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Stray directed by Elizabeth Lo
Stray directed by Elizabeth Lo

International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) revealed the first films selected for its 33rd edition, including 30 films in the Best of Fests program, and 10 films selected by Gianfranco Rosi for the Top 10 program.

The 2020 IDFA runs November 18 to 29 in Amsterdam venues, in addition to online screenings (November 18 to December 6) and online markets (November 16 to 20).

With 30 films that lit up the selections of Berlin, Sundance, Cannes, and many more, the inital Best of Fests selection highlights both audience favorites and award-winning masterpieces.

Audience must-sees include The Truffle Hunters by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, a stylized glimpse into the northern Italians who live and die by the elusive white truffle – a Sundance premiere that also shone in the Cannes and Telluride selections. Elizabeth Lo’s meditative Stray, an award-winning film from Hot Docs also selected for the Tribeca Film Festival, poetically observes Turkish city life through the eyes of stray dogs. In The Foundation Pit, a notable premiere at this year’s Berlinale, Andrey Gryazev uses found footage to construct a collective message from Russian citizens to Putin’s government. Meanwhile, Garrett Bradley’s Time, having scored a Directing Award at Sundance, looks to the urgent issue of mass-incarcerated African Americans through one mother’s 20-year fight to free her husband.

For cinephiles, Radu Ciorniciuc’s exquisitely shot Acasă, My Home observes the incredible life of a Roma family on the fringes of Romanian society, a winner of no less than four awards at festivals across Europe and North America. CPH:DOX-selected IWOW: I Walk on Water, considered Khalik Allah’s best cinematic accomplishment, puts the street life of Harlem, New York under a new lens through a collage of 8mm, 16mm, and video formats. Other artistic highlights include: Iryna Tsilyk’s The Earth Is Blue as an Orange, one of the year’s cinematic hits at Berlinale and Sundance, which beautifully explores how the Ukrainian war can be transformed into film; Elvis Sabin Ngaibino’s Makongo, the double-awarded Cinéma du Réel film that traces the lives of two young Aka pygmies in the Central African Republic; and Berlinale-favorite Notes from the Underworld by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, which honors Austria’s documentary tradition with an ode to the gangsters of 1960s Vienna.

In the Top 10 program, Italian filmmaker and IDFA 2020 Guest of Honor Gianfranco Rosi presents a nomadic journey through his world of cinema.

Italian masterpieces such as Anna by Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli and 10 short films by Vittorio De Seta, never before shown at IDFA, invite film lovers to experience an Italian cinema they may be unfamiliar with. Unexpected selections—ranging from Robert Kramer’s Route One/USA all the way to Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash—reveal a lesser-known side of Rosi, in which the filmmaker opens his home library to share the films that had an impact on him. Finally, fiction films such as Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio round out the Top 10 selection, illustrating Rosi’s wide-ranging and eclectic, yet always moving, influences.

Best of Fests

Acasă, My Home

  • Radu Ciorniciuc
  • Romania, Germany, Finland
  • 2020
  • 86 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

Twenty years ago, Gică Enache made the radical decision to turn his back on Romanian society. He built a cabin in the countryside just outside Bucharest, and there he and his wife brought up nine children. Now the government has made ambitious plans for this verdant delta region, and social agencies are urging the family to return to the city. The whole idea is abhorrent to the paterfamilias, who wants nothing to do with education or rules. The family moves to a rental apartment but have major problems adjusting. Boundaries are continually being crossed, especially those of the stern patriarch.

After winning the Special Jury Prize for Cinematography at Sundance, Acasă, My Home went on to win multiple awards at other international film festivals. Director Radu Ciorniciuc’s background in investigative social journalism is apparent in this, his documentary debut. He takes the long view, filming the family across entire seasons: we first follow the Enaches while they’re living in nature and then as they take the bumpy path to the bewildering turmoil of city life and the first unravelings of a once so close-knit family.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

  • Bill Ross, Turner Ross
  • United States
  • 2020
  • 99 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

Daylight only occasionally seeps into the Roaring 20s, a dive bar on the outskirts of Las Vegas. For many regulars this bar serves as their second living room, but for Michael, a washed-up actor who sweeps the bar after closing hours, it’s his sole refuge. From tomorrow on, this will all be gone. Roaring 20s closes its doors for good, and brothers Bill and Turner Ross record the final 24 hours of its existence.

The guests that trickle in form a cross-section of society: old, young, white, black, woman, man—and anything in between. The evening progresses, and as the alcohol flows and the final “last call” approaches, personal drama comes to the surface. Stories of loneliness, loss and disenchantment, drunken reproaches and declarations of love bring to the fore the comforting warmth that holds this accidental family of barflies and tapsters together.

In this tribute to the American dive bar, included in Rolling Stone’s Sundance Top 10, the filmmakers employ the stylistic characteristics of cinéma vérité to depict a phenomenon that transcends time, place, and reality.

Bulletproof

A provocative look at the industry surrounding school shootings in the U.S., where protecting schoolchildren is a lucrative business. On sale at a trade fair are bulletproof blackboards and desks, ideal to hide behind in an emergency. A young entrepreneur shows how she started making her own bulletproof garments. At first it was only to protect her own family, but she soon found a thriving market for her hoodies.

