AMSTERDAM – When IDFA festival head Ally Derks and her team began putting this year’s festival together, they couldn’t possibly have foreseen the way world events would shape 2016, from the U.K.’s shock Brexit vote to America’s still-resonating decision to put businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump in the White House, to Europe’s in-fighting about immigration from Africa and the Middle East. For some filmmakers, the timing couldn’t have been better – Tonislav Hristov’s “The Good Postman,” dealing with illegal immigration in Bulgaria, began shooting over two years ago. But for most, it was still business as usual.
Two things seem to have occurred this year, one being that the festival has made new headway geographically. “In terms of territories,” said IDFA’s head of industry Adriek van Nieuwenhuijzen, speaking on the last day of the Forum.
“We’ve always have projects from all over the world, but this year we had a very strong project – for the first time, actually – from Brazil and also a very strong project from Argentina, so there are strong Latin-American projects being brought over to the European market, which I think is exciting. We’ve always a pretty good line-up of Chinese projects too. Now, this year we only had one, but it did very well. It’s a very artistic project called “My China,” and people were really excited about that. It is, of course, our goal to highlight non-European and American projects, which we’ve achieved so far.”
But as IDFA’s head of new media Caspar Sonnen recently pointed out, the geography of documentary is changing in more abstract ways. Said van Nieuwenhuijzen: “A bigger proportion of the projects at the Forum this year were cross-media/interactive projects, and so far I’ve been hearing really good responses from the producers, because they’ve been having very interesting meetings. In that sense, the landscape is changing, and the Forum also wants to be in the middle of all these changes within the market. So in that sense it’s going well. But the traditional linear projects are also going well; I mean, it’s not like new kinds of projects are turning up and the old ones are fading away.”
VR, formerly the preserve of DocLab, seems finally to have made the transition into the Forum this year, but van Nieuwenhuijzen is careful to stress that this is not a case of hype. “It’s a continuation of our goals, but we’ve really put more emphasis on a bigger diversity within the festival and within the industry programs. That’s always one of our main goals, and innovation is also one of those goals, hence the cross-media/interactive selection. It’s just growing, and we expanded in terms of the number of projects in the Forum. The landscape is changing, and also we want to be ahead of what’s happening on the documentary world. That’s why we put more emphasis on these projects, because they’re interesting and exciting. It’s not a break or a big change, it’s a gradual change, along the lines of what’s happening in the world.”
Obviously, the elephant in the room at this year’s festival was the current political climate, not only in the U.S. but also much closer to home.
Said van Nieuwenhuijzen: “Within this industry of documentary filmmaking, within the current political climate – in the U.S., but also in Europe, coming up to the European elections – we feel it’s important to tell these stories, and you really could feel that energy in the Forum, in the conversations.”
She added: “Documentary has always, of course, been a reflection of our society, but with this… disruption, shall we say, the feeling that it is more important than ever to look at what’s happening around us and really take care not only of what kind of films we make but who is going to see these films. So all these new outlets and platforms are extremely important to see how we can use that to reach other audiences.”
In other words, although there was an underlying sense of doom and gloom, there was a larger feeling that this was a challenge rather than a setback. “You can see it two ways, ” said van Nieuwenhuijzen. “You can stay home and put a blanket over your head, or you can say, ‘O.K., we have to do something.’ But I spoke with many Americans and many of them feel… Maybe ‘empowered’ is not the right word, but coming into this community of people who are really thinking carefully about what’s happening in the world, that was, in a way, a release.”
Given what’s happened this year, and in such a short space of time, does the festival already have any thoughts or preparations for next year?
“We’re constantly thinking about things for next year,” said van Nieuwenhuijzen, “but talent, innovation and diversity are always our three main priorities. And the main thing about a festival like IDFA is that it’s about artistic film, it’s about new ways of storytelling and bring those stories to big audiences, so there’s not a big shift. We were really happy this year that we could program strong films with really cinematic new voices and [in terms of industry] had even more professional guests than last year. Last year, we were amazed by the numbers of people turning up – and it’s getting bigger every year.”