AMSTERDAM — As IDFA turns 30, its partners at the IDFA Bertha Fund are quietly celebrating its 20th, capping this milestone year by taking the festival opening night slot – with Mohamed Siam’s “Amal” – for the first time since 2013’s critical hit “Return To Homs,” by Talal Derki. Committed to supporting documentary filmmaking in developing countries, the fund receives nearly 1,000 submissions a year, of which it can financially support around 30 projects, offering a boost to films from Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Middle East, as well as certain countries in Eastern Europe that are not part of the E.U.
“We operate like a regular fund,” says Isabel Arrate Fernandez, its managing director. “We have selection rounds, and we give grants for development, we give grants for production, which is really just cash.”
Depending on the projects and what they need, Bertha also tries to fit them into either IDFA’s Forum market, or its training programs such as the IDFAcademy.
“We’ve tailor-made a consultancy for filmmakers and their projects, and this can be development of content or story, or editing, but we can also offer help right at the end, if they’ve made the film on their own and they need help with regard to distribution or contracts with sales agents,” Fernandez adds.
Three years ago, with support from the European Union, a new funding scheme was launched, IDFA Bertha Fund Europe.
“It was very new for us, because it turned around what we were doing. We’d spent 17 years only working with filmmakers and producers that are actually living and working in these regions – we don’t do diaspora, for example,” says Fernandez,
She continues: “Then suddenly we started to give out funding to European producers who are working with these regions. This year is the second time that we have had the first results of the films coming out of these co-productions.”
As well as “Amal”, the Bertha Fund has five key films at the festival. In Competition, there’s the German-Syrian-Lebanese co-production “Of Fathers And Sons”, Derki’s follow-up to “Return To Homs”; over in Rough Cuts, there’s a work-in-progress screening of “A Comedian In A Syrian Tragedy,” a Danish-Syrian-Palestinian-Jordanian co-production directed by Rami Farah.
“This year,” adds Fernandez, “we also have three projects pitching at the Forum. Two of them are first-timers – one project is called “People’s Hospital”, from China, another one is “Riding With Fire”, from India, and the third one is “The Mole Agent”, which is by [Chile’s] Maite Alberdi. She’s a more established filmmaker – she’s pitched before at the Forum, and last year she had a film at the festival [“The Grown Ups”]. So that’s very exciting.”
In the 20 years since the Fund started, Fernandez notes that there is no typical gestation period for a project, which can be budgeted at anything from €60,000 to €200-300,000 ($70,000-$350,000).
One Bertha-funded title, Sri Lanka’s “Demons In Paradise,” which premiered in Cannes this year, from Sri Lanka, took 10 years to make., Other filmmakers complete documentaries in two years.
“Obviously people need time to find their story. Sometimes it’s just a question of subject. But it’s also a question of life – people need to earn a living,” she said.
Arrate Fernandez recalls: “15-20 years ago, we used to receive applications for money, which was 20,000 guilders [$10,700] in those days. The budget was made only for what they had to pay in cash, for equipment and so on. There were no salaries. Thankfully that has changed.”
As Bertha goes forward, there are plans to expand further, tentatively into the area of new media and certainly into the world of film festivals, encouraging a cross-pollination of ideas and talent from that world.
But the Fund has quite literally expanded this year in a quite unexpected way. “Our financing [originally] came from the Dutch ministry for foreign affairs,” explains Fernandez. “It was development aid, and, because of that funding, we were restricted to [working from] what they call the DIC List, which is a list made by the U.N. based on the income per capita of the poorest countries in the world.”
In 2013, the Fund transferred to the Bertha Foundation, and this year made plans to change the criteria once more. “We still use that list,” says Fernandez, “but not so much as a list as a guide. And this year, we also looked at the World Press Freedom Index and added a few countries from that list that aren’t on the DIC List – countries where circumstances are difficult for filmmakers.”
Countries added include Russia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. “
“There are still a few countries that we have to cover but…,” she sighs. “Maybe someday! But that’s what we’re here for: To bring in new filmmakers, new voices, other stories and other perspectives.”