Friday, December 19, 2008

International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 23.-25.11.2008

IDFA website


I reserved a 2-day trip to Amsterdam where the biggest and most significant festival of our trade, the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), has commenced once again. My first IDFA night, however, is spent in an airport hotel in Oslo. It’s far from the relaxed and simultaneously bustling atmosphere of Amsterdam and IDFA.

Helsinki-Vantaa Airport in the grip of a snowstorm

A snowstorm takes over Finland just as our plane is supposed to depart. Delays, cancellations and a plane swap follow as well as a “snow- and ice-clearing operation” on the new plane. Finally, after a 7-hour wait, we manage to take off. There is a stopover in Oslo, and all the connecting flights to Amsterdam have already gone for the night. Therefore, the cold airport hotel, straight out of The Shining, is my accommodation for the first night. The hotel seems “alive” with passengers who have also missed their connecting flights, and there are plenty of them tonight. Many varieties of lonely dweller trample the hotel’s long corridors, and in addition to the single passengers at least a couple of groups of loud Estonian and Russian passengers have also found their way into this land of fjords.

I feel vexed about my cancelled meetings in Amsterdam, but try to utilise the waiting time by doing a big bunch of work assignments that have piled up: letters of reference, offers and contract propositions. The next morning the journey finally takes me to Amsterdam.

The festival's stylish main theatre, Tuschinski

We commenced Shadow of the Holy Book’s festival tour a year ago in this very place. Our world premiere took place in the main hall of the grand Tuschinski cinema. The theatre acts as IDFA's main stage now for the second time running. The premiere week was hectic: screenings, interviews, talk shows and Q&A sessions with the audience. Part of the audience considered our film as a mockumentary, a fake documentary (unbelievable as the story was/is to many viewers) and while we got to speak about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan, we had to keep proving the factual nature of our film. Now after a year has passed, the film has “proven itself” as a documentary and the point of our discussions has fortunately moved onto more relevant issues. An interesting year indeed is behind us.

Kevin with Farid and Ruslan Tuhbatullin at the IDFA 2007 premiere

This time I’m here to meet some colleagues and financiers - to talk about upcoming plans and possible collaborations. Amsterdam is an excellent place for that, because nearly all the people in our industry are here. Representatives of various festivals pop up here and there. Numerous colleagues are looking for funding and fortune in the financial forum, film market and in individual financier meetings. Fortunately there are also the films, their creators, and their audience. Here, all of them have value – in a slightly different way than at Nordisk Panorama. The screenings are bulging with people, and interesting talk show and discussion events have been created around many of the films. Amsterdam really does rock into the rhythm of documentaries at the end of November, and gathers nearly 150,000 viewers into the cinemas each year! Few fiction festivals can beat that.

IDFA takes over Amsterdam at the end of November

IDFA also arouses some envy, as the big and beautiful ones always do. Many think it’s too big, too hectic, too lacking in profile and too commercial, grabbing too many premieres for itself. This is true, at least from some perspectives. However, to a marginal art form, the existence of IDFA creates credibility and self-confidence. It is also an example for everyone and everywhere on how to reach the great masses with content at the forefront. To the industry, IDFA is like an oasis in the desert. It creates sex appeal for documentary film, and that’s something that the industry really needs in order to flourish and get our messages heard. The big audiences need important and moving stories too. That crowd should not be cordoned off from our domain by pushing it forcefully into becoming a victim of "the slush industry".

Many documentary festivals also try to compete with IDFA by fighting over premieres and criticising its profile. Why not, as everything needs to be shaken up and criticised in order to develop and make reforms. This is the case with IDFA too. However, the strength of IDFA is precisely its ability to keep up with the times. Led by the festival director Ally Derks, the team renews and modifies itself commendably with the times and also acts as a pioneer. That is one of the cornerstones of its success. Moreover, Amsterdam is an excellent place for our most important documentary festival. The documentary film crowd is not after palm trees and sunny beaches, but a fascinating, intelligent, artistic, historical, peculiar, and challenging environment. Amsterdam is all of these.

Laurien ten Houten, Director of IDFA Docs For Sale with Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen, director of IDFA-Industry and one of the festival's founding members

Rush, however, does accumulate in this circus. The advantage of many smaller festivals is that one can take things easy and properly concentrate on encountering just a few people, projects and films. Here people and things rush past your eyes with great speed. The rush takes hold and the oxygen is sometimes about to run out, especially if one wants to achieve as much as possible. One feels like a sultan in his harem. It’s a nice place to visit, but it’s also nice to get out at times. The belly is full, but exhaustion can also strike when trying to eat too much at once.

