For its last edition, IDFA found itself on the back-foot, after the double whammy of Britain’s Brexit vote and, rather more freshly, the shock result of the U.S. election conspired to overshadow even the most topical film in the selection. This year, things seemed to have settled down, although Adriek van Nieuwenhuijzen, the festival’s Head of Industry, cautions against complacency. “You never know what might happen!” she laughs.
It’s a big year for IDFA, which celebrates two birthdays – 30 for the festival itself and 25 for the Forum. To celebrate the former, which also happens to see longtime Artistic Director Ally Derks stepping down, the festival has invited a roll-call of documentary legends, including Nick Broomfield, Frederick Wiseman, Kim Longinotto, DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, to select a film that has profoundly affected them and present it to a festival audience.
Also, as always, the event comprises eight competitive strands alongside the usual sections that showcase the 300 or so films on offer, with a special focus this year on the Arab world.
Holding the reins for 2017 while Derks takes a sabbatical is film director Barbara Visser, who cheerfully admits that her new role was challenging. “Was it daunting?” she asks. “Very. Very. Obviously, I’m a filmmaker myself, and a visual artist, and I’ve had some experience as a policy-maker as well. But still it’s that’s very different from really being at the helm of a festival like this.”
Nevertheless, Visser found herself immediately in tune with the festival and its goals. “I already knew the policies that they wanted to implement in terms of specific goals,” she notes, “like being even more of a platform for young talent, to support diversity, and to look closely at developments in new media.
She added: “In that sense I started in a situation that I already felt was an important direction in the future direction of IDFA.”
Despite being a filmmaker herself, Visser was not daunted by the ruthless process of selection and rejection. “I’ve always been on juries and committees,” she says, “so I feel I’m trained to think beyond my own taste or my own interests. To me, it was just incredibly rewarding to see so many projects and to see so many people putting so much effort into those projects.”
Visa said that IDFA had received more than 3,800 submissions this year, of which less than 10% get selected.
Numbers were also high in the Forum. “This year there were definitely more submissions,” notes van Nieuwenhuijzen. “Like, 100 more than last year, which is overwhelming.”
There are several reasons for that. “First of all, it’s hard to find finance for your film, so people really have to use platforms like IDFA Forum to raise money, and create a buzz around a project to connect to funders,” she said.
She added: “On the other hand, of course, documentary in general is doing quite well now in the media landscape, in terms of audiences, etcetera. So people know that there is an appetite. Which means there is very much a reason to make these films, because documentaries are a kind of barometer of what’s happening in society.”
Both Visser and van Nieuwenhuijzen note that themes that emerged last year – most notably the refugee crisis and its various causes – have not gone away. Says van Nieuwenhuijzen: “In the Forum, in the selection, what stands out even more than last year, I think, is the huge variety of stories and topics that filmmakers are dealing with in their own very personal, creative way. Filmmakers are still dealing with the refugee crisis, for example, because that’s not over yet, but they are finding new ways to go into that subject, which I find very interesting.”
Once again, the 53 projects come from all over all over the world, including, for the first time, a project from the Philippines in Southeast Asia. “We are very happy with the spread of countries,” says van Nieuwenhuijzen. “In total we selected 58 projects including 10 new media/cross-media VR projects, and they come from 23 countries. So that, I think, really shows a great variety.”
For Visser, the most impressive aspect of taking part in the selection process was seeing the impressive quality of the debuts. “What I really noticed was the number of younger people submitting their first film,” she recalls, “and how well made they are. I thought, ‘Here comes a generation with balls.’ You feel that they really want to make a documentary film. Yes, they take liberties but they’re also very interested in the subject, so I feel there’s really lots of hope for the future.”
To illustrate her thoughts about the future of documentary, Visser points to a Competition entry by Ireland’s Feargal Ward, called “The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid.”
She commented: “It’s a beautiful film, and this is really an example of where I see young filmmakers going – to really talk about important issues that are based in reality but using techniques from other fields to support their stories. For instance, here there’s a very theatrical element to it, but still it’s very much a documentary. You don’t think it’s half fiction, half documentary. It’s totally clear.”
To open the festival, Visser is especially excited by the choice of Mohamed Siam’s “Amal”, which was made with support from the IDFA Bertha Fund (IBF) and which started its journey at the IDFA Forum. Comparing it to Richard Linklater’s 2014 Oscar nominee “Boyhood” (“It’s the Girlhood of IDFA”), Visser describes “Amal” as “a coming of age film about a young Egyptian girl, set against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. And while we mainly see men active in films about the uprisings in the Arab world, there are clearly girls like this one who speak their mind.”
For Visser: “You really see her developing from a tomboy to a woman. We thought this is such a good film to open IDFA because it has it has all the elements: It’s a wonderful film, it has great cinematography, and it’s by a young filmmaker. We couldn’t be more happy.”