The Nordic documentaries screening at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam 2017 (IDFA)

About the Festival

Festival website: https://www.idfa.nl/en/

The International Documentary Festival Amsterdam is the world’s largest documentary festival. The objective of the IDFA is to promote creative documentaries and to present them to as wide an audience as possible. It started as a small festival and has grown to an eleven-day festival, screening more than 200 documentaries and attracting nearly 120,000 visitors.

The 2017 festival runs from the 15th to the 26th of November.


The Act of Killing

Exploring the extremes of the human mind, Oppenheimer’s acclaimed film, which he describes as “a documentary of the imagination,” earned him a European Film Award, a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination. More than merely documenting the atrocities committed by the film’s main protagonist Anwar Congo, a member of the powerful paramilitary organization Pemuda Pancasila, the film highlights the impunity with which he—like the various political leaders who also appear—can flaunt his role in the persecution of communists in present-day Indonesia. From 1965 to 1966, this witch hunt culminated in the mass murder of possibly more than a million communists, suspected communists and other opponents to the Suharto regime. To demonstrate how the atrocities have been whitewashed, Oppenheimer takes the unusual step of inviting Congo and his companion Herman Koto to enthusiastically act out their deeds in several of their favorite film genres—war film, western, gangster movie and musical—with accompanying explanations of how the executions were inspired by Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and John Wayne. The title, then, refers not only to the act of murder itself but also to the acting out of the murders.

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Big Time

A portrait of the high-flying young Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, starting from the point that he opens the New York offices of his architectural firm BIG. His design for a new World Trade Center has a chance of becoming reality. The film follows Ingels through a hectic period in which he’s struggling with both professional and personal problems. In his absence, his office in Denmark is running into trouble, and during an exam after suffering a concussion, doctors discover a small tumor in his brain. The backbone of the documentary is formed by mini-master classes in which Ingels passionately explains how he arrives at his designs—a combination of optimistically philosophical and architectural considerations. The camera also observes the architect in his incredibly busy daily life: he shuttles between visits and building sites, discussions about work, awkward meetings with dissatisfied Danish staff and appointments at the hospital. It becomes clear that his great success comes at a high price.

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Cosmic Top Secret

Secrets exist in every parent-child relationship, but what happens when the relationship also involves a secret occupation? This game takes you with “T” as she searches for her father’s history. T’s interviews with her father effectively reflect the awkwardness of their interaction. You will need all your focus as you puzzle together his story piece by piece. This challenge can easily have you hunkered over your phone or tablet for many hours as you solve different riddles and puzzles, maintain a dossier, try to find the right route using a compass and map and practice your shooting skills. Over the game’s six levels, you receive increasing amounts of insight into the mysterious father’s past—and you’ll also realize that sharpening your detecting instincts yields more than just the bits of information that you collect along the way.

Festival Link // Documentary Website

The Distant Barking of Dogs

Ten-year-old Oleg lives in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine—a warzone that often echoes with anti-aircraft fire and missile strikes. Sometimes these sounds are in the distance, while other times they’re frighteningly close. At school, Oleg learns about the bomb shelter and what to do when encountering a landmine. While many have left this dangerous area, Oleg remains with his grandmother, who has taken care of him since the death of his mother. This observational film follows a year in the life of Oleg, and emphasizes the warm bond he has with his grandmother. He also has a close friendship with his cousin Yarik, who’s more disturbed by all the sudden noises—or perhaps he’s not as good as Oleg at hiding his fear. Meanwhile, the boys also find the war exciting, especially when a neighbor teaches them how to use a gun. By sticking close to Oleg, The Distant Barking of Dogs shows the effect of conflict on children.

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Dreaming Murakami

Mette Holm has been translating the work of Japanese author Haruki Murakami into Danish for many years. This lovingly crafted glimpse into Holm’s life follows her on a trip to Japan while working on the translation of Kaze no uta o kike (Hear the Wind Sing) the world-famous author’s debut novel. The translator feels perfectly at home in Murakami’s fantasy world, in which animals can talk and multiple universes coexist. Conversations with fellow translators, sometimes about a single Japanese word, reveal just how deeply involved Holm is with her craft. Like the author’s work, the Japanese language also reflects a reality that’s unlike what we know in the West. “It’s like they are thinking in a totally different way,” explains Holm. And that’s precisely what challenges her and makes translating this work so much more than a job—it’s a way of life. As Mette struggles to find the perfect sentences capable of communicating what Murakami’s solitary, daydreaming characters are trying to tell us, the boundary between reality and fiction begins to blur.

