Welcome to IDFAland

A personal view of the mother of all docfests

34 mins read

On a warm New York night in the early ’90s, I was walking to a party hosted by the Independent Feature Project on lower Broadway, when I came across two very animated, brightly dressed, vociferous women—one a fiery redhead, the other a dynamic blonde. They claimed to be from the Netherlands and to my tin ear they seemed to be speaking in tongues. In actual fact they were speaking about an astonishing subject and a real, living language: documentary. IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam) director Ally Derks and associate director Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen were in New York City to drum up support for their newly hatched documentary film festival. Little did we realize that over 18 years, IDFA would grow up to be the mother of all documentary film festivals. And that a chance meeting would lead me to a whole set of IDFA encounters of the first kind which would inexorably enrich my professional and personal lives.

A half-dozen years ago, I had a post-Calvinist epiphany, perhaps induced by Erasmus, the great Dutch humanist philosopher. I attended IDFA as a guest in an innovative three-day conference about digidocs, docs on-line and cyberdocs. Outside the conference, I joined thousand of others in IDFA’s filled-to-the-rim screening rooms. The whole cosmic IDFA zoo celebrating the art form I love the most took me aback. From the heated conversations in the then smoky halls of IDFA’s Headquarters in the de Balie cultural centre to the ‘guests meet guests’ micro meetings in bars, restaurants and streets around Amsterdam’s festival village in the Leidseplein, it seemed that IDFA was the place to be to meet everyone making, producing, thinking about or commissioning documentary. I resolved to come back to IDFA every subsequent year whether or not I had a film invited. If necessary, I would just sit in the audience and enjoy some of the 290 films they put up on the screen.

IDFA was born out of the same sense of social and political commitment, which goes to the very definition of documentary itself. Out of a culture that produced such great documentarians as Joris Ivens, a young Ally Derks, fresh out of Film and Theatre Science at Utrecht University, had been coordinating Festikon, a yearly educational film and video festival in the Netherlands in the mid ’80s. One night in an Amsterdam cafe, it came to her to start a truly international documentary festival. Given a greenlight blessing by the now defunct Netherlands Film Institute, Derks led a small collective of merry adventurers on the IDFA escapade. One of the founding fathers was Derks’ inspirational mentor, the late Jan Vrijman, a filmmaker, journalist, columnist and social activist who resisted the status quo all his life. Jan Vrijman was the nom de plume for Jan Hulsebos. Vrijman, in English translation, means Free Man. Joining as a member of IDFA’s Executive team in its second year, Jan was Ally’s philosophic guru, knowing how to ask the right questions at the right time.

For Jan Vrijman, documentaries were, “the bearers of ideas and opinions in the realms of social and economic life, science and technology, politics and culture. They show personal views and reflections on the complicated reality of society and they analyse the multipli-city of its aspects. The more brilliant their view, the more important the documentary. In this way, documentaries bring structure to people’s opinions: they arrange information and communication, they stimulate developments in all fields of human activity.”

Ally Derks has carried forward that mission. For her, “Jan Vrijman was a name born in Resistance. He resisted easy answers. He did not preach hatred. His creed was reality. He was a man who stood alone, but also collectively, with others, to defend freedom. He opposed all kinds of censorship. In this way, he was a true Amsterdammer. Jan stood up for something. And now its our turn to stand up for documentary and for free expression.”

In year one, fifteen Russians came to show previously forbidden films. For the press and a world on the cusp of Perestroika, IDFA was instantly hot. It’s never looked back. Now, on the edge of 2006, IDFA has grown to be the largest festival of its kind, and the most influential. Across IDFA’s history, 3400 films have screened in its various sections, along with several thousand more in its Docs for Sale Market, and by the time this year’s festival concludes, audience member number 1,000,000 will have passed through its turnstiles. Derks, believes that: “Over the years, IDFA has provided a platform for everyone’s opinion, for different views of the world, and will always do so. Freedom of expression has always been at the heart of IDFA. There can be no debate about that. IDFA tries to reflect a full spectrum of possibilities. It is a multi-voiced dialogue, full of diverse views, different forms and new visions. We believe that documentary can make a difference.”

