The 35th edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam launches on Nov. 9. In all, 277 titles will be screened at the in-person festival. Variety spoke to IDFA’s artistic director Orwa Nyrabia about this year’s edition and the future of documentary filmmaking.
IDFA is opening with the world premiere of Iranian-Dutch filmmaker Niki Padidar’s “All You See.” What made it the right docu to open the festival with?
It’s extremely relevant and timely. (The film) puts a mirror to Western societies mainly, but maybe on others too, in terms of how people see people who look different, or who come from a different background, or have a mixed background. It’s one of those very rare examples where we are not talking about the racism of the extreme right wing. Instead, it’s a doc talking about the day to day microaggressions that come from all the people who think they are (setting good) examples and who are very fragile when criticized. I found the film inspiring.
IDFA 2021 had a small number of hybrid screenings that occurred during the festival. Is there an online component to this year’s fest?
Like last year we will be offering the audience in the Netherlands one film per evening. We are picking 11 films that we believe give a wide view of the many different kinds of films that IDFA is showing and celebrating.
Oscar winner Laura Poitras, who is screening her latest docu “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” at IDFA, is this year’s Guest of Honor. What made her the right person to honor this year?
Laura Poitras is one of the most singular filmmakers out there. Her filmography is deeply political, but at the same time highly appreciated by critics, festivals, and juries everywhere. Also, there’s the fact that she’s not only a filmmaker. She has done so much as an activist, a campaigner, and as a person who has supported many different causes in journalism, in freedom of press, and issues of privacy. So, there is something very unique about her career and it’s about time we invite her here to share her experience with us and our audiences.
Streaming services are filled with docus about true crime, sports, music and celebrities. Do you think that film festivals are one of the only venues left for filmmakers taking risks in terms of form and subject matter?
There is a big illusion that with streamers came more freedom or more diversity of artistic approaches. Time is proving that wrong. I think there is a mainstream, and so far, at least the major streamers, are all participants or members of this mainstream that was there before them. So, the space for alternative expression is very small, and it relies on people who are not seeking big sales. The ancient equation – more money and more control equals less artistic freedom, and less money and less control equals more artistic freedom still holds true. Festivals do have a role together with film funds to support films that have cultural value and artistic value, not only market value.
Some say we are living in a golden age of documentaries while others say we are living in the corporate age of documentaries. What’s your take?
The place of documentary films in the mind of audience members in most of the world is a bit more prominent than it used to be. So, documentary films are more interesting to audiences and therefore better films are being made everywhere around the world. Currently there is a massive wave of documentary works coming out of Latin America. The same is true for India. So, when you look at it this way, you see there is a new era. Is it corporate? Yes, to a certain extent. But we are talking about one per thousand of these films having a chance to go all the way to getting an American distributor. A European distributor does not change the equation as much as an American distributor. So, this makes it a much less aggressive environment in Europe.
Do you think it is a film festival’s responsibility to vet documentaries before programming them?
This is one of those philosophical dilemmas that there is no answer to. As an artistic director or as any senior programmer at a premiere festival, I do not believe that our job is to look only at what we see on screen. There is context, and context is important because what we do is political. When we show a film, we are contributing to the discussion. We cannot say that it is none of my business. But then it is of course very delicate to make sure that this responsibility does not become censorship and also does not become paranoia. I think the problem today is that often we’re so scared of controversy that we cancel a film before really examining it. Or we take a bit of an old school approach and say, ‘I don’t give a shit about what they think. It’s a good film.’ Neither approach is good. Every film is a special case.
In the last few years there has been a call for more inclusivity in the documentary community. Have you seen a shift?
This whole wave of trying to include people who are of different minorities or queer people, it is just in the beginning stages. And like any historic shift, it takes time. Everybody’s learning never to forget that this is important. Now some are doing it on a checklist, some are doing it in an exaggerated, tokenized way and some are ignoring it and still living in a past. But overall, I think the whole world of film is learning, gradually.