The 2021 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) unveiled the selected films in premiere-only sections Luminous and Frontlight, along with its first competition selections in the IDFA Competition for Short Documentary and the IDFA Competition for Youth Documentary. IDFA also announced the selected titles in interdisciplinary program IDFA on Stage, chief among them the world premiere of the newly restored Dziga Vertov film The History of the Civil War. The 34th edition of IDFA takes place from November 17 to 28 in Amsterdam.
The Luminous premiere-only section’s 21-film lineup includes eleven world premieres. Young perspectives shine across the program, whether in young characters, as in Maasja Ooms’ Jason, a daring portrait of a young man’s trauma at the hands of the welfare system; or in young filmmakers, as seen in films such as The Moment of Transition by newcomer Chiara Marotta, on the power of religion to break families apart.
Other films offer more perennial experience on the bittersweet swirl of art, performance, and identity: María Alvarez’s personal and quietly reflective Near and Dear enters the close world of 91-year-old twin pianists in their Buenos Aires apartment; TheEnd of Wonderland, the debut feature by Laurence Turcotte-Fraser, spotlights an aging trans fetish supermodel as she faces eviction.
Still other films appeal to the documentary artform as a profoundly physical affair. In Mafifa, director Daniela Muñoz Barroso creates a sensory feast that uses the power of cinema to share the experience of progressive hearing loss. On the Zenith’s Edge, on the other hand, takes filmmaker Natyvel Pontalier back to her ancestral roots, re-igniting centuries of Gabonese musical and spiritual traditions.
The premiere-only Frontlight section includes nineteen films that take an artistic approach to exploring the urgent issues of our time. This year, many films in the selection tend towards the experiential, transcending journalistic or explanatory labels.Frontlight
Democracy and civic life come to the fore in several titles in the selection. Oeke Hoogendijk’s legal drama The Treasures of Crimea poses questions of nationhood in relation to a traveling Crimean art exhibition. Judges Under Pressure by Kacper Lisowski contrasts a new age of civic engagement with the authorities who are trying to obstruct it, following a Polish judge who is made public enemy by the ruling party. The Case, the debut feature by Nina Guseva, takes this theme to Russia with a stark portrait of the lawyer defending a detained opposition activist, and her desperate struggle against the legal system. Peter Nicks’ Homeroom explores the problem of policing at a predominantly Black and Latinx high school in Oakland, following the young students who are standing up for their rights.
Other films explore the harsh reality of human displacement and forced resettlement, as seen in Danis Tanović’s new film with co-director Damir Šagolj, When We Were Them, a powerful indictment of the inhumane treatment of refugees in Bosnia. Resources by Hubert Caron-Guay and Serge-Olivier Rondeau cinematically observes the asylum-seeking workers behind Québec’s brutal meat packing industry, whereas Nosema by Etna Özbek follows an Assyrian couple as they repeatedly flee and return to their Turkish mountain village before disappearing without a trace.
With an influx of young filmmakers, the IDFA Competition for Short Documentary has grown in scope, with twenty selected titles that showcase a healthy boom for the short film form. A mosaic of styles and themes defines this selection, exploring everything a short documentary can be: from animation to personal archive films to classic documentary cinema, with plenty of experimenting in between. Next to a strong offer of student filmmaking, the selection presents several award-winning films and new works by seasoned filmmakers who have made the jump from features to shorts and back. Overarching themes include digging up the filmmakers’ family histories and how those connect to larger colonial histories. Elsewhere, different lifeforms, both animal and human, creatively expand our sense of the world, showing us other ways to inhabit this unique planet.
With seven selected titles, the IDFA on Stage selection presents a boundary-breaking program of live cinema events—bridging film, new media, and the performing arts—that mark artists’ return to the stage after a lengthy period of online performances
Close to You
- Cássio Kelm
At the start of the corona pandemic, young transmasculine filmmaker Cássio Kelm ends up isolated in a small apartment with his father. Close to You subtly tells a layered story combining personal transition, unspoken tenderness, and Brazilian politics.
The End of Wonderland
- Laurence Turcotte-Fraser
Adult performer Tara Emory has been working for years on her “trans sci-fi porn epic” Up Uranus, featuring amazing design on a super-low budget—like everything in her life. A tender portrait of an intriguing transgender artist, auto mechanic, and hoarder.
- Tal Elkayam
A creative compilation of YouTube material brings together two parallel worlds—the beach of Tel Aviv and the hills of the West Bank—in a raw, associatively edited, unorthodox portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- Sebastián Molina
Intensive Life Unit
- Adéla Komrzý
Ondřej and Kateřina’s patients know they’re going to die, but their conversations are all about life. What is a good life? How do you want to approach the end of your life? Each patient has a different answer.
