«It’s very easy for people who have the luxury of having cinema to take it for granted»

    IDFA: Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia speaks with Modern Times Review about the festival's 33rd edition.

    The 33rd International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is set to take place from 18 November to 6 December in a hybrid form pending Dutch government health and safety regulations.

    With cinemas currently closed throughput the Netherlands, and set to reopen on 19 November, the 2020 IDFA has prepared a massive undertaking of scenarios throughout this volatile year in order to ensure consistency in its quality and social impact. Over 200 films will be screened, as well as industry events, filmmaker discussions, panels, and more. Select Amsterdam cinemas are still set to host limited capacity physical screenings with the bulk of IDFA activities taking place online via the native festival portal.

    With tickets on sale 12 November (09:00), and the festival imminent, Modern Times Review spoke with Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia in a far-reaching conversation on the challenges, opportunities, trends, and concerns of IDFA in the year of COVID-19.

    From your perspective, what has been the most challenging aspect of putting together IDFA this year?
    I think it’s equal to most other festivals this year. It is the uncertainty factor. That it’s not only us who do not know what will happen, but it’s also our government and governments around the world. This always made it a matter of extending our capacity and flexibility as a team to be able to accommodate multiple scenarios throughout the year. Since March, we’ve been preparing for multiple scenarios and developing each one of them according to what’s happening. We are still ready for multiple scenarios at this moment, only 10 days before the festival. This is something that I have to salute the team for being able to, eventually, take on all of this extra pressure. I think we approached this as well as we could. We are in a place where we know we will have a good IDFA no matter what.

    Since March, we’ve been preparing for multiple scenarios and developing each one of them according to what’s happening.

    There’s one aspect of this volatility and its effect on the ultimate form of the festival that we did want to ask you specifically about. I believe that this week the cinemas closed throughout the Netherlands for two weeks, which means that if everything goes well their opening will be on the 19th which is also the day after IDFA begins. We read in other interviews with you that you really believe in the importance of the physical screening of the films. Can expand a little bit on that sentiment? Why do you feel it is so important to maintain the physical aspect of the festival screenings even in a limited capacity.
    Screenings will be, I think, a maximum of 30 people so they are largely symbolic. This is absolutely a big risk for the festival to organize screenings this way. Of course, it’s also very expensive. There are absolutely no tickets to consider yet.

    The symbolism here is about the relationship between society and art. Is art within the category of goods that you can buy and consume at your own pace or accumulate, or are they something much more worthwhile? The experience of being in a setting where the purpose of coming together is to enjoy the challenges art puts us in. In this sense, the symbolism that is necessary for as long as possible is to never give up. The priority of this collective act of being together is the connection between film and society.  It is about making sure that the core of what we do, the meaning of making films, the meaning of holding a festival, is not violated for the favor of a consumeristic understanding where it is only about reaching the widest possible audience. It’s not about how many eyeballs get to watch our films. It’s about having a meaningful experience even if just for a few.

    A film in a cinema is about igniting a social debate. It’s a pyramid. A few people watch the film, each one of them goes to their friends or family and starts talking about it and then some things start to develop gradually. It’s absolutely unmeasurable, which has always been a problem for governments and economists to understand how to monetize the value of culture. It also connects to the question, are we changing the world by making these films? I think the only way to do that is to try and cancel all art and see if the world doesn’t get worse.

    I personally grew up as a cinephile and as a film professional in a context where I had no chance to watch good films in the cinema. Almost everything that made up my cinephile experience came with VHS and even Betamax before that. It’s very easy for people who have the luxury of having cinema to take it for granted. It is essential not to fall into this extra habitual relationship where we have it, we can have it, let’s not have it now, we can have something else. I think you need to try the world without it, discover it again and see how different it is to watch a good film in the cinema, and how different it is to your body, soul, and personal development at every level and then to society.

