International Documentary Festival Amsterdam

The yearly IDFA festival is always around this time of the year, which is supposedly the world’s biggest documentary festival. It’s a pretty cool thing. There are so many documentaries running and so much extra stuff (debates, masterclasses, presentations etc), that it’s actually impossible to see everything even if you take 10 days off. The problem is that it is really hard to make a choice on what you actually want to see and some of the stuff you really want to see is quickly sold out. This time I actually booked tickets in advance and ended up seeing quite a lot of documentaries. I felt like shortly writing about the stuff I’ve seen:

The Red Chapel ***
I first went to see the Red Chapel, a Danish tv-serie turned into a movie, which is about a bunch of Danish comedians going to North Korea to play a comedy show and to make fun of the regime. As all stuff is censored (you got to hand in your cameras at night and then they delete the footage they don’t like before giving it back in the morning) and as the N-K regime is likely to have Danish interpreters, they took a Danish-Korean spastic with them as spastic Danish is probably impossible to comprehend for the North-Korean interpreters. In short, it’s a hilarious but also scary documentary. From time to time you burst out laughing while watching, at the same time North Korea is so unreal and frightening that it never gets really funny. The Danish documentary maker (/leader of the small group) constantly pushes for the limit, trying to find the footage that shows the evilness of the regime, and he is clearly uncomfortable at times, questioning his own consciousness; was it a good decision to come here? Am I not misusing the young spastic guy? Do I put people at risk? And those questions kind of remain unanswered when the docu finishes, I couldn’t help but wonder if this sort of documentary has consequences for the North-Korean woman who guided them during their stay.

Oil City Confidential ***
Documentary by Julian Temple about an old R&B band Dr Feelgood, who had some success in the UK charts in the 70s. I didn’t even know the band, it is seen as a sort of missing link towards the punk years (It inspired Joe Strummer to buy a guitar for example) and underrated in music history. Even while I didn’t know the band I kind of enjoyed it. Wilko Johnson is constantly being interviewed and he hyper-actively walks and jokes around all the time. Plus he’s even more amazing live as a guitar-player, watch this. After he and the singer couldn’t get along anymore he left and Dr Feelgood never really got popular anymore.

The Most Dangerous Man In America *****
The title refers to the words Henry Kissinger used to describe Daniel Ellsberg. I had never heard of the man and his story before, making the movie even more mindblowing for me. Daniel Ellsberg worked for the Pentagon as a military analyst during the Vietnam war, in 1971 he leaked a top-secret 7000 paper document about background and run-up of the Vietnam war to the NYT and to several other newspapers which showed how 5 succeeding US Presidents lied to the public and much more. After this he was declared public enemy nr 1, he was hiding in a hotel, even giving interviews to TV, while the FBI was looking for him. For 2 weeks the news broadcasts constantly opened with new tidbits of the story. Nixon was so mad he used his political power against Ellsberg personally, which also lead to the Watergate being discovered. It’s a fascinating story of a brave man, who spend the rest of his life as a peace-activist, but it also had a huge effect on the relation between the government and media. It’s well-structured, full of archival footage and makes a call for people in the government to leak revealing papers that might for example reveal the government deception about the Iraq and Afghanistan war (you could argue that the docu came out 6 years too late, something on which the documakers concurred in the Q&A afterwards), but the docu also makes an argument in favor of the anti-war protest-movements and the docu works kind of activating.

A hilarious, but scary, element of the documentary are the soundbites of President Nixon (as Nixon recorded everything between ‘ 71 and ‘ 73). It brilliantly shows the ‘other side’ of Ellsberg’s narrative, we hear Nixon and Kissinger madly talk about Ellsberg and the NYT. We also hear soundbites of Nixon suggesting to use nuclear weapons on North-Vietnam  and how he not gives a damn about civilians, with Kissinger being against that and diplomatically responding “I also do not care about civilians, sir, I just do not want the rest of the world… to think of you as some kind of butcher” and then Nixon “but Henry, we have to think big for-christ-sakes”. It’s rather mindblowing. Personally I do not believe in some Biblistic (or Star-Wars like) good and evil or any of that nonsense, which is why I’m always kind of amazed when real people make themselves look so much like real villains. In a weird way I’ve got mad-respect for people like Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney.

Sadly people like Kissinger and McNamara aren’t interviewed for the documentary, they were asked but rejected according to the makers in the Q&A.

