Nine IDFA Documentaries To Watch For in 2014

Posted by Brian Brooks & Michael Gibbons on 12.6.2013


Talal Derki's Return to Homs.

The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) began in 1988 as a small event, but has evolved in a short time to be the world's biggest non-fiction oriented event, featuring 200 documentaries screening to 120,000 people over 11 days. Not surprisingly, the festival regularly debuts a number of films that will eventually make their way to this side of the Atlantic at events such as New Directors/New Films, Human Rights Watch, NewFest or possibly NYFF in addition to the other festivals and film series around the U.S.

Below are a nine documentaries that have yet to screen Stateside but are likely to make their way onto the festival circuit in the coming year (and in fact, two are already headed to Sundance). Undoubtedly there will (and should be) many more...

[Related: IDFA Awards 'Song From the Forest Top Doc Prize]

Return To Homs
Talal Derki - Syria, Germany

IDFA's opening night film, Return To Homs is akin to Jehane Noujaim's The Square, which screened at the New York Film Festival this year and recently made the Oscar Documentary short list. Return to Homs goes inside Syria's war-torn malaise via a group of young revolutionaries. At first they struggle for justice and the end of dictator Bashar al-Assad's rule through peaceful demonstrations, but as the army cracks down and their city becomes a shell of its former self, they transform into armed revolutionaries. It's not pretty, but it's remarkably honest. The camera goes right into the fight, giving glimpses of a crisis few have seen outside the country, while also telling a personal story of determination among a tight knit group. Return To Homs will have its U.S. Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival next month.

Farewell to Hollywood
Henry Corra, Regina Nicholson - USA

One of the few American World Premieres at IDFA, Farewell to Hollywood is a heart-wrenching story of 17 year-old Regina Diane Nicholson. She's wise beyond her years and has a dynamic sense of humor. Co-director Henry Corra takes on the role of a "supporting role" of what is a portrait of Nicholson's struggle with cancer. The film's initial focus is on "Reggie" but the story takes a turn as conflict mounts with her parents as she developed a closer relationship with Henry. After she turns 18, things heat up further as the topics of relationships, love, death, film subject and filmmaker come into conflict.


Andreas Johnsen's Ai Weiwei The Fake Case.

Ai Weiwei The Fake Case
Andreas Johnsen - Denmark

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was already the subject of a documentary that received U.S. release last year (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry) and he is himself a documentary filmmaker who releases his own work via the internet. But Ai is a big personality and -- to his chagrin -- is locked in a conflict with Chinese authorities who are hellbent on clipping his wings. After a good amount of cajoling, Johnsen convinced Ai Weiwei and his people to allow him to film. This latest doc mostly seems to pick up where Ai Weiwei Never Sorry left off, following the battered artist (who was named by ArtReview as its most powerful artist of 2011) after his 81-day detention by authorities for supposed tax evasion. At first shaken, Ai Weiwei appears to have been somewhat neutralized after being released into semi-house arrest, but his spirit soon livens up. He even walks out of his compound with fists clenched as he confronts an officer who has roughed up one of his crew. Ai Weiwei is not going away quietly and he's likely the Chinese government's greatest foe, but his tools of war are his oversized personality, humor, social networking and of course, art.

[Related: 'Ai Weiwei' Still Not Backing Down in New IDFA Doc]

Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars
Berit Madsen - Denmark

With the striking image of a young woman dressed in full hijab carrying a large white telescope up a hillside, Sepideh focuses on the title character's struggle to realize her dreams of becoming an astronaut. Her tenacious will is undeterred by the concerns of her traditional family, obligations at the school and the mosque, and an eventual marriage proposal. She is a compelling personality of which her demanding astrology mentor expects great things, and the relationship between the two is the heart of the film. It's a human story that gives Western audiences the rare chance to see a surprisingly nuanced side of contemporary Iranian society. The film will have its U.S. Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival next month.

[Related: IDFA Doc Spotlights Unlikely Dream of a Young Iranian Woman]


Berit Madsen's Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars.

Song from the Forest
Michael Obert - Germany

The top winner at this year's IDFA, Song from the Forest begins with a middle-aged man with a New York accent leading us through a deep forest reminiscing about the old times. His name is Louis and he spent a good deal of his life - 25 years - in what we learn is the Central African Republic. He is a full member of the pygmy tribe, he speaks the language fluently, he has wife and children, and he's recorded countless hours of pygmy music. What would bring a person to leave America behind to live such a radically different lifestyle? How will Louis show his son the world he came from in their first trip together back to New York? It's an intimate look at someone who was transformed by another culture still struggling with his past identity. Audiences will recognize a familiar face in Louis' best friend: acclaimed filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

A Letter to Nelson Mandela
Khalo Matabane - South Africa & Germany

Taking the form of a personal letter to Nelson Mandela, filmmaker Khalo Matabane speaks of his own struggles with coming to terms with the iconic leader's legacy and shortcomings. He assembles an impressive array of interviews with major world figures like Henry Kissinger, the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, Pumla Gqola, and many others to take on the almost impossible task of evaluating Mandela's impact on a country still struggling with the effects of Apartheid. Speaking after a screening, Matabane said, "those who love [Mandela] take it for granted that all should love him. Those who don't think it's enough to just say that he sold out." And with the South African leader's passing Thursday, reflection on one of the 20th century's most transformative figures will likely take on greater emphasis.

Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don't Leave Me)
Sabine Lubbe Bakker, Niels van Koevorden - The Netherlands, Belgium

A popular choice at IDFA this year (even midday screenings were sold out during the week), Ne Me Quitte Pas would probably be a shoe-in for the U.S. except that it's not in English (truth be told). Two men come together in the empty woods of Belgium's Wallonia region. Their lives are a slippery slope. One has lost his girlfriend and children and both seek constant solace from the bottle. It is entirely appropriate to say the film has a plot and it would be easy to mistake Ne Me Quitte Pas for a scripted feature. There's humor, hypnotic characters, humorous dialog and an arc. The doc crosses genre to tell a story of decay and even moments of hope.


Alexander Speile's Putin's Games.

Putin's Games
Alexander Spiele - Germany, Israel, Austria

Much has been said in the international press about the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi especially after Russia and its leader, President Vladimir Putin passed legislation against "homosexual propaganda" and how that challenges the supposed Olympics ethos of equality. But beyond the headlines, this is the first Winter Olympics to be held in a subtropical resort and the most expensive and corrupt. If the games go off externally without a hitch, the doc may seem less relevant. But Putin's Games unmasks what it says are the most environmentally unfriendly games ever. Director Alexander Gentelev speaks to key figures, including the mayor of Sochi, corrupt contractors, senators and lobbyists as well as the president of the Russian National Olympic Committee about a games that are shaping up to be a spectacle to megalomania.

Shado'man
Boris Gerrets - The Netherlands, France

Cinematic and revealing Shado'man goes to the streets of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone to eye a group of friends who live on the streets of the African city. All face physical and emotional challenges and have no connection to the world within their grasp. The group opens up about their precarious place on the fringe of society, but also their personal struggles from relationships, to bringing up children and even sex.

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