IDFA 2011: Docs in Brief, Part Two

Yesterday’s IDFA round-up looked at selected titles from the First Appearance competition for which I was a juror. Today’s wraps up my brief thoughts on films from other competitions, as well as a handful of films from the festival’s non-competing “Reflecting Images” sections.

PLANET OF SNAIL
South Korea’s Seung-Jun Yi’s tender portrait of a young deaf and blind man and his physically challenged companion picked up IDFA’s largest prize, the award for Best Feature-Length Doc (pictured above). Though quiet and concerned with the mundane aspects of daily life, the film remains nevertheless engrossing throughout, revealing the deep and loving relationship between Young-Chan and his wife Soon-Ho. Communicating with him by tapping on his fingers, functioning as his eyes and ears, Soon-Ho is as winning a screen presence as her husband, whether working painstakingly with him to change a lightbulb that’s out of her reach, or standing aside as he ventures out with a cane for the first time.

THE AMBASSADOR
THE RED CHAPEL’s Mads Brügger opened IDFA this year with his new provocation, in which the Danish director once again takes on a new role at the service of his film. This time, he aims to explore corruption in African governments by buying his way into a diplomatic position from which he can acquire blood diamonds. Armed with a hidden camera, the Sundance award winner makes arrangements to become a Liberian consul so that he can negotiate with the corrupt Central African Republic in the hopes of trafficking diamonds out of the country. The film, unsurprisingly, came under fire for its ethically questionable methods as well as its representation of certain African groups – fodder for extensive debate – but it’s certainly successful in pointing out the extent of illicit opportunities open to those who have the resources to pay for them.

MONTENEGRO
Argentina’s Jorge Gaggero was recognized as the winner of the Mid-Length competition for this unusual portrait of two hermits who dwell on opposite ends of a small, remote island in a river delta. The titular subject is an elderly fishing net maker, while his younger friend, César, has a boat that they share to catch the fish Montenegro then cooks for them both. When an argument creates a rift between them, this cooperative relationship is thrown off-balance. Beyond the two men, Gaggero’s lushly shot film reveals their island as another character, also populated by the animals César raises, and especially by Montenegro’s dogs.

GOING UP THE STAIRS
While the previous film took the prize, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s endearing film placed in this category’s jury’s top three (together with Eric Brach’s HABANA MUDA). While a more conventional portrait, its subject, 50-year-old Akram (and to a lesser extent, her significantly older husband Heydar) is indelible. The illiterate Iranian housewife recently discovered a talent for painting, and her children help arrange for an exhibition of her work in Paris. By patriarchal custom, she must receive permission from her husband to attend, which she procrastinates for as long as possible before addressing. Surprisingly, matching her expressive and fantastical artwork, the film has a lightness and sense of humor rather than the dark, oppressive tone that one might expect from the inequality evident in Akram’s traditional conservative marriage – the colorful banter between the couple is especially revealing, speaking of a love gained begrudingly over time.

EL GUSTO
Competing in the IDFA PLAY Competition for Music Docs (Don Argott and Demian Fenton’s LAST DAYS HERE took the prize), Safinez Bousbia’s film recounts the story of Algeria’s largely forgotten chaâbi music scene that united Arabs and Jews before the country’s independence. Having stumbled upon chaâbi through a conversation with a former musician turned shopkeeper, Bousbia begins to track down other musicians – Muslims in different parts of Algiers, and Jews now living in France and elsewhere – in the hopes of reuniting former bandmates to perform a public concert. As she finds them, Algeria’s cultural and political history comes alive, culminating in a refreshingly conflict-free reunion bringing supposed mortal enemies together through the love of a common music form.

NOT IN MY BACKYARD
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see other films in the Student Competition (I was especially looking forward to the eventual winner, Karen Winther’s THE BETRAYAL), but did catch Matthias Bittner’s look at the lives of two convicted sex offenders. Eliot and Teofilo make for atypical subjects. Given their crimes, the audience is predisposed to find them unsympathetic, but the film never entirely demonizes them, instead showing the obstacles that seemingly stand in the way of them successfully re-entering society. The result doesn’t exactly make the viewer sympathize with them, but it does prevent easy dismissal and complexifies them as characters. While the film is professionally constructed, the filmmaker at times encroaches far too close to Werner Herzog territory in scenes where he is heard asking pressing, off-putting questions off-camera.

LOVE ADDICT
Pernille Rose Grønkjær, the acclaimed Danish director of past IDFA winner THE MONASTERY: MR VIG AND THE NUN, returned to Amsterdam with a look at individuals who are unhealthily in love with being in love. Quite different from her previous film, which was also an unusual love story at its core, Grønkjær’s sophomore effort follows a number of personal stories (including an often disturbing extended re-enactment) of hopelessly unattainable obsessions, including a woman who distracts herself from her unhappy life by dating a significantly younger man, and a man who lives with his mother attempting to quell his obsessive tendencies by instead maintaining a long distance relationship.

BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!*
Just weeks after Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten learned that the Los Angeles Film Festival would host the world premiere of his documentary, BANANAS!* – about a lawsuit against the Dole Food Company – he became embroiled in a legal and PR battle to save his premiere, his film, his reputation, and his freedom of speech. Providing a front row seat to witness the drama from Gertten’s own camera, his incendiary new documentary relates the efforts of a multinational corporation to protect its brand at all costs, and what happened when the filmmaker decided to fight back.

EMPIRE OF DUST
Belgian director Bram van Paesschen captures a clear case of culture clash when Chinese sensibilities about work ethic and time management clash with local ways as a Chinese company sets out to rebuild a major road in the Congo. Seeking to exploit mineral rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China has agreed to rebuild and maintain a major but long-neglected road. When the Congolese government’s promised materials fail to materialize, logistics director Lao Yan is forced into often protracted negotiations with local vendors, working through the Congolese Eddie, who functions as something of a fixer, and speaks fluent Mandarin. Absurdism meets globalization, with the fate of the Congo’s development lying somewhere in between.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief, Recommendations

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