The Must-See Documentaries of IDFA 2014

Gfw Staff

This week, non-fiction fanatics and documentary mavens from across the globe are descending on Amsterdam for the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (better known as IDFA). There’s a hell of a lot crammed into the 27th edition’s programme – which runs from 19-30 November – so we’ve gone out of our way to pluck out the most interesting-looking films, some of which we’ve managed to catch at other festivals. So without further ado, here are the ones to lay down your hard-earned notes for.

Art and Craft (dir. Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, Mark Becker)

I know. The title makes it sound like some dodgy doc about craft fairs your gran would attend. But the story behind this documentary is actually an intriguing one. It’s about a schizophrenic who, for 30 years, got away with donating forged artworks to various museums. Not only does this doc go into detail about how it was all pulled off, the artist, 59-year-old Mark Landis, is also an engaging character who clearly gets a rush from being confused with the greats of the medium. He also talks a bit like David Lynch.

The Case of the Three Sided Dream (dir. Adam Kahan)

"He took everything to an extreme." This is the story of blind multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, an American artist who played tenor saxophone, flute and a bunch of other brass instruments simultaneously. Meaning at the same time. Here, talking heads wax lyrical about a man who “was doing things that other people only thought about doing”.  As a portrait of little-known musician, this doc looks set to assault us with inspiration. 

Chair Man (dir. Paulien Oltheten)

Like Man Push Cart, Chair Man is one of the great descriptive titles. In this film, a man essentially carries a chair. There's your synopsis. Shot by Paulien Oltheten in Nicaragua, we follow a man with a plastic chair on his head as he cycles to and from work. Colour me intrigued.

Citizenfour (dir. Laura Poitras)

You’ve probably heard about this one already, but it’s still a highlight of the programme. It follows documentarian Laura Poitras and a reporter as they travel to Hong Kong to meet Edward Snowden, an American computer professional who, last year, leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA). Hotly debated, the film has been described as a detailed eyewitness account of these discussions and the atmosphere in Snowden’s hotel room; it also shows the far-reaching consequences of his revelations and the reactions of the rest of the world. 

Concerning Violence (dir. Göran Olsson)

Concerning Violence is the superb new essay film from Göran Olsson (The Black Power Mixtape). It pairs quotes from Fanon’s magnum opus – read by narrator Lauryn Hill of The Fugees fame – with footage of the African liberation movements of the 60s and 70s, as shot (and promptly permanently archived) by Swedish journalists present at the time. And to great effect. In our review, we called Concerning Violence the documentary of the year, and one of the most important films on this subject yet made.

Drone (dir. Tonje Hessen Schei)

“You never know who you’re killing because you never actually see a face.” This beautifully shot documentary explores the faceless killing machines known as drones, and their use in warzones as a means of avoiding putting boots on the ground. The film also reveals their sinister voyeuristic appeal – “we’re the ultimate peeping toms,” a talking head declares. 

Heaven Adores You (dir. Nickolas Rossi)

This is the eagerly awaited Kickstarter-funded documentary on Elliott Smith, which received plaudits when it premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival earlier this year. “I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” says Smith, in the opening scene of Nickolas Rossi’s film, summing up his feelings following the success of “Miss Misery”, a song he wrote for Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, which bagged him the Best Original Song at the Oscars. This is one we need to see. 

How to Live (dir. Marcel Lozinski)

Marcel Lozinski’s documentary captures everyday life at a Polish Socialist Youth summer camp. Shot eight years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we observe the young socialists as they rehearse songs, march, paint slogans on banners and play role-playing games. If you’ve never spent time in a Socialist Youth camp (and I presume that’s all of you) then I’m sure you’re as intrigued as I am.  

Iris (dir. Albert Maysles)

Comparisons to Grey Gardens – about two aging, eccentric East Hampton inhabitants – are inescapable. Iris is a portrait of flamboyant 93-year-old textile designer and New Yorker called Iris Apfel. Still, even if it is inevitably cast in Grey Gardens' shadow, if anyone can paint a multi-faceted portrait of such a colourful character it's veteran documentarian Albert Maysles. 

Somebody (dir. Miranda July)

As we reported earlier this year, Miranda July has made a dating app and a short new film. And guess what – if you’re single and mingling during IDFA you can use it while you’re out there! Unlike Tinder, you don’t actually make direct contact with your would-be date; instead you make contact with somebody, probably a weird, totally unreliable stranger. Apparently the app works best in in places where there are a lot of other users of the free app. To accompany her kooky new app – itself an extension of her performance and installation art – July has directed a ten-minute short which features – you guessed it – a little self-promotion for said app. In the opening shot we see a mopey-looking woman, sobbing over her iPhone as she logs in to Somebody, "a messaging service by Miranda July”.

Red Army (dir. Gabe Polsky)

While Russia and Canada haven't always got along, there's certainly one thing those nations agree on: they both love hockey. On the surface Red Army is a documentary about the infamous Russian national hockey team that dominated the sport in the early 80s. But director Gabe Polsky's love of the game, and desire to understand life behind the Iron Curtain has elevated the film beyond a standard jockumentary and into something much more nuanced, emotional and engaging.

The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

Described as a companion piece to his critically adored The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer continues his exploration of Indonesia’s handling of the mass murder of a million communists and suspected communists in 1965 and 1966. The main difference this time, however, is that the story will be told from the victims’ perspective. Once again, titans in the field Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are onboard as executive producers.

The 27th edition of IDFA runs from 19-30 November.

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