Chiledoc Berlinale 2024

«Cinema is about transcending us»

IDFA / Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia on the safety measures, the new competition approach, and the current IDFA experience.

The 34th International Documentary Festival Amsterdam kicks off today through 28 November 2021 on-site in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with additional online options and events.

For the 34th time, IDFA offers their unique, independent and inspiring meeting place for audiences and professionals to engage with a diverse and high-quality program of documentary films, events, workshops, and talks. For 2021, IDFA returns to Amsterdam, and travels across various Dutch cinemas, with a full slate of programming, while select industry activities and screenings remain online. With this edition also come some changes to the IDFA structure, most significantly with the addition of new «Envision» competition, while the volatile nature of the Netherlands coronavirus situation has also required certain adaptations along the way.

Modern Times Review spoke with IDFA Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia on these safety measures, the new competition approach, the current IDFA experience, and more in this far-reaching interview ahead of the festival.

PC: Roos Trommelen

Data has shown a stark rise in COVID-19 cases in the Netherlands as of late, much like most of Europe, which led to some new measures. As it stands right now, what sort of form is IDFA going to take, and how have the measures from last week impacted you?

We will keep the occupancy rate of 70% in all market-related events and screenings and will continue with the 80% occupancy for all audience screenings. We will also introduce masks as an extra safety measure for all industry related events, as well as Press&Industry screenings.

We have also made sure that we have a team of specialists on-site, so there is a COVID-19 response team in place with people who have the scientific knowledge and the event management experience we need. They will be all around the festival checking everything in detail.

Then comes the point of accessibility. For us, there are two main points to this. The first is to make sure that when we say only people with approved vaccines are welcome to come, we are taking part in the unjust distribution of vaccines worldwide. And that would not be fair. That would not be who we are. Secondly, by making sure that much of what we do on-site can also follow online. When people are not comfortable coming or cannot come for any reason, they can join many of our offers, but not all of them, electronically. It is very surprising to see how many people insist that they come and not attend online, though. If you look at the guest list as it stands today, we have about 2,000 people coming, and less than 300 would like to do so online.

when we say only people with approved vaccines are welcome to come, we are taking part in the unjust distribution of vaccines worldwide.

How do you find this from an audience perspective? Do you find that the audiences are ready and very responsive to be back in even 80% capacity cinemas? 

We cannot judge yet. If I took a competitive look, I’d say 2019 was the biggest year. Biggest it forever, in terms of attendance. We were hoping for a 50% attendance compared to 2019. So far, it seems that we are higher than 60%. We were too conservative in our expectations. This is a very strong comeback, and we never expected that much. To be honest, we expected people to be more sceptical or hesitant about coming to attend in person.

What did you learn from 2020 that you transferred over to 2021? And where does your affinity with this 2021 version compared to 2020 lie? How do you compare these pandemic-era events? 

2020 was much more clear because it was vastly online. Things were quite harsh at the time.

This year is way more of a challenge to be honest because it is truly both. The professional activities are all truly hybrid because people can take part on location or online. To produce a festival that operates in both ways and this level is, of course, a much bigger operation, and it’s much more expensive. It is a terrible poker game that we are forced to play because you don’t know what will change last minute. So you have to be prepared.

What we learned last year is we did extensive testing with online offers and with hybrid production and online produced activities. We learned a hell of a lot from it. We learned that most of IDFA’s audience does not want to watch films online. We also learned that a small number of new audiences prefer the online offer. But we also saw the comparison in size. S many more were just sad about going online. And a few who were happy about that, right. We now want like to include them both. That’s why we are responding this year with daily hybrid screening from Tuchinscki. It is the online offer for this year, which is one film per day. One wonderful film will be screened with a full audience, and then it will be live-streamed to people’s homes. The talk or Q&A that takes place after the screening will also be streamed.

Other than this, we are trying to help people watch the films within the regulations of the moment by again doing the extended programme, which is five films travelling to 30 different cities during the festival.

As for professionals, we will again have an online library. A majority of the films in the programme will be available for professionals to watch there.

PC: Coen Dijkstra

How are you choosing the one film per day that will be streamed? Is it purely like the prime-time Tuchinski screening of the day?