- Maasja Ooms
The final part of Maasja Ooms’ shocking trilogy about the failing Dutch youth welfare services. She follows 22-year-old Jason as he undergoes trauma therapy and pursues his mission to save others from suffering in the same way.
Lake Forest Park
- Kersti Jan Werdal
An atmospheric portrait of a group of high school students in the American northwest who have been through a shocking experience. The camera observes from a distance and captures their inexpressible sadness in beautifully composed tableaux.
The Last Chapter
- Gianluca Matarrese
A tender and unabashed portrayal of the filmmaker’s older lover and BDSM master Bernard. In the run-up to the move to a new apartment, he looks back on his eventful life as he embarks on its last chapter.
Lessons for Luca
- Salvador Gieling
- Daniela Muñoz Barroso
Filmmaker Daniela Muñoz Barroso, who is almost completely deaf, wants to discover the identity of the remarkable musician Mafifa. Her quest leads her on the trail of an enigmatic woman, and also makes her question her own head and heart.
- Jafar Najafi
Tradition and ambition clash when a young mother in rural Iran wants to train as a makeup artist in the city. She tries to break the deadlock with her loving but inflexible husband in this sometimes funny, sometimes painful film.
- Chloé Malcotti
An unorthodox film about the ambivalent relationship between Italian coastal town Rosignano and the company that pollutes its beaches and sea, but has also brought prosperity and fame: the unnaturally white beaches and blue sea are a major attraction.
The Moment of Transition
- Chiara Marotta
Chiara Marotta returns to the Christian community she grew up in and to which her grandmother, mother, and sister still belong. She seeks explanations for their behavior, an understanding of her own situation, and, perhaps, reconciliation.
Museum of the Revolution
- Srđan Keča
Near and Dear
- María Alvarez
Cleverly structured portrait of elderly twin sisters in Buenos Aires who used to form a duo of professional pianists. Their artistic career brought fame and the world lay at their feet. In their small shared apartment, they look back on the glory years.
On the Zenith’s Edge
- Natyvel Pontalier
Prince of Muck
- Cindy Jansen
A warm, observational portrait of Lawrence McEwen, an amiable figure who for several decades ran the picturesque Scottish island of Muck. Now that he’s stepping aside for the next generation, his thoughts turn to the past.
- Ashkan Nejati, Mehran Nematollahi
Repeating the questions that Abbas Kiarostami put to school children in Homework (1989), this film provides an indirect portrait of contemporary Iran, where poverty, illiteracy, and emotional neglect are more pressing issues than schoolwork.
- Nicolas Videla
The last ever performance of the highly entertaining activist transvestite show Cabaret Travesía Travesti, in October 2019, coincided with the Chilean uprising. Filmmaker Nicolás Videla was part of this vibrant troupe. Why did they stop performing?
Ultraviolette and the Blood-Spitters Gang
- Robin Hunzinger
The passionate letters that a girl called Marcelle wrote to her childhood sweetheart from a sanatorium during the interwar period evoke the image of a rebel, way ahead of her time, who goes her own way with a group of kindred spirits.
Now Is the Past – My Father, Java & the Phantom Films
- Shin-ichi Ise
Japanese filmmaker Shin-ichi Ise traces the route taken by his father, a film editor who made propaganda films in Indonesia during the Second World War, when Japan claimed to liberate Asian countries from colonialism. Eyewitnesses tell their stories.
- Nina Guseva
Lawyer Maria Eismont works to get the wrongly convicted activist Konstantiv Kotov released. All her media appearances come to nothing, and each appeal is rejected—until Putin suddenly appears on the scene.
- Seth Freed Wessler
Urgent documentary investigation made up of webcam interviews with immigrants in a private detention centre in the U.S. Precisely how long they’ll stay locked up waiting to be processed or deported is unclear. When Covid strikes they rise up.
The Home Front – A Journey in Italy with Domenico Quirico
- Paola Piacenza
- Peter Nicks
The 2019-2020 academic year was one of great upheavals for final year students at Oakland High School. It was the year of the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, and their battle to abolish the school police force.
- Lucas Bambozzi
After an environmental disaster in Minas Gerais, a Brazilian geographer returns to show how mining has both shaped and harmed her native region and its inhabitants, in a road movie that is both activist and poetic.
Judges Under Pressure
- Kacper Lisowski
In Poland, judicial independence is under serious pressure from the right-wing government: judges are being vilified, fired, or arrested. Judge Igor Tuleya becomes the face of the protest movement and fears for his job and his life.
Lead Me Home
- Pedro Kos, Jon Shenk
Letter to San Zaw Htway
- Petr Lom
A Marble Travelogue
- Sean Wang
With a light touch and wry humor, A Marble Travelogue portrays the Greek and Chinese marble production chain. The film makes complex connections and highlights the European aspirations of the Chinese middle class in a visually seductive style.
