'Winter Nomads'

The International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, or IDFA, piles a selection of the year’s docs into a window in mid-November--this year during its recently-wrapped 25th edition. The films are not all new, but enough of them are being seen for the first time that IDFA becomes a showcase for next year. Here are some docs that you can expect to see in 2013.

"First Cousin Once Removed"  Dir. Alan Berliner, USA, 2012

Alan Berliner makes no-budget films that tend to be about himself and his family. In this one (which premiered at the New York Film Festival and won IDFA’s feasture doc award), Edwin Honig (1919-2011), a poet and Berliner’s mother’s first cousin, is losing his memory and his mind. He doesn’t even recognize pictures of himself.  “I’m not impressed,” is his opinion when he sees one. Often, when Honig speaks, what comes out sounds a lot like someone’s odd poetry.  Does a “poetic soul” trump dementia? Berliner filmed his poignant doc over five years, with plenty of improbable laughs -- even assisted-living lyricism, as the camera observes the trees outside Honig’s window changing with the seasons. This may be the film to see after Michael Haneke’s Amour tears you apart. Honig’s warning on aging: “It’s worse than what you think.”  Remember that even a broken clock speaks the truth twice a day.

"I Am Breathing"  Dir. Emma Davie, Morag McKinnon, Scotland / Denmark, 2012

There are fewer punch-lines in this Scottish doc than in First Cousin Once Removed. Neil Platt is the father of a young son. Neil is diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease in his early thirties. The filmmakers follow bedridden Neil’s blog as the disease worsens and he looks back at life with good spirits. Two supporting characters will win over the audience – his wife, whose mood sustains Neil’s, and his Oscar, who experiences his father’s affections in the only way that he knows the dying man, attached to a machine that enables him to keep breathing. This wins the reality check award.

"Soldier on the Roof"  Dir. Esther Hertog, Netherlands, 2012

As a truce holds, barely, in Gaza, Esther Hertog’s film (winner for Best Debut and Best Dutch Film at IDFA) watches a deeper crisis, the Israeli occupation of Arab lands. In the West Bank city of Hebron, some 800 Israeli Jewish settlers lives under military protection in the center of that town of 120,000 Arabs. Israeli soldiers are everywhere the settlers go. The soldiers also watch the town from atop its buildings. Arabs who walk nearby are stopped, made to stretch their arms against the walls, and searched. While that humiliation persists, the settlers’ kids throw rocks through the windows of Arab houses with impunity. The Gatekeepers, the jolting doc by Dror Moreh now in theaters, gives you the pessimistic legacy of the occupation from former leaders of the Shin Bet (military intelligence) who believe that negotiating for peace is the only solution. Soldier on the Roof gives you ground truth from settlers who couldn’t disagree more. It’s likely to be a fixture at Jewish film festivals in the US.

"Propaganda"  Dirs. The Coming Crisis  (from North Korea by way of New Zealand)

This shock-umentary about Hollywood Babylon is a mockumentary. Imagine a film warning you away from the sins of the West by showing you capitalism’s evil in all its grotesquery. Sex, drugs, greed, Hollywood, and religion, are all explained by a narrator who we’re told is a North Korean academic.  This spoof of systematic theology is a satire from New Zeeland. Look for the Spinal Tap spectacle in the Midnight sections of film festival around the world. Or you can watch it on youtube.

"In the Dark Room" dir. Nadav Schirman, Israel/Germany/Finland

What was it like to have been the wife of Carlos, the brazen gunman who took oil minsters prisoner and terrified the world (eventually filling his own pockets) with  the highjackings of airplanes?  We find out from Magdalena Kopp, who is portrayed by glamorous Nora von Waldstatten in Oliver Assayas’s epic. Here we have Kopp herself, telling of moving from one German activist to another (without a deep interest in politics) and finally connecting with Carlos. She did time in a Paris prison after French police caught her and another militant with explosives in an illegally parked car, gave birth to a daughter in a taxi stalled in the gridlock of Damascus (sheltered by the Assad family), and fled to the beaches of Venezuela, where Carlos’s family kept her out of the spotlight. Carlos turns out to have been a heel and no proponent of women’s rights. What a surprise. While he’s serving a life sentence in French prison, Kopp’s sentence for the rest of her life is to tell the world about him.  We see her Damascus-born Rosa struggling with the same fate. Will the appetite outside Germany and France for more Carlos lore (this time from the aggrieved wife) sustain this one?  Schirman is the director of The Champagne Spy (2007), a portrait of Wolfgang Lotz, who posed as a German horse trainer in Egypt while spying for Israel from 1960 to 1965.
"Red Wedding"  Dirs. Guillaume Suon, Lida Chan, Cambodia / France, 2012

If In the Dark Room isn’t enough for you, get ready for Red Wedding, the remembrance of Sochan, who was chosen to be the wife of a Khmer Rouge soldier. Not that she had any choice.  The purposes of the forced marriages – there were 250,000 of them --was to increase population, we’re told. Archival footage of farming by hand by thousands of those who weren’t exterminated keeps any nostalgia from creeping in. With all the other crimes of the Khmer Rouge, mass rape hasn’t gotten much attention. You’ll hear a lot from one victim here in this austere portrait of a campaign for accountability after decades.