The most important festival for non-fiction in the world kicked off with the English opening film ‘Sisters in law’ from festival regular Kim Longinotto, who collaborated with Florence Ayisi on the documentary about two female judges in Cameroon. Longinotto‘s popularity was proven ten days later at the closing ceremony, when her film took home the Audience Award. The main prize, the VPRO Joris Ivens Award, went to the Spanish documentary ‘La casa di mi abuela’ (My grandmother’s house) from director Adán Aliaga. The win is remarkable in that it reveals a continuing Dutch fancy for Spaniards in their third age; earlier this year the Mercedes Álvarez documentary El cielo gira or ‘The Sky Turns’ –about the director’s village of birth in which only old people had remained behind– won the top prize at Rotterdam.

Two subjects stood out for their coverage from multiple angles: terror and politics and globalisation and its impact on our environment and food. Two documentaries about Italy made by Northerners were also noteworthy. On the purely visual level, a remarkable fact was the ever growing polarisation between ‘what you see is what you get’-style documentaries shot on video and on the opposite side of the spectrum the features with carefully composed cinematography, often shot on film.

Guerillas in the mist

The availability of relatively inexpensive video cameras and editing suites that work on home computers has led to an avalanche of films made by people that like to get down and dirty and do it cheap and fast. These "guerilla documentaries" offer the possibility to film undercover as the lightweight cameras can be sneaked in unnoticed nearly anywhere. Almost invariably made by young directors, examples include the illegally shot ‘The Art of Flight’ by American Davin Anders Hutchins, which explores issues surrounding Sudanese refugees in another police-state: Egypt, and ‘Gitmo: the New Rules of War’, an investigation of the American Guatanamo bay prison from Swedish filmmakers Erik Gandini and Tarik Saleh.

These low-budget, semi-secretively shot projects prefer content over style almost out of necessity, though both films try to compensate with flashy editing and a pounding score. The image quality sometimes is misty at best – but the pay-off of these stories lies in the fact that they would otherwise have probably remained untold. Hutchins and Gandini borrow from star non-fiction filmmaker Michael Moore in that they are both physically and thematically the real protagonists of their films and thus overshadow their subject matter to a somewhat unhealthy extent.

The young directors could learn something from Danish veteran Ove Nyholm, whose Ondskabens anatomi(The Anatomy of Evil) bears the clear imprint of Nyholm’s thoughts and even some fleeting shots of the director himself, but whose work about people who committed genocide first-hand is smart, thought-provoking and razor sharp without drawing unnecessary attention to its maker.

Food for thought

This year’s festival featured a special sidebar which focused on the environment called Green screen, which featured films from many different selections. Also included were Werner Herzog‘s ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’ (which made me wonder what had clouded his reason when he made this film) as well as ‘Profils paysans: le quotidien’ (Profiles of Farmers: Daily Life) by Raymond Depardon, to whom the IDFA dedicated a retrospective this year. Two intriguing Austrian films about food were also part of Green screen as well as the official selection: ‘We Feed the World’ by Erwin Wagenhofer and Unser täglich brot (Our Daily Bread) by Nikolaus Geyrhalter. The former is a more conventional documentary about the impact of globalisation on the food we eat, basically expanding from the specifics of the Nile Perch in Darwin’s Nightmare (by Hubert Sauper, also an Austrian) and Jonathan Nossiter‘s investigation of the global wine industry,Mondovino, to a more general approach that encompasses bread, sea fish, Nestlé products, Spanish and Romanian vegetables, Brazilian soy and European chicken. Wagenhofer, who shot on film, offers us interviews accompanied by often astounding images, contrasting imposing colours, shapes and movements.

Equally well-photographed and also shot on film is Our Daily Bread, though Geyrhalter’s documentary has something which Wagenhofer’s work lacked: audacity. Anything but an assembly line picture, this film offers us 90 minutes of well-edited footage showing how and where our food is grown, prepared and processed without a single word of commentary throughout. The film, whose final print was not yet available when it was shown for the press, thus leaves it up to the audience to draw its own conclusions about the food we eat every day; coaxing open-minded viewers into their own dedicated session of food philosophy for the duration of the film. Our Daily Bread went home with the Special Jury Award and will premiere in its home country in early 2006. Needless to say that commercial prospects for the courageous film are bleak at best.

Caring and cruel Italy

More eye candy was to be had in the exquisitely shot Dutch documentary Dreaming By Numbers by Dutch Italian Anna Bucchetti. Entirely shot in black and white in a popular district in Naples, the film and the characters it presents look and feel so authentic it could have been produced decades ago in Italy if it weren’t for the computers and printers lurking in the background every now and then. Dreaming…follows the employees and customers of a tiny lotto outlet in the city in which numbers have magical qualities. The obsession of the faithful clientele with choosing the right numbers is used by Bucchetti to paint a vivid portrait of life in a small quarter of a big city and her eye for detail reveals Naples to be a difficult place to live; both caring and cruel.

These two adjectives could equally be applied to the Mirjam Kubescha-directed Balordi, also set in Italy. The German-Italian co-production offers us a peek inside one of the country’s best guarded prisons, where the male inmates, locked away for years or lifetimes, are preparing a production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Alternating dead-serious interviews about the prisoners’ past with shots of frolicking actors made up and dressed to the nines, one initially has the impression to be watching two separate documentaries until the identities of the actors and the inmates slowly merge. Vibrant with a surprising amount of not-so-latent homoeroticism, Balordi‘s best sequence is one long take in which the director has lined up all her interviewees to say their names and places of birth and their childhood aspirations for the future. The scene veers from sad to hilarious to revealing and anything in between and beyond and expertly captures the many contradictions of criminal and prison life in Italy.

Boyd van Hoeij is the editor of