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Land of the Free

Life is tough for most people living in South Los Angeles. Gun fights and drug crimes are commonplace in this neighborhood, and it’s hard to escape the vicious circle of poverty and crime. It’s here that Land of the Free follows three ex-convicts and their loved ones, in the two years after their release from prison. Brian served 24 years and is now committed to turning his life around—he goes in search of new work and friends. Juan is also starting a new life when he’s paroled and moves in with his girlfriend and their newborn daughter. Cezanne is the mother of three children, including seven-year-old Gianni. Brian, Juan and Cezanne all attend the same support group that provides therapy, practical assistance and general encouragement. Often mirroring each other, these three stories offer a moving and intimate portrait of the ex-convicts and their families as they strive to find a new place in society.

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The Stranger

In 2011, a single mother named Amanda meets Caspar on Facebook, and there’s an immediate spark between them. As their relationship develops, Amanda discovers through his rather odd messages and phone calls that her new love leads a very complicated life. Nevertheless, Amanda and her daughter think he’s wonderful. He soon moves in, and the three of them live together as a happy family. But then cracks begin to appear in his story, and at last Amanda starts to open her eyes. Just who is this man? Amanda and most of the other characters play themselves in this reconstruction of events—Casper, understandably, is played by an actor. Between the reenacted scenes, Amanda answers questions from filmmaker Nicole Nielsen Horanyi. How did they first meet? What was her life like at the time? And why didn’t Amanda suspect sooner that Caspar wasn’t what he seemed?

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The Wait

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When You Look Away

A remark by her young daughter, who sometimes wakes up in the morning unsure whether she’s a person or an animal, inspires Phie Ambo to pose a metaphysical question about the nature of consciousness. Is it attached to the body or does it transcend the physical world? Ambo decides to explore this question and first approaches the popular physicist Holger Bech Nielsen, one of the fathers of string theory. She decides to allow herself to be led by association: each of the people with whom she speaks brings her into contact with the next. We hear from an artist, a clairvoyant and a zen teacher, as well as an amateur researcher who has used intuitive methods to find a solution to a practical problem. Water, a recurring element in the images interwoven with the interviews, appears to be the key to the mystery. A study in the laboratory is the ultimate test—not for the tenability of this notion, but for the usefulness of the empirical method.

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A Year of Hope

You won’t want to watch this story about life on the streets of Manila, but you should. It’s shocking to hear young Tracy and Joshua talk about being drugged and sexually abused, about how they have to steal their clothes from clotheslines. Alternatively, we also see them surrounded by love, food and nurturing during their year with the Stairway Foundation in the rural Philippines. While there, they learn that their genitals are theirs and theirs alone. Meanwhile, we see police cadets being taught in the same open way about penises and vaginas. These future officers are obviously more uncomfortable about these discussions than the street children they will someday work to protect. As the children’s conversations are cut with grainy shots of the streets of Manila, the contrast is obvious between the dark city and the sunny coast where children can be children again. But life on the street is always lurking in the background.

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Ex Nihilo

This contemplative installation zooms in on three companies that are attempting to push the boundaries of human life. The title Ex Nihilo refers to the creation myth: God creating the heavens and earth from nothing. The American company Oregon Cryonics is attempting to conquer death by freezing the brains of the deceased in the expectation that one day it will be possible to bring them back to life. Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen stores plant seeds at a constant temperature of -18ºC so that, in the event of an apocalyptic disaster, we will still be able to grow crops. At the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, they are developing HUBO, a highly advanced human robot. Starting with stunning icy images of Spitsbergen and supported by an atmospheric soundscape, this installation tells a serene, stylized story on three separate screens. The subtle, sensory experience stimulates us to reflect on the philosophical and ethical dimensions of playing God.

