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IDFA Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia Reveals His Plans for World’s Biggest Doc Festival

How the incoming AD introduced a series of new strands to make space for new ideas, new voices and new generations

Taking the reins of IDFA is a daunting challenge, as Orwa Nyrabia well knows. “The main challenge in the beginning,” he says, “was simply to stand in front of a very successful organization that is achieving its objectives every year, and getting better and bigger every year, and tell them you think the job is to make it better. That’s a big challenge, because to change means to take risks, and when the machine is working, you don’t need to fix it. So how do you deal with it?” Luckily, after a series of brainstorming events, Nyrabia soon realized that the IDFA team were more than willing to join him. “Everybody’s eager to grow, to develop what we’re doing,” he says. “That proved my fears to be unnecessary.”

After joining in January of this year, the Syrian producer, filmmaker and activist has been quick to put his stamp on the festival, adding several new inventive sections to the festival while at the same time addressing hot-button topics as cultural bias, representation and gender parity. All these things the genial 40-year-old handles in a charming and intelligent manner, carefully balancing his audience’s expectations and demands against the needs of the industry. Variety spoke with him as the festival prepared to open on Wednesday, before the world premiere of Aboozar Amini’s “Kabul, City in the Wind.”

How many films did you see this year, and what kind of developments did you see in the documentary world?

Between all of us on the team we’ve seen 4,000 films. It’s a lot, but it’s also a great process of seeing the world through the eyes of all of these filmmakers from literally all over the globe. And what’s new? I think a lot is new. Let me try to phrase this… There’s so much more courage, to my eye, and so many new developments in form, generally. So many non-conformist filmmakers are joining this industry and really taking risks with form. There’s also more and more films from the south, from the southern hemisphere, being made and presented – which [addresses] a major criticism that I would [make with regard to] our film industry or our film festivals, because until recently there were very few films from the global south, as it’s called. We can clearly see now that so many more films are coming from India, from China, from Africa, from Latin America. The share of these regions in our submitted films was overwhelming, hence in our selection, eventually, too.

Why do you think that is? Where does the fault lie?

I think it’s just the self-indulgence of the northern hemisphere. It’s the inability to be open towards different narrative styles, different worldviews, and in a way, it had to be imposed by a new generation of filmmakers from the south. I think it’s a big challenge [to us]. We are being challenged as northern festivals or outlets of film by these different views from a new generation. It’s a movement, if you look at it in macro. I think it’s truly the late result or consequence of digital film.

Looking at your statistics, you have 41% of films that were made by female filmmakers. How do you approach the issue of parity in terms of a film festival?

It’s a very difficult question. That’s why we are inviting about 20 programmers or artistic directors of 20 international film festivals to do a closed half-day of debating, asking, how do we deal with this? Because it’s certainly not easy. How did we deal with it? The first thing we did was to make sure that our viewing process starts with a pre-selection. The pre-selectors, now, are more than half female. This was the starting point. And then it was a case of systematically re-watching films by female filmmakers whose works were on the borderline. We would watch them again, discuss them, and see how they compared to other films on the borderline that were made by men. It’s an elaborate process, but it was only a guide. So we have some competitions with more films by females than males, and we also have competitions with more films by males than females. In this sense, I think this [issue] is about trying to overcome the common understanding of film, of film language. I think, to a large extent, we celebrate the macho in filmmaking. You know? And I think this is the key: we need to take a step back and try to recognize that we do this. [Laughs] We’re not trying to get macho filmmakers out, they’re still welcome, but we want to give them [fair representation], and really look at the different views of others who are usually underrepresented. So it’s about changing our old habits, changing our mechanism, and pre-examining every step of the process.

What kinds of subjects did you see being dealt with in the films you’ve been watching?

We saw many, many different subjects being covered, and in many different artistic styles. But, at the end of this experience, I looked at the program all together and I noticed that certain themes are recurring in many different parts of the world. For example, the rise of the extreme right-wing is a theme that filmmakers are working on in the U.S.A., Western Europe, Eastern Europe, India, Latin America – in all of these places, there is someone making a good film on the rise of extreme right-wing. Another thing [we’ve seen] is films by female filmmakers about being female – there are all these films by women filmmakers observing womanhood. There are also a few very good films that we selected that examined sustainability, environment and food. But I have to say, there are fewer of these films than usual. Which is another observation. Although, personally, I think that the subject is not the whole issue. Two very good films about a subject is better than 20 that are not so good.

You’ve brought in some new sections. What can you say about Luminous and Frontlight?