Name of the Game
- Håvard Bustnes
The Norwegian Labor Party politician Trond Giske was for many years expected to become prime minister, until allegations of sexual abuse and assault brought about his downfall. Now he goes all out for a comeback.
- Etna Özbek
They had already fled their Turkish mountain village several times, but the Assyrian couple Hürmüz and Şimuni Diril kept coming back to resume their lives. Filmmaker Etna Özbek followed them three months before they vanished without a trace.
- Maia Kenworthy, Elena Sánchez Bellot
We follow Extinction Rebellion from its launch in 2018, as the movement calls for radical action on the climate emergency. Clashing with the authorities forms part of the strategy, but the members’ diverse backgrounds also cause internal collisions.
- Hubert Caron-Guay, Serge-Olivier Rondeau
An observational film about the meat industry in Quebec, where asylum seekers, mainly from Latin America, process a vast herd of livestock into meat. What is life like at various points along this chain?
Scent of Your Sweat
- Shirley Abraham, Amit Madheshiya
When Indian prime minister Narendra Modi announces the world’s biggest Covid lockdown, millions of domestic migrant workers are caught up an unprecedented exodus from cities. Can Modi’s call to suffering ignite the spark of revolution?
- Luke Johnstone, Tsogo Kupa, Djibril Cullis, Matthijs Vuijk, Alex Sono
A lively assemblage of fiction, animation, and YouTube videos about imperialism and the diffuse South African identity, in which five film students in Johannesburg examine their personal relationship with the national anthem.
The Treasures of Crimea
- Oeke Hoogendijk
Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum inadvertently finds itself involved in an international wrangle over a loaned collection of art. This multifaceted reconstruction sheds light on the affair from every angle: political, legal, and emotional.
- Nadya Zaytseva
A young woman on the run from the repressions in Belarus ends up in Saint Petersburg. Her story, told in an uninterrupted flow, offers a compelling picture of the aggression, absurdity, and threat of a dictatorship.
The Voice of the People
- Andreas Wilcke
Four MPs from the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) are followed for three years. A close look on their communication strategies gives insight into the realism of their claim that they’re just an ultra-conservative party.
When We Were Them
- Danis Tanović, Damir Šagolj
A powerful indictment of the inhumane treatment of refugees in Bosnia. How can it be that people who in the recent past were themselves subjected to deadly hatred should now treat refugees as criminals?
IDFA Competition for Short Documentary
- Dejan Petrović
Distinctively framed, observational footage of a dog rescue center in Serbia, and in particular of the endearing dog Vanja and her anonymous trainer. Can humans and animals learn from each other? And what works best: punishment or reward?
- Rafael Montezuma
Santiago performs each action with intense concentration: searching out the right stone, chiseling it a bit, carefully positioning it atop the others. And with equal serenity and attentiveness, this stunning, mysterious film contemplates his masterly work.
- Irene Lusztig
What is the true value of things? What makes a house a home? Irene Lusztig looks beyond the clichés in this compassionate, thoughtful documentary, as she interviews some of her neighbors who have lost everything in a major forest fire.
- Caroline Rumley
In serene black-and-white, filmmaker Caroline Rumley embarks on a personal quest, digging into her family’s past in the southern states of the U.S. and revealing a disconcerting history. Can she reconcile herself with her roots?
- Juan Vicente Manrique
In the highlands of the Mexican state Guerrero, 14-year-old Tavo gives his friends weapons training. It’s a daily reality in a region where villagers are increasingly taking the defense of their community into their own hands.
Five Scenes from the War in Afghanistan as They Appear in East Sussex
- Frank Eli Martin
In a greenhouse, a British military veteran talks about returning from Afghanistan with PTSD. His therapy consists of gardening. A powerful contemplation of the effect of memory and trauma, framed by the flowers he planted himself.
- Yan Tomaszewski
English-born Oli London has spent a fortune on plastic surgery to make them look like Korean pop-star Jimin. A delightful blend of documentary and theatrical drama on the subject of idol worship, with Oli also performing a re-imagining of a Korean myth.
- Pavel Mozhar
The Belarusian police dealt brutally with protesters demonstrating against the re-election of President Lukashenko in August 2020. The protesters’ re-enacted testimonies form a dry but impactful instruction video.
- Omer Daida
A thoughtful father-daughter portrait in which 10-year-old Na’ama considers her father’s business—he’s a livestock farmer supplying the meat industry. Na’ama loves animals and has questions about their fate. Is it possible to do business differently?
I Am Trying to Remember
- Pegah Ahangarani
To the accompaniment of a powerful sound score, filmmaker Pegah Ahangarani uses photographs, videos, and vivid recollections from her own childhood to evoke a collective memory of the Iranian revolution.
Letter from Eusapia
- Andrés Cornejo Pinto
The son sends robotic cameras into the sewers of Brussels; the father performs keyhole surgery in Ecuador. Both are investigating disease and decline, which affects them personally when the Covid-19 pandemic makes their separation palpable.