During firearms training courses which will allow them to carry guns in school, teachers learn how to aim for the head, just as if they were preparing for war. While teachers in several states are encouraged to participate in these trainings, the money now spent on camera surveillance systems and shooting courses could also be used for lessons on dealing with emotions or diversity training—as we hear from the very person in charge of school security.

The restrained filming style places the images center stage, allowing space to reflect on responses to gun violence in the United States.

Dope Is Death

  • Mia Donovan
  • Canada
  • 2020
  • 82 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

The story of Mutulu Shakur, stepfather of rapper Tupac Shakur, combines controversial political activism with the struggle for civil rights in America. A member of the Black Panthers, he stood up for people living in poverty in New York’s South Bronx in the early 1970s. Working together with the Young Lords, these organizations started various welfare programs for African American, Puerto Rican and Latino children, and fought for free healthcare. After occupying Lincoln Hospital in 1970, they established a ground-breaking clinic there where drug addicts were treated with acupuncture.

Interviews with key figures from the late 1960s to early 1980s are richly illustrated with archive footage. We also see how Shakur attracted the attention of the FBI as a result of his political activities. In 1988 he was convicted of involvement in the armed robbery of an armored car by the Black Liberation Army and is currently still serving his prison sentence.

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange by Iryna Tsilyk, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
The Earth Is Blue as an Orange by Iryna Tsilyk, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Earth Is Blue as an Orange

  • Iryna Tsilyk
  • Ukraine, Lithuania
  • 2020
  • 74 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

In the Eastern Ukrainian city of Krasnohorivka, the war between the separatists and the army reverberates in the street where Anna and her four children live. Amid the chaos and bombings, however, ordinary life goes on. While soldiers patrol outside, the camera focuses on cozy family life indoors, with music and film forming an integral part.

When eldest daughter Myroslava is admitted to film school, it seems inevitable that her first film will be a family production, with her taking up the role of director of photography and her mother volunteering to direct. Together, the family forms the cast of a short film inspired by their own life during wartime.

The production process, from scriptwriting to premiere, shows how each family member transforms their experience of war into film. Iryna Tsilyk, winner of the director’s award at Sundance, not only documents the life of this family but also shows how art can act as a survival strategy.

El Father Plays Himself

  • Mo Scarpelli
  • Venezuela, United Kingdom, Italy, United States, Canada
  • 2020
  • 105 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

When Jorge Thielen Armand set out to make a film about the life of his maverick father, who plays himself in the lead role (La Fortaleza, which competed at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2020), Mo Scarpelli accompanied the film crew to make a behind-the-scenes documentary. With a keen eye for detail and emotion, she documented the shooting of the movie which largely took place in harsh conditions in the Venezuelan jungle.

For the charismatic, alcoholic father and his director son, the film is an opportunity to make up for lost time. But can “El Father” handle the confrontation with his turbulent life? And how far will the son go in manipulating his actor to get the desired result on film?

In an observational style, Scarpelli presents a close-up view of the father-son dynamics, which—partly due to the stress of the film shoot—swing back and forth between explosive and enviably intimate. Home videos of the young father and son add a moving and poignant layer.

The Foundation Pit

  • Andrey Gryazev
  • Russia
  • 2020
  • 70 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

Countless Russian citizens are making their voices heard by using what they see as their last resort: social media. Some post from the cameras in their cars; others report from their kitchens, or the streets. All over the country, people tell of their frustration, unhappiness, and rage. Sometimes the issue is a relatively personal one and the focus of their ire is a local policymaker. More often, their discontent is squarely aimed at Putin and members of his party. They see that these corrupt and greedy figures are growing ever richer while the rest of Russia slumps into poverty.

Andrey Gryazev found his compatriots’ heartfelt pleas and tirades online and spliced them into an effective protest that is sometimes comical and absurd, but more often downright shocking. The film’s title comes from Andrej Platonov’s eponymous dystopian novel, in which the construction of a building for members of the proletariat in the early days of the Soviet Union never gets past the construction pit stage.

In this film, footage of construction site accidents and building sites with no apparent purpose or where shady activities take place serves as a prelude to a collective fist raised by the Russian people against their government.

Garage People

  • Natalija Yefimkina
  • Germany
  • 2020
  • 97 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

You can use a garage to keep chickens, park a plane, or rehearse with your metal band. In it, you might carve religious icons, do some welding, collect military paraphernalia, or let your eight dachshunds run around. In short, a garage is the perfect refuge for anyone wanting to daydream, enjoy their hobbies, or just get some peace and quiet.

Row upon row of well-used garages stand on the outskirts of a mining town in northern Russia, their red, blue, yellow, or green doors forming a colorful contrast to the dreary surroundings. You’ll rarely find a car behind these doors – each one is a portal to a different parallel world. And each garage owner is the king of his own castle, a place where he can down his vodka without being bothered by anyone.

In his widely praised documentary debut, director Natalija Yefimkina patiently observes these “garage people.” The striking and exquisitely timed sequences of snapshots become amusing and acerbic vignettes. We see Viktor, for example, who once had the idea to do a little digging – three decades later, he’s dug a hole that’s five stories deep. His baffled grandson inherits this bizarrely deep hole in the ground, obviously mystified about what exactly he’s supposed to do with it.

