Dial M for Mogul

19 mins read

In the beginning was the word, and the wordwas Mogul. In the polygenesis of world languages, or Ursprache, the letter M holds particular significance. M is exactly in the Middle of our English alphabet. And since the very beginning of words 200,000 years ago, M as in Ma or Mother was the first word ever spoken. But few people know that in the documentary dictionary the first word ever spoken was M as in Mogul. And the second was A, as in Ally Derks, the woman who runs the Mother of all documentary film festivals, IDFA.

In 2011 Ally Derks, the co-founder and director of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), is Hot Docs’ 2011 Mogul. It’s the rarified award given to the most important movers, shakers and rollers in the Documentary Jungle. Over the years Derks has won several awards for her contribution to documentary including Amsterdam’s illustrious IJ Prijs. But this one is special.

I was with Derks when she first learned of her “moguldom.” In her typically humble way, she was visibly moved and surprised and excited. She’s come such a long way from Vorden, her home village in Holland, close to the German border. Now, she’s a documentary maven. It’s fitting that Hot Docs had the grace to honour its big sister, not as a competitor, but as a co-conspirator, which is Derks’s own mantra.

I first met the vibrant redhead in New York 20 years ago, as she was drumming up interest for her newly formed festival. For the sake of transparency, I’ve worked with IDFA, pitching in as a paid and unpaid volunteer for several months a year over the last decade. I’ve helped this important agenda-setting festival organize and professionalize its renowned talks, debates and discussions on contemporary documentary issues that set the template for other festivals that follow throughout the year.

Ally Derks was born a lucky Sagittarian and Sunday Child. She was a boomer kid in the ’60s. After studying Dutch literature, film and theatre, in her mid-twenties she became coordinator of Festikon, an educational film festival in Utrecht. In 1988, with a little help from her friends and the Netherlands Film Institute, she launched IDFA. In the first year it had 3,000 guests and a €50,000 budget. Today, the Mogul oversees a budget of €3.8 million for its year-long programmes and November festival, which attracted 2,700 professionals and a public of 180,000 in 2010.

IDFA is a 12-day doc festival that is the largest in the world. It screens 300 films in competitive and non-competitive sections, from state-of-the-world masterpieces to Docs for Kids. It runs 20 screens in various venues, including the most beautiful film palace in Europe, the Tuchinski. With a reputation as the showcase for the socially engaged creative documentary, IDFA equally features documentaries across all genres, including its DocLab programme of webdocs; Paradocs, an experimental program of paradoxical installations; and reality-based installations. IDFA has grown from an institution organizing an annual international film festival into a platform and a centre for documentary that is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

So what has Ms. Mogul wrought? In its 23-year history, thousands of documentary filmmakers, producers, distributors and broadcasters have passed through Amsterdam at several points along their career trajectories. It’s one of the doc world’s great coups to get invited to the competitions. To win a prize at IDFA guarantees success in the marketplace. The guest list goes from A to Z in 120 different languages and styles. Wiseman has been there from the beginning. Herzog and I did a master class there a few years ago in front of 800 people. Filmmakers love IDFA for the standing-room audiences asking their tough questions at the Q&A sessions. Equally attractive are the networking and pitching possibilities.

Since the beginning, IDFA has reached out to an industry that has grown alongside of it. Docs for Sale is its international marketplace for buyers and sellers both on site and on the web all year round. In 1991, Derks and company started the first pitching forum for the international co-financing of documentaries. This has been a huge success, attracting commissioning editors and investors from all over the world. Its clones have sprouted up everywhere. Ally Derks is also director of IDFA’s Jan Vrijman Fund, which financially supports dozens of documentary filmmakers and emerging festival initiatives in developing countries every year. Visitors to IDFA’s online documentary channel, IDFA TV, can view documentaries and events, free of charge, all year round. IDFA organizes special school screenings for thousands of pupils. The IDFA Documentary Workshop, organized in cooperation with the Dutch Cultural Media Fund, has a select group of young filmmakers create treatments and compete for a €125,000 prize. Its education department runs workshops, the IDFA summer school and The IDFAcademy, which trains new documentary talent from all over the world.

IDFA is also known for what happens offscreen in Amsterdam’s unbroken social scene. Stories are legendary about Canadian companies hosting parties on houseboats, or wild consortia of sales agents forcing a thousand people to dance all night. In dozens of venues surrounding IDFA’s village in historic Rembrandt Square, DJs and so-called coffee shops are kept busy spinning dreams for doc-media makers.

Ally Derks runs a full-time staff of 25 people, which triples with specialists called in during the festival run-up, and 400 or more dedicated volunteers during the festival. Her core management team consists of loyal long-timers. Derks’s inspired leadership derives from her belief in the power of the social-action documentary. She also believes in training people to acquire skill sets and move up through IDFA’s ranks. Some become leaders in other cultural industries.

Every year the audience grows. From less than 30,000 a year in the early 1990s, an accumulated total put its one-millionth spectator in a seat several years back. It’s predicted to hit 200,000 a year by the time IDFA reaches its 25th anniversary. But a Mogul’s job is also defined by money. IDFA regularly receives funding from a large array of public and corporate sponsors. About 32 percent of its budget comes from sustainable government, local and national grants; 18 percent from private and semi-public funds; 15 percent from sponsorship; a quarter from ticket sales; and 10 percent from other income.

That’s IDFA, but who is the Mogul who acts as IDFA’s face and heartbeat?

Ally Derks lives very modestly for a mogul, in Lutjebroek, a one-road town 60 kilometers north of Amsterdam. Lutjebroek is so ultra-normal in Holland that the whole nation refers to it as the average town’s average town. Derks’s husband Bob, a Dutchman with American genes and jeans, is a part-time basketball coach. He’s a jack-of-all-trades renaissance man, and a major source of care for their two teenage kids. Once in a blue moon one might find Derks tending to her beloved cactus plants in her dilapidated greenhouse, where she used to raise floppy-eared rabbits. But these days the animal she says she most identifies with is the human being “genus documentarus.”

