I first started going to IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) in 2010. I began that year to write small reviews of the films I saw so that I wouldn’t forget details; seeing 8-12 films in 10 days can sometimes leave blurry memories. Here is a reposting of one of my first mini-reviews.
I wanted to write a review of the three documentaries I saw this weekend before I see the next five and forget the earlier ones. Let me preview this by saying that I absolutely love documentaries. I rarely choose to read fiction anymore; I think my suspension of disbelief is getting higher and higher. Although I still enjoy “fiction” movies, I really love the taking of a real-life subject and exploring it in depth.
The first movie was on Saturday morning at 10.30 – I don’t think I’ve gone to a morning movie in years, if not decades. It was in the main hall of Tuschinski, the Art Deco hall in the center of town. It’s a lovely cinema that was completely renovated about 8 years ago, including the restoration of the original carpets and preservation of gold leaf and painted ornamentation. It’s got the original boxes and balconies as well, making it a true old-fashioned movie-viewing experience.
I saw LENNONYC, which seems to be missing a few letters but is about John Lennon’s post-Beatle years in New York with Yoko Ono until his death. It began beautifully, with photos enhanced by line drawings of recording studio equipment with a soundtrack of Lennon’s chatter during the sessions. The directors got hold of many of the session recordings and used them as the main focus of the film, along with interviews with the session musicians. And Yoko, of course. It was nice to see her portrayed as a real human being with regrets and joys, rather than the controlling witch she is often made out to be. We learned the real reason for their breakup and his move to L.A. for a year in the mid-70’s: they had been recording until late the night that Nixon got elected. Afterwards, they went to a friend’s house to watch the returns but were so upset by the results that John took some young girl into a bedroom and got friendly at a high volume. Yoko was so angry and embarrassed that she said, “Leave now” and he did. I never knew a lot about what happened in those years and it was something very special to see and hear. What a tragedy that he died so young; what could he have possibly accomplished if he had lived?
The best line in the film was an interview with Dick Cavett, who I don’t really know much about. In speaking about the deportation order on John’s head, he said: “The Nixon administration, in its finite wisdom…” Great line, Dick!
On Sunday I went to two films in a row. “The Harvest” was also in the Tuschinski but in a smaller hall. The director was there and there was a Q & A afterwards but it lasted so long I had to race away before it started. The film was about child migrant farm workers in the U.S. – without exception, Hispanic kids. There are no laws in the U.S. protecting these children so many of them drop out of school so they can work. One 12-year old girl was shown with her 27-year old mother who was desperately hoping for a better life for her kids but it was clear she wouldn’t escape her fate. The most touching, though, was a 14-year old overweight girl, determined to finish school and become a lawyer “so I can help other people.” You go, girl! The film portrayed these people in a sympathetic and tender manner, but there didn’t seem to be an overarching structure. Lots of snippets and switching back and forth between the four featured families didn’t create a sense of unity in the film. Perhaps there isn’t a natural climax, as you sense that nothing will change for these people. Heart-breaking. Others also either had another film to go to or found it uninspiring, for people were leaving in droves.
After a speedy and cold bike ride to the public library, the next film was “One Lucky Elephant,” which I was really looking forward to. The whole production team was there as well, which is always quite special. The movie was about Flora, an African elephant who performed in a one-ring circus for 16 years. Her loving and over-protective caretaker and ringmaster decided to retire her but couldn’t figure out what to do with a 10,000 pound elephant who eats 450 pounds per day. Unlike the previous film, this one followed a very clear trajectory over the 9 years of filming. I won’t give away the story, but David and Flora encountered many bumps and snags on their way to finding a permanent home for her. The story does end happily, but with a bittersweet taste for David. We found out in the Q&A afterwards that, interestingly, the same thing was enforced on Carol, the elephant sanctuary boss, as she enforced on David, to his great heartbreak. Irony at its most profound.
So my documentary weekend covered three subjects: culture, human rights and animal rights. Looking forward to the next set of movies!