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IDFA 2016: Race, Rights, New Global Reality on Agenda

The documentary festival’s special focus programs address one of the most turbulent years in post-war history

AMSTERDAM – This year started so promisingly for international film festivals, with Sundance, Berlin and Cannes all delivering strong, diverse lineups that presented an optimistic vision for the first five months of 2016. After the double whammy of the U.K.’s Brexit vote in June and America’s recent controversial decision to elect reality TV star Donald Trump as its 45th President, however, the lead-out is presenting a very different picture.

Quite how IDFA will show the way forward for this new global reality has yet to pan out – of the 304 films screening in its seven competitions, 104 are world premieres – but, as evidenced by the opening screening of migrant doc “Stranger in Paradise”, the festival promises a thoughtful and provocative snapshot of this turbulent present.

Nowhere is this more clear than in its Special Focus Programs, key among which is “Shifting Perspectives,” consisting of 13 new and classic documentaries, followed by an industry talk on Wednesday Nov. 23, to be moderated by Loira Limbal of Firelight Media, said programmer Laura Van Halsema: “Shifting Perspectives started with a couple of different ideas: One was the current discussion about – the lack of – multicultural representation in the media. As a documentary festival, IDFA takes part in that discussion because we have always had the ambition to show our world through documentary films from different angles and from different viewpoints. For example, our IDFA Bertha Fund has supported filmmakers from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle-East for the last 20 years, which has resulted in many interesting and successful documentaries.”

She added: “Having said that, we also acknowledge the fact that – even though the films we show are often about different parts of our world – the large majority of films are made by filmmakers from the western world, told from a predominantly (white) western point of view.”

The 13 documentaries, which include “Skulls, of My People” (South Africa, 2016) by Vincent Moloi, “Handsworth Songs” (U.K., 1987) by John Akomfrah and “Memory in Three Acts” (Mozambique, 2016) by Inadelso Cossa, attempt to redress that imbalance. Says Van Halsema: “We have tried to select films that deal directly or indirectly with the history of colonialism, apartheid, racism and how this still influences the ways in which the continents (Africa, Europe and the country US), societies and people within societies live their lives and how they relate to each other. The other key point was that the films were made by filmmakers from Africa or of African descent.”

Van Halsema continued: “One of the questions that keeps coming up is: what is considered to be ‘our culture’ and ‘our world’ and to what extent do people from different cultural backgrounds feel represented by that dominant world view?

Shifting Perspectives selects films that not only raise that question – who is telling the story? – but also show the huge impact of the history of colonialism, the slave trade, slavery and segregation on modern society, Van Halsema said, adding that  the historical relationships between Europe, Africa and the U.S. “formed the basis for a lot of what is still happening now.”

Other key programs this year include Assembling Reality, a special focus on editing that includes a special screening of documentary titan Frederick Wiseman’s 1970 film “Hospital” with its director on hand to present a “close reading.” Showcasing storytelling in the digital age, DocLab’s Elastic Reality will deliver a series of interactive documentaries, virtual reality experiments and live performances, while this year’s Top Ten has been chosen by the Ukraine’s Sergei Loznitsa, the subject of a retrospective who also gives a masterclass as well as presenting his recent film “Austerlitz,” which debuted at Venice.

Finally, Nov. 21 sees the fourth edition of the festival’s Queer Day, which features five films about personal struggles around the world. From the U.S. comes Sundance hit “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, which examines the life and times of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the world’s most transgressive artists. Co-director Bailey presented the film on IDFA’s opening day and noted how much the world has changed in less than a year. He mused: “I was reminded of a question [we were asked] at the film’s Sundance premiere in January: ‘Why [make] a film about Robert Mapplethorpe now?” as if he was out of date, no longer relevant.

“[But] Mapplethorpe dedicated his life to his work, exercising freedom of expression without restraint and confronting fear, prejudice, bigotry with his bold pictures. He said the purpose of art was to get a reaction, to open something up. It was, he said, all about keeping an open mind. So now we really know why. Just look around. Last week with [the election result] the American heart and mind snapped shut like a clam, doubling down on hate, fear, lies and prejudice.”

Do films like these have the power to change people’s attitudes? “Well, sure,” says Laura Van Halsema, “all art can change people’s attitudes.” She cites Ezra Edelman’s 468-minute film “O.J.: Made in America” which screens in its entirety in Shifting Perspectives. “I think that people who have seen this film understand much better how a man – American football superstar O.J. Simpson – who almost literally had blood on his hands was acquitted by the jury after decades of police violence and injustice against the black population of Los Angeles.”

She went on: “The film unravels this very complex story, which was extensively covered by the media at the time, and by doing so makes you understand all that was at play during the prosecution and all those years leading up to this case.”

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