A feast for the eyes: The IFI Documentary Festival is back and better than ever

Alison Traynor gives the lowdown on what documentaries should not be missed during this year’s festival

From September 25 to September 29, the Irish Film Institute (IFI) is hosting their annual documentary festival, which has been a beloved staple of Dublin’s cultural calendar for more than sixteen years. Sixteen documentaries will be screened in the newly refurbished IFI, providing film buffs with the opportunity to experience the best of national and international cinema without suffering the dreaded leg cramps that previously went hand in hand with a trip to this particular venue. A variety of special guests will be in attendance, including the award-winning filmmaker, photographer and author Seamus Murphy and the Berlin-based Syrian filmmaker Ziad Kalthoum. There will also be question and answer sessions with featured directors after six of the screenings, allowing attendees to gain further insight into the making of these documentaries.

Social and cultural commentary is a major theme of this year’s line-up. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is spotlighted in Philippe Bellaiche and Rachel Leah Jones’ documentary Advocate, which follows the life and work of Lea Tsemel, a Jewish-Israeli attorney who has spent fifty years championing the rights of Palestinian prisoners. The film narrates the stories of those whom she is currently working for, with a focus on the high-profile trial of her youngest ever client, a 13 year old boy. It also revisits some of her most important cases, and examines both the political and personal impact of her work. The festival will screen Advocate on September 26.

Fredrik Gertten’s documentary Push deals with political and social issues significantly closer to home. The film follows Leilani Farha, the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing, as she travels around the world in an attempt to understand why so many different countries are currently facing housing crises. Farha asks the questions that we all want answers to: why is access to affordable housing still not a fundamental human right, and why are accommodation prices rapidly escalating while our incomes remain desperately low? This documentary is extremely relevant to Dublin-dwellers, as we have all inevitably witnessed or experienced first-hand the struggles that are associated with being forced to pay thousands per month for housing with crumbling infrastructure and levels of toxic mould that would make living in the Amityville House almost seem like an attractive prospect. Farha may not solve the problem, but she attempts to provide answers, which is more than most politicians try to do. Push will be screened on September 28, and it will be followed by a panel discussion.

“Social and cultural commentary is a major theme of this year’s line-up.”

One of the highlights of this year’s festival is its screening of Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case: Hammarskjöld on September 29. In terms of genre, this film would be best categorised as “true-crime on steroids”. It explores the mysterious death of the United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, which occurred in 1961 when his plane unexplainably crashed in Zambia. While the plot line may sound like a standard tale of true-crime, Brügger makes everything a whole lot stranger by placing himself in the film, acting out the role of detective in an absurd fashion, and exploring concepts of truth and conspiracy theory in a uniquely idiosyncratic way. Described by Owen Glieberman in Variety as “one of the most honestly disturbing and provocative nonfiction films in years”, Cold Case: Hammarskjöld is certainly one to watch out for.

While the festival predominantly screens international works, several Irish filmmakers will also have their time to shine this year. On the final day of the festival, Peter Kelly’s Journey to the Edge will be premiered. Kelly’s documentary chronicles the fascinating story of Galway businessman Enda O’Coineen. Three years ago, O’Coineen became the first Irish person to complete the Vendée Globe, a perilous sporting event in which solo sailors attempt to circumnavigate the world’s seas. After its screening both Kelly and O’Coineen will take to the stage for a question and answer session, which will hopefully enlighten the audience as to why anyone would decide to deprive themselves of roast dinners and hot showers for months on end.

Likewise, on September 28, an Irish Shorts Programme will be screened as part of the festival. A number of short documentaries will be shown, ranging from a biography of the director Roy Spense entitled It Came From Comber, to The Vasectomy Doctor, a film dealing with the ever-relevant theme of the relationship between church and state. The huge range of topics which the Irish Shorts Programme covers is reflective of the eclecticism of the festival as a whole. No matter where your interests lie, the IFI Documentary Festival is not to be missed.

Alison Traynor

Alison Traynor is the current Life Editor of Trinity News.