Festival Link // Follow the documentary on Facebook 

Nokia Mobile – We Were Connecting People

In the 1980s, Salo, Finland went from being a sleepy little town to the center of the mobile phone universe. Thanks to technical innovations and trendy designs, Nokia became the world leader in the mobile phone market, but its success was short-lived. These days, Nokia no longer makes mobile phones, and its erstwhile employees have lost their jobs. Nokia designers, managers and developers tell us about how they worked together to make Nokia a business worth billions. Their love for the company and its young corporate culture, in which everyone was seen as equal, facilitated the company’s explosive growth. The film’s fast editing, the at times comical archive footage of the early mobile phones, garish advertisements from the 1990s and the iconic ringtones appeal to an era that is still fresh in people’s minds. In five short chapters, We Were Connecting People depicts the rise and fall of one of the biggest telecom companies in history.

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Aleppo’s Fall

When the Arab Spring reached Syria in 2011, Nizam Najjar, a Syrian now living in Norway, thought the rebels would quickly oust President Bashar al-Assad. But the peaceful protests were brutally suppressed, and the once united rebel movement fell apart. Najjar returns to Syria to investigate why the rebels are failing in Aleppo, the city of his birth. Embedded with the rebels and a local cameraman, he risks his life on the front. In the heat of battle, he discovers how danger comes not only from the outside, but also from within, as two rebel leaders operate opposing strategies. In meetings, during a ceasefire, at a party and in the midst of fighting, it becomes only too apparent that there’s no brotherhood among the rebels. How can such a divided group defeat a leader who appears to be able to draw on inexhaustible resources from outside the country?

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In 2014, an American advertising agency came up with a daring campaign for an energy drink. The idea was to make films about a young guy who, pepped up on the cocktail of sugar and caffeine, provoked fights and got beaten to a pulp. The images would be leaked and result in an avalanche of free publicity, before the manufacturer of the drink publicly distanced itself from the whole affair. Amir Asgharnejad, a Norwegian performance artist who had become a YouTube sensation with just these kinds of films, was recruited to play the young man in question. But what the advertising men didn’t know was that Asgharnejad had faked all his films. What’s more, he turns out to be a world-class disruptive force who causes the entire production to be a huge disaster. Drib tells this story through a hybrid form of fiction and documentary. The name of the energy drink is fictional, but once again Asgharnejad plays the lead role, and again he sabotages the whole undertaking. The film switches effortlessly between a smooth advertising style, hyperbolic reenactment and classic talking heads. It’s a story about art becoming commerce, and then being transformed into art again.

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Golden Dawn Girls

“Whatever has happened to Greece?” wonders filmmaker Håvard Bustnes out loud at the start of this disturbing documentary. In recent years, its image as a country of sunny beaches and friendly people has been overshadowed by political ideologies that are terrifyingly close to Nazism. With many prominent members of the far-right Golden Dawn party now behind bars, a daughter, a wife and a mother continue to propagate its message—and all three of them are seasoned enough to avoid any slips of the tongue during interviews. But while they regularly stop the interview to make sure it went as they want, Bustnes just leaves the camera running. The resulting material, supplemented with archive footage that leaves no room for doubt about the depraved side of this political party, reveals an ever-widening gulf between clear facts and political image-making. While it’s frustrating that the women are so unbending in their views, it does illustrate how wearing blinders can derail an entire society.

Festival Link // Follow the documentary on Facebook

Recruiting for Jihad

Filmmakers Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen and Adel Khan Farooq make contact with the well-known Norwegian Muslim extremist and jihadi recruiter Ubaydullah Hussain. He gives them permission to make a film and they follow him closely over the course of three years. They visit gatherings of Muslim Brothers and are on the streets with Hussain as he tries to get young people enthusiastic about jihad. We see an 18-year-old Norwegian headed to the airport on his way to Syria. Farooq occasionally argues with Hussain, especially when the latter expresses his support for the terrible attacks elsewhere in Europe. Later, police raid Rolfsen’s home and confiscate their footage for evidence. The ensuing trial lasts for months, and Recruiting for Jihad becomes less about how Muslim extremists exploit the media—including, potentially, this film. Now, press freedom is also at stake.

