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In a year when so many international film festivals have gone dark, it comes as no surprise that, as soon as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, IDFA’s annual public performance strand—IDFA on Stage—came very close to being canceled. Ironically, however, not only did it survive to see another day, this year’s selection is bigger and more diverse than last year’s, with nine projects in its non-competitive program.

IDFA on Stage curator Jasper Hokken admits that initially, like everyone else in the festival business, he underestimated the staying power of COVID-19. “I always start the research for this program a little bit early,” he says, “because the preparation time always takes a little longer for these events. So, before the pandemic hit, I was already in touch with makers, creators and filmmakers working on these types of projects, and then, when the pandemic started to have an impact, we carried on just like everybody else did at that moment, thinking, ‘Oh, this will be over by summer.’ And then, just like everybody else, we slowly realized that this would be going on for quite a bit longer.”

The predicament really began to hit home when travel restrictions intensified and the prospects of bringing in international projects dwindled. “At that point,” says Hokken, “we didn’t even know if we even would have an IDFA on Stage program this year. We’d been thinking about making the whole program a little bit smaller this year, and now there was even a feeling that it we might skip it altogether.”

But, just as Caspar Sonnen’s DocLab team were finding out, Hokken soon became aware that the artists themselves weren’t about to take this lying down. “We were very happy to find out that a lot of the people that we were in touch with were already adapting themselves to this new situation,” Hokken recalls. “They were thinking about online versions of their performances and adapting them through digital platforms. That made us realize that we should honor that creativity, and that we should actually do an IDFA on Stage program—but it would be a little bit different this year.”

The travel limitations inspired the team to think locally. “We still wanted to do the physical events,” says Hokken, “which would take place in Amsterdam on location, but we decided that these should only be Dutch projects, because it would be easier to produce. At that point we decided that we would have, like, one or two events physically in Amsterdam and then maybe one, two or free events online—which meant we would have a rather small IDFA on Stage program.”

But as soon as online events came into the equation, it became clear that IDFA on Stage and DocLab were about to cross over into each other’s worlds. Says Hokken, “We started to realize that, while IDFA on Stage was looking into doing online events, Casper’s team was also already working on some physical, on-location performances, which meant that the distinctions between the two programs became quite blurry. So we joined forces, and we [ended up] with three performances that take place in Amsterdam on location and six more events that take place online.”

At the time of writing this article, IDFA on Stage had only presented two of its nine titles. “For the opening night,” says Hokken, “we presented a piece by Sam Green called “7 Sounds.” Sam is a good example of a filmmaker who usually presents live cinema projects onstage with musicians, and him live-narrating his work. But during the pandemic he created this small online performance of 21 minutes. It’s part of a bigger project called “32 Sounds,” and it’s a collaboration between him and J.D. Samson, who is musician with [New York bands] Le Tigre and MEN. It starts with a conversation, a Zoom call, introducing the piece, and then the screen turns black and Sam sends you outside with your phone and your headphones. It’s really an immersive piece that takes you away from your screen, which has extra significance in a time like this.”

Curiously, IDFA on Stage’s second presentation—the livestreamed “Little Ethiopia Chez Nous” by Joe Bini and Maya Daisy Hawke—both did and didn’t happen. For festivalgoers, the event was a washout, due to technical problems beyond the festival’s control. “This was to be a new, online iteration of a project that they’ve done before,” says Hokken. “They did seven or eight performances of it in 2018 and 2019, onstage, in theaters and in cinemas, where they made films out of their own personal footage and reflect on their own personal history and their own personal relationship.”

For IDFA, Bini and Hawke created a unique, one-time-only online version of the piece, which, due to technical difficulties, failed to stream. The next day, however, the filmmakers received an anonymous tip-off telling them that, serendipitously, a viewer had captured the entire transmission for posterity. IDFA duly posted the link here.

Which leaves two physical highlights still to come. One is “Oxygen Debt” by Bart van de Woestijne, which the festival describes as “a philosophical spinning class.” “It takes place in a gym,” says Hokken, “where people are on exercise bikes, wearing a heartbeat monitor. The heartbeat monitor is connected to a speaker, so they’ll hear their own heartbeat go up while they through this collective exercise. The idea is that, while you’re exercising, while you’re moving, you reflect on what’s happening to your own body and how frail it can be. It’s quite philosophical because it’s about mortality, in a way, and the slow decline of your body, which can be quite confronting for people, especially because they hear their heartbeat and they hear their body struggle.”

Bicycles also figure prominently in the next presentation, “Farewell Tour.” A comment on the integrity of ecological art, devised by theater collective De Warme Winkel, it takes place in a more conventional theater space. Says Hokken, “They come by bike, and they bring their own props and scenery. They ask the theaters to turn off their heating and make posters on the back of their old ones. They’re exploring what we can actually do about climate change—can we actually make effective climate-neutral theater, or are we just working out on bicycles, pretending that it’s art?”

How this will all pan out is still anyone’s guess, but, in the short term, Hokken is happy with the way things are going. “I think it’s super-special that we can still present films in cinemas in Amsterdam,” he says, “and I think our audience really appreciate that too, even if it’s only 30 people per room. When we were designing this year’s festival, it was really important that all the screenings, all the events we do, whether onstage or online, should be as collective an experience as possible.”

Online elements of the IDFA on Stage lineup are accessible worldwide and can be found here.