- Nicolas Wouters
A grandson of colonists in the Belgian Congo wants to know what life there was really like—behind the photos, letters, and films of his grandparents. As it turns out, this is a hopeless task. Silence and looking the other way were the essence of colonial life.
- Jack Weisman, Gabriela Osio Vanden
Churchill, Manitoba is a famous destination for photographing polar bears. But how do they experience the attention? Beautifully composed shots assume a bear’s perspective as it navigates a suspenseful obstacle course of human activity.
- Deniz Tortum, Kathryn Hamilton
Now that it’s technologically possible, we are trying to record virtually our entire world. In this video essay, Deniz Tortum and Kathryn Hamilton ask complex philosophical questions that are easily overlooked as developments hurtle ever onwards.
- Steven Fraser
Filmmaker Steven Fraser lives with prosopagnosia, otherwise known as “face blindness,” which means he can’t remember or recognize faces. In this DIY film he uses animation to convey what this means to him.
- Yohan Guignard
An award-winning short film shot entirely from the passenger seat, about a police officer patrolling an Oklahoma City suburb. A multifaceted portrait of a man scarred by his work for the police force.
- Camila Moreiras
There’s plutonium buried beneath the village of Palomares in southern Spain, and it’s still radioactive. The landscape and the director’s own body come together in parallel stories, shot on celluloid, about recovery and survival.
- Lara Milena Brose, Kilian Armando Friedrich
Burnt-out twentysomething Leon is struggling in a residential rehab clinic. His father Hans-Joachim, by contrast, is brimming with zest for life—in fact, this landscape artist is planning to live forever, as a “homo digitalis.”
- Mónica Taboada-Tapia
- Chloé Belloc
“Since I was a child, my brother has been absent.” This is how the filmmaker describes her relationship with her autistic brother. In a sensitive, highly visual film she goes beyond the limitations of words to put herself in the world he experiences.
IDFA Competition for Youth Documentary
- Griet Goelen, Louise Van Assche
The Communion of My Cousin Andrea
- Brandán Cerviño
A creative portrait of a young generation navigating between old traditions and modern social media codes. A year after her Catholic First Communion, how does Andrea look back on the event? Could it have been different, perhaps better?
Gabi, Between Ages 8 and 13
- Engeli Broberg
Gabi just wants to be herself, not a girl but not a typical boy either. And this is quite a challenge if the people around you—and ultimately also your own body—want to push you in a particular direction.
- Line Hatland
Young soccer players from all over the world travel to Norway for an international youth tournament. In this heartwarming ensemble film, the teenagers learn to deal with all sorts of challenges—both on and off the field.
Mahalle’s School – Family Going Live
- Akshay Pradip Ingle
Janu and Vedu are attending classes online for the first time. These two Indian children are inquisitive, but sometimes a bit rebellious too. They explore this new world together with their parents. An unusual and playful family portrait.
- Shamira Raphaëla
When 14-year-old Shabu wrecks his grandmother’s car on a joyride, he has to work all summer to repair the damage—both to the car and to the family ties. Meanwhile, more enticing things beckon, such as making music, for which he has big plans.
Water, Wind, Dust, Bread
- Mahdi Zamanpour Kiasari
- Maria Besora
Three-year-old Janira lives on a goat farm. She has a speech delay and finds it hard to relate to her peers. But her love of nature and animals is infinite. And she doesn’t need words for these feelings.
Yaren and the Sun
- Joren Slaets, Renate Raman
Ten-year-old Yaren was six when her mother died. Now she’s going to Missing You, a mourning camp for children. Here she gets the space she needs to share her grief with children in the same position, and above all to laugh and dance together.
IDFA on Stage
- Alexander Devriendt
This experience is an interactive, personal experiment that will determine whether you can become a member of the secretive organization TM. A series of questions and assignments push the participant’s moral boundaries.
The History of the Civil War
- Dziga Vertov
The world premiere of the reconstructed version of Dziga Vertov’s long-lost chronicle of the 1918-1921 Russian Civil War. This pioneer of Soviet cinema filmed a chaotic nation characterized by unstable alliances and brutal violence.
- Samira Elagoz
A romance between two transmasculines who met during the pandemic. Through the deserts of Vegas and LA, far from other people, with just a car, some cash, and a supply of testosterone, they expose the integral dynamics of masculinity and femininity.
- Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher
An atmospheric, spooky and strangely comforting live cinema performance with a variety of artists. With words, images and music these ghost stories explore the space between the earthly and the intangible. An evening of therapeutic haunting.
- Courtney Stephens
Stunningly beautiful found footage edited from the amateur films of women who traveled the world in the first half of the 20th century. Filmmaker Courtney Stephens will perform her accompanying narration live, in the style of an illustrated travel lecture.