On an average day, Derks might be at home, on a world tour or on a yellow Dutch train commuting into IDFA’s HQ, a five-storey hive of offices in Frederiks Plein, not too far from Rembrandt Square and the festival’s venues during November. On this day, Derks might view several of the 800-odd films she will watch each year, pre-selected from 3,000 submissions by her team of a dozen programmers and researchers. Perhaps she will attend an opening, dressed in her fashionably laissez-faire style, always with a flair for orange or red; then she might make a speech about free speech, or consult with a new employee or the management team. She typically makes an enormous number of daily phone and ’Berry calls to the far-flung corners of the world, gets interviewed, lobbies financiers and government agencies, meets distributors, producers and filmmakers, reads all of the hundreds of proposals for IDFA’s Jan Vrijman Fund and organizes big-picture and small-detail logistics.

I’ve watched as she’s taken the initiative to clear the table after the daily collective lunch that IDFA provides for its staff. Or help to schlep heavy loads of the festival’s catalogues off the truck and into the cinemas. She goes to the office when not travelling to other festivals, where she’s found three months per year. At the end of the day, sometimes she’ll join colleagues at an old “brown” pub for a glass of wine, take supper in Amsterdam or make the 90-minute commute back home to dinner with the family. Then it’s more watching, new docs in progress or docs on TV.

But all is not so earnest in Ally Derks’s world. She’s been known to tear up the dance floor or tell a bawdy joke. Derks spends her summers camping with her family in a modest yurt-like tent on Vlieland, in the North Sea. It is here, she tells me, if she were ever caught stranded, that she would have such classic docs as Gimme Shelter, Shoah or An Encounter with Simone Weil close by.

If Mogul Derks were a colour, it would be red. Red as in fire, or in flowers. Red as in passion, love, beauty and sacrifice. Derks considers love to be the most important thing on earth; that passion and dedication go with the work. She believes she should be fearless but not irresponsible; that hope keeps her going against all odds; and that leadership is teamwork and motherhood is the most difficult thing there is.

Undoubtedly, there is a personal price to pay as the doyenne of one of the world’s premier arts organizations. Family life is more challenging than usual due to all the travelling (she still knocks on wood when she flies) and the long hours she keeps, but in the end she manages to be a good mother and a mogul who believes she’s got the best job in the world. She claims she’s never faced a setback because she’s a woman. In fact, the documentary industry is relatively egalitarian, compared to the rest of the media. At the same time, she proactively encourages women filmmakers around the world as much as she encourages the young women in her organization to accept leadership roles.

Derks comes from a typical middle-class Dutch family. Her father was a teacher, her mother worked at home. She calls herself a typical ’70s kid: she got everything she could wish for. School was very important to her. When she was a kid, she never dreamed she would be running the biggest documentary film festival in the world. In fact, she didn’t think about jobs at all. As a young teen, she wanted to be an actress. Indeed, to this day, she can command a stage, in Dutch or English. She also speaks German and French. She is at ease in the public eye, although she admits to being the worst joke teller in the world—perhaps because she lives so happily that she can’t be bothered to remember them.

Derks developed her sense of morality and ethics in her younger days. Hers was a version of more progressive Christian teachings that remind us that all people are equal, we shall not kill, and that we should live in solidarity with less-privileged people. To this day Derks breathes that same solidarity. Although she is spiritual and spirited, she rejected organized religion and has turned to pacifism, socialism and social democracy. Derks cites Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi as the most influential people in her philosophical life, as well as Dutch master filmmakers Joris Ivens and Jan Vrijiman, who inspired IDFA’s early days.

Derks is a mogul who believes, as many filmmakers do, that we should leave the earth a better place than we found it. Her crazy lifestyle necessitates a belief in Horace’s 2,000-year-old dictum that she should seize the day, carpe diem, because life is so short. She also lives by the ageless golden maxim of reciprocity that proscribes that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Ally Derks defines documentary as a personal vision or interpretation of reality made with cinematographic skills. She knows that she is watching a great documentary when it takes her to the edge of her chair. Derks believes that the role of documentary these days is to create awareness, discussion and debate. She sees the role of the big international doc-circus that is IDFA as to make the world familiar with documentary. As the largest gathering point of documentary professionals and audiences, IDFA is also a life-support system for filmmakers, festivals and workshops around the world.

Where does Derks think that IDFA will be 10 years from now? She proffers the docutopian view that IDFA and docs will be seen all over a peaceful globe. She believes that brave new filmmakers and media-makers all over the world will keep the good work coming. Perhaps it may also come in the form of a fantasy project IDFA has been discussing for a few years: the IDFA train, which may help to make that documentary dream happen trans-nationally.

For Derks, documentary films may be difficult to make, finance and distribute these days, but they keep the dialogue going. Documentary survives. It needs to survive. Because documentary serves an important social function in providing people with authentic information. They transform facts into the art of information. The art of storytelling.

For Derks, IDFA is about connecting countries, cultures and cinematic languages. IDFA is about the masters of today meeting the masters of tomorrow. IDFA offers many visions that point to the idea of a better world. It is a world with hope and promise at the centre. A world where free expression is possible.

A festival like IDFA is a human experience, a celebration, an intellectual exercise, and a challenge to our preconceptions and misconceptions. The new documentary revolution is about the power of audiences to become active instead of passive citizens. Derks hopes that she and IDFA and a new generation of documentary makers can make that kind of reality happen.

Spoken like a true Mogul.

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