When I received the call from Raul Niño Zambrano from the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, known internationally as IDFA, asking us if we would screen our film U.N. Me in competition, I was unsure how to receive this news. See, this is my first film and I haven’t really been involved in the documentary community until recently. As such I was unaware of the pecking order of documentary film festivals. But, as I soon came to find out that IDFA is Mecca for documentary film makers and enthusiasts, in fact, it is the largest and most prestigious documentary film festival in the world. Having your film in competition in the festival automatically brushes your movie with an imprimatur of legitimacy within the documentary film world.
So with that knowledge I happily accepted the invitation and jetted off for a week in Amsterdam with my co-producer, agent and publicist. It wasn’t quite “Entourage,” but for our purposes it worked.
To truly understand the atmosphere of a film festival, you have to understand the bubble that is the film festival generally, and documentary film festival in particular. This is not to pass judgment on it, but rather to simply point out the fact that they live in an inviolable envelope of political homogeneity and when something shakes their world view the tremors are felt throughout the festival. That is exactly what we did.
But IDFA is no normal film festival. Upon arrival, I felt as though I had entered the epicenter of secular, liberal, pseudo-intellectual Europe. Because we were the only political film that took a centrist political approach in our movie, we were marked men from the start, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
IDFA is a massive affair that had thousands of films submitted for consideration and tens of thousands of attendees discussing and debating the merits of the films that they had just screened among the cafes, restaurants and sidewalks of Amsterdam. The heart of the city during those ten days beats to the cadence of the festival. It truly is an experience to behold for any film lover and, for a filmmaker with a film in the festival, it is an experience unlike any that I have experienced before.
Despite IDFA’s size – more than 300 films were screened – there was a palpable buzz surrounding our movie, and the interest level on the street leading up to our first screening was measurable. I came across individual after individual pouring over their film festival guide, and, looking over their shoulders, almost all had circled U.N. Me.
The first of our sold out screenings took place at Pathé de Munt, a large, modern theater located in the heart of Amsterdam only a couple streets away from Rembrandt Square. Though we had test screened U.N. Me for hundreds of people throughout the United States, across political, age and religious demographics, the situation we found ourselves in that rainy night in Amsterdam was a radical departure.
As the curtains were drawn and the doors closed on our premiere screening, I was genuinely surprised, shocked even, that a film critical of the United Nations, a traditional darling of European doves, would be in such high demand. Not a single seat remained unfilled. Still as the lights went down, I held my breath.
Despite screening across widely varied demographics, clear trends emerged in our audiences. The film plays well across the board, and does not tend to be viewed through the prism of our country’s partisan political landscape; that is to say moviegoers don’t identify it as being decidedly conservative or liberal, just a truthful, hilarious and harrowing broadside against the United Nations’ veneer of respectability.
But this was a European film festival audience. While a couple people did storm out during the movie in a huff, nearly everyone stayed, watched and laughed. As the credits appeared, we received a respectful ovation, but certainly not an enthusiastic one.
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The Q&A took place immediately after the credits finished rolling the first question was emblematic of the rest of the evening. It began with a very angry man standing up and accusing me of being an American puppet and willfully ignoring the globe’s most egregious abusers of human rights. He then sat down obviously pleased with himself, with a pretentious smirk on his face. When I asked the man to name the countries to which he was referring, he boldly and without a hint of irony, named the United States and Israel. He was then showered with shouts and howls from some in the crowd, while the shouters, received counter shouts defending the questioner, and so it went the rest of the evening. In this particular screening I found the theater sharply divided on their opinions of the movie. Half seemed to really love the movie and the other half found the movie repulsive. The critical questions we got were evenly divided, with half of them being engageable and thought-provoking criticisms, which I enjoyed answering. The other half were odious, blathering rants dripping with anti-American hatred and tinged with anti-Semitism, which I enjoyed even more. After the Q&A that night and every night after each screening, much of the audience followed me and my co-producer outside the theater and continued the questions well into the night. The next screening was, oddly, completely different than the previous one. After the screening concluded, we received thunderous applause, taking me by complete surprise. Every question that we got was positive and usually began with the comment “Thank you for making this movie.”
The rest of the screenings were similarly and deliciously unpredictable.
During our week in Amsterdam, we spent a good part of each day doing media interviews. My publicist set up a corner of a hotel lobby for us and we would do hours of interviews with print, radio and television journalists from across the globe, including a Sharia-compliant journalist from Iranian state media. In all honesty, it was one of my favorite interviews. He was tough, but surprisingly fair and kept looking at me strangely every time I ordered another whiskey. In truth most of the interviews and the questions we were asked were strikingly similar to each other and I felt that the whole process became extremely rote (thus the need for libations). There were several notable exceptions, including a piece from the extremely influential publication, Indiewire. While I didn’t love his photography, I really loved his review.
One of the only truly troubling experiences at IDFA was the almost institutional hatred of Israel. This sentiment cut across the filmmakers, participants and even the IDFA leadership. Prior to my arrival in Amsterdam, IDFA invited me to participate in a debate regarding Israel. I eagerly agreed, knowing that I would probably be the only participant in the festival that would have the gall to defend the Jewish state. A few days before the scheduled debate, I was pulled from participating. They replaced me with a liberal, Israeli director, who for the most part, agreed with the person ostensibly taking the opposite position. While they refused to give me a straight answer on why they pulled me, it seems pretty clear that they did not realize when they invited me that I was a supporter of Israel.
The entire festival was really an incredible trip into a world that had been totally foreign to me not too long ago. As a former investment banker, who had never even dipped his toe into the film world, this was indeed a strange and fascinating world that only reinforced the fact that I had made the right decision by quitting my job to take on this project. To take my movie into IDFA and the many other festivals that we have and are attending around the world is an electric experience and, I have a feeling, only a taste of what is to come.
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