Festival Watch: The IDFA documentary film festival, Amsterdam

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The Independent Culture

The 17th International Amsterdam Documentary Festival (IDFA), the biggest of its kind in the world, got under way last week. The debates about democracy, human rights and free speech that took place in smoke-filled coffee houses and bars were lent an added resonance by the recent murder of the film-maker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim extremist. Van Gogh, 47, had received death threats after his film Submission, portraying violence against women in Islamic societies, was shown on Dutch TV.

The 17th International Amsterdam Documentary Festival (IDFA), the biggest of its kind in the world, got under way last week. The debates about democracy, human rights and free speech that took place in smoke-filled coffee houses and bars were lent an added resonance by the recent murder of the film-maker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim extremist. Van Gogh, 47, had received death threats after his film Submission, portraying violence against women in Islamic societies, was shown on Dutch TV.

Van Gogh was not an altogether popular figure in the tight-knit Dutch film-making community. Some of his former colleagues describe him as "a troublemaker" and say he went "too far" with his recklessly offensive remarks about Islam. Nonetheless, the festival could hardly ignore his death. "A film-maker was murdered for expressing his ideas through his craft," the festival director Ally Derks stated, "for creating a cinematic metaphor for the oppression of women, an old story that crosses all borders."

The oppression of women has been a key theme. Nahid Persson presented the world premiere of his Prostitution Behind the Veil, a secretly filmed documentary about two young women forced into prostitution in a city in Iran. According to Persson (an Iranian film-maker now living in Sweden), prostitution is rife in the country, even if the Iranian authorities refuse to acknowledge its existence.

After Persson's harrowing documentary, it was a disorienting contrast to watch The Writer Of O, Pola Rapaport's film about the background to The Story Of O, the scandalous 1954 French novel detailing an extreme sado- masochistic relationship. Given its subject matter, many assumed it had been written by a man. Only in the mid-1990s did it emerge that the real author was Dominque Aury, a self-effacing editor at the publishers, Gallimard.

Aury, who died in 1998 aged 90, had kept her identity secret for more than 40 years. Rapaport tracked her down shortly before her death. "Her personality was extraordinary. She was very tiny and frail, but she had such a relaxed manner and wit about her," she recalled.

Rapaport's documentary features archive footage, interviews and dramatic reconstructions of the book. These scenes, with their footage of a beautiful bourgeois woman being forced to endure a series of ever-more extreme humiliations for the pleasure of her aristocratic lover, are sleekly shot. The problem, at least for some of the documentary purists in Amsterdam, is that Rapaport is blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

This charge was also levelled at the British director Kevin Macdonald, whose Touching The Void is in the running for an Oscar. "Some film-makers have complained that Void shouldn't be on the list because it isn't a documentary - but a docu-drama," said Macdonald. "I think the use of reconstruction is no different from the use of period archive or of material gathered on different days used within the same scene. It's all lying to one extent or another."

This thesis certainly isn't accepted by the pioneers of cinéma-verité, arguably the most influential movement in the history of documentary. Such legendary figures of the movement as Albert Maysles (best-known for his Rolling Stones/Altamont film, Gimme Shelter), Ricky Leacock (who began making docs in the 1930s), Robert Drew (the man behind Primary and Crisis, the celebrated fly-on-the-wall films about JFK) and Fred Wiseman (whose Titicut Follies, about an asylum for the criminally insane, has influenced everybody from Jean-Luc Godard and Nick Broomfield) were in town last week, all expounding on the belief that they can capture "reality" on camera.

The irony was that they couldn't seem to agree on the rules of cinéma-verité. On stage in Amsterdam, they argued fiercely among themselves and rebuked academics in the audience who tried to define their work for them. In the end, only one conclusion was possible: that the best documentaries defy categorisation. All that matters is to "film people as they are experiencing real life and doing our damned best to catch it so closely that when you see the film, you feel you are in the presence of what is going on."

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