Two opposites had emerged. Would the VPRO IDFA Award for best feature-length documentary go to a personally coloured auteur's film, or to a thoughtful account of a major issue? To Alan Berliner's remarkable portrait of Alzheimer's-affected poet Edwin Honig, or to Dror Moreh's fascinating insight into the Israeli secret service?
In that last film, The Gatekeepers, we see the Palestinian conflict through the eyes of some six former leaders of the organisation who were on the front lines of Israel's war on terror state. Contrary to what you might expect, they show themselves to be remarkably pragmatic and even liberal. A vision from unsuspected quarters, edited into a compelling story that, now that it is all highly topical again, should be bought by a broadcaster with the greatest urgency.
Still, it is more of a driven journalistic product than a documentary that bears a clear signature of its maker. Such is the case with the winner announced tonight, First Cousin Once Removed by Alan Berliner. He had previously made his own sleep problems the subject of Wide Awake made. Also in First Cousin Once Removed his starting point is very personal. He visits his distant uncle and former mentor Edwin Honig, once a widely admired and successful poet, translator, literary critic and university lecturer. But now Alzheimer's has largely wiped out his memory. Yet an occasional poetic inspiration still flares up, as if that is the hardest thing to eradicate.
According to the jury, Berliner has intelligently, inventively and poetically made a beautiful, moving and artistic film. That is indeed a reasonably accurate characterisation. It could be added that Berliner's admiration and personal connection did not stand in the way of an open-minded approach. Curiosity and an open mind win out over pre-cooked sentiments. For instance, he doesn't gloss over the fact that Honig could also be a very unpleasant person, but yes, he doesn't remember any of that either. So it becomes not only a gripping, tragicomic and sometimes wry personal portrait, but at the same time an essay on the importance of remembering and forgetting.
Israel, incidentally, came up anyway. Israeli-Dutch filmmaker Esther Hertog won both the debut award and the prize for best Dutch documentary with Soldier on the Roof. For three years, she stayed with regularity in a Jewish settlement in otherwise Palestinian-populated Hebron. She observed daily life there, giving a telling impression of the beliefs and aims of the orthodox Jews there. An abridged version could already be seen on VPRO last Monday.
Interestingly, John Appel's strong opening film Wrong Time Wrong Place, which participated in both the international and Dutch competitions, did not even receive a nomination in either category.
For the other winners of the six competitions, see www.idfa.nl
Although the festival still runs until Sunday, IDFA expects at least 200,000 visits, a small growth from last year. The number of (inter)national guests rose to 2,720. Over 6,000 primary and secondary school students visited the school screenings.