Heaven Beneath My Feet

  • Sandra Madi
  • Lebanon, France
  • 2020
  • 90 min
  • International Premiere
  • Best of Fests

In Lebanon, a marriage can turn into a prison. Filmmaker Sandra Madi watched her friend struggle for twelve years to get a divorce from her husband, who used all his money and power to get his way. It prompted her to zoom in on the anguish produced by the legal system in her home country.

The laws are determined by religious sects in Lebanon, each with their own judges who nearly always rule in favor of the man. Heaven Beneath My Feet tells the heartbreaking stories of three mothers who are denied custody of their children as a result of the prevailing rules. Lina’s son, for example, was abducted and taken to Germany, and the question now is whether she can obtain a residence permit there herself. She hardly sees her child, partly because he has become afraid of her.

From a distance we see them living lives consumed by despair, fear, and loneliness. An important document on the direct consequences of an oppressive system.

Hey! Teachers!

  • Yulia Vishnevets
  • Russia
  • 2019
  • 90 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

Katya and Vasya, two idealistic young teachers, gain their first practical experience in a Russian town. Katya’s job is to teach teenagers Russian literature but even her hairdresser feels sorry for her. Vasya’s subject is geography. Much as he loves traveling and exotic countries, the Russian provinces are still foreign to him.

Yulia Vishnevets shows everyday life in Russia as we rarely see it. In a lively, observational style, she follows Katya and Vasya for a year as they attempt to stimulate and teach the young people. But they meet a lack of understanding from both the school and the parents. “Why gain their trust? You’re the teacher!” a colleague comments. And do these teenagers actually have the slightest interest in learning about feminism, Russian politics, or debating?

Like teenagers everywhere, the students are recalcitrant and disruptive, but Katya and Vasya also encounter nationalism, sexism, and homophobia. It’s a hard learning experience, despite occasional dancing interludes and unexpected, touching moments.

IWOW: I Walk on Water

  • Khalik Allah
  • United States
  • 2020
  • 200 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

In this tribute to the people who live on the streets of New York, the central figure is a homeless Haitian man called Frenchie. His story is part of a hypnotic journey along a stream of voices, images, colors, and music. Frenchie is one of the homeless people who spend their days on the streets of Harlem, where filmmaker and photographer Khalik Allah finds much of his inspiration, and where he also filmed his acclaimed debut Field Niggas (2015).

Using a variety of film and video formats, IWOW: I Walk on Water connects Frenchie’s life with that of other wandering souls. We move between dark and light, from bleak nighttime shots to serene scenes on the beach (shot near the town of Haarlem in the Netherlands). The heroes in the film feel united, yet their voices float free from their bodies. It is as if each part of being human plays a separate role in this magical-realistic world revolving around love, friendship, religion, and the meaning of life.

Jacinta

  • Jessica Earnshaw
  • United States
  • 2020
  • 105 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

After nearly a year, the 26-year-old Jacinta is released from prison, where her mother is also incarcerated. She sets out to become a “success story,” to stop using drugs and to reunite with her 10-year-old daughter, Caylynn. Despite her desire to rebuild her life for her daughter, Jacinta continually struggles against the forces that first led to her addiction.

This intense, poignant portrait of a dysfunctional family, trapped from generation to generation in a toxic cycle of drug addiction and crime, is filmed in a manner that is both intimate and candid. Under the influence of her mother Rosemary, the radiant Jacinta became wrapped up in a routine of hustling for money to support her heroin addiction, punctuated by stretches of prison and grueling attempts to kick the habit.

The downward spiral of Jacinta’s life seems hopeless, but the deepening insight into her unhealthy relationship with her mother, the family members who remain loving in spite of everything, and the precocious, gleefully cheerleading Caylynn bring glimmers of hope. Will Jacinta be able to break the cycle?

Jungle

  • Louise Mootz
  • France
  • 2019
  • 52 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

This portrait of several young women living in northeast Paris vigorously pushes aside the clichéd image of the ever-elegant Parisienne. These women are free, loud, and diverse, and their conversations shift effortlessly from sex and STIs to social philosophy.

Dünya, Lila, Héloise, Bonnie and Solveig bristle with confidence and bluster, on the cusp of a new phase in life: “Do I want to go to university or follow my dream in music?” “Shall I stay with my boyfriend?” “Am I at last going to be able to live on my own?”

Director Louise Mootz and her protagonists all grew up in the same arrondissement and were 20 when filming started. Mootz stuck closely to this group of girlfriends over a three-year period. Much like her young heroines, she is unfazed by any subject, so emotional outbursts, sexual encounters, and despair are all part of the picture. The film includes numerous night scenes that immerse the viewer in a Paris we rarely see, a concrete jungle that screams “liberté, egalité, sororité” from the rooftops. Mootz’s debut film won the award for Best Mid-Length Documentary at Visions du Réel.

Makongo

  • Elvis Sabin Ngaibino
  • Argentina, Central African Republic, Italy
  • 2020
  • 73 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

Two Aka pygmies from the Central African Republic sell roasted caterpillars in the city, using the proceeds to improve education in their communities. They know exactly where and when to catch the hairy insects and they make a good living from what nature has to offer. However, these skills and knowledge are of little use to them in the concrete jungle, where they are as overwhelmed and uncomfortable as city dwellers would be in their forest village. And while there is plenty of demand for their local delicacy, no one seems willing to pay a fair price for it.

