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Paris Attacks in Spotlight on Opening Night of Issue-Oriented IDFA

IDFA fest founder knighted by French government, while director of opening-night selection 'A Family Affair' collects prize before premiere.

Both a forum for politically conscious cinema and a platform for the open discussion of potentially world-changing ideas, the Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, opened its 28th edition Wednesday night by paying tribute to those who had lost their lives in the Paris attacks of the previous Friday.

France returned the favor, in a manner of speaking, by knighting IDFA director Ally Derks.

Conferring the rank of Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres upon the festival co-founder, French ambassador to the Netherlands Laurent Pic explained, “At a time when values are attacked by barbarism, it is worth remembering that culture is a party of our way of life, a state of mind that France shares with the Netherlands.”

The event kicked off with two other major honors, most notably the selection of director Thomas Vroege’s “Theater of the Crowd” for the Mediafonds Documentary Award, which comes with a €125,000 prize intended to jump-start production of the winning project, selected from six nonfiction feature pitches developed during the IDFA-Mediafonds Workshop.

Vroege’s idea, a timely film essay inspired by the classic form of Greek tragedy, will examine the effects of unrest in the Middle East and the way refugees become a scapegoat for Europe’s own problems. (Derks also announced that while the Dutch Media Fund is set to expire in 2017, support from Netherlands Public Broadcasting system NPO should keep the workshop and award going in perpetuity.)

The evening’s other prize, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds Documentary Award, was given to Tom Fassaert, director of opening film “A Family Affair” — a slippery and constantly surprising portrait of the helmer’s 95-year-old grandmother, who nimbly dodges his attempts to unpack various mysteries from the family’s past, while inventing jaw-dropping new scandals in the present.

Before the uniquely peculiar dysfunctional family portrait unspooled, Derks acknowledged several of the festival’s special guests, including documentary masters Jorgen Leth and Errol Morris, whose “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” had opened the festival some 18 years earlier. In addition to introducing some of his own work, Morris programmed his documentary top 10, ranging from Dziga Vertov’s silent “urban symphony,” “Man With a Movie Camera,” to Nick Broomfield’s true-crime expose “Tales of the Grim Sleeper.”

Though IDFA endeavors to extend the topicality of most of its programming selections with in-depth interviews and discussions, another special guest will be taking that inquiry even deeper this year: Political theorist Benjamin Barber collaborated closely with the festival to curate special screenings of 15 films that reflect the concerns raised in his 1995 book “Jihad vs. McWorld” — an idea hatched in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris last January that gains fresh currency after the Nov. 13 attacks.

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