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IDFA Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia on Documentary Cinema’s Bright Future

“Where do you want to start,” Orwa Nyrabia says, with a smile. “I’m in full festival mode!”

Just a year into the job and Nyrabia, IDFA’s artistic director, can’t wait to get stuck into his second edition. The festival’s founder, Ally Derks, who bowed out in 2017 after 30 years at the helm, was a hard act to follow, but Nyrabia – an articulate and passionate advocate of documentary cinema – has proven himself more than up to the task. Indeed, before the festival has even started, Nyrabia has demonstrably delivered on some of the promises he made last year, noticeably with a record percentage of work by female filmmakers:  64% of competition titles and 47% of the total program.

The festival opened Wednesday evening with Mehrdad Oskouei’s “Sunless Shadows,” which takes viewers inside an Iranian juvenile detention center, where young women are being held on family murder charges. But before things get into full swing, it seemed a good time to sit down with Nyrabia to discuss his first year in the hot seat and offer a few insights into what’s in store at the 12-day event this year.

Last year you talked about gender equality and ways to achieve it, and already you’ve put some of those ideas – quite successfully – into practice. Did it surprise you that you could achieve those results so quickly?

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Orwa Nyrabia: Yes, I think I did. The experience should be encouraging to others, because what I can say is that it seemed to be much more difficult than it actually was. And I think this is visible in the result – in the outcome of our programming. Basically there is a wave, there is a movement, that is making more and better films by female filmmakers. Of course, it’s not enough to do this for one year and come to a conclusion. But, for now, my conclusion is that it is not a passive movement. Things are already changing. And there are many more filmmakers, female filmmakers, freely carving out their opportunities, despite the many difficulties. So if we have 50% of a program being made by female filmmakers, I would say that suggests maybe there wasn’t a special effort made to reach this threshold. But when it is more than 50%, then I can assure you this was actually just us doing the job of selecting the films we believe are the best. So there are more films by women, and they are good films.

You also talked about shining a spotlight on emerging territories and countries that hadn’t perhaps been served very well before. Have you continued to do that? And what have you found in the process of doing so?

I believe we have, this year, a better map. We’ve covered more of the world than last year. We have 85 countries represented in IDFA this year. And this includes more from Africa, more from Latin America. The effort is coming back with results. But still, however, there’s no doubt that Europe has the biggest share of our program, and I believe there has been a lot of scepticism about this – there’s an assumption that when we try to work towards having more films from underrepresented regions that this would mean that we will have less space for more represented regions, such as Europe and North America. And that actually is not true. The number and the percentage of films from Europe and North America is still extremely high. And, that reflects the reality of the industry.

What trends have you noticed?

I think there is a lot of contemplative work that is subject-based and author driven. We are seeing a lot of films based entirely, or in majority, on archives and found footage and home videos. We can see this from the wonderful new film of Jørgen Leth, as well as films by new and upcoming filmmakers. There are so many films that try to make sense of the past through re-appropriating pre-existing footage. And it makes sense at such a moment in history, I think, where we have this big gap between arthouse film and more commercial film, where arthouse film is trying to prove its worth and its relevance in this post-truth era. And I think this is arthouse cinema trying to advocate for itself, to defend itself.

You mention Jørgen Leth, who’s getting a Lifetime Achievement Award, but this year there’s a slightly more poignant aspect to the tribute spots. So aside from Leth and Patricio Guzman, there are also homages to D.A. Pennebaker and Agnès Varda, who passed away this year…

Well, we only have Agnès Varda’s last film. But, yeah, I think these are people who changed who I am, and I think this is not only me – many cinephiles and filmmakers around the world were deeply influenced by the careers and the work of these people. I think that there is something about cinema – that it is a kind of a good virus. So I would very much like to spread this virus and to keep making sure that newer generations do not only watch films that relate to their life today, as it is. I think that we need to keep on focusing or protecting the classics and maintain a way of understanding film as a long shelf-life type of art. Because what we see today, with a great sense of urgency, is what’s happening politically around the world right now. From global warming to populism, to right-wing movements, to social injustice. It creates a sense of urgency, and we are seeing a lot of films that respond in a very timely manner to that urgency, but some of these films lack the profound complexity that makes them viable to survive or remain to be great films in 20 years from now. And I think this is one of my personal definitions of good cinema: how long will it live? Is it only topical, only connected to the news today? Or is it going to be something that our grandchildren will still relate to?

In terms of the competition strands, do you simply program the best films, or are you looking for a balance? What are your parameters?

It is more and more a democratic process. So it’s not only me. I manage the process, but there is also Joost Daamen who is the senior programmer responsible for this, and he works together with an international commission that takes care of the competition. Now, to me, it is a question of films that we believe are – first – artistically coherent, no matter what genre they are, and that have the ambition of being cinematic. And, second, there is an attempt to make sure that the 12 films in this competition do come from around the world and have a balanced gender outlook. But nothing more than this. It’s not a quota, even for genders. As I said before, and I’ll always be clear about this, 50:50 is not a strict quota. It is what I aspire to reach within a few years average. So it’s not about being literal or scholarly in the selection process. It’s about an overall fair process over years.