The Yes Men Fix The World *****
I had heard of these two guys for the first time a year ago or so when I read about one of their pranks. I was a fan of it immediately, but somehow didn’t watch the previous Yes Men documentary (that is supposedly not so good as this one). These guys create fake websites of international organizations (as the WTO) and corporations (like DOW Chemical) and then get invited for conferences via these websites, there they show up and impersonate spokesmen and give a speech in which they tell the brutally honest truth (their truth) and pull off some hilarious stunts. It’s an original way of protesting against the big powers in our capitalist world.

I was a bit worried about the actual documentary, would it not get a bit boring and their pranks a bit childish? Thankfully it didn’t. I’ve seen them being described as the political alter-globalist version of Sacha Baron Cohen and I think it’s a good description. It’s probably the funniest documentary I’ve ever seen, I was entertained throughout the full 90 minutes. As for the political side, it’s not very deep or anything but it shortly explains the the economic neo-liberal ideology and takes aim at Milton Friedman and his followers (Milton Friedman as the guru of greed with his own cult in their words). Nothing new, but enough for people not acquainted with this critique to understand it and why the Yes Men do what they do. Especially funny is how they viciously ridicule the corporate-funded think-tanks spokesmen and tear apart their bullshit.

It also takes balls to do this. Not just standing there and giving a fake speech, but also the consequences when you’re busted. The big problem is whether you’re actually right, do you speak truth? I mean, corporations aren’t evil, the people who work for them are usually full of good intentions, so are the people organizing the conferences. It must be rather uncomfortable to come up and be so mean towards them. Is what you’re doing actually justified? That to me seems the hardest part of the whole thing. The pranks featured in the documentary however all made perfect sense to me, with the background info provided in the docu, they all seemed to be perfectly justified.

Anyway, it is a hilarious documentary. It works kind of activating, just like The Most Dangerous Man In America, with a positive portrayal of the protest movement and an ending with a call to action; if two guys can pull off all this there is no excuse to not take at least some action ourselves. It’s also a good introductory docu for for people not acquainted with the neo-liberal critique and the whole alter-globalist movement. When the movie ended people gave the longest ovation (with people standing) I’ve ever seen in a cinema and the Q&A with both Yes Men (one via web-cam) was also rather funny. It does seem the Yes Men are becoming ‘bigger’, they also spread sign-up lists for people to join and help out with their actions. I’m curious if they’ll be pulling off something at Copenhagen.

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country ****
Saw this movie after the Yes Men and it’s completely different. Not much jokes in this one. It’s a movie that was also at IDFA last year and mostly focuses around the mass demonstrations in autumn 2007, when the monks joined the protests and received international mass-media coverage. This is about the people who made the coverage possible; a Burmese organization that secretly video-tapes demonstrations and spreads them via satellite internet or smuggles them out of the country. And jesus christ, these guys are brave. Filming riot-police from a couple of meters distance, even filming the time their secret hide-out got busted and some of their members get arrested. Insane. I think the footage cannot leave anyone cold. The documentary also tells the story of the makers and their hopes when the monks joined the protests, Aung San Suu Kyi showed her face in public for the first time in years, and the country saw the biggest mass-demonstrations in Burma since 1988 when thousands of people got killed on the streets. It all ends badly and nothing has really changed so far. This movie probably leaves nobody cold.

The Shock Doctrine ***
Documentary on Naomi Klein’s best-selling book, which tells an alternative narrative on free-market economics of what happened in the world in the previous decades. I haven’t read the book, but I knew the argument it tries to make and was looking forward to the documentary. I didn’t really like the documentary, the American style voice-over annoys the hell out of me. It’s the same with those PBS documentaries; great stuff and freely available online with lots of info, but I just can’t stand the voice-over. The music is also overly dramatic from time to time. The footage however is interesting and so is the argument of course. The alternative narrative is convincing and quite ehm.. shocking; from Pinochet’s economic shock theory to Yeltsin to New Orleans to Iraq being sold out to private corporations and the army being increasingly privatized in Iraq. It’s interesting, the link between torture-shock treatments and the economic neo-liberal shocks seems a bit exaggerated to me though. While it’s not a good documentary, the mix of footage and lectures of Naomi Klein also feels a bit off, I guess it’s a good introduction to Naomi Klein’s argument for people who are too lazy to read the book.