    Orwa Nyrabia-IDFA-2020
    pc: Coen Dijkstra

    This segues into something we have been asking a lot of people at least involved in the programming and administrative aspects of film festivals especially during this time. Can you talk about the relationship IDFA has had with the Dutch government and its cultural sector? Do you find it particularly supportive?
    In the Dutch context, IDFA is privileged. IDFA is one of the base organisations in the Netherlands. This means the basic cultural infrastructure of the country. This means that even when one can say the Dutch government is not doing so well towards the art world and towards different cultural organisations, there are a few others that are seen as a necessity. We were lucky that we were supported very well, relatively speaking, by the Dutch government. This applies mostly to the Ministry of Culture and the municipality of Amsterdam.

    In this sense, the Dutch government subsidized IDFA in a very effective way so that we can experiment and take risks. Otherwise, we would have been in a very difficult situation. This doesn’t mean that I’m praising the Dutch government, though. Of course, I’m grateful that we are safer than others but, on the other hand, there are others too. It’s not only about the accredited number of organisations. Culture and art are much bigger than a few organisations.

    On the other hand, all of this puts massive responsibility on us in a year where culture and art are in a difficult situation. Though we have less of a risk than others we have to really prove we’re worth it. So the fact that we are worth it as an organisation comes from the fact that we have so many great films that were entrusted to us. I think the magic of 2020 is that film is in question, everywhere. All of it. Film as a theory is in danger. This year, we got a very long list of extremely well-made, mature pieces of documentary art. You watch these films, from young filmmakers to the most established, and you feel empowered. I feel that if we have all of this great work then cinema is alive and we have to do the best job possible.

    I’m grateful that we are safer than others but, on the other hand, there are others too.

    We specifically wanted to ask you about the gap between very established governmentally supported festivals and the more regional or smaller ones. Do you feel that, ultimately, when we come out on the other side of COVID-19 that there will be more of a democratisation between the large events and small ones, or do you think that, much like other aspects of society, there is going to be an even wider inequality gap between them? Do you believe that the vast number of festivals like, for example, IDFA or DOK Leipzig don’t have so much to worry about in the sense of will they exist in the future but more regional festivals do, creating an atmosphere of prominent industry players and not much else? What sort of measures can be taken to prevent that?
    I do think that, unlike many common opinions or first reactions to the pandemic, it only supports a neoliberal world. In a way this makes me say yes this kind of survival of the fittest logic is flourishing. This will be a problem to deal with. The only answer is to stop the bullshit in the world of festivals altogether, about measuring sizes and comparing facts and figures and trying to break each other’s arms.

    We experienced a very interesting wave of solidarity and collaboration between festivals throughout the past seven-eight month that was beautiful. We gladly took part in a good number of initiatives to connect festivals and to create regular meetings and discussions. I think this created a much more friendly atmosphere overall. However, I think where the answer to this begins is when we’ve forgotten the international funding paradigm of measuring things by numbers and go back to the core to the meaningful role that most of us started doing this kind of work in the first place, because we believed in something not because we wanted to break the numbers of the other one. There is something about the nature of competition between festivals that needs to cool off. This is very easy when said by the director of the largest documentary film festival in the world. When I say stop this competitive angle, there’s no written moral credit here for me. What I can say is, we’ll keep on communicating together. We’ll keep on discussing issues collectively with other festivals and we are working seriously on returning to our festival support schemes because I think we tend to forget the rest of the world. Even when we look at the festivals map we count the main festivals in the prominent countries in Europe and North America and then we count the festivals in the smaller towns in Western Europe and America. But, we forget that the world is much bigger than in Western Europe and America. There are many others around the world and they are the ones who will probably teach us something new and will break us out from the bubble and bring us to new understandings and paradigms.

