA also presented Sergio, a biographical documentary about Sergio Vieira de Mello, the charismatic UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who died in the 2003 Baghdad bombing that ended the UN mission in Iraq.