One World Festival, Bratislava, Slovakia, 14.-16.11.2008

One World Festival website


I have inexplicable bad luck with Slovakian food, as plates of over-salty food continually arrive in front of me. Either that, or the local food culture is very original. I also buy some spring water for the hotel, which turns out to be mineral water and very salty, Slovakian-style.

The remnants of the saltiest pasta in my life

My first dining experience in Bratislava, however, is a lunch at the Finnish Embassy, courtesy of the Ambassador, Mr Jukka Leino, and his wife. I left Istanbul early in the morning, and when I finally arrived at the Ambassador’s residence via Munich and Vienna, feeling more than a little stunned, I'm dying of hunger. The soup is excellent and quite balanced in terms of the salt level. The salmon is also ok, but there’s a salty slice of bacon on top of it. And I don’t eat so-called red meat. The bacon is taken away from my portion, but it remains, shrivelled from all the salt, as a ghost haunting my tired mind. From there onwards, all the dining in Bratislava goes downhill.

With Ambassador Jukka Leino and his wife Eva on the recidency's balcony on the banks of the Danube

I got to know Jukka Leino in New York, where he was working as the Finnish Consul. I organised a Finnish documentary film event, Norden Exposure, in New York in 2002, and it was supported strongly by the Finnish Consulate, headed by Jukka and the Attache Ilkka Kalliomaa. In Slovakia, Leino clearly wants to invigorate and support the presentation of Finnish culture, which sounds grand and is warmly embodied in his generosity this evening. Amongst the dining, Leino also introduces the interesting historical and geographical location of his residence: the Donau flows before it and, from the balcony, one can see directly to both Austria and Hungary. During the Communist era, many Czechoslovakians attempted to swim across the Donau to the West from this point, but were most often shot dead on the shore. A memorial has been erected nearby, which has the names of those shot in the Donau carved on it. It’s an excellent site for a human rights festival.

The festival is a positive surprise in many ways, and reminds me of the Lithuanian Human Rights film event. The programme consists of many great, well-known films, which at least mildly touch upon the human rights theme. Who knows how many times I have been to a festival with the same set of films, such as A Jihad for Love, Septembers, Up The Yangtze and Taxi to the Dark Side. Altogether 80 documentary films are presented at the festival. The films also interest the audience and the screenings have a strong turnout. The festival organisers estimate that the 5-day festival will gather 20 000 viewers, which is an incredible feat indeed.

The festival welcomes you

The discussion with the audience is also rewarding. For each festival we compile an information sheet on the country’s collaboration with the Turkmen dictatorship, which is also the case with Slovakia. The Slovakian foreign minister has instigated discussions with the Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov on developing trade between the two countries, and the collaboration began promptly. It is a common trend worldwide, and in Europe as well: very different states are all lurking for opportunities to collaborate with the oil-and-gas-rich Turkmenistan. Human rights issues are ignored. The plans for new gas pipelines create an even bigger urge for negotiations with the Turkmen president. The surface-level changes made in the country (the human rights and freedom of speech situation has in fact remained the same), as well as the president’s “facelift campaign” have increased the “security” as well as the sex-appeal for collaborating with this totalitarian state.

At the post-screening panel discussion

Some officials are very interested in our film, and the information on the Turkmen-Slovakian relationship. The head of Amnesty in Slovakia sees the information as a call to action. They have a meeting with the foreign minister within a couple of weeks, and aim to add to their list of issues the situation in Turkmenistan and the various problems involved in trade with dictatorships.

Bratislava’s One World is not a competitive festival, but the audience award is given out here as well. Apparently, the audience has taken a liking to our film, as it rises to second place in the poll. A film set in the Congo is the winner, which, unfortunately, I don’t manage to see. The sad fact when it comes to festivals is that (unless you’re a member of the Jury) the more activities there are for yourself and the film, the less opportunities there are for seeing other people’s works. It is often embarrassing, because at festival’s one constantly meets with new authors whose films one would like to see. In other words, the more you travel the more films you want to see. For someone having grown up in a Lutheran community it starts to pray on one's conscience.

The beautiful Slovakian banknotes will be replaced by the Euro in early 2009