    IDFA used to support festivals for years including the festival that I co-founded in Syria. Because of politics, because of elections, and decisions of different governments and so one this was canceled six-seven years ago. We’re working very hard on returning there because the key point is that we need to be cascading this experience, we need to be sharing this privilege, we need to be making sure that the knowledge and the expertise of a festival like IDFA are shared with emerging festivals and with festivals who need it around the world, and not in a colonial manor. This is not about creating IDFA chapters. This is not about exporting our logo and brand name. This is about the actual work of offering this privilege, making it accessible to others who want to do festivals, to do good work for in their regions, and through their regions, to all of us in the world. Being stuck in the very neoliberal world of festivals in the West, where we are competing for bigger numbers and bigger names, our worldview becomes only about this bubble of competition between 20 or 30 festivals. I think this is very self-centered and unproductive.

    Orwa Nyrabia-IDFA-2020(2)
    pc: Coen Dijkstra

    Even in a pre-COVID-19 world, there are elements of this conversation that can transfer throughout society and throughout industry…
    COVID-19 only made things more visible. It didn’t change the reality in this sense, it only clarified reality for us. I will never have a quick solution to anything. That’s against how I understand the world and it is certainly not how I understand documentary film. If you understand it immediately then it is populist, so the answer to how can we overcome the problem of festivals or the survival of the fittest paradigm we’re living in is slow, serious, humble work. Quick measures are only for press consumption.

    Finally, we wanted to ask about the IDFA programme and the sort of submissions that you have been receiving. Had you noticed any patterns in the submissions? Ultimately, how did those themes shape the final program?
    It’s very difficult to describe that because, of course, there are always thematic connections. Maybe I’m too close to it to have this view, but I think that film is one very big creature that is continuously developing. It’s not easy to define it. Are there big changes from one year to the other? No, I think that there are trends.

    I think, overall, we can see a bigger gap between sincere, passionate work, and highly advanced, technically sophisticated, but marketing-driven films. So, I clearly see films where, whether small or big, you experience the passion of the filmmaker. You experience this sense of, «I will suffocate if I don’t make this film», this feeling that it is a question of life or death. Then there is another kind of film that is «I found it, it’s an idea that will sell everywhere, I know how to finance it, and I will make it with its 17 million K resolution camera». I think this is a really big gap that is growing bigger. These marketing concept films are made very well but are also politically compromised in many cases. The phenomenon of vetted documentary films, for example, where you see portraits of famous people who actually agreed to everything in the film or financing that comes from the protagonist and associated artists.

    On the other hand, we see so much more low budget work that is more passionate. These films are so much stronger while the market seems to be less and less interested in funding them. So, I think there is a problem with public broadcasting, there is a problem here with distribution investment in documentary film that is heading towards a kind of glitter approach that is even visible sometimes with public film funds in Europe. I think this is a very big problem that is also a translation of politics, of the way that public funding and the market are getting a little too close together. When an American film investment group is joining the same project as European public broadcasters something must be wrong.

    we can see a bigger gap between sincere, passionate work, and highly advanced, technically sophisticated, but marketing-driven films.

    It’s an answer similar to the topic we were talking about before that this numbers-driven neoliberal ideology that makes the Western worldview permeates into so many different activities and approaches. Again, we’re talking here about documentary films and the festival landscape, but this conversation can easily be transferred into any number of different contexts.
    It is a question of craft over art. So, in a way, this is very visible in most European productions over the past few years, where you can clearly see mastership of the craft. In many cases, disconnected from the actual artistic ambition because it becomes a very technical process.

    If I want to talk about something that I see clearly growing it is more films that connect a personal history to geopolitical history. Telling the history of a country, region, or the world, but from the viewpoint of a personal story. This, I think, is a very interesting trend that is not new. It has been done before but is growing. I would attribute this to more visibility and more opportunities for women filmmakers in the world nowadays. I think most filmmaking in the masculine documentary film industry that was «ruling» for a long time, was not really interested in seeing the world subjectively. Subjectivity was seen as narcissism and we are now learning again that it actually can be the very opposite, the most generous altruism.

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    Steve Rickinson
    Communications Manager at Modern Times Review.

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