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Turbulent times for Amsterdam’s Documentary Festival

December 15, 2011

By Stella Toonen

Being the largest non-fiction cinematic event in the world, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is one of Holland’s major cultural institutions. Having received this prominent status from the Dutch government one month ago, the IDFA is sure of state funding in the future. Even though they will have to cut their budget to some extent, just like almost all other Dutch cultural enterprises, they can be sure that their funds will still allow them to sustain themselves. It is the luckiest outcome of the government’s decisions for the cultural industry in this time of economic instability.

The new financial circumstances cause many changes for the Amsterdam documentary film industry. The Jan Vrijmans Fund, which financed 370 films in the developing world, is one of the subsidies that will no longer be in place. “It’s a shame” director Ally Derks said when she opened the festival, “especially because when we look back, it has been an incredible year. A year of upheaval. Osama bin Laden is dead. Economies and climates are melting down. All over the world, revolutionary spirit is in the air. People across the Arab world are rising up against corruption and dictatorship. From Occupy Wall Street, to the streets of Amsterdam and Athens.” It seems to be exactly at this point in time that documentaries are needed most.

Derks emphasised that we are living in a time of change, not only financially, but also socially and politically. Such an era is the most inspiring environment for documentary makers. “There is even a greater need for documentary in this time of change… and for change in this time of documentary” she said. But change is not always easy. The IDFA therefore tries to bring people together, so their joined efforts can fight the budget cuts and will still show the audience what is going on in the world.

Change can already be seen during this year’s festival. While 24 years ago, during the first IDFA, documentaries were made to educate the audience about political situations, they now focus more on entertaining. “Many popular and populist documentaries in the program are adapting new strategies for storytelling”, Derks said. “They are leaving the obvious politics behind. They have an ambition to reach the masses, without preaching to the church of the converted. Documentaries no longer need to feel like medicine to people. The form of their message is as important as the message itself.”

An example is Mads Brügger’s “The Ambassador”, the opening film of the festival. For his documentary he has bought himself a diplomatic passport and researches what that could gain him. A hidden camera follows him while doing business in Central Africa, focussing on the corrupt nature of many of the deals. The film has a humorous tone and works like a parody. In this way the Danish director has made a film with such heavy contents very accessible for most audiences. According to Derks “documentaries now provide audiences with all the pleasure, drama, entertainment, characters and stories they once got out of fiction. But these new pop-docs are not without content. They also make us angry, make us laugh, make us love, make us act and make us think. Like all art, they also make us feel uncomfortable.”

And that is exactly what “The Ambassador” does, making people feel uncomfortable. Brügger showed the bizarre world of African diplomacy in a very critical way. “Exactly because I’m beyond role-playing by actually being a diplomat, I can forge a partnership with the very sinister owner of a diamond mine replete with gold tooth and machete scars on his forehead. That would be highly problematic for a journalist, but it’s no problem for a diplomat.” The film shows the manner in which African diplomacy works, but not everyone was happy with the controversial image that was created.

One of the Western diplomats in the documentary, Willem Tijssen, was filmed by Brügger’s hidden camera and flew in from Sierra Leone to protest against the release of the documentary one night before the IDFA opened in Amsterdam. According to Brügger’s voice-over in the film Tijssen would have used several thousands of dollars to bribe people, but Tijssen denies to have been involved in such a thing. His protest attracted the attention of Dutch magazine “Vrij Nederland”, which published an extensive article about the case, and that was noticed by Dutch news program “De Wereld Draait Door”, which invited Tijssen to defend himself among representatives of the “Vrij Nederland” and the IDFA. This media attention did not do much good for Tijssen, for the film was still released at the opening of the festival and only gained more publicity because of it.

The case illustrates the oppositions that are going on in the world of documentary making right now. While IDFA board member Derk Sauer says that “investigative journalism is a normal means of reporting news”, ‘victims’ of these investigations like Tijssen would rather prohibit this kind of journalism. The question then is not whether the producers of documentaries are ready for the change that is upon them, but if the rest of the world is actually ready. With an audience of almost 200,000 people and 14 cinemas divided over Amsterdam showing documentaries, the IDFA at least seems to be prepared for what is coming.

The IDFA runs from November 16 to November 27 in Amsterdam.

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