The first incarnation of IDFA in 1988 featured only 72 films, 25 special guests and attracted 2,000 patrons. By contrast, 18 years later, the current edition features 250 documentaries from a full spectrum of countries, over 100 of which are premieres, in over 800 screenings. There are about 2500 professional guests, 150 commissioning editors, and a public attendance, which will top 130,000. A third of a million people are visiting the IDFA website. Now with a budget topping two million Euros, there is a full time management group of a dozen people, joined each year at festival time by scores of specialists, freelancers, and 300 volunteers and interns.

Since my epiphany, I have kept my promise and returned to IDFA every year. One year I co-presented, with Peter Lynch, a master class as a dialogue of manifestos. I’ve attended IDFA’s agenda- setting International Forum for the Co- financing of Documentaries. Early in its history, IDFA adapted a pitching Forum now run by managing director Fleur Knopperts and her crew. The Forum brings about 40 projects from more than 20 countries to be pitched before 149 commissioning editors. It can be a frightening or enlightening experience. On other trips, I have sold films to various networks using IDFA’s Docs for Sale market. Co-coordinator Fred de Hass and his team select 400 titles, which are screened for hundreds of buyers, broadcasters, distributors and festival directors who camp out in thirty or forty video booths for a total of almost 4000 screenings. Send in the eye-drops.

One year, as president of IDFA’s International Jury, I watched 20 compelling feature documentaries competing for the prestigious VPRO Joris Ivens Award. It was one of the richest film experiences that I’ve had. Not only are IDFA juries treated with respect and offered material comforts that are unusual in doc-land, like food, but we had the luxury of watching everything on the Netherland’s Filmmuseum’s big screen. Dynamic jury debates led to the Danish film, Family, winning the Award.

A few years ago, I was given an unusual assignment. Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine was the opening night film, but Mr. Moore couldn’t make it to Amsterdam because he was performing his one-man show in London. At the last moment, I was asked to make the introduction to 1000 assembled dignitaries and docinephiles by reading out a telegram that Michael had phoned in. I ran out of the cinema and across the Square to a tourist boutique, bought a baseball cap with a peace sign on it, and managed to waddle onto the stage just in time. In my ill-fitting black suit, I did my best to imitate his American swagger— which wasn’t so hard—because I am a big guy, too. I’ve met Michael a few times, once sharing a podium with him at the Atlantic film festival, so I managed to carry it off. But despite my pale imitation, for the next three days after my opening speech, there were still journalists who were convinced I was the real Michael Moore. I only wish.

In another more somber year, I found myself with two films at IDFA. One of them was Life Without Death directed by Frank Cole and produced by my Necessary Illusions’ partner, Francis Miquet. In one of the saddest moments that I have experienced in front of an audience—we had to explain to them that Frank had been murdered in Mali a month before, as he was attempting another, more difficult, walk across the Sahara.

Over the last three editions of IDFA, I have been working with the festival on a more or less pro bono, good will basis. Essentially, I am helping IDFA organize and produce content beyond the film frame, outside the screen. We call it the IDFAtalks department. My colleagues and I are responsible for putting on debates, master classes, seminars, nightly talk shows and more than 600 question and answer sessions after most screenings. All of these discussions help to give IDFA its reputation as the place to discuss the issues that inform the production and distribution of point-of-view and broadcast documentary.

Everyone in Holland is at least bilingual, but my knowledge of Dutch is limited to the word for ‘cheese scraper.’ So, as IDFA’s only unDutch English speaker, I pitch in wherever I can, working with communication manager, Cees van t’Hullenaar. That means helping to edit English programme notes or speeches, or offering a third opinion on some of the 2,000 films which are sent in for selection each year. Everything stops in the middle of the day for a big collective lunch held in the IDFA office. It’s situated on the top floor of de Balie, which was once a medieval courthouse where very bad people were hanged. These days, a few dozen of the very good people of IDFA gather together on the large stage in the middle of the office for a meal of very Dutch food, the names for which I have yet to master. Most of it involves cheese, curded milk and creamy spreads with Indonesian flavours. But I love it all. This makes sense because, historically, the Dutch love Canadians, in the platonic sense, and vice-versa. At the recent Netherlands Film Meeting in Utrecht, I met Holland’s pre-eminent film financier who warmly embraced me because he vividly remembers that, as a child during the Second World War, Canadian soldiers liberated his family in the very street we were standing in.

