I sort of feel like I’ve found a time portal in Amsterdam that has transported me to the East Village circa 1986. There’s the politically concerned people, the unpretentious dive bars, the lack of name brand clothing, twitchy punk rock, and clouds of acrid cigarette smoke. Only the bathrooms are cleaner, there are more tattoos, and everyone is speaking in Dutch.
Maybe the reason why I feel like I found a wormhole is because I’m staying in one of the oldest squats in Amsterdam, the Vrankrijk, with a friend of a friend. My first night in Amsterdam was spent in the bar where he works, which felt like a cleaner and better-lit version of Christine’s or Mona’s or one of those East Village dives. The second day, we wandered through the Vondelpark, after learning that the tour on the wooden boat organized by Boom Chicago had been cancelled.
But I wasn’t in Amsterdam for canals or drinking in Dutch bars. I was getting a crash course in the documentary film industry at IDFA, the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam, the top documentary film festival in the world. The film is not done yet, so I couldn’t submit it to the festival, but I did get myself accepted to a four-day workshop for emerging filmmakers that will give me the opportunity to talk to some pretty major people. If I can’t strike up a connection that will lead to the film getting a wider audience, at least I can plant a seed about Taiwan in the minds of a few other documentary filmmakers.
The first day began with a screening of FIRST COUSIN, ONCE REMOVED by Alan Berliner, a documentary about memory that is told through forgetfulness, specifically, the dementia of Edwin Honig, a brilliant poet who seems to never lose his sense of rhythm and word-play even as he struggles to remember the events of his life. Most of Berliner’s films have something to do with memory and family. They are also like collages. His style has been a pretty big influence on ALMOST HOME: TAIWAN so I was thrilled to have a chance to meet him.
After the screening, there was something like a group speed date for all 100 of us to get to know one another. We spent fifteen minutes with one group, introducing ourselves and being asked a question that we attempted to answer, before going on to another group. Some of the questions that were asked were very interesting – what filmmaker has been your greatest inspiration? what is your dream documentary project?
I naturally mentioned Taiwan in each of these little circles and got a lot of interest. Most people were amazed that they didn’t know a thing about Taiwan’s history. Other IDFAcademy participants had docs about back-packers to Laos, a birth clinic in Kosovo, immigrants in Germany, and having red hair.
Later that night, there was a screening of RELUCTANT REVOLUTIONARY by Sean McAllister, which generated a lot of discussion afterwards at Cafe Schiller. It’s a chaotic piece but then again, it’s about Arab Spring hitting Yemen, and revolution is pretty darn chaotic.
After partying almost every night for a week, I was feeling pretty bleh the next morning, but I crawled out of bed and trudged to Compagnietheater for a discussion with MacAllister, which was amusing for several reasons, not the least of which was the way he kept pulling at something in his sock as he spoke. I also liked how candid he is – even with a 20 year career and an enviable relationship with BBC, he still talks about being overdrawn in his bank account.
Overdrawn is my middle name. A day before IDFA began, I realized that I was down to 4 euros in my pocket and about $18 in my bank account. So I frantically cast about for some work and put myself down on a noticeboard for art models. And then I remembered that there was some money at Fractured Atlas that I had been saving to pay for an animator. So I had them cut me a check. Which meant I had to find someone to pick that check up in New York and deposit it for me. (Thanks, Dennis!) Well, at least I find a way to manage.
We also had a workshop on documentary storytelling with Ove Rishoj Jensen of EDN, the European Documentary Network. I liked what he said about “fly on the wall” versus “fly in the soup.” I am definitely the fly buzzing in the ALMOST HOME soup.
After this, we were given the opportunity to sign up to speak in small groups with two documentary professionals. It was difficult to figure out what each person actually did in the documentary industry but I was glad that I picked Anais Clanet from Wide House. She’s an international sales agent and her company represented The Black Power Mixtape, a fantastic documentary culled from interviews with the Black Panthers made by a Swedish journalist in the 1970s. Anais connected right away with the idea of a documentary about Taiwan from a personal lens. I’m looking forward to sending her a fine cut of the film when it’s done in January or February.
The following day, we had several lectures on online marketing. Then there was a workshop on pitching your project, which I was very much looking forward to, but an artist had contacted me about posing for photographs, so I tore myself away from IDFA and made my way to Westerpark. Instead of learning how to pitch the film, I spent the afternoon being photographed with strawberries lined up in a row on my stomach. All for 70 euros. Sometimes being poor is so sad, it’s funny. I got notes about the pitching workshop later from a German film producer.
But Saturday wasn’t just strawberries in the suburbs. After posing for the photographer, I went to the 25th Anniversary IDFA party that night at the Melkweg. I had given an invite to Walter, whom I was staying with. He was particularly excited about the Korean girl band, 9 Muses. We set off around 10:00, crossing various canals. Walter had originally suggested taking the bus so I was anticipating a long walk, but it turned out that a long walk in Amsterdam is the equivalent of going about five blocks in New York City.
The Melkweg was enormous, not what I expected in a club that has been around since the 1970s. But then my understanding of spatial proportions is filtered through New York City, where entire families live in apartments the size of a broom closet. We had some drinks with IDFAcademy folks but alas, no Korean girls doing lock-steps in scanty uniforms appeared onstage. Though I did have the pleasure of seeing a Dutch squatter try to dance to Korean pop.
The last day of IDFAcademy featured two workshops. The first one, Marketing and Distribution, was an overview of different ways to get your film out to the public, mostly through online platforms. The second workshop was a choice between Sales Secrets, which I preferred, and Festival Strategies, which I had been signed up for. I was actually glad in the end. The two workshop leaders were again very candid about their experiences and I came away with a much better understanding of how to navigate through a film festival.
IDFAcademy had set me up for a one-on-one with a representative from HBO that day. ALMOST HOME isn’t really their kind of thing but it was interesting to get her views on the new trailer. She needed to have things spelled out more and so did a Dutch filmmaker who is just graduated from film school in London, but when I showed the trailer to an Irish producer, he understood it right away and was all excited to help me bring the film to an Irish audience. Maybe you need to be from a culture that has been repressed?
The program closed with drinks at the Compagnietheater, after which the Dutch filmmaker asked if I wanted to get on the back of his bicycle to Rembrantplein. We sailed across the canals and had more drinks at the happy hour for IDFA participants, where I had a great conversation with Alan Berliner over a glass of wine. Then a few of us went to dinner at an Indian restaurant. I was excited to have a good meal without cheese. As Elizabeth, an Indonesian/German filmmaker said, “Can I have some cheese without cheese?”
And then there were MORE drinks at a party hosted by EDN, a Scandinavian documentary television station. Elizabeth and I bonded with a Filipina/German girl over the vastly different expectations of our Asian mothers, but after a conversation with a Danish/Afghani filmmaker, I hit a wall. This must be a record for me – two weeks of being wildly social – and I just couldn’t bear another drink or another conversation. So I crept away and spent the rest of the night making dinner and reading while Walter watched the Dutch version of Santa Claus come to Amsterdam on TV, complete with his slaves.
I woke up thinking maybe I would catch a film on my last day but I didn’t want to repeat my mistake in Paris, when I missed my train because I went sightseeing in Montmartre. So I took it easy and spent the morning sitting in the lobby of the Schiller Hotel, writing and saying hello to people I had met. I also had a meeting with documentary consultant Marijke Rawie, who gave me a list of about ten people to contact. I think this is the best thing about IDFA, the people you meet and get to know. It’s been a fantastic four days where I’ve gotten a much better idea of the industry. Looking forward to getting back to editing in New York!