10 Films To Watch At The 2015 IDFA


Every year IDFA presents the best documentaries, selected from a wide topical range. This selection is made on the basis of certain clear criteria. In short, the IDFA looks for documentaries that are stylistically interesting or innovative, socially relevant and who manage to clearly communicate with their audiences.

The following list represents 10 films which have made noise on the festival circuit already this year, as well as a handful of releases unseen in the US up to this point.

IDFA 2015 runs November 18-29, 2015 at venues all around Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Welcome To Leith
Leith was always a peaceful little hamlet in North Dakota. The 24-strong community got along just fine, until the arrival of a new resident. For the first few months Craig Cobb appeared to be just a somewhat eccentric man who didn’t like to share much of himself with his new neighbors. But what none of them knew was that Cobb is one of the most notorious racists in the United States. When it got out that Cobb’s master plan was to transform Leith into a community for neo-Nazis, documentary filmmakers Michael Nichols and Christopher Walker decided to follow developments in this tiny city. Cobb starts stirring up trouble and demands his rights at council meetings. The villagers would like nothing more than to get him out, but they don’t know how. With the atmosphere turning increasingly nasty, the older villagers start panicking. What can they do to turn the tide? The directors move fluidly between the two opposing parties, building the story with consummate precision and maintaining the tension right up to the final frames. The interviews are intercut with scenes revolving around the confrontation between Cobb and his fellow townsfolk, raising uncomfortable questions about freedom of expression and the limits of democracy.

Kingdom Of Shadows
Kingdom of Shadows follows three people grappling with the hard choices and destructive consequences of the U.S.-Mexico “drug war”. Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz weaves together the seemingly disconnected stories of an activist nun in deeply scarred Monterrey, Mexico, a U.S. Federal agent on the border, and a former Texas smuggler to reveal the human side of an often-misunderstood conflict that has resulted in the “disappearance” of more than 23,000 people in Mexico—a growing human rights crisis that only recently has made international headlines.

Only The Dead
“You deserve better than tyranny and corruption and torture chambers. You deserve to live as free people. And I assure every citizen of Iraq: your nation will soon be free.” These were the words with which President George W. Bush announced the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. invasion of Iraq intended to rid the country of its dictator Saddam Hussein. The Australian journalist Michael Ware reported on these events for Time magazine. The initial sense of adventure and excitement gradually gave way to fear and obsession when rebels started resorting to suicide bombings – the freedom that Bush promised never arrived. Instead, the country became embroiled in hopeless conflicts involving ever-greater numbers of rebel groups. The horrors are palpable in this compelling and deeply shocking documentary drawn primarily from Ware’s own footage. In voice-over, he explains how he made contact with insurgents, got permission to attend secret meetings and ultimately appeared on the radar of the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al Zarqawi, who would later become the second most wanted man on the planet, sent Ware videos of kidnappings and beheadings. Ware had thus become the messenger for Al Zarqawi’s holy war, and this fact threw him into a deep personal crisis.

Cartel Land
The vivid setting in Matthew Heineman’s groundbreaking documentary evokes a classic western movie: dusty frontiers, and rough-riding buckskin-clad lone rangers.  With unprecedented access, Cartel Land gets eyeball deep in this on-the-ground, fiery investigation of illegal narcotic trafficking, and the actions of the vigilante groups on both sides of the drug war. Heineman passionately collages disparate groups with a common aim: to impede the advancement of the Mexican drug cartels, often taking questionable measures to ensure victory.  Adventurous, brave, and raw, Cartel Landtranscends a visual discussion of good and evil, and investigates the beautifully subjective gray area by asking: must fire be fought with fire? Who decides where might and right meet?