In their fight against illiteracy, the two young fathers also serve as teachers; and the children’s eagerness to drink in knowledge is moving. Makongo paints a portrait of a fascinating community in which people sing and work together, sharing their joys and sorrows. It provides a powerful observation of universal themes such as discrimination, exclusion, individualization and altruism, which won two awards at the Cinema du Réel festival.

Mayor

  • David Osit
  • United States, United Kingdom
  • 2020
  • 89 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

The likeable mayor of Ramallah, Musa Hadid, is something of a celebrity in the city. Emmy Award winner David Osit follows him as he attends appointments, makes arrangements for Christmas celebrations and receives Prince William on an official visit. But Hadid is just as tirelessly concerned with repairing the doors of a school, plans to install a fountain in the heart of the city, and dryly humorous meetings about city branding and the space in the city slogan “We Ramallah.”

The mundaneness of local politics contrasts sharply with the geopolitical minefield in which Ramallah is situated. Osit captures Hadid’s baffled expression when he hears that the US under Trump has decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In another scene, we find ourselves in the middle of a tear gas attack by armed Israeli forces.

This winner of the Next Wave Award at the CPH:Dox documentary festival illustrates the city authorities struggling with the harsh everyday reality of the occupation. How do you run a city if you don’t have a country?

The Mole Agent

  • Maite Alberdi
  • Chile, United States, Germany, Netherlands, Spain
  • 2020
  • 90 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

In this quirky blend of spy flick and observational documentary, 83-year-old Sergio goes undercover in an old folks’ home. This friendly, elderly man is hired by private detective Romulo to act as the “mole agent” for a client who suspects that her mother is being mistreated in the home.

Director Maite Alberdi deploys the film noir tropes convincingly, but Sergio is no natural-born detective. His first obstacle is all the technology—pen cameras, smartphones, and the other devices he’ll need to gather evidence and report back to Romulo. But an even bigger stumbling block is that Sergio, a recent widower, is unable to maintain the emotional distance necessary for carrying out his tasks as a spy. He quickly befriends several other tenants.

With a wryly comical undertone continuing throughout the film, what begins as a detective yarn gradually evolves into something more intimate, resulting in an original view of affection and loneliness in old age.

Notes from the Underworld

  • Tizza Covi, Rainer Frimmel
  • Austria
  • 2020
  • 116 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

This unique document of an era centers on the Viennese singer Kurt Girk (1932-2019) and his buddy Alois Schmutzer, the “king of the underworld.” Girk’s connections with illegal gambling led to this much-loved interpreter of popular folk songs becoming known as the Frank Sinatra of Austria. Butcher Alois was one of his best friends, a strapping bear of a man who didn’t need a gun to rub someone out.

In Notes from the Underworld, which received a Best Documentary special mention at the Berlin Film Festival, directors Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel give both men ample opportunity to talk about their wartime youth marked by violence, gangster rivalry and courtesy, and the miscarriage of justice that would scar their lives.

In long, penetrating close-ups in black and white, the camera patiently absorbs the body language of the two men as they sit in their kitchens or local cafe telling tall tales and sharing painful memories. The stories told by these charismatic rogues are interspersed with contributions from the other figures involved, as well as archive footage, and Girk’s world-weary ballads.

Oeconomia

  • Carmen Losmann
  • Germany
  • 2020
  • 90 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

A clearly narrated and precise view into the innermost workings of the capitalist system. Director Carmen Losmann sets out to understand why over the past decades, in parallel with economic growth, debt has increased, and the gap between rich and poor has grown. Her attempts to make contact with those in the financial sector are incorporated into the film.

Some telephone conversations had to be reenacted because those involved later decided that they preferred to remain anonymous or didn’t want to cooperate. For reasons of privacy or secrecy, other financial service providers simulate meetings or a conversation with a customer about a mortgage.

However, several significant insiders, such as the chief economist of the European Central Bank, do speak to Losmann, although they struggle to answer questions such as “Where does profit come from?” and “How is money created?” Losmann summarizes the essence in highly simplified diagrams. We see for example that growth depends on loans, but loans are only granted if growth is expected. The obvious question is whether this system is sustainable.

Once Upon a Time in Venezuela

  • Anabel Rodríguez
  • Venezuela, United Kingdom, Austria, Brazil
  • 2020
  • 99 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

Congo Mirador, on the edge of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, was once a reasonably prosperous fishing village. The houses floated on the lake, beneath which lies one of the largest oil fields in Latin America. But in recent years, the village has been in steady decline. Sedimentation is making the lake shallower and residents have to work hard to keep their houses afloat.

Central to the film are two prominent villagers fighting to preserve their community. Mrs. Tamara is an influential businesswoman and passionate supporter of President Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, and his successor Nicolás Maduro. With national elections in sight, she has no qualms about buying votes, much to the disgust of her rival Natalie, the village teacher, who supports the opposition.

Anabel Rodríguez Ríos follows the events with compassion and an eye for beauty. She portrays a community which is undeniably disintegrating, despite the resilience of its people, reflecting a country in deep political and economic crisis.