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Tongue Cutters

In search of winter vacation work, nine-year-old Ylva from Oslo goes to stay with her grandparents in a fishing village in the north of Norway. The fish factory there offers a traditional job for children: cutting out cod tongues. From age six, children are taught how to take heads from a barrel and to use a sharp knife to remove these delicacies. The village even has its own cod tongue cutting championship every February. At first, the city girl is hesitant and not used to all the fish and fish blood. But the experienced Tobias, who’s 10, shows her how it’s done and soon she’s an accomplished tongue cutter. Along with Ylva’s voiceover and the happy intermezzos, the observational style and careful cinematography give this documentary a definite allure. Placed next to impressions of the northern landscapes, old photos reflect the area’s bonds to the past. In addition to the tongue cutting, other experiences prove just as important for Ylva. In particular, she and Tobias have a lot of fun—it’s their friendship that forms the film’s leitmotif. While the tone remains light, the two also have serious talks about their divorced parents.

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As We’re Told

“It’s simple! We do as we’re told.” This disconcerting reply comes from a Swedish employment office employee when asked how the country’s most unpopular government agency works. And that’s not all: in this creative documentary, case workers, receptionists and psychologists reveal how the Swedish employment system is failing. They complain about inadequate software and mystifying error messages, excessive caseloads and demoralizing results—on average, each case worker helps just 10 people find work each year, and only one in 10 clients will find a new job. To assure the anonymity of the interviewees, they’re all represented by cardboard puppets. Thanks to visible puppeteers, expressive eyes and recognizable gestures, these puppets quickly take on the appearance of real people. The result is a fascinating, comical and artistic study of human strategies to get along in an irrational bureaucracy.

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Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas

At Addis Ababa Airport, director Joakim Demmer observes something strange: one cargo plane is being loaded with food for rich countries, while another is flying in food aid. This event piques his curiosity and marks the start of a six-year investigation in which he discovers the dark side of globalization, poverty reduction and the worldwide race to buy up agricultural land. The many foreign investors coming to Ethiopia to develop its economy are wreaking havoc in the country in the process. We meet a farmer who can’t understand why the government is giving away its forests to foreigners. The stories we hear become increasingly alarming, as land grabbing, exploitation, violence and even rape and murder are the terrible consequences of the appetite for arable land. Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas gives ample space to the victims of these injustices, but other players who also have their say include several investors and representatives of the World Bank, whose role in the affair is questionable. With the help of an Ethiopian investigative journalist, Demmer attempts to find out how Ethiopia got into this explosive situation.

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The Deminer

In the chaotic aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, Fakhir, a father of eight, is serving in the Iraqi army. All around him, he sees innocent civilians getting injured by landmines, so he determines to disarm them with his own hands, using just a pocketknife and some wire cutters. He clears thousands of roadside bombs, mines and car bombs, knowing that every time he cuts a wire it could cost him his life—which he seems to find less important than the lives of others. In 2014, by this time having lost a leg, he starts working for the Kurdish Peshmerga, disarming boobytraps left behind by IS in and around Mosul. An enthusiastic home video maker, Fakhir collects hundreds of hours of footage of his day-to-day work. We hear his son’s commentary in voice-over as he watches videos of his heroic father in action. Fakhir perseveres despite the warnings of his colleagues—after all, every ringing cell phone could herald an explosion. Every snip of the wire-cutter almost gives us heart failure as well, because there’s certainly no guarantee of a happy ending here.

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One Day in Aleppo

The camera keeps on filming as the bombs continue to fall and the inhabitants of Aleppo continue to die, day after day. Without words, the lens focuses in—sometimes from above—on the smoldering ruins and the people struggling to survive among them. When Russia cuts off the supply of food and medicine, there is every reason to despair. This small, loving mosaic of images shows the resilience and resistance of the Syrians, building tiny beacons of hope and keeping up their courage by rolling up their sleeves and getting on with life. One man feeds the stray cats, another gathers wood, a third bakes bread—it proves possible to repair a water heater using debris from the smashed buildings. A group of children use paint to brighten up the dusty walls and wrecked cars of the city surrounded by the Syrian army. These are all very ordinary, everyday activities that could almost be reassuring, were it not for the awful background they’re taking place against.

