IDFA (Amsterdam) 2016 – My Best of the Fest

In our ongoing plan to watch interesting films and visit interesting cities, Clare and I attended IDFA,a documentary film festival in Amsterdam in November 2016. I’ve picked out my top 3 favourites below.

The War Show

The War Show (2016) on IMDb
Release dates: No major releases planned

I suspect most people following the news from Syria over the last few years have found it confusing and depressing. That’s why I highly recommend this film – it’s still depressing, but at least it’s also enlightening.

Through judiciously chosen on-the-ground footage and some light contextualising commentary, the film delivers penetrating insights into how peaceful protest escalated to civil war, and the terrible cost the civilian population has borne as a result.

This film changed how I look at politics and history, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

National Bird

National Bird (2016) on IMDb
Release dates: US 11th Nov 2016, UK no major release

As far as I can figure out, this film got released in the US and doesn’t seem to have gained anywhere near the attention it should have. It very clearly lays out the enormity of the US drone programme: how it is far more secret than is healthy, massively more likely to escalate conflict than resolve it, and on a significantly larger scale than most people assume.

The experiences of three whistleblowers are woven together, taking great care to avoid falling foul of the 1917 Espionage act with what they can reveal. I initially worried that this hamstrung the film from being as powerful as it needed to be. That changed when the film focussed on one particular incident from 2010: a drone strike that mistakenly targetted a convoy of unarmed civilian families, killing 23. The drone footage of the strike (and, crucially, the build-up to it) is accompanied by an acted reading of the transcript from the strike crew, and then intercut with interviews with actual survivors of that strike.

This by itself was incredibly powerful, but that power increased tenfold when they ask one of the whistleblowers, Heather (an ex-visual analyst herself) to comment on that incident. She drew attention to the fact that the visual analysts identified that children were present and that no weapons could be seen, but the strike crew effectively overruled both judgements. But most damningly of all, she says that this was typical of what her work as a visual analyst had been like every day: trying, and failing, to convince strike teams not to kill civilians.

Perhaps the documentary itself doesn’t make a sharp enough point of it, but putting everything together it seems clear (especially after having seen The War Show) that the drone programme is certain to escalate violence rather than to solve it.


Machines (2016) on IMDb
Release dates: Not yet shown anywhere else

The trailer above is an accurate summary of the film: mesmerising shots of a vast, semi-automated textile factory, interspersed with brief interviews.

It may not seem likely, but this remains enthralling and thought-provoking over the full 75-minute run time. By dedicating so much of the film to simple observation of the work itself, I think it makes a more compelling case for the workers than a more traditional approach might have yielded.

All the interviews touch either implicitly or explicitly on worker’s rights, and astonishingly frank comments from every level of the hierarchy paint a very vivid picture of the situation. The interviews are one-sided: we never hear the questions and no retort is offered, but again this ends up giving a more powerful effect than something more confrontational. This is especially true when we finally reach the top of the hierarchy, and after everything else we’ve seen, the big boss’s comments on worker pay (delivered off-hand while checking his email) are all the more incredible.

– Tim Mannveille tweets as metatim and previously highlighted some of the best short films from Dresden FilmFest 2016