In a world presently riven with political conflict and polarized discord, you wouldn’t expect the world’s leading documentary festival to skimp on the tough issues, and so it proved at IDFA this year. The Amsterdam showcase’s 2017 lineup was a strong one, peppered with challenging perspectives and confrontations of past and living history, but “fun” was low on the agenda — rueful irony amid tragedy was, for the most part, as close as audiences could hope to get.
That was the tone maintained by the festival’s well-received selection of prizewinners, presented on Wednesday night, many of which tackled conflict and political turmoil with an empathetic but battle-wearied worldview. The top award in the festival’s feature-length competition, Serbian director Mila Turajlic’s “The Other Side of Everything,” had already premiered in low-key fashion at Toronto in September, but this thoughtful reflection on the still-unresolved legacy of civil war in Serbia found a more vocally receptive audience in Holland.
In a strong competition lineup, it was perhaps the deft braiding of personal and political tensions in Turajlic’s film — her second, following the well-traveled “Cinema Komunisto” — that helped it stand out. Set chiefly in the governmentally subdivided house of the filmmaker’s charismatic mother Srbijanka, a firebrand liberal academic regarded as both a traitor and a freedom fighter by a divided public, it’s a film equally haunted by ghosts of the past and uncertainty for the future.
The special jury award in the feature competition went to Hogir Hirori and Shinwar Kamal’s Swedish-backed production “The Deminer,” a taut, tensile portrait of an Iraqi soldier turned expert landmine defuser for the Kurdish Peshmerga. A hot title acquired during the festival by U.K.-based sales agent Dogwoof, “The Deminer” was a standout entry in a rich subset of IDFA selections centered on conflict in the Arab World, beginning with the festival’s curtain-raiser “Amal,” a heart-rending, years-spanning study of a politically impassioned girl whose adolescence is irrevocably shaped by the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
Major buzz surrounded “Of Fathers and Sons,” Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki’s long-awaited follow-up to his IDFA-opening, Sundance-awarded 2013 debut “The Return to Homs.” His unnerving latest, following an Al-Nusra fighter as he radicalizes his young sons and prepares them for jihadist service, is sure to be a talking point on the docfest circuit for months to come. The Syrian crisis was also the focus of Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich’s “The Long Season,” which won the festival’s parallel Dutch documentary competition: The latest in a long recent run of refugee narratives, it’s a compassionate exploration of a crowded Syrian refugee camp across the Lebanese border that was popular with local audiences, but could resonate internationally too.
Over in the First Appearance competition for feature-length debuts, Danish director Simon Lereng Wilmont took top honors for “The Distant Barking of Dogs.” A harrowingly accomplished view of an eastern Ukrainian warzone, as seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old orphan, Wilmont’s worthy winner finds pockets of humor and humanity amid the despair of conflict. The special jury prize in the section, meanwhile, went to Latvian director Ieva Ozolina’s “Solving My Mother,” a dysfunctional family study in which a socially awkward computer programmer charges his mother with emotional blackmail.
Even non-political spaces, then, become grueling battlegrounds in many of this year’s IDFA entries. Anyone going to Polish filmmaker Marta Prus’s rhythmic gymnastics documentary “Over the Limit,” for example, might have hoped for some lighter sporting relief from the rest of the programme — only to be confronted with a brilliant, merciless investigation of psychological warfare on the training floor.
Rich, complex female portraits were another welcome running theme of this year’s IDFA program, though not all were flattering or positively empowering. Among the most chatteringly controversial and topical premieres at the fest was “Golden Dawn Girls,” Norwegian filmmaker Håvard Bustnes’s sharp, shocking study of the women driving the alarming rise of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. A sobering reminder of the broad international spread of the far-right surge that has also grimly shaped politics in Trump’s America, it nonetheless contained some of the fest’s wryest gallows humor — that I bitterly laughed more in “Golden Dawn Girls” than in any other film at IDFA is testament to what a serious, discomfiting and essential cultural position that documentary filmmaking occupies today.