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Ouaga Girls

In Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a small group of young women are training to become auto mechanics. Friendships blossom in the safety of the classroom, and the students laugh, cut class and share their hopes and fears. They also discover there are some helpful similarities between braiding hair and spray painting cars. Just occasionally the harsh realities of life outside intrude into the classroom. Will traditional husbands let them apply for a job? How will they manage with a baby? But these young women aren’t about to let themselves be boxed in. They know that “a woman can do any job she likes if she decides to.” The camera follows them in and out of the classroom right up to their exams and graduation ceremony, with the students’ background stories emerging through conversations with the school psychologist. The girls’ faith in a more stable future is growing, but should they be so confident given the turbulent political atmosphere of Burkina Faso? News reports on the workshop radio make it clear that Africa’s poorest nation is on the cusp of major changes.

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The Rebel Surgeon

After 30 years of working in Sweden, orthopedic surgeon Erik Erichsen has had enough of all the regulations, the waiting lists and the red tape that make his work almost impossible. Erichsen and his wife Sennait, a nurse, pack their bags and fly off to a region of Ethiopia where doctors are scarce. He is soon examining hundreds of patients a day, and his hospital waiting room is always packed. Tumors, gangrenous feet and stillborn babies are all part of a day’s work for Erichsen. In his consultation room, there’s never enough time for a nuanced conversation with patients—it’s more likely to be something like, “That foot’s got to come off, otherwise you will die.” In the operating room, he’s upbeat as he explains to his team how they are going to supplement their meager supplies of medical equipment with bicycle spokes, cable ties, hairpins and a cheap hand drill, all of which are very useful for medical procedures. But why exactly did this Swedish surgeon—who previously appeared in Erik Gandini’s film The Swedish Theory of Love (2015)—come to this particular place? And how does he ensure that here in his own domain, with no external monitoring, he doesn’t turn into an autocrat?

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“Let’s smash patriarchy!” Swedish hip-hop artist Silvana Imam shouts through a megaphone, and hundreds of hands shoot into the air. Her raw raps are autobiographical and strongly focused around sexual identity, politics and her own immigrant background—her father is from Syria, her mother from Lithuania. Silvana arrived in Sweden at an early age, and the documentary contains video footage of her as a child. She describes herself as a lesbian, feminist and anti-racist punk rapper, and calls Sweden a disgusting country: a conservative nation bursting with xenophobia. We also see her perform at the Way Out West festival, where she makes fun of Neo-Nazi’s: “Go kiss your fucking swastika!” Silvana starts in 2014, the year of her breakthrough, revealing someone who is both arrogant and insecure. The film also documents her romance with singer Beatrice Eli—also a “power pussy” who makes music for and about women.

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Stronger Than a Bullet

Narrator and central figure Saeid Sadeghi was a war photographer during the Iran–Iraq War (1980-1988). His heroic photos, which compellingly illustrate his testimony in the film, were—and still are today—an important tool of government propaganda. As a firm supporter of the Iranian Revolution at the time, he photographed soldiers singing on their way to the front, and he was quite prepared to give his own life. But now he is tormented every night by nightmares of dying comrades pleading for help. Remorsefully, mostly in voice-over, he contemplates his shared responsibility for the deaths of countless soldiers, many of whom were very young. Interspersed with archive footage, this stylishly-composed portrait is also an essay on ideology, propaganda and the power of the image. Only at the end of the war did the scales fall from Sadeghi’s eyes. He traverses landscapes filled with silent witnesses in search of people he photographed at the time, hoping to meet a few of those who survived.

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69 Minutes of 86 Days

What a three-year-old refugee named Lean experienced in the weeks or even months that preceded her journey, she only shares towards the end of 69 Minutes of 86 Days. But now, she and her parents are on their way to Sweden—that’s where she will see her grandfather again. The film not only follows her perspective, highlighting the laughter and wonder on her face, but it also observes the faces of the adults. They are tired and unsure of what’s ahead, yet they persevere with the hope of offering their children a better life. Lean may not end up remembering the events of this film: the months of being part of a large group heading towards the promised land; the trips by boat, car and bus; the time spent waiting for food, a place to sleep, transport or clarity. In his first feature-length film, Egil Håskjold Larsen observes without comment or questioning the 86-day voyage that Lean mostly experiences as an adventure. She seems oblivious to the sadness and pain of the adults around her. But is she really?

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Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.