An Ordinary Country

  • Tomasz Wolski
  • Poland
  • 2020
  • 53 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

The term “surveillance society” came into use relatively recently to refer to the ubiquity of security cameras and facial recognition software. But it could certainly also be applied to Poland from the 1960s to the collapse of Communism in 1989. The secret police recorded hundreds of thousands of hours of film and audio in this period, often using concealed devices. They were watching when ordinary Poles sold gasoline on the illegal market, phoned family members from abroad to ask for foreign currency, or had a romantic rendezvous at a hotel. Other recordings reveal the interrogation of a family man who is pressured to become an informer after being caught with homoerotic magazines, and calls to a number where people could report religious gatherings.

Tomasz Wolski has edited the recordings in sequence without adding commentary or context—the only additional sound is the minimal, highly effective soundtrack ramping up the sense of suppressed tension. The director demonstrates the grossly bureaucratic and banal nature of state control. Casual questions over lunch are punctuated with blatant blackmail in a claustrophobic history lesson from which we can draw very topical conclusions.

Petit Samedi

  • Paloma Sermon-Daï
  • Belgium
  • 2020
  • 75 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

Now in his forties, Damien Samedi has been struggling with addiction throughout his adult life. The mild-mannered Belgian has been trying to make a normal life for himself for years by working hard and kicking the habit. But he always disappoints his loved ones, and in the first place, his mother.

Paloma Sermon-Daï has made an observational, personal portrait of her brother and mother on the eve of his latest attempt to stop using drugs. The first matters to deal with are practical ones, such as applying for a job and sticking to agreements, but eventually mother and son can’t avoid difficult issues such as family ties, shame, and disappointment.

In long, static shots, the camera comes closer and closer to Damien, during intimate scenes with his mother, in candid therapy sessions, and by the river, where he seems to be fighting an inner battle in silence. This glimpse into his life lacks any sense of voyeurism or sentimentality, and shows how addiction also affects loved ones. Well-chosen home videos and audio recordings of mother and son reveal ingrained patterns that may have been passed down in the family for generations.

Please Hold the Line

  • Pavel Cuzuioc
  • Austria
  • 2020
  • 86 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

The worldwide use of means of communication such as the telephone, television, and internet is still growing rapidly. Cable companies and telecom providers are working hard to connect everyone to their networks, including people living in remote villages in the countryside. Please Hold the Line follows telecom engineers in a number of Eastern European countries during their visits to customers.

The technicians connect televisions, repair fax machines, or climb on rickety roofs and up telephone poles to install the necessary equipment. This results in some remarkable encounters and conversations in which both engineers and customers tell their stories while their devices are constantly emitting sounds and news reports in the background.

We are shown how these modern means of communication are welcome as a window to the world. But at the same time a certain degree of loneliness and a longing for “real” connection is revealed. Calm sequences of carefully framed shots tell a larger story about the essence of communication.

A Shape of Things to Come

  • Lisa Marie Malloy, J.P. Sniadecki
  • United States
  • 2020
  • 81 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

Sundog lives in the Sonoran desert, near the U.S. border with Mexico. There he leads a self-sufficient existence surrounded by pigs, snakes, bats, and cranes. Off in the distance lurk the surveillance cameras, bulldozers, and Border Patrol. Seeing the ecosystem and his own freedom coming under increasing threat, he dreams up an act of eco-terrorism. Most of all, though, this film gives a vivid impression of life in a desert that is awe-inspiring in daylight, but unsettling at night.

Co-director Sniadecki met Sundog while making El mar la mar (2017), a documentary set in the harsh environment of the Sonoran desert. The sensorial cinematography and sophisticated sound design evoke a surreal atmosphere—whether Sundog is shooting a peccary, smoking psychedelic venom from a toad, or harvesting a zucchini from his lush garden. The organic flow of images adds a certain excitement to minor observations and routines, and makes the everyday sublime. Sundog’s way of life, far removed from the unhealthy rat race, implicitly raises questions about how humans relate to the environment—and to themselves—while haunted by the specter of global ecological collapse.

Songs of Repression

  • Estephan Wagner, Marianne Hougen-Moraga
  • Denmark
  • 2020
  • 89 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

The Andes Mountains in Chile form the backdrop to what at first glance looks like a charming tourist attraction. But visitors who book a tour of Villa Baviera are told all about former Nazi Paul Schäfer’s reign of terror here in the 1960s.

After the death of this sect leader, more than a hundred of his German followers continued to live in Colonia Dignidad. These now-elderly residents tell their stories – sometimes frankly, sometimes hesitantly – about the physical and sexual abuse that took place. And about the crimes they were forced to commit. Each of them has their own perspective on this dark history. When discussing the electroshocks he received, one former member says: “They all meant well really.”

The landscape that seems so serene at the start of the film mutates into a sinister witness to the past. And the songs that residents innocently sang as children in the colony now trigger in most of them a sense of rage and disgust. Songs of Repression shows how traumatic events can change a human life. The film won the international grand prize at Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX documentary festival, as well as the award for best Danish documentary.

Stray

  • Elizabeth Lo
  • Turkey, United States, Hong Kong
  • 2020
  • 72 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

Life as a stray dog can be tough at times, like when you get kicked by a passerby. But sometimes you get lucky and someone throws you a heap of leftover meat, or you get to run on the beach, or howl along with the call to prayer. Day in, day out, Zeytin, Nazar and Kartal the puppy patter around Istanbul, visiting their favorite addresses—with the camera following along at snout level.

