IDFA on Stage Brings Documentary Cinema to Life

One of the innovations of Orwa Nyrabia, artistic director at IDFA, a leading documentary festival, has been to present a wide range of live productions to enhance the film experience, blurring the boundaries between documentary, music, and performing arts.

Curated by Jasper Hokken, the section called IDFA On Stage… is incredibly diverse, ranging from more traditional projects, such as the Belgian theater piece “True Copy,” to concert films (“The Long River Slides”) and a near-unclassifiable new media mash-up called A Machine for Viewing, which features cinema, VR and performance.

It is a measure of the fast-moving and ever-evolving nature of Hokken’s project that he already has half an eye on next year’s selection. “We’re open for submissions,” he says, “and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s coming in. In the meantime I’ll continue having conversations with filmmakers and creators whenever I can, introducing them to this new, exciting program.”

Here, Hokken explains the history and the thinking behind IDFA On Stage…

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How did IDFA On Stage come about?
We’ve always been doing things other than just screening films—maybe a dance performance after a film screening or a music performance after a film screening—but it’s not the most exciting way to present it. We wanted to think about other ways we could integrate performance art into documentary cinema, and have combinations of those things, so that the performing artists would be enhancing the film screening and the film screening would be enhancing the performance—meaning that they’re in dialogue with each other, in a way.

We came up with this program, IDFA On Stage, where we really were looking for these combinations between cinema and performance arts on the one hand—or new media even; on the other hand, to really see what a film experience can be, other than just passively sitting in the audience and watching a film.

How do these projects come to you?
Sometimes they already exist and have traveled to other festivals, but that’s quite rare, actually. So, usually, we’re putting the ideas together with the filmmakers. This year, for instance, many of the performances came out of conversations I had with filmmakers, telling them about this program, telling them how I see their film being turned into a live version. Sometimes that leads to nothing, but sometimes it leads to the creation of a new, live version of a project. So it’s not as easy to find as a film, of course—you really have to put a lot of effort into bringing all these elements together. When you’re programming films, you’re watching films that are finished or about to be finished, but when you’re programming live events you’re just starting to develop something, and you will only really see the end product during the festival itself.

What kind of projects did you start with last year?
I think we had four in all. For the first year we were offered the premiere of Dziga Vertov’s first feature-length documentary, which was called “Anniversary of the Revolution.” It was made in 1918, and I think it was screened for a year or two [in Russia] until it got shelved. An archivist found the reels in an archive somewhere and suggested we screen the film in Amsterdam. But it’s a two-hour silent movie, so we had to come up with something to make it work for a live audience as well. So that was our main project last year. We found some classically trained Russian musicians who were living in the Netherlands and asked them to make a score together with a young electronic musician from Moscow called Kate NV, and together they developed a soundtrack.

But, for us, it was also really important to have some silent moments in the film as well. So I think half of the screening was with live music, but there were also intervals of silence, just to keep the attention of the audience and not distract from the film too much. So that was one of the projects we were doing. Another good example is “Nature’s Nickelodeons” by a filmmaker from the U.K., Amy Cutler. She had put together a combination of clips from nature documentaries, to deconstruct the genre of nature documentaries. We had different musicians playing along to that, like a live soundtrack, but we also had a choir sitting in the theater, sitting among the audience members. At specific moments in the presentation they started singing, and then it developed from there. And I think even people from the audience started to participate in this as well. But it’s really important that [what you’re doing] is adding another layer—you don’t want it to be superficial. It really needs to enhance the experience for the audience as well.

Did the first year open up a dialogue with artists, and did they start coming to you with projects? Or are you mostly putting them together yourself?
It’s a little bit of both, but after doing it for the first year it was easier to explain to people what it was. A lot of filmmakers think about distributing their film through festivals and through television, but not many think about having a live version of their film, which can also tour around the world. There’s a filmmaker from the U.S. called Sam Green. I think he started off making films with festival distribution, with the usual paths that a film can take, but he’s now focusing on live cinema more. So there’s only really a handful of filmmakers who are doing this [by themselves]. But, for instance, one of the projects this year started at the breakfast table, at a festival in Switzerland.

I saw a short film called “Again,” which had a lot of performative elements in it. I was, of course, watching this with my IDFA On Stage eyes, you might say, so I contacted the filmmaker with the idea of doing a live version of his film. He hadn’t thought about it before, but when I told him, he opened up to the idea immediately and started thinking about it. A week later I had a proposal, and we started developing it from there.

You have five projects this year. What determines that number?
It’s a budget thing, but it really depends on locations and how big the projects are. We want to select as many projects as we can, of course, but there’s limited budget and there are limited locations that these performances can take place in. This year we are working with Pakhuis De Zwijger, which is a location in the east of Amsterdam, but they happen to have seven projectors and seven screens. I mean, you can’t put each project in a regular cinema, for instance. It really depends on those kinds of things, as well as the availability of musicians, and the availability of performers.

What’s an example of an existing project?
This year, it’s “True Copy.” It’s a documentary theater piece by a Belgian theater collective called Berlin, and it’s about the art forger Geert Jan Jansen. It’s actually documentary theater, but it also involves cinema and video—Geert Jan Jansen is there to help the audience through his process of forging art. It’s on the border between fact and fiction, real and unreal, and it’s a really exciting way of presenting a documentary story in a non-traditional way. This is one of the projects that toured before coming to IDFA, so it has proven itself on the theater circuit as well, but it’s really nice to present it within the festival.

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