After several months of intensive planning which resembles a military operation, IDFA launches its opening night at the giant City Theatre, and the race is on. Every year IDFA offers a series of regular competitive sections, most of which come with cash, which is always a good thing. The VPRO Joris Ivens competition premieres long feature docs. The Silver Wolf competition is for films less than 60 minutes. That award also brings the winner automatic consideration for the longlist of American Academy Award nominations. Annual IDFA sections include a First Appearance Programme for first or second-time filmmakers, a Reflecting Images section bringing out the best films in the world, and another dedicated to Kids & Docs.

The thing that differentiates IDFA is its social, political and educational outreach to society

You can also view the best Dutch films in the Highlights from the Lowlands section. Or take up doc history through major retrospectives, or via the carte blanche Top Ten selections chosen by an illustrious filmmaker including, this year, Hany Abu-Assad. Or you can visit the future of documentary with the Mediamatic workshop or the form- shifting section, ParaDocs. There’s an IDFA International Critics Award, Public Prizes, an Amnesty International-Doen award and others. From year to year special thematic programmes come and go, whether they are curated sections on political American documentary, on belief or other themes that emerge in the doc zeitgeist.

The thing that differentiates IDFA from any other festival is its social, political and educational outreach to the civil society. The outreach mission is a function of the original mandate, and a Dutch culture which has always imagined itself as embracing tolerance, openness and multiculturalism. These values persist even with the inevitable right-wing /left-wing seesaw oscillations of contemporary Dutch politics and despite recent political- religious assassinations of a libertarian politician and the controversial filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, which have sent the nation into deep shock and introspection.

Holland is a trading culture which has always reached out beyond its borders. IDFA’s internationalism also sets it apart from other festivals. This is not just a function of IDFA’s little black book of worldwide contacts, which has 30,000 professionals in its database. One major way IDFA reaches the world is through its Jan Vrijman Fund (JVF), established in 1998. Co-coordinated by Isabel Arrate Fernandez, the JVF supports the development and production of filmmakers, projects and initiatives in what is called the developing world. Last year the JVF received 360 submissions to partially finance 32 projects from countries as diverse as Tanzania and Lebanon. The resulting films are among the strongest that see their premieres at IDFA each year.

IDFA also extends outward by facilitating networking meetings in Amsterdam for the directors of human rights and other film festivals from more economically challenged parts of the world. IDFA literally “Flies Tropics” by taking a programme of the best of IDFA to a festival in the ex-colony of Surinam in South America. Other monthly screenings, previews and series are organized by IDFA across Holland and throughout Europe, sometimes extending out to places in Riga, Bratislava, Warsaw or Vilnius. Supported by the public, the famous Dutch novelist Geert Mak and IDFA are also slated to create a new fund, which will allow doc-makers with films playing at the festival to apply for grants to aid the individuals or organizations that appear in their works.

On the domestic front, the IDFA Script Workshop develops scenarios and proposals with a group of young Dutch documentary filmmakers. 125,000 Euros, the largest documentary film prize in the world, is announced at IDFA and donated by the Stimuleringfonds, for the winning film’s proposal to be put into production.

Educational outreach also comes through IDFA’s innovative website for the schools, www.docshool.nl, co-coordinated by Meike Statema. Documentary for, with, and by kids is a core part of the festival. Kids & Docs provides screenings throughout the year for thousands of school children, an educational video label and a digital playground to enhance skills. At the other end of the age spectrum, IDFA Plus screens films geared toward the nation’s older golden generation.