When the stray dogs start having fun pestering a cat, the film seems to briefly cross paths with another: that homage to the stray cats of Istanbul Kedi (2016, Ceyda Torun). We can hear conversations between the city’s human inhabitants in the background, or the dogs suddenly find themselves in the middle of a demonstration.

A group of young Syrians decide to look after Kartal, who’s been struggling to stay tough and alert but keeps nodding off as the group looks for a place to sleep while nightlife throngs on around them. Zeytin and Nazar then go to seek refuge among other urban outcasts in this serene mosaic of a film, inspiring reflections on freedom, solidarity, and charity.

Things We Dare Not Do

  • Bruno Santamaria
  • Mexico
  • 2020
  • 75 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

The impoverished Mexican village of El Roblito is located on a peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean and seems to be inhabited mainly by children; most of the adults work outside the village. Teenager Ñoño might be too old to still be playing with the prepubescent village kids, but he likes to hang out with them anyway. He cheerfully dives into the water with the boys, and swings his hips as he learns a choreo with the girls. But sometimes, after it gets dark, he goes off alone to dye his eyebrows and put on a dress.

Filmmaker Bruno Santamaria has clearly built a bond with the young people of Roblito. They call him by his first name and warn him of danger after there has been a shooting during a village festival. Will his presence help Ñoño to share his secret with his parents? In this subtly compelling coming-of-age story filtered through the eyes of children, we only see the machismo of the adult world in passing. Still, it underscores the courage shown by the seemingly timid Ñoño.

Time

  • Garrett Bradley
  • United States
  • 2020
  • 81 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

Desperation drove Sibil and Rob Richardson to rob a bank in 1997, not far from a location where Bonnie and Clyde once operated. It earned them the dubious nickname “the Black Bonnie and Clyde.” The loot amounted to a little more than five thousand dollars. Sibil got five years in prison, but Rob was sentenced to sixty years. When she was released after three years, Sibil did more than hold her own. She raised her six sons alone, and as Fox Rich she developed into a successful entrepreneur, rhetorical powerhouse and spokesperson for the Black community.

Fragments from her past and present are combined to produce the epic yet intimate testimony of a woman on a mission. She continued to fight against the judicial system: every year she tried in vain to have her husband released early. Lively home videos show her sons growing up to be intelligent young adults, despite the absence of their father. Sometimes Sibil’s doubts and anger are almost tangible, but the central theme is always her all-encompassing love for her family.

The Truffle Hunters
The Truffle Hunters

The Truffle Hunters

  • Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw
  • Italy, United States, Greece
  • 2020
  • 84 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

Extremely elusive, selling for up to 5,000 euros a kilogram, and delectable on risotto, the white truffle from Northern Italy has an almost mythical status. In and around the hill town of Alba, you’ll find disarming aficionados, dogged truffle hunters and shameless traders.

With its luscious cinematography and immersive soundscape, Sundance hit The Truffle Hunters provides a stylish and sometimes humorous glimpse into a world of obsessions and well-guarded secrets. From wealthy gourmets to hard-working laborers, and from seasoned truffle veterans to the newbies just starting out, everyone is fixated on the delicacy.

Filming in bright autumn colors, directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw create a fairytale atmosphere—but at times permeated by a harsh reality. With increasing scarcity due to climate change, toxic rivalries between hunters, and slick traders reaping big profits, there is also a darker side to the story. Nevertheless, truffle fever is infectious, thanks to the finely paced storytelling and the use of every perspective—even the dogs have been fitted with cameras.

Welcome to Chechnya

  • David France
  • United States
  • 2020
  • 107 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

LGBTQ+ people in the ultra-conservative Chechen Republic fear for their lives. Hundreds have already been arrested and tortured in secret prisons—in an ongoing purge that tyrannical President Ramzan Kadyrov has unconvincingly denied. A group of courageous Russian activists take unimaginable risks to smuggle persecuted LGBTQ+ people out of the country and provide them with a safe haven, aided by an international network.

This chilling documentary thriller has already won awards at festivals including Sundance, Hot Docs and the Berlinale. David France (nominated for an Oscar for How to Survive a Plague in 2013) is not one to stand on the sidelines—with a small camera he records the most dangerous moments along the escape route of Grisha, an event organizer who endured systematic torture, and Anya, who risks being murdered by her family.

France uses deepfake techniques to digitally alter the faces of the refugees and thus protect their anonymity. He films their nerve-racking underground journeys and the shelters where they find refuge. But even abroad, they are never completely safe.

Zappa

  • Alex Winter
  • United States
  • 2020
  • 129 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Best of Fests

Frank Vincent Zappa died in 1993, aged 52. Apart from a fantastic musical oeuvre (more than sixty albums!), four children, a wife, and fans worldwide—with a remarkably large fan base in the Czech Republic—he also left an impressive visual archive comprising performances, interviews, family scenes, and frenetic animations. Alex Winter was given unlimited access to this treasure trove, and he crafted a striking portrait from more than a thousand hours of material, presenting Zappa as the guide to his own eventful history.