You will have films from all around the world and a balanced offer between small, low-budget artistic statements or experiments next to the biggest blockbusters. A lot of good brainstorming went into the films that can exist in this kind of comparison. Of course, the point of having a film in Tuchinski 1 is always about the audience. Some films are great films that I would believe as an Artistic Director are to be experienced in a smaller cinema. Tuchinscki 1 has 850 seats. It’s a delicate thing that is not about value judgment. It’s about designing the experience.

It’s about designing the experience.

There is more evolution going at IDFA this year with some structural changes and new competition. Can you tell us more about the emphasis on the experimental aspect of documentary filmmaking?

I’m always struggling with terminology. We’re always stuck with the meanings of words. I try to keep an open sense of this changing world in film. So it’s not about experimentation. It’s about the fact that there is a very mature mainstream in documentary film today. And I have so much appreciation for much of what’s happening and this maturity of the genre. However, this maturity comes from a long-standing system of what is film, who makes film, and what is a successful film? How do we define success? How do we define a film’s importance? And there are so many filmmakers out there truly working hard to challenge this pattern. We can see that works, and ignoring them is impossible. In my experience with IDFA and before, it is often not useful to introduce the more artistically courageous film and in a lineup amongst a majority of more conventional films. Usually, this results in the «right-wing» of cinema going «how pretentious» and so on. They might be appreciated but are immediately isolated as the ugly ducklings. What we’re doing is acknowledging that a whole wave of filmmakers, in Europe, in the States, but mostly in the Global South, and mainly women, are coming to make a different kind of film and really challenge the tradition. Let’s celebrate them by creating the right showcase for this kind of filmmaking.

PC: Thomas Schlijper

By introducing a dedicated competition to this sort of film not only draws the spotlight but, by what you’re saying, is also a tangible example of a commitment to diversity in your lineup and programming. I’ll be honest in that I see a lot of the status quo festival circuit, which heavily skews into this sensibility of the mainstream, urban liberal, with a rather superficial approach to this. There is a lot of diversity “pledges,” a lot of press releases saying “51% of our programme is done by women,” yet their board of directors or funding sources are still 10 out of 10, white males over 50 kind of thing. So what you are talking about, and the Envision Competition inclusion seems to be something done about this in practice. That is, working towards furthering inclusion tangibly. Do you agree? Does this play into your diversity strategy?

It absolutely does, but I personally see it from a different angle. I see this as an understanding of human progress. And to me, the point is without critique, we don’t grow. So without acknowledging the defectors, those who stray, and the opposition of the mainstream, we will never progress. We can keep talking about the golden age of documentary and documentary films that get Oscar race placements and documentaries that get loads of money from Netflix, Apple, or whoever. And that is good. However, if we just celebrate that, we are dying. In my philosophical view of this, the only way is to keep progressing and acknowledge that there is this way and it’s good, but there’s a massive wave of opposition towards it. This opposition is diversity, and this opposition is a wider worldview, and it is women filmmakers. This opposition is Southern filmmakers. It starts from the fact that if we do not acknowledge the opposition if we do not acknowledge that it’s not a static situation where everything is going upward in one pyramid. If you look at film and particularly documentary film, you can see that it’s becoming one pyramid with the US award season on the peak and the Oscar being the very top. There isn’t much more that you can see in the media criticism that forgets about the award season.

This opposition is diversity, and this opposition is a wider worldview, and it is women filmmakers.

I agree with you that there’s acknowledgment, but acknowledgment is the first stage and action the next. Part of my frustration with the mainstream urban liberal crowd who tend to, at least, attend such events is that there is a ton of acknowledgment, but not much action outside a very superficial level where you’re relying on people’s general lack of attention or willingness toward critical engagement but when it actually comes down to the necessary systematic and institutional changes, this step is significantly delayed in relation to the acknowledgment step, if not pushed down the field infinitely. I think that by embracing this aspect of experimental cinema and following the hard data of where it comes from, you are moving past simple acknowledgment…

It’s also about the system. So in the case of IDFA, this is about processes, it’s about the standard procedure, and it’s about the workflow. It is about the design of the workflow that leads to selecting films. When we worked this year based on a 100% different selection process and changed the competition structure, we stopped splitting films based on the formula or the technical differences between them. We stopped watching Dutch filmsas a seperate category. We stopped watching first films with a team that selects only the first films. We created a pool with all of the films entered to us split over five teams, each made up of three, four people, headed by one of our programmers. They watch their part of the entries and nominate a selection from them to be considered by the others. Then, everybody else watches the selections of each one of these groups. Then, we have a long week discussing what films will make it to which programme section at the end. These teams are made up of people from all around the world. We have selectors here from Taiwan and Brazil, Ecuador, and Ethiopia. We have people from different European backgrounds, and we have IDFA’s own core team that is quite diverse. So it is not about the outcome only. It is also about the decision-making power being shared with a representative group. If we end up with an unbalanced part of the festival, whether geographically or gender, then I’m fine with that. It is not coming from pretentiously wanting to balance things. And it is not coming from prejudice. It’s coming from the actual process that was in itself inclusive.

