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Smog Town

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IDFA 2019: Dutch Quartet

Four more important Dutch documentary projects are selected for IDFA within First Appearance, Student Competition and Paradocs.

First Appearance selection Smog Town (Han Meng), supported by the IBF+NFF Co-production scheme, illustrates the massive problems inherent within the business of environmental protection. Langfang is one of the most air polluted cities in China, but who will pick up the tab when it comes to eliminating its pollution? The film focusses on the work of the local environmental protection bureau, where deputy chief Li and his assistant Hu are working hard to address the issue.

"As an Asian producer based in Europe, I always keep my eyes open for strong projects by Asian filmmakers," explains co-producer Jia Scheffer. "I knew about this project at CCDF (Taipei) back in 2016. It was two years later in 2018 at DMZ Docs when I met Vincent Du the producer again. Even though I do not live in China anymore, I know that my friends and family are dealing with smog every day. So for me, it is not only an abstract ‘understanding' but a burning issue at a personal level as well. Also I would like to see a story that tells the complexity of the smog issue in China, a densely populated country where the stunning economic growth has been going on for over thirty years."

"Han's background as an experienced journalist results in sharp observations of characters and events in the film," she continues. "Her experience in The Netherlands is very positive, together with the experienced editor Barbara Hin. Editing is an intensive and intimate process between the director, the editor and the producer."

In Max Ploeg's Student Competition selection Last of the Mohicans, Tonny runs a mobile supermarket that is dedicated to alleviating the problems of the needy. You haven't got enough to pay for your shopping? No problem, because at Tonny's mobile supermarket you can always pay next time. But Tonny is in debt, and her days are long and stressful because people all over the neighbourhood depend on her.

"When I met Tonny I immediately knew I wanted to make a portrait of her. She has a very strong personality and besides that she had manoeuvred herself into an impossible situation by starting an outdated business, with no experience, a broken van and a huge debt," explains Ploeg. "Still she remained idealistic and fearless and this, at first glance, almost naive blind faith made me curious to learn more about her."

"I think at first I wanted to make a film about a disappearing tradition, the [mobile] shops, and how this reflects changes in our society. In Tonny's case however it's exactly the opposite, she's trying to revive the shop and the values it represents. In the end the film became more a portrait of Tonny herself and less about traditions or society, but some of those initial ideas are still present in the film."

Two Dutch works are selected for Paradocs. In the 7-minute time-lapse Hours of Glass the camera travels from Dark Sky Park in Denmark to an abandoned observatory in Istanbul, via the expressionist architecture of the Einstein Tower near Berlin, to arrive at the cyber unit of a telecom company. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack we hear a sonic interpretation of the cosmic electromagnetic background radiation released by the Big Bang. This means we're listening to the echo of the ultimate metaphysical phenomenon, the beginning of everything.

"For my previous film project Forest Paths I recorded a walk in the woods," explains director Michiel van Bakel. "I used a homebuilt scanner-camera sensitive to infrared light to capture the trees with other eyes. It inspired me to work further on the concept of a technologically enhanced vision. That is also what astronomers use when they watch the skies with their instruments and create fascinating ‘false colour' pictures. So I thought it would be a nice twist to point a full-spectrum astro-camera at the observatories themselves."

"The funny thing with this kind of experimental set-up and time-lapse is you cannot really visualise it in advance, at least I can't. In that sense I do not envisage it beforehand but let the process of making take control. It is the paradox of seeking serendipity."

Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkum's The Ride is about the response to a relived experience. The visual landscape of impersonal Google Earth satellite images counterbalances the emotional charge of the short, low-key sentences of a couple in a car, and the sound of an amplified heartbeat driving towards a dramatic climax. This cinematic experience carries us along, while leaving enough space for the imagination.

Polak points out that, as visual artists working with installations, photo, prints and video and other media, they were not at first aware that film would be the eventual (sole) medium in telling their story. In terms of inspiration, she further stresses how the pair's "work is about movement and landscape and [that] a traumatic experience in the past also had these two ingredients. For a long time it did not occur to us that this was the case, but once we did we dived into the topic."

Nick Cunningham

SEE NL Magazine #37 November 2019 / IDFA Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.


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