The lean, intense figure with the eternal mustache and sardonic expression is brought back to life. In the first place, as the musical giant, who taught himself first to play drums and then guitar, and for whom no music was sacred. But also as a husband who thought monogamy was nonsensical, as a father who had little time for his children, as the uncompromising leader of The Mothers of Invention, and even as a potential presidential candidate. Who knows where his self-deprecating wit, zany humor and brilliant, analytical mind would have taken him had he not become terminally ill.

Top 10 by Gianfranco Rosi

10 Shorts by Vittorio De Seta

  • Vittorio De Seta
  • Italy
  • 113 min
  • Top 10

Martin Scorsese hit the nail on the head when he described Vittorio De Seta as “an anthropologist who speaks with the voice of a poet.” De Seta, who came from an aristocratic family, captured the lives of fishermen and farmers in Italy’s impoverished south.

The ten documentaries he made in the period from 1954 to 1959 are regarded as classics. A few lines of introductory text, ingenious close-ups, and a distinctly rhythmic pace were all he needed to reveal enormous amounts of information in just ten minutes: about artisanal cheese production, the violence involved in tuna fishing, the amount of organization and sheer muscle power required to fell and transport a tree, and the rituals associated with these age-old activities.

De Seta’s body of work forms a filmic counterpart to the field recordings of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. With a keen eye for detail, De Seta committed to film the customs and habits of communities that were still largely isolated at the time, but that he probably sensed were on the verge of disappearing.

48

  • Susana de Sousa Dias
  • Portugal
  • 2009
  • 93 min
  • Dutch Premiere
  • Top 10

For 48 years, the Salazar dictatorship held Portugal in its grip. To show us its true face, Susana de Sousa Dias needs only to show the dossier photos of political prisoners—accompanied by the voices of these men and women recalling the period. The Carnation Revolution of 1974 brought liberation. “Life returned to normal,” explains one of the former prisoners, “What’s left is the bad memory of the things you experienced and that you will never get out of your head.”

The former prisoners recall memories of arrests and years spent in captivity, of violence, torture, and humiliation; of disgust and outrage, and their only possible form of resistance was to remain silent and to own the way they stared down the camera of the secret police. There’s just a single smile to be seen, one that the person concerned now looks back on with mixed feelings.

De Sousa Dias’ stripped-back form makes for lucid and powerful storytelling, with the portraits and personal recollections combining to evoke the regime of terror established under Salazar. A powerfully eloquent and multi-award-winning minimalist documentary.

Anna

  • Alberto Grifi, Massimo Sarchielli
  • Italy
  • 1975
  • 225 min
  • Top 10

In the winter of 1972, actor and filmmaker Massimo Sarchielli meets Anna, who’s both homeless and very pregnant, hanging around with the hippies in Piazza Navona in Rome. He takes her in, partly because he feels sorry for her, but he has another reason as well: he asks his friend Alberto Grifi to help document her story.

Grifi and Sarchielli filmed in cinéma verité style, including some re-enacted scenes. They used one of the first open reel video cameras in Italy, which gave them the freedom to film long, drawn-out scenes and conversations. These discussions on topics such as Marxism, colonialism, and anarchism provide a striking picture of a deeply divided country.

The portrayal of Anna (who is never given a surname) also raises questions about the involvement of the makers with their vulnerable protagonist. Especially the shower scene in which Sarchielli helps her get rid of her lice is uncomfortable, to say the least.

Grifi developed a method of transferring the video to 16mm film. This 16mm print was restored in 2011 by the Cineteca Nazionale and Cineteca di Bologna.

Banditi a Orgosolo

  • Vittorio De Seta
  • Italy
  • 1961
  • 98 min
  • Top 10

Life is hard for Sardinian shepherd Michele Jossu. But it only becomes truly unbearable when he’s up in the mountains and is joined by some uninvited guests: three bandits. The police arrive in pursuit and a gunfight ensues. Michele and his little brother Peppeddu make a run for it. A police officer is killed, and Michele is identified as an accomplice.

He decides to take his sheep and move away, but the animals don’t survive the arduous journey. Desperate, Michele stalks a fellow shepherd, knocks him out, and goes off with his herd. Now he has become a bandit himself.

Vittorio De Seta made Banditi a Orgosolo, his first feature film, after completing his famous series of ten short documentaries about everyday life in poverty-stricken southern Italy. The scenes in this film of cheese being made and bread being baked could have come straight out of one of those documentary miniatures. Using local farmers as actors further underscores the sense of authenticity. For these people, the cycle of injustice, violence, and revenge has been a familiar reality for generations.

A Bigger Splash

  • Jack Hazan
  • United Kingdom
  • 1974
  • 105 min
  • Top 10

It’s 1973 and 37-year-old artist David Hockney is at the height of his fame. Everybody wants his pop art paintings of sundrenched swimming pools—A Bigger Splash, which he painted in California, became the most world-famous of them all. When Hockney’s sitter and lover Peter Schlesinger leaves him, Hockney sinks into a depression. The artist goes to New York and shuts himself away with an unknown woman in a hotel room where his friends can’t find him.

One remarkable aspect of Jack Kazan’s film about this important period in Hockney’s life is that all the people in it—including friends of the artist, a gallery owner, and a museum curator—play themselves, not long after the actual events took place. Even more remarkable is the frank portrayal of the artist’s homosexual entourage and of male nudity and intimacy. This led, despite the initially lukewarm critical reception, to the film becoming a cult classic on the gay scene. The critics revised their assessments once they grasped the revolutionary nature of Kazan’s blending of documented reality and sometimes surreal fiction. Nowadays, the film is considered an undisputed masterpiece.

