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Documentaries at IDFA 2012: A Health Warning

For me, IDFA 2012 was the opportunity to watch wall-to-wall documentaries but it turned out to be neither as blissful nor as uplifting as I’d hoped or anticipated. After watching documentaries of varying genres, narrative style  and visual effects it was hard not to come away with the feeling that the world is a bad place. A very bad place indeed.

Now this came as something as a surprise to me as I tend to avoid any films that are clearly going to tell me that the world is a bad place because I have enough first-hand life experience to know that that is true; for that reason environmental and social justice issue docs also tend to turn me off before I’ve even turned them on (but that may just be a reflection on the unappetizing catalogue synopses than the films themselves). Which isn’t to say that issue docs can’t do good, it’s just that I’d rather spend 90-minutes of my life being a) entertained by a skillful storyteller or b) rolling up my sleeves to do something practical to make a difference. As the two aren’t mutually exclusive, I’d plump for entertaining documentaries at the cinema every time and do my do-gooding out in the real world.

In reality, the films I did watch chosen more or less randomly for scheduling reasons rather than any deep reading of the catalogue – I wanted to fit in as many screenings as possible and managed to watch 28 over five days alongside attending the pitch forum and some panels. I like a narrative that makes sense, to learn something new about the world and to have surprising emotions aroused during the course of watching a film. But something strange happened at IDFA 2012 and I began to feel depressed, hopeless and despairing of mankind.

If aliens had landed and stopped off at IDFA (or any other documentary festival, I suspect) they would take away the following lessons and probably not stick around too long:

  1. The world is a bad place where terrible things happen to good people
  2. Men put their own needs, wants and desires above all else
  3. Women, willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously, enable men to put their needs, wants and desires above anyone else’s.
  4. Family, despite what they may say to the contrary, do not have your best interests at heart; they want what’s  best for them

In fact, there were so many men doing bad things on the screen to other people that I began to feel sorry for the men sitting in the audience; must  must be embarrassing and dispiriting to watch other men committing such crimes against humanity over and over again.  Fortunately there were also some portrayals of compassionate and courageous men who do make a difference to people’s lives in sometimes small but important ways; and some ambitious and courageous women who take control of their lives and who sometimes make a big difference to their communities against the odds, but they were few and far between (and you often get the sense that something bad will probably happen to them too, eventually).

Over the course of  watching these films I did learn something new, enjoyed the twists and turns of masterful storytelling and was occasionally moved to tears, but there was precious little humour in my random selection. I’d like to suggest that documentary festivals introduce some kind of traffic light coding for films  (like the fat, sugar, calorie content listed on food packaging) so that we festival-goers might ensure they get a balanced intellectual diet of the good alongside the bad and the ugly stories of mankind.

The full menu of films I watched is here.



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