Chemsex delves deep into London’s contemporary gay scene, where synthetic drug-induced sex parties are causing an alarming rise in HIV transmission and drug addiction. A group of gay men share their personal stories, offering insight into what motivates them to use these dangerous drugs as part of their sex lives. Chemsex is an emotional journey that contains powerful footage of what goes on behind the scenes. The story begins with a young man who mainlines £400 ($600) worth of drugs each week yet claims he isn’t really an addict. This makes it immediately and painfully clear how denial can increase the scale and destructive effects of drug use. Furthermore, it’s kept largely hidden because the drugs are illegal and the parties are private. In each individual story, scenes of domesticity alternate with those in clubs and treatment facilities. We meet Enrique, whose addiction has turned him from a college-educated professional into a homeless person who sells his body for drugs. Mark takes us on a tour of his gay sauna and the preventative measures he has taken there. And Simon, a drug user, receives help from David, who runs a sexual health clinic. 

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 raised hopes of a world with no more concrete borders dividing populations. But today we see the exact opposite, and walls have been erected all over the world to set the boundaries between poverty and prosperity. On the U.S.-Mexican border, we meet a Vietnam vet placing crosses where Mexicans lost their lives trying to find a better life. On the other side, a Mexican couple is waiting for the right moment to attempt a climb over. A sentry patrols the banks of the Limpopo River along the border of Zimbabwe and South Africa, where many refugees drown trying to cross. At the Moroccan-Spanish border, we see a woman carrying huge packages on her back. The border scenes flow effortlessly into one another. Directors Pablo Iraburu and Migueltxo Molina add new meaning by placing the tableaux in split-screen compositions such as a Mexican tunnel placed beneath an African baobab. Meanwhile, a voice-over explaining the situation in Mexico accompanies scenes from the Moroccan border. The countless partitions all over the world form a universal problem.

No German director was more controversial, more productive and more obsessed with film making than Rainer Werner Fassbinder. When he died in 1982, aged only 37, Fassbinder has revolutionized theater and left behind a total of 44 self-directed films and TV series. No one before or after him was able to portray German society as truthful and hurtful and polarize as strongly as Rainer Werner Fassbinder

In Jackson Heights
Jackson Heights is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens where immigrants of many nationalities live together in relative harmony. Walk into a beauty salon and you’re in India; visit the community center and you’ll hear Mexican immigrants telling their escape tales. The area is home to a whole gamut of minority groups, with Hari Krishnas, transgender people, Koran-studying children in hijabs, and elderly Jews commemorating the Holocaust. But Jackson Heights is only 20 minutes by subway from Manhattan, and local businesses are concerned about the neighborhood’s future; perhaps it’s about to suffer the same fate as nearby Brooklyn, where the hipsters have taken over and the threatened invasion of major retail chains have sparked skyrocketing rents. After previous films about big organizations such as a hospital, a prison and a ballet company, the acclaimed director Frederick Wiseman has turned his focus on the panoply of subcultures in this little corner of New York City. He takes the viewer along on his visits to a halal butcher, a nail studio, a dog grooming parlor, a belly dance lesson and meetings in the community center. In his customary fly-on-the-wall style, Wiseman films the goings-on in Jackson Heights without comment. Despite the differences between them, the residents are all happy to join forces to preserve their beloved neighborhood and battle against rent hikes.

Best Of Enemies
In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election in 1968, which would see Richard Nixon becoming president, ABC TV invited two leading thinkers to discuss the state of the nation. In the resulting series of spectacular live broadcasts, the ultraconservative journalist William F. Buckley and the progressive author Gore Vidal hurl increasingly violent verbal abuse at one another – on personal as well as political issues. What starts off as an exemplary display of the art of classical intellectual debate spirals into a demoralizing record of the first American example of on-air political mudslinging. Although Buckley and Vidal thoroughly despise one another, they do have common concerns when it comes to the state of their nation. They initially express their loathing for each other’s opinions through eloquent taunts and repartee, but by the end this highbrow brawl between two talented debaters has degenerated into an exchange of vulgarities. The color archive footage is accompanied by voice-overs of passages from the memoirs of the two intellectual giants, while others who were there reflect on this sensational political debate that marked the beginning of a new era in TV.



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