IDFA Founder Ally Derks: ‘I Always Had The Idea: Why Isn’t There A Cannes For Documentaries?’

The festival head says an emotional goodbye after 30 eventful years

IDFA Founder Ally Derks on Her 30 Years at the Festival
Bert Nienhuis

AMSTERDAM – “We don’t have Angelina Jolie on the red carpet. In fact, we don’t even have a red carpet. It’s not IDFA.” After 30 years at the helm, Ally Derks should know what IDFA is or isn’t. Under her guidance, her festival has grown from being a parochial ‘60s throwback to a modern, city-wide festival that uses, and fills, almost every conceivable audience space. Ironically, although Derks takes pride in the fact that the festival she founded is “very relaxed”, it was a certain starry event in the south of France that gave her the inspiration. “I always had the idea, ‘Why isn’t there a Cannes for documentaries?’” she says. “Why is Cannes only for fiction films? There should be a place in the world where all these documentary filmmakers can come together and share their stories – with each other and with an audience. And Amsterdam is a fantastic place for that.”

Since that time, the festival has both attracted established, major names and launched new emerging talent. Says director Chris Hegedus, one of the former along with her creative partner D.A. Pennebaker: “IDFA was the first international festival devoted exclusively to documentaries. It was a trailblazer, championing theatrical documentaries in a world that thought documentaries were merely educational television programs. IDFA showed audiences that documentary storytelling could be just as compelling, thought-provoking and, most importantly, as entertaining as any fiction or Hollywood film.”

Hegedus added that the festival created an international documentary community where filmmakers from around the world could share films and inspire each other through their work. It also influenced others to begin documentary festivals and encouraged broadcasters and funders to program and support documentaries.

Hegedus singles out Derks as a key draw. “Ally’s passionate and generous spirit was always at the heart of the festival,” she notes. “In the early days, there was much theoretical discussion about the nature of documentaries, always with a lot of laughter, heavy drinking and hanging out with Ally. I was on the jury in 1990 and I remember we were taken in the early morning to a cold factory space where we sat shivering, watching hours of 16mm films being projected.But afterward we had a jolly time together, eating and drinking, and, later on, joints would be slyly handed out as recompense for our long labor. “

“Among the many films we showed through the years, “Startup.com” was a memorable opening night but I will never forget screening of “Kings of Pastry” in the massive Tuschinsky cinema, when 700 people simultaneously gasped and screamed out when the chef’s six-foot tall sugar sculpture collapse to the floor.”

This year, because of her new role in Berlin, Derks took a back seat at the festival, leaving front-of-house duties to interim director Barbara Visser. Variety caught up with Derks at Café de Jaren, IDFA’s social hub, and found her in great spirits…

It’s been 30 years. Are you sad to be leaving?

Ally Derks: Yes, but I could prepare to leave. Because two years ago I got an offer to go to Berlin and become part of The Robert Bosch Academy as a Richard von Weizsäcker fellowship. The Robert Bosch Academy is based in Berlin and a lot of fellows come there from all over the world to do research, but also to talk and discuss and organize seminars about climate change, about transatlantic negotiations, about refugees, fake news – all these things are discussed by very, very clever people from all over the world. I’m the stupidest! [Laughs] The rest are all much cleverer than I am.

Why did you decide to make the change?

I never thought that I could do anything else but be the director of IDFA, but all of a sudden, when they asked me two years ago, [this fellowship] opened a lot of possibilities for me. So to be honest, I didn’t miss [the festival]. The only thing I missed was watching films. Because I just love to watch documentaries and I was always the first to see them, and now I’m in the back row again. But it’s O.K. I’m happy in Berlin. And I do think it’s very important that other people take over the festival as an institute. I don’t think it will easily disappear. It might change. It might not. Nothing’s for eternity.

How did IDFA begin?

I was working for another festival, which was an educational film and video festival, and it showed everything. Like, animation, shorts, documentaries, fiction. Everything. And there was almost no audience. It was left over from the ‘60s, you might say. There was a guy on the jury, who is a film critic here in the Netherlands, and he said to me, “Ally, there’s all these wonderful documentaries, but there’s no audience. Nobody sees them.” I said, “You’re right. It’s weird, when you think about it, that we don’t have a documentary festival here in the Netherlands.” Because we are not great fiction-makers. We’re really good at documentaries. It’s really a little bit in the genes, or the DNA, of the Dutch people. Chekhov was not born in the Netherlands, I always say.

What happened next?

I just applied for money. First of all, I thought the festival should be in Amsterdam, not anywhere else, because there are so many different cultures living here, different religions. So I got the money from the Ministry of Amsterdam here, and then I went to the the Ministry of Culture. Then I went to the public broadcasters and they also gave a little bit of money. So the first festival was born. Then I said, “OK, it is important also to focus on Dutch films, because otherwise the audience won’t come and filmmakers will be angry.

What do you remember about that first year?

We had a competition program that I think consisted of 50 films. I hadn’t thought about the jury. The poor jury had to watch all these films within a week – it was horrible! [Laughs] Fred Wiseman was chairman of the first jury. It was all so funny. In their wisdom, they decided to award two prizes. I said, “You cannot do that. You can only give one prize.” And Fred – a lawyer, huh? – says, “Where are the jury regulations?” We didn’t have any jury regulations! I hadn’t thought about jury regulations! So then we started making jury regulations…

Was it a steep learning curve?

Oh yes. Every year we changed something. You learn. We started out very naïve. Then the Forum came, Docs For Sale, the IDFA Bertha Fund, DocLab – all these different programs were added to make the festival what it is now. The first year we sold 2,000 tickets. We sell over 250,000 tickets now. It multiplies every year. It’s crazy.

When did you realize it was working?

I never realized it was working. Especially not the first 15 years. Every year we had to fight for money again. Now, we have a basic infrastructure. But even seven, eight years ago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs cut our budget for the Jan Vrijman Fund, which is now the IDFA Bertha Fund, with which we support filmmakers in developing countries. Just because the government changed, became more right-wing or left-wing, the budget for culture and developing countries was gone. You cannot take it for granted. Every year you have to fight for it again. You cannot predict the festival. Politics, you know?

Do you have a favorite moment?

Oh ,there are so many. Going back to the beginning, in the ‘80s, it was the time of glasnost and Perestroika. A lot of Russians came. I did a retrospective of Soviet cinema. And [up until this time of] glasnost and perestroika, a lot of those films had been shelved for ages. The filmmakers came and brought them all with them, and we had no idea what was in these cans. We just showed them in the Film Museum, with somebody doing a simultaneous translation. It was an excellent moment – all these films that had never been seen before.

You’ve already had your leaving party, on Saturday. How was it?

I stayed in bed the whole of Sunday. I went to bed at 4am. Dancing till late – D.A. Pennebaker was on the dancefloor until 3am. It was a very emotional day. It started with a lunch. All my friends were there, and they were singing, partying, talking. It was really incredible – all these amazing people talking about the past, present and future of documentary. It was an honor, it really was.