IDFA – 20th international documentary film festival amsterdam – nov. 22nd – dec. 2nd 2007

There were four of us clattering and clanging through the drizzly dark streets of Amsterdam. We pedaled and weaved through the crowded evening commute on our rented bicycles – ringing the bells on the handlebars to avoid a head-on with a taxi, another bike or the neighborhood smoked-eel peddler. Head to toe in dark wool, ubiquitous scarves fluttering, we probably looked like a wet, ragged unkindness of ravens squawking through the alleys. The reality was only slightly less disturbing – four Seattle cinephiles/filmmakers – Jeff and Sue (red jet films) – my girlfriend Wenche and I (August Island Pictures) – flogging our way through the rain – on our way to another film at IDFA – and true to our Seattle roots, rain be damned – we had a movie to get to.

That night we saw “Jimmy Carter Man From Plains” – directed by Jonathan Demme. At 125 minutes and what seemed like endless sequences of President Carter climbing in and out of cars – promoting his book (released in 2006): Palestine: Peace not Apartheid– the film took its toll on jet-lagged eyes – (a lot of hand-held shaky-cam from inside limos.) There was compelling footage of President Carter explaining his message about the deterioration of conditions in the West Bank of Palestine into an Apartheid state. There was equally compelling material capturing visceral Jewish/American reactions to the term “Apartheid” specifically and his book as a whole – Yet the film’s finest moments to me were found in the glimpses of the human inside the great humanitarian. From observing his morning swim to eavesdropping on the man from Plains hosting a backyard barbecue – the humility and quiet, strong faith inside President Carter was apparent. Perhaps no more so than in an intimate sequence in the Carters’ small dining room, observing Jimmy and his wife, Rosalynn praying then silently eating a meal together. As he alluded to in the film – six years had passed since any meaningful peace talks between Palestine and Israel. Regardless of the content of the book – the existence of it, and the film, and the humble Man from Plains himself seemed to be the best chance at generating meaningful dialogue about a peace process in Palestine. A Middle East peace conference happened two days later in Annapolis.

Amsterdam is a beautiful city. The canals are lovely. The art (Van Gough Museum; Rijksmuseum alone) is exquisite – the people who live there are gorgeous. (Probably something to do with biking everywhere) It’s also very accommodating. IDFA’s main office was easy to navigate, staffed with competent folks who all spoke fluent English (Like everyone in Amsterdam) – and was nicely located on the University of Amsterdam campus with an adjoining Speakeasy. Get a Heineken or a coffee – get your tickets – go see films.

We saw nine more over the course of the week. Like most festivals – there was a smattering of inspired genius as well as…well, other fare. I still think using a tripod doesn’t make a filmmaker any less of a documentarian…or put barf bags under the theatre seats for the love of pity…Most notable to me in the inspired genius category were two: “Journey of a Red Fridge” and “Stranded.”

Set against the 8000-meter peaks of the Himalayan Mountains, 17 year-old Hari Rai has been hired to carry a huge, red Coca-Cola fridge from his home village in the mountains to a repair center in the neighboring city. “Journey of a Red Fridge” offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of local inhabitants in the Himalayas. The red, logo emblazoned fridge pops in stark contrast against the giant eternal peaks behind it. The cinematography was outstanding and the direction natural, unforced and not over stylized. The real charm comes from Hari, who doesn’t really want to be a porter anymore but like most of the children and many adults in the region – must take the work to survive. His journey winds through sacred Buddhist temples and rustic villages – where Hari observes an ancient ritual a Shaman performs on a sick child. In a painful, deeply personal story Hari reveals his life dream: to make enough money to go to medical school and start a clinic in his home village to ease the suffering of others. Lucian Muntean and Natasa Stankovic directed “Journey of a Red Fridge”.

This time set in the Andes Mountains, “Stranded” tells another story of survival – this one notorious and haunting – emotional and poetic. Directed by Gonzalo Arijon, “Stranded,” reveals the unbelievable story of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes Mountains in 1972. The survivors of the crash managed to live for 10 weeks at over 4000 meters, in large part due to their decision to cannibalize some of those who didn’t survive the crash. Those who survived and were ultimately rescued, come back together in this film 35 years later to revisit the crash site, face the ghosts they find there and ultimately find love and compassion through their life shattering experience. As sensational a topic as it was in 1972, it remains so now – you watch the 130-minute feature and scarcely blink or breathe. Gorgeously shot on Super-16 and HD Cam, the suvivors’ oral stories are filled in with understated and poignant reenactments – some performed by the actual children of the survivors. Yet while the topic of cannibalism may be sensational – the stories these people tell and the way they are weaved into the movie are anything but…”Stranded” is a story of deep friendship, unbelievable human endurance and a sacredness found in the human condition when hope is all but extinguished. “Stranded” won the VPRO Joris Ivens award 2007 – IDFA’s top prize.

One of the highlights of our week at IDFA was a chance to see Werner Herzog speak at an IDFA master class. Jeff and Kevin (KTVC Inc. – also from Seattle) and I sat near the rafters in the balcony at the packed Tuschinski Theatre and listened to Werner speak for two hours on topics ranging from the true terror of the ocean – to shooting his own material then inserting a famous DP’s name in the credits – to the true nature of what he calls a “movie-movie” – a porn-flick he stumbled on in his hotel room. Of course he answered questions about “Grizzly Man” and the tape he listened to in that film – and some inane questions from an American in the audience who insisted he must begin shooting “greener” in his movies. (Werner and the Rain blog). In the end Werner was engaging, endearing and wise and we were the better for it.

Our last night in Amsterdam found us pedaling through the rain again – this time to hear traditional Dutch music performed by a friend of Kevin’s at a Speakeasy near the Rijksmuseum. Despite a harmless but spectacular bicycle crash by an unnamed member of our ravens – we made it to the venue and were greeted by the folk-group – singing, as they should, in Dutch. They switched to English for us – and before each song – celebrated their “Friends and special guests from Seattle.” That’s the way it felt the whole week in Amsterdam. That’s the way it felt at IDFA.

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