AMSTERDAM — As IDFA turns 30, its organizers didn’t have to try too hard to pull in the big guns for a sidebar they called The Visual Voice. Made up of 14 films chosen by 16 filmmakers, the strand gave carte blanche to some of its most famous alumni, with picks by Pirjo Honkasalo, Kim Longinotto, Nick Broomfield, Jørgen Leth, The Yes Men, Maziar Bahari, Heddy Honigmann, John Appel, Hubert Sauper, D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Frederick Wiseman, Steve James, Victor Kossakovsky and Nishtha Jain.
IDFA veteran Nick Broomfield, who has returned to the festival many times since its launch in 1988, was only too happy to contribute – the festival, he contends, was a bold game-changer, and one that has since been vindicated for its beliefs.
“It was unusual when it started,” he says, “because it was a festival just for documentaries. Before that, most festivals had documentaries as a sort of an appendage to the feature films.”
Broomfield goes on: “I guess what we’ve seen is a big change – the independent feature film is really almost extinct, and documentaries have become very commercial.”
So, in an “enormous change,” documentary has evolved from “a sort of poor relation, with [films made on] very low budgets.”
With documentaries now, ·if you’re doing a Netflix or a HBO film, the budgets are pretty healthy and there’s a big audience for them too.”
For Broomfield, part of the appeal of IDFA is the city itself. “It’s always been a really interesting festival,” he says, “with lots of films that are worth seeing that you could only really see there.”
“But it’s also quite a social festival – Amsterdam is a great city to walk around- The cinemas are all pretty close to one another and there are a great many places for everyone to meet up and talk.”
The social aspects of the festival also appeal to ‘culture-jamming activist duo’ The Yes Men. Eggier “fond memories” include winning the Audience Award in 2003 (“a huge honor”), getting their next film funded in the pitching forum (“super fun) which ended up getting the Youth Award-
“But the thing that really is lasting is the great friendships and professional relationships we’ve developed over the years at IDFA.” Also, “unlike some of the big narrative film fests in small mountain towns, this is a festival where, as filmmakers, we can actually go see any films we want to that are in the program, and we can attend events and parties without having to prove that we are ‘worthy.’”
They describe that as “such a relief compared to what other festivals have become over the years.”
For the sidebar, The Yes Men have opted for Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 festival hit “The Act Of Killing.” “We’ve chosen it,” they say, “because it’s a powerful, inventive and shocking film that contributes to understanding the human condition.”
For his choice, Broomfield looked to the work of an old friend, Kim Longinotto, who overcame the direst circumstances – including having all her original footage wiped by an airport X-ray machine and catching cholera during the reshoot – to make the critically acclaimed “Sisters In Law” (2005).
“’Sisters In Law’ was a particularly important film for Kim,” says Broomfield. “Like a lot of her films, it’s about women’s issues, and it’s the story of a female judge in Cameroon, who delivers short, sharp shock treatment to these highly misogynistic guys who come into her court thinking they rule the world.”
He adds: “She very quickly pulls the rug out from under their legs, but in a very amusing way. It’s a great insight into the culture of Cameroon, made with a great deal of humor and wit – and very pertinent to the world we live in now.”
Longinotto herself recalls the film’s IDFA premiere as a career highlight. “We had huge audiences and we all enjoyed the festival buzz,” she says, and has returned the favour by selecting Nick Broomfield’s 2003 film “Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer,” which leads to the execution of murderer Aileen Wuornos.
“It’s an extraordinarily angry and heart-breaking film,” she notes. “Aileen is not a person who is easy to love and yet her execution feels like a betrayal, a murder. When I first saw the film, I could feel how shaken and distressed Nick was, and how he transmits his feeling of helplessness to us, the audience.”
Indian director Nishtha Jain chose Manie Kaul’s 1985 film “The Mind Of Clay”, about the craft of ceramics, which she describes as “a magical journey into the myths and fables surrounding the ancient art of terracotta pottery”.
Says Jain: “IDFA marked a turning point in my life. I came here for the first time with my film “City Of Photos” in 2004. I came not knowing what to expect, but IDFA opened up a whole world of non-fiction cinema. At first, we were overwhelmed. It was predominantly Caucasian men, and we didn’t think we would be noticed. But Peter Wintonick, who was the selector at the time and hosted many events in the evenings, highlighted our film along with those of many other new filmmakers. There’s been no looking back since then.”
Jain’s thoughts echo those of Broomfield, who suggests that IDFA is a means as well as an end. “Even if it’s not directly helpful to your career in terms of being given a satchel full of money,” he says, “it’s very helpful in just catching up with people and finding out how other people are dealing with the problems that you’re dealing with. I think that is what makes for a great festival.”