Francesco, giullare di Dio

  • Roberto Rossellini
  • Italy
  • 1950
  • 83 min
  • Top 10

Director Roberto Rossellini and scriptwriter Federico Fellini based their film on the 14th-century book I fioretti di san Francesco. It is less an actual biography of Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) than a series of parables on virtue. The nine vignettes depict short scenes from the life of St. Francis and his disciples, and conclude with a moral. Each encounter with a non-believer, leper, or beggar serves to illustrate Christian values. The high point comes in chapter eight, when Francis teaches that true happiness is to be found in suffering for the love of Christ.

The role of St. Francis is performed by Brother Nazario Gerardi, whose name doesn’t even appear in the credits. The disciples are also played by real-life members of the Franciscan Order. The only professional actor in the cast is Aldo Fabrizi, in the role of the tyrant Nicolaio. Now, 70 years after the film was made, Fabrizi’s mannered theatricality seems affected, while the monk’s performances come across as utterly natural.

India: Matri Bhumi

  • Roberto Rossellini
  • Italy, France
  • 1959
  • 90 min
  • Top 10

Modern times have definitely arrived in Mumbai, a megacity full of gleaming apartment blocks and motorized traffic. Meanwhile, the people of rural India—which Roberto Rossellini considers the real India—still cultivate a spiritual connection with nature.

Devi, for example, is an elephant tamer who works in forest management with his “bulldozer of the jungle.” He hooks up with the daughter of a traveling puppeteer. Later, this storyteller travels to the foothills of the Himalayas to help build a dam, constraining the water that is sacred in India, but also causes major floods. In the last part of the film, the camera follows an 80-year-old jungle dweller who is trying to protect a tiger threatened by the encroaching mining industry.

Although Rossellini’s view of India may at times appear romanticized, his use of stories of individuals to illustrate broader social developments was way ahead of his time. The magnificent shots of landscapes and architecture show a country that industrialization and modernization had already rendered unrecognizable.

India: Matri Bhumi was restored within the Rossellini project with the support of Cinecittà Luce, Cineteca Bologna, CSC – Cineteca Nazionale, Coproduction Office and provided by the Cineteca di Bologna.

The Mouth of the Wolf

  • Pietro Marcello
  • Italy
  • 2009
  • 76 min
  • Top 10

Enzo looks handsome but dangerous, an impression that is backed up by the fact that he has spent much of his life behind bars. Yet he also has a soft side, says his wife Maria. She could see it in his eyes when she first met him.

Enzo and Maria proved to be a wonderful match. The rough, Italian macho man and the kind-hearted transsexual fell in love while they were in the same prison, and they are still together 20 years later. Their love is at the forefront of Pietro Marcello’s docudrama; in the turbulent background is the hard life in a poor neighborhood in Genoa, the history of the port city, and a past in Sicily.

Excerpts read from letters, archival footage of life in Genoa, and reenacted scenes combine to produce a raw but romantic portrait of a city and a couple. For director Marcello, who made his reputation with a number of documentaries, The Mouth of the Wolf marked a transition to a more hybrid narrative form. He has since made the award-winning feature films Bella e perduta (2015) and Martin Eden (2019).

Los olvidados

  • Luis Buñuel
  • Mexico
  • 1950
  • 81 min
  • Top 10

Luis Buñuel’s black-and-white masterpiece from his Mexican period ensured the director’s triumphant return to international prominence 18 years after Las Hurdes (1933), and won him the Best Director and International Critics’ awards at Cannes Film Festival.

Las Hurdes, this film’s closest relation in Buñuel’s oeuvre, is a documentary about poverty in Spain that still sparks controversy due to the extensive use of re-enactments and stylistic interventions, while Los olvidados, a feature film, has been universally praised for its realistic portrayal of deprived youth in the slums of Mexico City. The opening text reads: “This movie is based entirely on facts of real life and all of its characters are authentic.”

Italian realist cinema (especially Vittorio De Sica’s Sciuscià, 1946) was an unmistakable influence on this film, with its outdoor scenes, focus on an underclass, and largely non-professional cast. But Buñuel added surrealistic twists, for example, in a now-famous dream scene. All the while, he shows how poverty systematically crushes everyone, including—and maybe especially—those who try to do good.

Route One/USA

  • Robert Kramer
  • England, France, Italy
  • 1989
  • 255 min
  • Top 10

American filmmaker Robert Kramer and his friend Doc both spent many years abroad—Kramer in Europe and Doc in Africa. They decide to reacquaint themselves with their country of birth by traveling from north to south along its east coast, taking the iconic 2,300-mile U.S. Route 1 as their guiding theme.

Kramer handles the camera, and Doc does the conversing. They attend a birthday party, a church service, and an election meeting. They visit an old friend of Doc’s and also spend time with a group of children and their coach in a deprived neighborhood. At several stop-offs the pair join a guided tour of a local monument. This turns the film into more than just a travelogue through the American landscape, and transforms it into a journey through the country’s history—with a specific, painful focus on Vietnam.

Doc’s personal reflections help suffuse the film with melancholy—he increasingly becomes a character in a story that meanders between pure observational documentary and fiction.

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