During my time with the IDFA family, I contribute to the forward-looking IDFAcademy, which provides opportunities for several hundred documentary students from across Europe and the World to register and attend the festival. The students are given exclusive access to film professionals in Industry sessions about scripting and marketing or bootcamps in production. They examine case studies of films in production with people like Luke Holland or master classes by Fred Wiseman. Recently IDFA started highlighting the historical output from some of the world’s great documentary film schools in a screening series. This year’s IDFA showcases work from England’s National Film School in Beaconsfield, where Dick Fontaine and others have stimulated a fine line of great documentarians through the ages.

Over the months of my stay in Amsterdam, I will generally arise early in the morning in my little bohemian apartment near Artis, the Amsterdam zoo. Avoiding all stretching, swimming and Tai Chi exercises, I descend three floors of what is almost a vertical staircase. I jump onto my rusty Dutch bike and drive across eight canal bridges to the IDFA office. There I order up my cafe with melk and
climb another three flights of stairs to my computer. With colleagues Chai Locker, Marjan de Block, Meike Statema and others we will design master classes, sometimes with Raymond Depardon and Kim Longinotto. I will try to cover as many thematic bases in our talkshows and debates programmes as time will allow. The team will match guest availabilities with screening schedules and room bookings. We will attempt to sort through a maze of potential issues: public broadcasting, Africa, green screen ecologies, civil government, media, music, agribusiness, globalism, disabilities, urbanism, women. What might seem like a litany of the world’s ills are actually topics, which have proactively emerged from the films and filmmakers. Rather than promote and publicize individual films, we would rather privilege collective ideas, new forms and solutions.

The nightlife in Amsterdam is a carnal canal zone filled with smoky jazz, and Raving Cultures

IDFA accomplishes all that it does in a country that still values its collective culture. There are enough public institutions in Holland that haven’t been dismantled yet to enable IDFA’s financial directors Jolanda Klarenbeek, Dirk Blikkendaal and their team to keep the organization healthy. Although its operating resources seem fixed and there is never enough for all that IDFA dreams to accomplish, the festival always comes in on budget, working on sustainable four year plans. There are important public sponsors, ministries, foundations and government funds that support IDFA. Broadcaster partners include public TV channels VPRO and NPS, and the print media, het Parool and Vrij Nederland.

IDFA is unusual among festivals in that you don’t walk into every room to be blinded by a sea of sponsor logos, advertising, broadcaster banners, clutter, incessant trailer logo-parades and announcements. In other festivals it’s often hard to discern the name of the festival from its sponsor. At IDFA such things are low-key, and its sponsors know discretion. Not that the organizers are difficult or shun support, but Derks and company take a principled route. They have been known to reject sponsor money, if there is any possibility of appearance of conflict of interest. Naomi Klein likely admires IDFA’s no logo ethic, and indeed she showed up for a major debate with Nokia last year.

Of course a festival is a fiesta. The social side of IDFA is as important as the other facets of this Amsterdam diamond. The nightlife in Amsterdam is renowned. It’s a carnal canal zone filled with smoky jazz, Raving Cultures and Van Goghian expression. It’s a land of Rembrandt lighting, liquid skies and great museums including an extension of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage. It’s a free zone where all your real life documentary desires can be met.

I often find myself acting as a documentary diplomat or ambassador. One minute I might be biking through the mist to meet POV editor Marc Glassman for a morning drink at the American Hotel. Later, there will be more meetings with old friends from Finland, Thessaloniki, Adelaide, London, Buenos Aires or Cameroon. Sometimes, after our nightly talkshow, I might end up in the big hall of de Balie or the Milky Way or at the world famous Paradiso listening to an IDFA sponsored performance by Jim White after a screening of Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

Canadians are celebrated in Holland because they have a reputation for knowing how to celebrate. A Dutch-style “coffee house” near the IDFA venues, where legal smoking substances are literally on a menu, has reportedly been dubbed the Canadian Embassy. It’s said to be a great place to take a meeting. Certainly it’s a place where Canadians, and a world of others, can feel free.

But despite the fun, the talk, the games and good work, in the end IDFA is all about great films and a great public who love those films. Where else can one meet pioneer Ricky Leacock, experience Hubert Sauper’s great Darwin’s Nightmare and equally accomplished films by Pirjo Hankasalo, Solanas or Kossakovsky, alongside Ed Lachman’s films for cell phones all in the same day?

