The twenty-eighth edition of the IDFA will take place at the end of November. This edition promises to become an inspiring one with touching, intriguing, revealing, incredible and bizarre real life stories that show there is more than one reality. From 18 November on, the IDFA is for those who look beyond their own neighborhood, want to know more than what is on the news and want to go beyond what is easy.
For twelve days, the movie theaters in Amsterdam will open up borders. IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, was founded in 1988 to stimulate the world of both national and international documentaries. Since then, the IDFA has become the biggest documentary festival in the world. Each year, over two-hundred-and-fifty creative documentaries are shown.
IDFA is unique because of its international character, its politically engaged programming and the many European and world-wide premieres that take place each year. IDFA looks for documentaries that are of interest or renewing, are relevant to contemporary society, and force the viewer to think, discuss, and ask questions.
At IDFA, creative documentaries take center stage, which means that the festival chooses documentaries that are made with care and express the personal vision of its maker. A good documentary has urgency. As art is critical by definition and cannot be separated from the society it originates from, creative documentaries as well offer an investigative and surprising view of the world. A documentary festival is the opportunity to map our society and analyze it, far removed from daily media violence and the superficial circus of opinions, but right in the middle of the world around us.
It does not come as a surprise that this year, the festival has some films that shine a light on the large differences between the attitudes towards sexual diversity in different cultures. This year, IDFA shows documentaries on homosexuality in Israel, the Arab world and China, but also on an unbridled underground subculture of drugs and sex in London, as well as the life of a transgender. We will explore the latter first.
Mów mi Marianna
In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, almost ninety percent of American respondents stated that they personally know someone who is homosexual, lesbian or bisexual. But a survey of Harris Poll, a respected barometer of public opinion in the USA, revealed that only sixteen percent personally knows someone who is transgender. This is still twice as much as the eight percent in 2008. As this is probably not much different in Europe, it means that most people know transgenders mostly through the media.
A recently much talked about media phenomenon is Caitlyn Jenner, not just because of her connection with the notorious Kardashians, but also because of the golden medal she won as Bruce Jenner during the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. But precisely those circumstances make Caitlyn Jenner the exception.
IDFA shows the Polish documentary “Call Me Marianna” (Mów mi Marianna) by director Karolina Bielawska. Marianna is an attractive forty-year-old woman who just sued her parents to realize a sex change. She is alienated from her mother and neglects her best friends, but looks for support in a theater group, where she tries to give meaning to her situation by rehearsing for a play that is based on her past. With the days of the operation approaching, Marianna rushes into an unlikely love affair with an older gentleman who gives her some hope.
However, she keeps being confronted by the thought of losing what is dearest to her - her family - and has to face the terrible recollections of the sacrifices people have to make to finally be themselves. “Call Me Marianna” is a tribute to freedom of identity and the unpredictable turns and twists life has in store. This summer, “Call Me Marianna” won four awards at the Film Festival of Krakow, including Best International Documentary, and the Audience Award.
The Pew survey shows that homosexuality in the western world is no longer an unknown phenomenon. However, this does not mean that young people discovering their sexual identity do not often find this problematic, also because of (possible) reactions of family members and friends. In non-Western cultures, this is a somewhat different matter. Co-produced by the Dutch company Witfilm, the documentary “Inside the Chinese Closet” by young Italian director Sophia Luvara tells the complex story of Andy and Cherry looking for love and happiness in vibrant Shanghai.
Both are homosexual, but their families demand a heterosexual marriage and a child. Remaining single and childless would mean unacceptable face loss for their families. Will Andy and Cherry deny their sexual orientation and their chances for happiness by granting their parents’ wishes? The stories of Andy and Cherry reflect the legal and cultural progress in modern day China, against the background of a nation coming to terms with new moral values.
A Sinner in Mecca
In large parts of the Arab world, not much legal and cultural progress seems to have been made when it comes to sexuality. The documentary “A Sinner in Mecca,” which premiered this summer on the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, was described by Jahan News, one of the Iranian press agencies supported by the government, as “and attack on Islam,” while director Parvez Sharma was denounced for his propaganda for “the disgusting act of homosexuality.”
