As usual, it was a cold and rainy day in Amsterdam. Close to my first Christmas break, I was eager to return home. The food in the cafeteria had turned sour and I longed for tasteful ceviche and sautéed steak. There I sat, longing. After I finished studying, I gathered my books and prepared for a hectic return to my apartment. I was just near the exit when suddenly, something caught my eye: a small blue poster that was just about to fall off the wall. It read:
IDFA: Programma 2019.
To my luck, the dutch word Programma was sufficiently similar to English to be understood. Drawn by curiosity, I looked closer. Beside the poster sat a stack of papers that displayed the schedule for the screenings of the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. I flicked through the pages. I was convinced. Ambitiously, I quickly entered the website and bought tickets for the screenings I wanted to go to.
The dawning of the rainy weather and the way back home turned into a challenge rather than a curse. I biked as fast as I could, with ironic excitement. I was thrilled at the opportunity to see intriguing, profound documentaries and listening to the directors and producers afterward. They would be sitting right there, where I could see them, in skin and bone.
In the next few weeks, I attended IDFA. I went alone. I was mostly driven by my hunger to discover new things, to see different worlds, and to be inspired.
There were two films that will stay with me.
From now on, pay close attention.
The first was iHuman: a documentary about the threats and opportunities of artificial intelligence. It was an early screening. I rushed to Pathé Tuschinski, Amsterdam’s oldest theater, restlessly climbed up four flights of stairs, and arrived, finally, at my seat. I had made it on time, but the popularity of the film had made it justice even before it had started. I sat in the back row, silent, as the film played. When it finished, Tonje Hessen Schei, the film’s director, emerged. He explained his motivations for directing the film. One of them included the issue of privacy in our time. I agreed. 15 minutes passed ,and the moderator announced what I had been waiting for: a skype call with Edward Snowden, one of the US’s most infamous whistleblowers. He was received by a standing ovation. I stood there, awed. I could not believe I was hearing him, live. In the back of my mind, I pondered on the small possibility of him seeing me, a tiny blip in the back row of the theater, watching him. I would go on about the matters he talked about, but I’m afraid I would not finish. Concluding on iHuman: it was amazing. Go watch it.
The second and last film that stayed with me was the one I attended unintentionally. Days after iHuman’s screening, I was seating in the cafeteria of De Balie, a smaller theater in Leidseplein. I had just seen a controversial documentary about Venezuela’s leader Chávez: The Revolution Must Not Be Televised. When it ended, the moderator announced the next screening: a scarring documentary about the General Penitentiary of Venezuela, a jail turned mayhem; a metaphor for the country’s grim reality. Tickets for The Cause had almost run out. I rushed to the booth and purchased the last one. This small coincidence seems to me now like a carefully orchestrated miracle.
I’ll rob the IDFA website of its words to describe this film: “It tells the human story of current and former inmates searching for salvation through religion, music and even politics.” At times I felt repulsion, at times I felt inspiration, and at times I felt disbelief. The Cause enveloped what magical realism meant in books: the situation of the Venezuelan prisoners was contested by their unbelievable liberties. As with iHuman, I would go on about the documentary’s content ,but I’m afraid I would not finish either. Concluding on The Cause: it was astonishing. Go watch it.
I was so profoundly touched by the film that, when the screening and discussions on it ended, I gathered the courage to go and talk to the director and the producers. I was surprised to notice that they were not much older than me. I was also thrilled at the opportunity of speaking Spanish with them. The director, Andrés Figueredo, made a cue to go and continue the conversations at the bar. I felt like Elton John was inviting me to party with him in Studio 54. That level of excitement.
In the next few hours, I spent the most bizarre yet enjoyable nights of my student experience: I bar-hopped with film directors, enjoyed some drinks, and talked about Venezuela’s reality with a first-hand witness; a journalist, and a filmmaker. Right then and there, I was incredibly grateful to that little blue poster that had caught my eye. I still am incredibly grateful.
It had transformed my homesickness into raw inspiration. It reminded me of my purpose: to tell stories. However big, however small.
I end, here, my memoir.
What message can I leave you with, then?
If you find yourself in Amsterdam and you’re struggling to find your place in the city, I suggest you go to the IDFA festival. Go with friends or go alone. You will be grateful for the amazing people you will get the opportunity to meet.
From the comfy seat of a movie theater, you will get to see the world as it is: raw, vulnerable, and artistic.
If you’re anywhere else in the world: don’t fret. This year, the IDFA will have some online screenings. Subscribe to the newsletter for updates.
I hope I have made my case. This, too, can be your little blue poster. You just need to be willing to look closer.
Written from Lima, Peru, on September 8th, 2020.
Cover: Isabella Ibanez