Crude *****
Documentary about a lawsuit against Chevron for polluting the Ecuadorian Amazon, where kids swim and drink the water and where lots of people died of all sorts of diseases; the “Amazon Chernobyl”. It sounds like one of these many documentaries where against big corporations, you usually think you already know what is going to be the message before you start to watch, but this one is beautiful. It takes a rather objective approach in which both sides are interviewed, but after a while it’s for you as a viewer not hard to back up the young Ecuadorian lawyer that takes it up against the 5th biggest corporation of the world. It shows Chevron employees, like an environmental scientist, doing their work and seeming completely convinced that Chevron is doing the right thing, I couldn’t help but think that it shows how humans are capable of rationalizing the most horrible behavior.

To briefly explain, it’s a lawsuit against Texaco of over 20 years ago when they polluted the area there in order to cut down costs (Texaco merged with Chevron, so Chevron takes over the lawsuit). Texaco sold its stuff to PetroEcuador in the early 90s and basically bribed officials to get away with the behavior. The documentary is there at the right time as the case is opened up for field inspections in which the judge and attorneys of both sides move through the jungle to proceed the lawsuit. Everything is in it, the negatives of both sides are shown and the whole dubious system around these cases is explored. Chevron gets away with it by slowing things down in court while the Amazon continues to be polluted by the oil pools they’ve left behind, they have hundreds of millions in legal costs, but that’s nothing compared to the possible 28$bn fine. So they basically make use of their deep pockets and as long as they don’t have to pay they have more than enough interest on that 28$bn to cover the legal expenses. The other side however has lower legal expenses, but have still spend over 12$mln so far. They money they get is from a dubious sue-firm in the US that would get a big share of a possible ruling. This whole legal part is however not what could be really scary for Chevron, as the case is basically completely ignored by the corporate media and American public, what can however get really scary is when celebrities get involved like Sting’s wife who gets involved, starts speaking about the injustice in interviews and starts seriously hurting Chevron’s public image. It’s a sad world, although if you consider the fact that the most marginalized people of the world are now in a position to seriously hurt one of the world’s most powerful corporations you could say we’ve come a long way. Also interesting is how Chevron uses Web 2.0 for their propaganda on this case, they just started their own fucking youtube channel to explain how sympathetic Chevron is to the plight of the Ecuadorian citizens. I wonder if this new documentary has something to do with it…..

Anyway, highly recommended.

Eyes Wide Open **
The final movie I saw and probably the worst, although I still enjoyed watching it. It’s about a tour through Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and Brazil; all countries that got new elected leaders that finally stand up for their own people, are able to stand up against American corporations and improve public health, education and other services. I’m very interested in what is going on there, how it’ll continue and it could very well be end up as some sort of model for the rest of the world. While I don’t live there and follow it all that closely, I got a lot of respect for people like Evo Morales and Rafael Correa. The latter is the president of Ecuador and also played a very positive role in the Crude documentary. So this documentary should be very interesting for me, but it was a bit disappointing. The maker doesn’t try to really assess the situation, but basically gives his own subjective one-sided narrative on the situation and interviews ‘unimportant’ people in all these countries, shows footage of the leaders and interviews Eduardo Galeano (the writer of the classic Open Veins in Latin-America, the book Hugo Chavez gave to Barack Obama). Some of the footage is really interesting, a highlight is seeing Diego Maradona and Chavez sharing the stage during an antisummit against G.W. Bush, in which they both jump around and sing together with the massive audience and tell Bush to fuck off.

The problem for me with the documentary is that it is completely uncritical towards for example Hugo Chavez, even while the maker himself said in the Q&A that there are indeed some serious problems. The maker claims it is his own narrative and that he does not attempt to be objective, that’s all fine for me, the problem with this completely uncritical narrative is that you do injustice to reality and basically make a propaganda movie in favor of people like Chavez. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Hugo Chavez is often also incorrectly portrayed in Western media. The man does a lot of good things there, the situation for the poor drastically improved; improved health care, education, housing, jobs etc etc. But the man is also rather dangerous and I’m afraid for increasing dictatorial tendencies in the future. I would’ve preffered a more objective assessment of what is going on, the interviews with ‘common people’ also seem a bit too much for me, it’s not always all that interesting.

ardo Galeano

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