Best of Idfa, worst for women

Idfa Amsterdam

Sanne van Oosten

Are women much less interesting than men? Are women not remarkable enough to star in a documentary film? As a fan of documentaries, I try to make it to the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam (Idfa) every year. Each year, at the end of the festival a “Best of Idfa” program is presented. The most important award winning documentaries of the festival are screened for a whole day. While attending this year, I noticed that women were only featured as supporting acts, with exception of one documentary. Why do women star in the lead role of documentaries so rarely?

This year, the selection of documentaries was especially good. The winner of the popular vote was both exiting and moving. 5 Broken Camera’s, a documentary about a Palestinian protester who filmed his life protesting against intruding Israeli’s into the West Bank. He and his, male, friends protested in playful humorous and traditional serious ways. Often, five times in total, this lead to the breaking of his camera, commencing a new chapter in the documentary. Yet, the only woman in this documentary was the wife of the documentary film maker. Not having given this much thought, I was very enthusiastic about this documentary and discussing it with someone after the screening. This person added that “it was clear that women don’t play a large role in the Arabic culture,” alluding to the marginal role women played in this documentary. Later, someone else asked me: “How can you like this documentary so much, you’re a feminist!”

The jury-winner of the Idfa festival was Planet of Snail, a movie about a man who is both deaf and blind and how he copes in life. His wife is the most important contributor in his life, as she helps him with everything he does. He is the lead, she is the supporting act. The best Music film was Last Days Here about a rocker who is so self-destructive he as trouble getting his life on track. The only two women in this film were the rockers girlfriend and mother. Both only interesting enough to be in the film because of their relation to the main character. Montenegro was a documentary about a hermit living in Argentina. As far as I remember, not a single woman was starred in this film. The exception is the film The Betrayal, winner of the prize for best debut. It was directed by a woman and starring said woman. However, a commonly heard complaint was that it was “too personal.” She shouldn’t have put herself in the picture like that?

Why is an Arabic film in which women play a limited role criticized for its lack of women, whereas the other films are not? I’m not blaming the jury of the Idfa, nor the documentary film makers. This was a selection of excellent documentary films. I’m just wondering, after more than 100 years of feminist movements, why are women still not interesting enough to lead in a popular documentary film? No matter the culture, men seem to be much more interesting than women. Most importantly, in a society where women clearly still aren’t valued in the same way as men, can we claim there to be gender equality?

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