IDFA 2018 highlights: In the slipstream of power
From November 14 to 25, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam will take place in various cinemas and theatres in Amsterdam. Film critic Joost Broeren-Huitenga highlights several remarkable documentaries about people in the slipstream of power.
“It's not a golden cage... but still.” These are the words the wife of the French ambassador in Burkina Faso choses to describe her luxurious villa, surrounded by high brick walls. The insightful short documentary The Ambassador's Wife, selected for the IDFA Competition for Short Documentary, shows her spending her days laying by the pool and finding a creative outlet in a choir. As an ambassador's wife, she is explicitly forbidden to work she explains, seemingly resigned to her fate. “It's how my mother raised me: women tend to the house. But every now and then... oh well.”
This ambassador's spouse is far from the only person in this year's IDFA program who takes position on the sidelines of power. There are examples of all shapes and sizes. Steve Bannon is undoubtedly the most well-known among them. The populist strategist steps out of the shadows for American Dharma, the latest film by documentary grand master Errol Morris. Or perhaps it's better to say that he emerges from backstage – after all, Bannon has become known as the 'puppet master' behind Donald Trump’s successful bid for the American presidency. At least that's how he likes to present it himself; Bannon was removed from the White House shortly after Trumps election. Morris lets him tell his own story, interwoven with scenes from classical Hollywood films which shaped Bannon's propaganda and apocalyptic ideology.
The Border Fence literally shows people on the sidelines of arguably the greatest political and humanitarian challenge Europe faces at the moment: the migration crisis. When the possibility of a border fence at the Brenner Pass is raised by Austrian politicians, director Nikolas Geyrhalter travels to the area and talks to local inhabitants and stakeholders. His carefully balanced shots betray an equally level-headed method: many different voices are heard, and everyone gets space to tell their story. With one crucial omission: there's no sign of the politicians who are deciding about the fence; we only see them on television screens, as the locals vehemently disagree or nod their head in approval. Most of those who speak, show at least some empathy for the fate of those poor souls seeking salvation in Europe. Geyrhalter paints a picture of a society full of people who oppose something, while the system powers through nonetheless.
Even in films which put those in power center stage, this usually happens only after they have once again moved to the sidelines. Or when they've been pushed to the sidelines, as is the case with former Hungarian prime-minister Ferenc Gyurcsány (who will attend IDFA for a Doc Talk). He wanted nothing more than to be president of his country again, but at the end of the election battle which is depicted up-close and personal in Hungary 2018, he had to concede to Viktor Orbán. In addition, no less than two films depict court cases against former leaders – the trial deciding on the fate of Brasilian president Dilma Rousseff (The Trial) and the case against general Ratko Mladić at the Yugoslavia tribunal in The Hague (The Trial of Ratko Mladić).
Even when the leaders who are portrayed have not been discredited, materials shot during their reign are often only shown long after it has ended. This is true for Citizen Havel, a 2008 documentary selected for her Top 10 program by Czech director Helena Třeštíková. The film follows Václav Havel during his entire 13-year presidency of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. Directors Pavel Koutecký and Miroslav Janek had a unique opportunity to get access to Havel's life, up to and including his bedroom, but only on the condition that the footage would not see the light of day until at least five years after his presidency had ended.
The three extended conversations with Michael Gorbachev that take center stage in Werner Herzog and Andre Singer's documentary Meeting Gorbachev were only held recently, years after Gorbachev's presidency. In the interviews, the directors and their subject take stock of the life and legacy of the statesman who brought 'perestroika' and 'glasnost' to the Soviet Union, and in doing so ushered in the end of the Cold War. Meeting Gorbachev is a loving tribute and a swan song all rolled into one. In his voice-over (delivered in his now legendary accent), Herzog expounds on the former president's biography and accomplishments. Former collaborators and admirers get a word in as well, but the heart of the film lies in the conversations with Gorbachev himself. He's still a very charismatic speaker, and the provident leader he once was is never far below the surface. Still, even Gorbachev somehow puts himself on the sidelines – for instance by consistently using 'we' when discussing the political efforts. When Herzog asks him what his epitaph should be, he refers to the text on a friend's gravestone which has stuck with him: “We tried.”
Joost Broeren-Huitenga is a freelance film critic for de Filmkrant and het Parool. This article was commissioned by IDFA. You can find information about tickets and programming at: https://www.idfa.nl