It’s a way to help the audience navigate the big program of IDFA. The aim was to rearrange or reorganize the program sections, but without prioritizing themes and subjects. Because I think this is also one of the big stereotyping elements of how documentary cinema is perceived – that it is understood to be, or perceived to be, an explanation of a subject. And I think it has so much more than that to offer. So what I decided to do was to organize the two new sections according to style, not subject – and not to duration, even. And this means that we came up with two main categories: one that shines a light from within, and one that sheds light on its subject or characters. Luminous is a section for films that take you there and allows you to experience the stories, or the feelings, or the lives of certain people. And Frontlight explains to you, hopefully from different angles, a subject, or an experience. So, Luminous doesn’t explain, it takes you there so that you think on your own. Frontlight gives you a certain angle, or even a polyphony of angles or opinions, so that you [form an opinion] based on that.

And what about the focus programs?

The big focus program is called Me, and, there are 20 films in there. Some of the greatest masters of cinema are joining us to show their films and discuss them in this focus program. To me, it is very important now to return to the basic questions of our world, our reality, in 2018. Truth, post-truth, lying – to a wide extent, film views these things differently than the media. The response of film is always sincerity, not truth. It’s about the pluralism of truth, but it’s also about the celebration of subjectivity. So, we have 20 films in which the filmmaker themselves are a character in the film. Sometimes the films are very personal and autobiographical, and in other cases they are geopolitical, or social. But it’s always with courageous subjectivity. These filmmakers do not claim objectivity, they tell us how they see the world around them with their own eyes, through their own emotions and experiences. This program will include the three documentary films that Naomi Kawase made – she’s going to be with us to show them and discuss them – and will include films old and new.

How about Space?

Space is a separate focus. This is a series that comes back every year in IDFA, and it’s a series dedicated to the art of filmmaking. We’ve done sound in documentary film, we’ve done editing, we did camerawork last year, and this year we look at space in documentary filmmaking. Because in fiction it is obvious that you have to discuss art, production design, and location – the use of space in fiction film is obviously a big element. But there is a common mistake that it is not the same in documentary form. In documentary form you do not manufacture or necessarily modify the space around you. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t shape your film as much as it does in any other genre.

Like many film festival today you have a strand, Serialized, dedicated to web series and serial-format documentaries. How do you see that progressing as a form?

I’m not sure what I think. That’s why it’s a special focus, because it’s an experiment, it’s a test. I don’t want to jump to conclusions before we find out what filmmakers think, and what audiences think. It’s a big change in the way documentary is produced, and the way documentary is viewed – in the past few years serialized documentary is big with VOD, online platforms and on TV. The audience is binge-watching documentary series. Budgets are rising, globally. There’s a lot of interest in this. It wasn’t like that all the time – we had documentary series, but not as many as we can see in our world today. But is a film festival the right place for these series? I don’t know. I don’t want to be too quick to judge, and say no. Because that would be the kind of conventional answer – these are series that you watch at home, on your sofa. So we are doing this as an open test, an open experiment with audiences and filmmakers.

Then there’s IDFA On Stage, which has a live performance component. Was that a concept you had going into the festival, or was it inspired by the types of films that came to you?

No. There’s a great history of music documentary that is very important and relevant to the history of documentary film, and at IDFA, before I came, there was a prominent, 15-film music documentary section. But I don’t truly believe that we can find 15 very good music documentary films every year, although there will certainly be quite a few. So this new section looks further. Now, music documentaries will either find their place in the competition, in Luminous, in Frontlight, in Best of Fests and so on, and not in a separate section. But if we can do something more, like an event that comprises a film and a performance, then that’s very interesting. It’s not only about music, however. It’s common now to see documentary films made with theater traits or tools. The intersection between theater and documentary film is growing a lot. It’s becoming more and more visible, or a common practice, in different parts of the world. So why make it only music? It’s all performing arts, and these are one-offs – each of the events of IDFA Onstage will be only happening once.

Have you changed anything in the Industry Program?

Overall, the industry program hasn’t profoundly changed. But what changed big-time this year is the Industry Talks side. We are introducing a very different structure of talks. Now, it’s thematic, so when you go to the website and see Industry Talks you will see five main themes. And under each theme there’s a whole list of different activities: talks, panels, think tanks, closed sessions, open sessions… Because I believe that being the largest gathering of documentary film professionals, anywhere, anytime in the world, with more than 3,100 professional guests, IDFA is a very good place for our business. But IDFA can also be the place whaere this industry is debated, where we really think together about what’s happening, from a kind of a community position.

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