“A Sinner in Mecca” fearlessly penetrates a world that has been strictly forbidden for non-Muslims for fourteen centuries. Parvez Sharma, who became famous in 2007 with the documentary “A Jihad for Love,” documented his journey with only an iPhone and two small cameras that were smuggled in. In the streets of ancient Mecca, he joins four million Muslims, from a majority of peace loving pilgrims fulfilling their life’s mission, to cruel jihadists, whose credo is violence. They all gather in Mecca to take part in the world’s largest pilgrimage: the hajj.
In “A Sinner in Mecca,” Sharma fearlessly reveals imagery of the dangerous ideology that is determining Islamic State, and the similarities of the organization with the holy doctrine of Saudi-Arabia, the fundamentalist Wahhabism. Camarillas in the very reserved Saudi monarchy reportedly financed both Al-Qaeda and ISIS over the years, while the streets of Mecca are referring to Saudi-Arabia’s most famous son, Osama bin Laden, with an Islamic title of honor. This is the Saudi-Arabia the openly gay Muslim finds himself in.
He tries to find his own place in the Islam he grew up with, which has nothing in common with the corrupt versions of Islam, continuously fighting in the Islamic world and in the rest of the world. With “A Sinner in Mecca,” Sharma offered Muslims an opportunity to tell their side of the complex story of their faith, now disrupted by violence. In their midst is a yearning Muslim who is already labeled an infidel, and is wondering if he can eventually find his place in a religion that dooms him.
The Palestinian Arabs constitute about twenty percent of Israel’s population. In his documentary debut “Oriented,” director Jake Witzenfeld follows the life of three Palestinian friends. They are exploring their national and sexual identity in Tel Aviv, a city that has a gay friendly reputation, during the fights between Israel and Gaza in 2014. Khader is a Tel-Aviv “sweetheart” from a prominent Islamic mafia family.
He lives in Tel Aviv with his Jewish boyfriend David, an impresario in the local gay scene, and their Dalmatian, Otis. Khader is facing an inner struggle because of his desire for change, in a seemingly hopeless situation. Fadi is a Palestinian nationalist who is confronted by guilt-ridden Jewish love, and Naeem must confront his family with the truth about his sexuality. And meanwhile, there is a threat of war...
Drugs and Sex
Issues that have nothing to do with faith are dealt with in “Chemsex,” which premiered early October at the BFI London Film Festival. “Chemsex” candidly and intimately shows a dark side of modern gay life in hidden basements, bedrooms and bars across London. “Chemsex” investigates a sub-scene of intravenous drug abuse and weekend-long sex parties. It tells the story of various men struggling to get out of this scene alive - and a healthcare professional who has made it his mission to save them. While society looks the other way, this powerful and fearless film shows a group of men struggling with HIV and drug addiction, looking for acceptance in a changing world.
The directors of “Chemsex,” William Fairman and Max Gogarty, say about their documentary: “‘Chemsex’ is a confessional show-and-tell about a community’s search for intimacy and belonging, in what are all too often the wrong places. This search creates a parallel reality, a secret world where people hide their addiction in plain sight, living in a cycle of extreme pleasure and pain, validation and isolation. What started as a look into a ‘healthcare emergency,’ soon evolved into a complex revelation. It wasn’t the sex or the drugs that shocked.
Neither was it the danger or the consequences. It was the realization that, for the majority of people, it was intimacy and not lust nor hedonism that was the driving force behind their behavior. The decision to turn a camera on this subject came from seeing first-hand how this community were starting to respond to this crisis.
From anonymous voices on social networks to a sexual health clinic creating the first ever position for a drugs worker on premises, it became clear to us that ‘chemsex’ was pushing people’s physical and mental health to breaking point, not to mention the resources of those on the frontline trying to stem this epidemic. The film, we hope, touches upon wholly universal notions of internalized shame, cycles of self-destruction and eventual redemption through this very modern and little known health emergency.”