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Kisses, Broken Cameras and Bananas: Human Rights, Corporate Ethics and more in IDFA Documentaries

Putin's Kiss At The International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA), held at the end of November, documentaries from around the world probed social issues with compelling stories. 

With screenings, a market, a pitching forum, a showcase for interactive projects, panels and endless get-togethers, IDFA offers a panoramic, global view of the form.  This year there were more docs on display than ever. In the market, Docs for Sale, you could sample from 550 of them, up from 450 last year. As supply has gone up, though, prices have gone down--sales prices were trending lower than last year by midway through the event. DVD sales, traditionally a doc filmmaker’s lead source of post-release income, are declining as expected, but prices for video-on-demand continue, at least in Europe, to be low.

Meanwhile, docs are appearing everywhere, especially digitally. Indeed, Docs for Sale itself has an online, year-round site for members. A leading doc distributor, Films Transit, will stream its catalogue in Europe in 2012, through the company Distrify.

IDFA’s founder and director Ally Derks sees documentary as a critically important vehicle for free speech, dissent, and the surfacing of under-discussed and important public issues. Of the overwhelming abundance of such vehicles, I found some particularly compelling:

Democracy Not. Putin’s Kiss, directed by the Danish Lise Birk Pedersen and funded in part by Danish state funding and partly the Independent Television Service (ITVS), was an IDFA debut, selling out its showings and becoming the buzz of the fest.

The film offers an intimate and devastating view of politics in Russia today, where the young leadership of Putin’s party is being trained from early teen years to despise democratic process.It follows Masha, who at 16 years old idolizes Putin (she got to kiss his cheek once) and becomes a PR maven in Nashi, Putin’s youth movement. Nashi was calculatedly designed to incorporate elements of Hitler youth, the Red Guard, and the USSR’s Komsomol. Nashi members treat non-Nashis as enemies of the state, and a violent contingent humiliates and persecutes critical journalists among others.

Masha is charming, calculating and dedicated—until she starts to see that she’s dangerously dependent on the movement’s charismatic leader. As she goes to college and majors in journalism, she starts to become buddies with other journalists, more doubts creep in. Pedersen was able to document (with some recreation) this remarkable change, which culminates with a near-fatal beating of a good friend of hers.

Geopolitics. Other films providing an intimate view of geopolitically hot topics were two Palestinian films from the West Bank. Guy Davidi’s Five Broken Cameras, another IDFA premier and an audience hit, chronicles years of  resistance in one village, with time marked by the demise of video cameras at the hands of Israeli soldiers. More engrossing still was Cinema Jenin, which follows the rebuilding of an old cinema house in a major site of resistance, the northern West Bank city of Jenin. The film offers an extremely rare glimpse inside the inner cultural politics of Palestine, where any attempt to improve daily life can be seen as “normalization,” or accepting the terms of occupation. The leaders, including the German director of the film, Marcus Vetter, struggle with whether to bring in sympathetic Israeli Jews, how to get dilatory Palestinian officials to fulfill their promises, how to protect the site from political vandals, and eventually how to cope with the loss of one of the organizers, Palestinian Juliano Mer-Khamis, who is gunned down in front of his Freedom Theater (started by his Jewish mother). It is a fascinating journey, which is both engrossing and complex.  

Corporations and ethics. Films addressing corporations and ethics were prominent this year as well.  In Big Boys Gone Bananas!* Swedish director Fredrik Gertten recounts the efforts of Dole to delay and suppress distribution of his 2009 film BANANAS!*, which tracked a legal case and scandal about use of dangerous pesticides on its banana plantations. Although Dole eventually lost in court, it won an effort to keep Gertten’s timely film out of the U.S. market, mostly through raising the cost of required insurance. The film is worth showing in every journalism school in the U.S. 

After watching Canadian Lea Pool’s Pink Ribbons, Inc., it will be hard for anyone to join the Walk for the Cure or other corporate-sponsored breast cancer awareness efforts. The film shreds the notion that these efforts provide useful medical advice, raise significant funds for the under-resourced areas of breast cancer research, or are harmless in their misdirection on an important issue. A movement that began in the spirit of ACT UP, the AIDS awareness campaign, soon devolved into a perpetual marketing opportunity for corporations that sell to women, including Estee Lauder—which, it turns out, has carcinogenic material in many of its products.

Finally, I was mesmerized by Marc Simon’s Unraveled, a portrait of a financial criminal during the last 60 days of his house arrest before going to prison. Marc Dreier embezzled more than $400 million in a Ponzi scheme before it collapsed with the recession. He allowed Simon to film him, in part to leave his children a portrait and explanation before leaving them. The film uncommentingly documents Dreier’s self-absorption, his immense ego, his compulsive competitiveness about everything from eating to playing Jeopardy, and his consistent failure to grasp the magnitude of what he had done. At the same time, Dreier engenders a quiet pity and even concern in the viewer. The film offers a chance to meet an all-too-ordinary specimen of the Masters of the Universe who were so instrumental in wrecking the economy.

 Environment. Ecologically-themed films were big at IDFA this year. One poignant entry was Tom Zubrycki’sThe Hungry Tide, about the parlous choices before Maria Tiimon, who leaves her home on an island in the Pacific nation of Kiribati, which is already being swallowed up by a sea rising with climate change. Her challenges and choices—or lack of them—are shared by all the other citizens of Kiribati, who already are padding through knee-high water to go between homes that have already been moved several times.

Cape Spin, by John Kirby and Robbie Gemel  documents an ever-more-dysfunctional local conflict over a wind farm on Cape Cod, one of the richest neighborhoods in the world. With rising antic humor, the film shows that both sides, each funded by millions of dollars from private interests, are hopelessly compromised and fail to raise significant issues. It is lively and often entertaining. But  viewers could be forgiven for coming away even more cynical than before about democratic process. The makers suggest that a “third way” would be for local communities to install locally-controlled power projects. This is puzzling since the controversy they chronicle is a local dispute (though the project is a corporate one). Those who have seen Windfall would doubt the capacity of most local governments to research the issues adequately, provide engineering resources to develop municipal projects, or to deal with sophisticated energy companies. (Most wind projects are, Windfallshows, undertaken by large traditional energy companies looking for accelerated depreciation benefits). Without federal policy that prices carbon, promotes a national grid, and provides level-playing-field information, locals will probably continue to be spun even if they spin. (FYI, I wrote about both Windfall and another doc featuring local community conflict over energy resources, The Pipe, in another CSM blogpost.)