What have you noticed about the talent coming through in the First Appearance competition?

I think this is one of the strongest sections of IDFA. We can clearly see young filmmakers who are… Well, they are not all young, actually. But we’re seeing first-time filmmakers who are absolutely not afraid to approach extremely complex narratives and filmic structures. So you see very balanced and coherent films, and maybe you can sometimes notice the characteristics of first-time filmmakers within them. But overall they come with a lot of ambition. They do not try to take an easy road because this is their first film, it’s the exact opposite. All of them are stubborn in the way they express themselves. You see the upcoming offspring of Pennebaker as well as Tarkovsky. And nobody in this generation is afraid of going all the way. They’re not afraid. It’s a fearless generation. And not modest either. There’s no modesty here. Nobody thinks they should make a small first film because they’re scared to tackle a bigger film.

You added two new sections last year: Luminous and Frontlight. How have they developed?

These sections are about helping the audience find their way, but it is also about acknowledging the bandwidth of documentary film. Documentary film can be – and is – many different things. And so Frontlight is the section of IDFA that premieres films that have a seek-the-truth approach. So you’ll never find a “person” film here, you’ll never find an essay film here – these will all be part of Luminous. In Frontlight, you will find many of the films that people expect when they say documentary. And so there’s a lot of investigative journalism. This year Frontlight is much bigger than it was last year. It’s 17 films. And this says that we did find more interesting proof-seeking films – again, it’s a global scene. We have films such as Marcus Vetter’s “The Forum.” This is going to be one of the big events of IDFA. This is the film that takes us to the backstage of the World Economic Forum in Davos, and we have Klaus Schwab, the founder and president of the World Economic Forum, coming personally to talk after the film screening. Another film in Frontlight is “iHuman” from Tonje Hessen Schei, a Norwegian filmmaker. This is a film that examines the far-reaching consequences of artificial intelligence, and the talk after this one will be with the filmmaker and Ed Snowden, via Skype. The films in Frontlight seek to explain things, or help us shape our opinion about something, as opposed to the films in Luminous, which invite us to experience another context, or a context that we are not aware of.

So what would be representative of this year’s Luminous selection?
For example, we have a film about Margaret Atwood, “A Word After a Word After a Word Is Power.” Now, obviously, there could be a Frontlight film about Margaret Atwood – a film that interviews everybody around her to tell us about her. But this film is so much more of an intimate experience of getting to know her and her process. We also have “Max Richter’s Sleep,” by Natalie Johns from the U.K. This is a film that takes us through the creative process of the famous musician. Then we have a beautiful film called “Who Are We?” from Edgar Hagan, a Swiss filmmaker, which examines the way that society and government deal with kids with disabilities. But the way that he looks at this is very intimate and warm – it is not about selling you on an idea, it’s about making you think: What’s your position on this? What is it that you think should be better? These are just three examples. There are of course, many more – there are 23 films in this section.

IDFA on Stage was another new innovation last year. How has that progressed?

We have many new locations this year, and this is an ambitious step from IDFA – to reach out around the city of Amsterdam to more marginalized parts of the city, so we have many new theaters that spread further around the city, while we are keeping the same city center venues everybody knows. But otherwise IDFA on Stage is much clearer this year, I would say. It’s much closer to how we imagined it in the beginning, than the experiment we did last year. So IDFA on Stage this year is truly a unique set of documentary events. For example, there is “True Copy” by the Belgian theater group, Berlin. We see a play, based on the life of a famous Belgian art forger, and there’s an actor playing him, but at the same time there’s a lot of playful elements of documentary footage being interwoven with the live play. I believe that theater is using documentary as an element more and more every year. When we say that, in film, documentary is having its golden age, it’s very interesting to notice that this is the same case in theater too, and that theater audiences and theater makers are more and more interested in theatrical work that deals with reality. It’s part of the zeitgeist. It’s not only because a few films made more money in box office – it’s a moment in history where people have become more interested in reality.

The focus section this year is called It Still Hurts, and it explores the legacy of World War II. What was the thinking behind that?

Well, 2020 will see many different film festivals and other events celebrating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. And it is a very interesting idea: to look at the 75 years since instead of looking at the war itself. There’s always a number of films that deal with what happened in the years of the war. However, there is a lot of empty space when we try to find films that look at the outcome of that war. So to me the question is: Where is that war in our lives today? Is it only in every superhero movie that it is a reference? Or is it still something that we live with in our daily life in Europe or in other parts of the world?

The slogan that some are suggesting for the celebrations next year is “75 years of freedom.” It’s a very interesting idea, but in this era, we have to challenge such a statement and ask: Freedom for who? At the expense of who? What was these 75 years like for many African and Asian countries? How did World War II end up with the Cold War, and what is still with us from the Cold War? The other thing, of course, is the central place that the Holocaust takes in the story of World War II, and in thinking about the Holocaust, the first thing that comes to mind is always the promise that Europe and the Allied countries made to themselves at the time: Never forget. I sincerely believe in that promise, and yet we’re still witnessing, until this very day, too many genocides happening in the world. So there’s another question: How much did we learn and how much did we move to a different human era?

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