The sheer range of films at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam ensure that, if not the largest, it is the most closely watched documentary festival in the world. Documentaries from the 12-day festival, which wrapped up on Sunday, will go on to be shown at festivals and in cinemas throughout the coming year, while the same films will be broadcast on television.
The offerings in Amsterdam this past week extended in multiple directions, from a Palestinian do-it-yourself doc, 5 Broken Cameras, a cinematic evocation of everyday clashes under occupation, to Bad Weather, a meditation on the ways that worsening floods in Bangladesh shape the natural and human landscapes.
The festival's top prize for a feature documentary went to Planet of Snail, a poignant film from the South Korean director Seung-jun Yi, about a deaf and blind young man's relation to the world around him. Tall and lithe, Young-chan writes poetry and makes sculptures of figures and flowers that reveal his tactile refinement and a gentle sense of humour. Guiding him through what would be the most ordinary of tasks for an able-bodied person is an eternally patient girlfriend of half his height, Soon-ho, who is also disabled. They are an odd, but loving, couple.
Set mostly in ordinary interiors, Planet of Snail unfolds with a quiet rhythm and a tender visual elegance as it explores the space between what the camera can observe clearly, and what Young-chan can sense with his companion's help.
If tactility becomes language in Planet of Snail, the blunt assaults by Israeli soldiers on fragile video cameras create the visual texture of 5 Broken Cameras, by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, which received a special jury prize at IDFA.
Emad Burnat became a filmmaker by accident. He lives in the village of Bil'in, on the West Bank, west of Ramallah. When Israeli soldiers seize land nearby and build a wall to cordon off Palestinian villagers from a Jewish settlement, Emad and his neighbours take to the streets. Emad's camera documents the encroachment on their land and the villagers' protests against it. Time and again, the unarmed Palestinians throw stones, and the Israelis respond with tear gas, and later with live ammunition. No camera lasts for more than a year in the demonstrations.
The film 5 Broken Cameras gets as close as is physically possible to one village's reality of life under occupation. For the film to be observed at that range, the camera itself becomes a casualty. It took five of them to shoot this documentary, which also records the toll on human lives over five years. Burnat's son, Jibreel, is born after he gets his first camera. The film lurches between rare quiet moments in the family home and confrontations with soldiers outside, which is the only outdoor environment that the children know.
The documentary is sure to travel widely, as will The Ambassador, IDFA's opening-night film by Mads Brugger of Denmark, which views corruption in Africa through the eyes of an opportunistic businessman (a character created by Brugger) who buys an ambassadorship. Brugger, a television satirist in Copenhagen, buys the title of Liberian ambassador to the Central African Republic. He then manoeuvres to open a factory to manufacture matches in Bangui, the troubled capital, while positioning the business as a front for the diamond trade.
The Ambassador is high satire with the poker-faced Brugger filling hand after outstretched hand with bribes in a labyrinth of crooked deals that he says are needed to accomplish anything. He's far from the only European buying influence. The Central African Republic is often called "a failed state", he tells us in a deadpan narrative, "but that assumes that it can be considered a state". What everyone knows for certain is that the country is rich in minerals. The tale of one man in the stampede for its riches gets a laugh in almost every frame. The flip-side of this odd story is despair in the face of rampant corruption.