In my typical IDFA sojourn, I will have seen almost all of the films selected for all the sections by the time the festival begins, as we prepare the ideas for our talkshows and debates. In past years, the work of our IDFAtalks department has included solving such problems as how to get Palestinians and Israelis in the same room, how to integrate the United Nations, how to respond to assaults on free speech or how to track down the Yes Men. In all of this, organizing spreadsheets and emails are essential. At other times we are on the phone, cajoling and begging this guest or that, to get a Herzog or Moore or some corporate CEO or busy NGO activist to say yes.

Again this year Ally, Adriek, teams of researchers including David Tiegler andMartijn te Pas, and programmers, curators and advisors are bringing to the fore a programme which often challenges preconceptions about documentary. While its hard to characterize and synthesize the themes emerging from this year’s crop of almost 300 films, it seems that IDFA 2005 offers audiences, filmmakers and broadcasters promise and hope for documentary, and by extension, the real world. While the festival touches many of the traditional themes documentary always deals with, there is a sense that many of this year’s films move beyond the programmatic discourse, beyond descriptive horror stories, beyond the conventional talking information blues form. In their different ways, IDFA films offer signs of resistance, hope and formal challenge.

“I don’t know if the films are less gloomy or more hopeful these days, but I do know that nobody wants to accept that you can’t do anything about a situation. No filmmaker can work without hope,” says Ally Derks. “Documentaries are films for thought; they make us think, or act. Over the years the films have shifted their focus, becoming more sophisticated. We are beginning to find out that we don’t know or understand cultures as well as we should, but we are also beginning to challenge our own prejudices and understandings. Documentary can aid in that process. A decade ago films might have been about liberating women in the Western world, but now they are about challenging oppression in other countries. There is still a time and place for personal stories, but we are living in dangerous times, and filmmakers are taking up the challenges of the Bigger picture. I do believe that film can create change. I think, foremost, that it is the responsibility of a filmmaker to communicate with an audience. So, at IDFA cinematographic values are always balanced with content. IDFA is a working festival.”

In the current edition, across IDFA’s various programmes, one can find excellent films about agribusiness and environmental issues, brilliantly illuminated work about migration and terrorism, strong films by some of documentary’s finest women filmmakers, first films shot by ‘famous’ filmmakers, shots heard round the world in a series of Second World War propaganda films, an African selection, and modernist trends spotlighted throughout IDFA’s sections. And that’s just the beginning. Audiences can journey into the neverland of US class and capital, time trip into the future, take up musical obsessions, and then consider madness, bravery and a hundred other variations of documentary’s identity.

For associate director Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen, IDFA is not an intellectual, academic festival: “For the Industry, we help influence the agenda, stimulate broadcasters, and monitor developments in the documentary. But IDFA is also one of the cultural highlights of the season in Holland. In addition to documentary film lovers, IDFA also attracts a large number of people who might rarely go to the commercial cinema, but who really care about society. They want to see the world differently, to debate different perspectives. They engage in discussions, not so much as cinephiles but as sociophiles. For them, IDFA represents another way of looking at the reality of the world.”

Documentaries give nameless people a name and voiceless people a voice and faceless people a face– Ally Derks

For Ally Derks, “IDFA is about creative, point-of-view documentaries, each one with their own signature. These are the artistic visions of filmmakers, their representations of so many realities. IDFA offers the public, and professionals, an open forum for great documentaries. And then, whether we like them or not, whether we agree with them or not, we discuss them and debate them. With documentaries, film artists are giving nameless people a name, voiceless people a voice, faceless people a face. These filmmakers are using film as a non-violent weapon. Their films do not offer easy answers or welcome messages. But these are all films that a festival like IDFA should always stand up for.”

What will happen to IDFA in the years to come? As the mother of all documentary festivals, it is impossible to predict how bright its future will be. There seem to be few limits. With its steadfast mission, dedicated hard- working team, consistent funding base and vast array of supporters around the world, IDFA has come a long way since I first met Ally and Adriek in the streets of New York. IDFA has become the greatest documentary festival in the world. And it is a world that needs documentary more than ever.

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