The Importance of Being Earnest

November sees the return of the annual IDFA (International Documentary Festival, Amsterdam), the biggest international gathering of documentaries and documentary filmmakers in the world.

ACMI's Head of Film Programs, Richard Sowada, at IDFA 2011

ACMI’s Head of Film Programs, Richard Sowada, at IDFA 2011

It’s an avalanche of 300+ online films and another 300 or so onscreen during the festival. A huge festival and market, IDFA provides a true gauge of the creative documentary and social mood. The immediacy of the form over the narrative feature filmmaking also provides pointers to the tone of feature films to follow a year later.

From a program perspective, documentaries rate among ACMI’s most popular titles. We love them and it seems you do too. Successes like Eames: The Architect and the Painter, Woody Allen: A Documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, war/dance, Gonzo, Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost trilogy and dozens more have been enormously successful across social justice, music, art and moving image areas. So for us, IDFA is fertile ground.

One of the interesting things about film festivals though is how moods can be so international. In some years there may be a movement toward gender based subjects. In other years it’s ranged from music to photography to architecture to journalism. In 2011 there were three major thematics [as I saw it] – the environment, the economy and the Middle East.

It was the environment and economy related films though, that proved the most frustrating. It’s almost as if documentary filmmakers have only just discovered the notion of “advocacy” – in essence a voice and an opinion. As a result there seems to be an awful lot of loud shouting with generally justified, but often overinflated, outrage. If the films were rolled into a character from cinema, they might be Dr. Miles Bennell from Invasion of the Body Snatchers where he screams uncontrollably at the audience “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next, You’re next…!” Whilst rightly urgent, I felt what was lost in the issue-based titles overall was the filmic.

This is why Surviving Progress made such a strong impact on me. It’s most certainly made for the big screen and calls into play the great ‘symphonic’ cinema traditions of films such as Koyaanisqatsi with the strangely wry sense of The Corporation (the two are linked by producers). Where most of the ‘environomic’ films seemed claustrophobic despite the scope of the international issues, the softly layered structure of Surviving Progress and its nod to traditions was as a breath of fresh air.

It’s not ‘soft advocacy’ by any stretch but Surviving Progress does show a high level of maturity against the often adolescent tone of many others. Without doubt though, the rebirth of advocacy in documentary is a very interesting and heartening turn. It has great strength and passion – something deeply lacking in broadcast documentary but something so critical. It bodes well – angry, outraged and aware.

– Richard Sowada, Head of Film Programs, ACMI

Surviving Progress screens at ACMI from Sun 1 Jul – Sun 15 Jul 2012.

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