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Steve James honored at IDFA

Fest Traveler: Amsterdam Intl. Documentary Film Festival

“It is this 8,000-pound gorilla,” Steve James says of his 1994 landmark docu, “Hoop Dreams. “It has forced me to have perspective about my career. People are always going to judge what I do against that film and I’m OK with that.”

And so are IDFA programmers. Fest will honor James’ work, which includes “Dreams” and his six subsequent docus, in a retrospective.

Following in the footsteps of maverick docu filmmakers including Werner Herzog and Krzysztof Kieslowski, the Chicago-based, 56-year-old helmer will also present his 10 favorite docus of all time as part of IDFA’s annual Top 10 program. (See story this page.)

James is no stranger to the Amsterdam fest. He’s been attending on and off since 1994, when he brought “Hoop Dreams” to the fest. In 2002, his “Stevie” won the Joris Ivens Award for docu, he returned a year later to screen “The New Americans,” and was back in 2008 to host a masterclass and present “At the Death House Door,” co-directed by Peter Gilbert. His latest film, “The Interrupters,” will screen in the Reflecting Images: Masters section.

“What’s not to like about IDFA?” James says. “It’s in Amsterdam and the people who run it are always looking to stretch the boundaries and program provocative films.”

Regarding his top 10 docu list, James says, “The films I chose are each influential (to me) in terms of making my own films and the way I think about documentary. That’s why a number of them are older docs. They hit me around the time when I was trying to figure out what kind of filmmaker I wanted to be.”

James says it was Apted’s “28 Up” (part of the “7 Up” series) that “planted the seed” for what would become the iconic “Hoop Dreams,” which was shot over a 4 1/2-year period.

“I was blown away by ’28 Up’ — blown away that Apted had been able to make a film that had this concept of following people over time. To chart a person’s life and how it changed and didn’t change. What a brilliant idea!”

“Dreams” won every major critics award as well as a Peabody and Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 1995 and was recently selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Although James tried his hand at narrative filmmaking after “Dreams,” including writing-directing Disney’s 1997 “Prefontaine,” he ultimately decided to focus solely on his doc career. Now 14 years later, he is reconsidering the genre.

“I’m interested in pursuing narrative film again. I haven’t made a narrative that I feel as good about as some of the docs I’ve made. I’m ready to try it again and do it better. I will continue to make documentaries without question. That is something I don’t see ever changing.”

Steve James’ Top 10 Docus

  • “28 Up,” Michael Apted, UK, 1984

  • “American Movie,” Chris Smith, USA, 1999

  • “Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson,” Barbara Kopple, USA, 1993

  • “Golub: Late Works Are the Catastrophes,” Jerry Blumenthal & Gordon Quinn, USA, 2004

  • “Grey Gardens,” Albert Maysles & David Maysles, USA, 1976

  • “Le joli mai,” Chris Marker, France, 1963

  • “Our Trip to Africa,” Peter Kubelka, Austria, 1967

  • “The Staircase,” Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, France, 2004

  • “The Times of Harvey Milk,” Robert Epstein, USA, 1984

  • “Tongues Untied,” Marlon Riggs, USA, 1989

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