Dok.cetera: IDFA – What to watch and the Romanian presence

2 November, 2022

The International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the world’s biggest celebration of non-fiction cinema, kicks off its 35th edition from 9 to 20 November. The festival opens with the world premiere of Niki Padidar’s visual collage All You See and feature over 300 films across several competitions, industry events, special screenings, and more. Immediate festival highlights include the guest of honor, and this year’s Venice Golden Lion winner (All The Beauty and the Bloodshed), Laura Poitras, as she presents her retrospective and Top 10. Furthermore, curated focus programs “Around Masculinity” and “Playing Reality”; the former looks at the problematic social construct of masculinity, while the latter reimagines the concept of theatricality. With a festival lasting nearly two weeks across the Dutch capital, there is no shortage of options for every non-fiction fan, including the International Premiere of Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi’s Personality Crisis: One Night Only, continuing the director’s documentary portraits of iconic American artists, this time with New York institution David Johansen, and a special tribute to the late Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius, whose Mariupolis and Mariupolis 2 will screen alongside a slew of Ukrainian projects.

With so much going on, we thought we’d take this edition of Dok.cetera to look specifically at the three Romanian productions and co-productions featuring across IDFA sections and five out-of-competition documentaries we’ve been impressed with over the months now screening Dutch or International Premieres at IDFA 2022.

anhell69 Theo Montoya
Anhell69, a film by Theo Montoya

The Romanian Presence

The presence of Romanian films at this year’s IDFA comes from a singular production and two international co-productions. The sole Romanian production included is the world premiere of Lucia Chicos and Alexandra Diaconu’s Fatima, which screens via the Youth Documentary Competition. Since fleeing Afghanistan, Fatima has been living in Bucharest. As she films her life in the capital city, her spontaneous and candid observations result in a tender account of a young woman navigating the juxtapositions of the life she has been given – between her own desires and her family, between refugee and teenager status, and, of course, the deep sadness of her homeland’s devastation.

The first of the co-productions presented is a Dutch premiere straight from Venice, which premiered Anhell69. Screening via the Best of Fests section, the cinematic documentary is a co-production with Colombia, France and Germany. In it, director Theo Montoya dives into the no-future generation of one of the world’s most violent cities, Medellín, Colombia. Unfortunately, when Montoya had cast several members of the city’s queer community in an upcoming horror film, a week later, his star died of an overdose. Montoya’s subsequent cinematic journey draws inspiration from Victor Gaviria as he presents a borderless, genderless portrait of a ghost town in the mountains of magical realism’s birthplace.

Another co-production with Colombia, this time including Chile, is the powerful observational documentary Alis. Centering around the La Arcadia women’s shelter of Bogotá, Colombia, Nicolas van Hemelryck and Clare Weiskopf’s film has garnered accolades around the world, including from Berlinale and Sheffield Doc/Fest. In the film, the shelter women imagine Alis, their non-existent classmate. With an empty cupboard and limitless possibilities, their original stories paint a picture of a life without opportunity and the existential void resulting from birth.

all thatbreathes Shaunak Sen
All That Breathes, a film by Shaunak Sen

What Else to Watch

All That Breathes (dir. Shaunak Sen)
The 2022 Sundance Documentary Jury Prize winner, Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes, is a multi-award-winning Indian documentary based in one of the world’s most populated cities. Also garnering Best Documentary honours at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and an official New York Film Festival selection, All That Breathes looks at the impact of mega-city pollution from a bottom-up perspective. In the film, two brothers have set up a hospital for the wounded Black Kite, whose unique flight pattern sees them very low to the ground. On a good day, one will see flocks of such birds, but on a bad one, the thickness of the city’s pollution causes extended flight to be impossible, resulting in mass falling and, hopefully, into the care of Nadeem and Saud. All That Breathes is a multi-layered story of co-existence between species and the incredible adaptability all animals (even humans) have in the face of abysmal circumstances.

Music for Black Pigeons IDFA Jørgen Leth, Andreas Koefoed
Music for Black Pigeons, a film by Jørgen Leth, Andreas Koefoed

Music for Black Pigeons (dir. Jørgen Leth, Andreas Koefoed)
An out-of-competition Venice premiere, Danish master Jørgen Leth teams up with Andreas Koefoed for a music documentary that looks into the ever-interesting creative process. Shot over 14 years and screened via the festival’s Masters section, the film is a piece of cinematic improvisation where The Five Obstructions-influencing The Perfect Human filmmaker seeks the answer to the question, “What does it feel like to be a musician?”. Renowned jazz musicians like Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell and Midori Takada struggle to enunciate their answers, but when together in a room, magic happens. Music for Black Pigeons is a film, unlike many others. It lives in the spaces between history and future, structure and improvisation. Leith’s exercise in finding the creative drive within the music space allows this cast of eccentric (and rather elderly) musicians to explore something bigger than themselves.

Mutzenbacher Ruth Beckermann
Mutzenbacher, a film by Ruth Beckermann

Mutzenbacher (dir. Ruth Beckermann)
The best film from Berlinale’s 2022 Encounters programme, Ruth Beckermann’s Mutzenbacher, draws from the 1906 German erotic novel Josephine Mutzenbacher or The Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself. The film, which features in both IDFA’s Masters and Focus: Playing Reality, sees sections of the controversial (and anonymously written, albeit through a heavy male gaze) novel cast by Ruth Beckermann. Specifically, Beckermann seeks men between the ages of 16 and 99 who will read some of the more “offensive” passages from the book. Set inside a coffin factory and on an updated version of the infamous “casting couch”, Mutzenbacher ultimately turns its own gaze from the novel’s observed underage sex worker to observing the present-day men wrestle with their own desires. Convention-challenging and Meta-fictional, Mutzenbacher is a charged exposé into forbidden fantasy in this age of sexual ubiquity.

The Eclipse IDFA Nataša Urban
The Eclipse,a film by Nataša Urban

The Eclipse (dir. Nataša Urban)
Also screening via IDFA’s Best of Fests section, Nataša Urban’s The Eclipse has gathered awards recognition as the recipient of the CPH:DOX DOX:AWARD and DokuFest INT’L FEATURE DOX prize. This documentary essay looks at the period coinciding with the director’s life, the period between solar eclipses visible in the former Yugoslavia, 1961 and 1999. During this time, Urban watches the complicated modern history of her home country through the metaphor, “you can never look directly at the past”. Incorporating archive footage, Super-8mm film, sepia filters, and more, The Eclipse is a cinematic contrast between subjective and collective memory.

Werner Herzog Radical Dreamer IDFA Thomas von Steinaecker
Werner Herzog, Radical Dreamer Thomas von Steinaecker

Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer (dir. Thomas von Steinaecker)
The first comprehensive portrait of German director Werner Herzog, Thomas von Steinaecker’s Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is also a Best of Fests screening. Frequently dubbed as one of the most influential artists of the times, Herzog’s long and storied career is as infamous as it is legendary. Images from his films are not just part of cinema’s consciousness but part of the wider society’s collective memory. From his classic films of the 70s and 80s to his search for “ecstatic truth” during the mid-90s, Herzog’s career is one that goes against all odds and achieves a cult-like following along the way. Through Herzog’s work process, archive footage, and interviews over a multi-decade span, Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer is an inward journey into the ecstasy of dreams while providing the most precise portrait yet of the man behind the accent.

"New to Bucharest by way of Amsterdam, Brooklyn, and a few others, Steve is the communications manager/industry editor for Modern Times Review documentary magazine. He was also senior editor for New York-based IndieWood/Hollywoodn’t.