Online archive of documentaries: over algiers roofs

The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam offers a large and exciting online archive of documentaries.

"Checks and Balances" is set in a newspaper newsroom in Algeria Photo: IDFA

Nothing about the small village on a railroad line recalls its past glories. "Little Shanghai" is what the southern Chinese village of Bise was once called, one of the villagers proudly recounts, back when the French had a railroad built connecting Vietnam to Yunnan in China. Bise became a transshipment point and flourished.

Chinese writer Yu Jian set out to trace the village in his 2003 film "Jade Green Village." At first, the villagers only haltingly talk about the past of the small town; the traumas of the various political campaigns of the past, which defined ever new taboos, are too deep-seated. But gradually, a picture of the life that once filled Bise begins to form in the film.

Yu Jian’s "Jade Green Village" is one of over 300 films that the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) has made freely available on its website from its rich archive. On the occasion of the Corona crisis, the IDFA has once again increased its online offerings. The festival has not only uploaded films to its own Vimeo channel, but has also integrated YouTube videos and other providers into its offering.

The festival is one of the largest documentary film festivals in the world and has been presenting a staggeringly large selection of films in various sections every year for a good 30 years. Depending on how things play out between now and then, this year’s edition of the festival is scheduled to take place in November.

Burkina Faso’s Textile Factory

Like Yu Jian’s film, Michel K. Zongo’s "The Siren of Faso Fani" of the former greatness of a city. For many years, Koudougou was considered the center of Burkina Faso’s textile industry. After the country’s independence in 1960, an attempt was made to no longer depend on imported clothing from Europe and the USA by producing and processing its own textiles, which were then purchased in the country itself. With its machines and good working conditions, the Faso Fani textile factory became the epitome of the dawn of modernity.

In this portrait of his hometown, Zongo talks to former workers at the textile factory, cleverly interspersing retrospectives and documents so that a cultural history of Burkina Faso since independence emerges from the view of the textile factory.

Just how broad the IDFA’s understanding of documentary film is can be seen not least in a series of animated contributions. Among them is a modern classic: In 2004, U.S. animator Chris Landreth portrayed the animated film shooting star of the 1960s, Ryan Larkin, in "Ryan". "Ryan" is still decidedly impressive in the way it puts complex animation technology at the service of the narrative. Landreth finds imagery for Larkin’s physical ailments and his demons of fame, which took him to the top all too quickly and then fizzled out.

Rudy Giuliani’s time as mayor

The range of documentaries that IDFA has assembled invites browsing. Depending on your preferences, you can take advantage of the offer to travel around the world, learn about political conditions or go back in time. Two portraits of a very different kind from Chris Landreth’s animated film show figures in U.S. politics before they became what they are today. In "Rudyland" by Matthew Carnahan and John Philp from 2002, the two documentary filmmakers drew a mixed conclusion of Rudy Giuliani’s time as mayor of New York.

In the early 1990s, Giuliani was elected on the promise of improving living conditions in New York. Shortly thereafter, squatters and the poorer population faced a wave of repression. In a chronological passage, the evolution of Giuliani’s politics is traced. The film brings together beautiful footage from New York’s history with a sardonic commentary spoken by Susan Sarandon.

Marshall Curry, for his documentary "Street Fight," accompanied Cory Booker, until recently a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, in his campaign for mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Booker ran as a young opponent to permanent incumbent Sharpe James. Using the example of small-scale regional politics in Newark, "Street Fight" shows how quickly an election campaign can turn into an ugly battle between two candidates in a city that has been firmly in the hands of the Democratic Party for years. When viewed together, "Rudyland" and "Street Fight" are an interesting look back at U.S. politics nearly 20 years ago.

One of the highlights of IDFA’s online offerings is the penultimate film by veteran Algerian documentary filmmaker Malek Bensmail. "Checks and Balances," from 2015, is set during Algeria’s 2014 presidential campaign, in which Algeria’s perennial president Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika ran for a fourth term despite a stroke that severely affected him.

The offering can be found on the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam website,

Bensmail’s film begins above the rooftops of Algiers’ skyscrapers. Against the lights of the evening city, Bouteflika’s voice confidently declares: "I am all of Algeria. I am the incarnation of the Algerian people. So tell the generals to come and get me if they can." Then a series of newscasters, alternating between French and Algerian Arabic, take us into the reality of Algerian politics. The camera slides down to the city. A cut leads into the printing press of the daily newspaper El Watan. The shots of the huge printing press evoke the image of a machine room of democracy.

The portrait of El Watan’s editorial staff that Bensmail draws in his film seems to confirm this impression. The discussions between the newspaper’s employees are so lively and protracted that one is almost surprised that texts are still being written at all. A picture of political debates in Bouteflika’s Algeria in recent years is emerging from the political differences among the collaborators.

Last year, the endless loop of Algerian politics seemed to repeat itself once again when Bouteflika wanted to run again as a presidential candidate. Angry protests ultimately forced him to resign.

The IDFA also offers a whole series of films by well-known documentary filmmakers such as Avi Mograbi, whose film "Z32" is about an Israeli veteran who took part in a reprisal action against Palestinian policemen, or two early works by Kim Longinotto, in which she cooperated with the Iranian-British anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini.

The films can be found on the festival’s website under the Collections category and the "Watch for free" menu item. On the page that then opens, you have the choice between a good 300 films that are available for free and others that can be viewed for a small fee. Movies that are not in English are subtitled in English. To make browsing easier, there’s also a "Film Tips" section, under each of which the festival has grouped a good handful of films. One small catch: not all the films listed are available everywhere in the world. But even if a film doesn’t want to be shown, there is no shortage of alternatives thanks to the large selection.

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