As a documentary filmmaker you may be starting out with a script, but not yet with the story. This was the case for veteran Dutch filmmaker John Appel for whom "Wrong Time Wrong Place" just premiered at opening night for the 25th annual (silver anniversary) International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).
Appel started with a philosophical observation he wanted to explore through film, that when disaster strikes, there are people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and others who should have or could have been in that place, but for any multitude of reasons, were not.
Then disaster hit Norway; on July 22, 2011, a terrorist detonated a bomb in downtown Oslo and opened fire at a political youth camp on a nearby island. Appel showed up in Norway just two weeks later, and at the time, the Norwegian people--victims, friends and family were eager to show their strength as a community and opened up to journalists and filmmakers alike.
The result is Appel captured the emotional journeys of several victims whose lives became forever connected by that day. Through their stories he explores the notions of fate or coincidence and how people struck by unimaginable tragedy process their grief and trauma.
At a Q&A, Appel described going to meet people who's lives had been affected by the event, and agreed that he was in a sense "auditioning" individuals, working from instinct to find those with whom he shared an emotional connection. Appel's strategy illustrates the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, even in the social issue context. Documentary filmmakers often work on instinct and storytelling, something Appel himself calls manipulation. That's why it's important to recognize that documentary is one person's (or one team's) interpretation of reality, rather than an ultimate truth.
Festivals like IDFA celebrate the skill of filmmakers to interpret events, tell compelling stories and thereby bring new information, thought and emotion to audiences. "You don't have to plan a film before" said Appel, you can look for people in Norway and find them in Georgia. Appel's storytelling took him well beyond Norway's capitol to Georgia and Uganda.
Just a little a couple of days in, IDFA has already packed quite a punch for social documentary. American director Michael Singh showed up for the premiere of his documentary "Valentino's Ghost" about American attitudes toward the Arab world manifested in media. Going back to the 1930's, Singh traces the evolution of the Arab or the Muslim in American cinema and broadcast news, a juxtaposition that sometimes loses it's continuity.
More constant in the film is the commentary of Melani McAlistar, Associate Professor of American Studies, International Affairs and Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University. McAlistar bemoans the portrayal of the angry Arab that has permeated American media since the 1970s, and the lack of interpretation of acts of violence by the news media. Thankfully the film has a ray of hope--McAlistar's observation that curiosity has been triggered by recent events creating a movement of students and individuals who are asking questions and looking to Arab or Islamic studies.
A European audience member challenged Singh in Q&A--is this film itself not it's own form of manipulation and propaganda? Singh agrees that the documentary is highly manipulative of media, in fact, largely composed of clips from film and news. Another audience member wanted how was Singh able to use so many Hollywood clips--surely as an avid reader of the Center's blog you know the answer. A little something in the United States called fair use, said Singh.
There is no question about the use of cinematic devices, he went on to say, but that television is a powerful medium to reach audiences in the United States. The kicker is that the only network willing to show this film in the States, is PBS. But PBS is airing a shorter one hour version, that requires the censorship (as Singh describes it) largely of the content discussing Israeli-interest lobbying in America--namely the statement that there seems to be a complete lack of debate over Israel-related policy--a debate that takes place regularly across the pond and within Israel.
"Valentino's Ghost" is playing in it's full length version in Europe thanks to its distributor here, Cat's and Docs.
On a different, more natural note, last night the Austrian documentary "More than Honey" by Markus Imhoof screened. This environmental documentary takes you literally inside the hive, for magnificent up close and personal footage with bees. Regrettably the director wasn't at this screening to tell us how he got so close, but "More than Honey" makes bee larvae larger than life. Moving away from the more typical top down look at honey bees as they dance around the comb, this film's camera puts you at eye level with the bees, bringing out docile and care-giving qualities.
"More than Honey" also pans out to breathtaking scopes of the Austrian Alps and the disappearing way of beekeeping life. It jumps to beekeeping on a mass scale in California, where 80-90% of the world's almonds are harvested, and across another pond to China and the meticulous gathering of pollen. This film tells a significant cautionary tale about the survival of our world's pollinators, but visuals clearly steal the show.
More to come from IDFA including "Propaganda" from North Korea and the Interactive Documentary Conference.