This leads me to another question regarding a trend that I have recently found to be ramping up. I am concerned that a significant faction of the documentary industry engages with this circuit and documentary as an industry with very rigid and distinct ideological expectations. You’re savvy enough to know that the world is very tribal and polarised down binary ideological lines. Anything that strays from that line may trigger or ignite the outrage machine. For example, recently, I had some conversations at Ji.hlava about their inclusion of Oliver Stone’s master class. Essentially, his portrait of Vladimir Putin from a few years ago nullified his credibility as a documentary filmmaker and thus compromised the integrity of the festival itself for including him. In the counterarguments, I would hear a lot of terms like “my/our industry doesn’t stand for this” or “this is not how our industry works.” But, with this approach, first of all, that sounds like something a coloniser would say – “I claim this industry for myself, and I make the ideological parameters by which it operates.” But it’s more dangerous to be triggered by someone that, yes, has problematic elements in their history but still works within the form and may still have something to say within this form. Still, the majority of the dissenting opinion was that this person doesn’t even have a place on this lineup, the festival, or in the documentary world-at-large. What are your thoughts on that? 

I’m just against anything that can be mixed with censorship, even to the slightest level. We didn’t invite Oliver Stone to IDFA but what makes it great is that Ji.hlava did. To me, that’s about this pluralism, this difference in character, in identity, in how we understand film, how we understand festivals, and how do we create these unique offers. So it’s also about the identity of a film festival.

I think that if a festival believes this is a very good film, then that’s normally their right to welcome a filmmaker. As far as I know, there are no public accusations of Oliver Stone being a terrible human being. I’d never heard about that.

I’m just against anything that can be mixed with censorship, even to the slightest level.

The core of the problem was his multi-part profile on Vladimir Putin from a few years ago. Granted, an extremely problematic piece in its portrayal, but enough to essentially ban a person who has extensive filmography in both fiction and documentary and who has played a significant role in furthering other, valid conversations.

To me, honestly, this is as sensitive as it is in Eastern Europe because I’m also still Syrian. American or Western leftists such as Oliver Stone did what I believe was criminal in terms of how they justified and prioritised their anti-American politics by taking the side of another evil. I find that to be very problematic. But then I had this problem with so many others. And this did not mean that I did not show the films at IDFA. It meant that I was personally a little unhappy about doing that, to be honest, but I did it because they do not lose their entire validity. To me, the point is the pluralism of what a festival is and what this industry is.

On the other hand, it is also a point that the festival is also a pragmatic organism. It’s radical or philosophical, but part of the philosophy is to have famous names. Part of the philosophy is to balance between newcomers nobody has heard of and try to draw attention to them and draw the audience’s attention to people they know and films about subjects that they already care about. This balancing is a very difficult dance and is an ongoing research. It will never stop. So, we have a film that tells you a story from Bangladesh. A brilliant film. But do we think that the majority of audiences in the West already care about Bangladesh? And does this mean that we shouldn’t show the film? And does this mean that we should promote the film because we believe it’s a brilliant film? We will, and next to it, we will have a film that tells the western audience a meaningful, challenging narrative of something that they are interested in.

About the Bangladesh example, I’m maybe looking at it in a slightly different way, albeit admittedly theoretical, way. What I mean is, in Western Europe and a highly liberal market like Amsterdam, if the film is just “about Bangladesh,” maybe it isn’t the biggest draw on the programme from a thematic perspective. But what happens if that film from Bangladesh has some aspect in its narrative that skews right-wing? Now, all of a sudden, there is interest. Still, that interest is founded in outrage since the film depicts something triggering outside of the ideological expectation of the audience? Suddenly, to the audience, the film about Bangladesh becomes a film about some triggering counter-ideology…

It’s a very interesting point, and it needs a lot of thinking and discussion. But yeah, to me, it is a bit simpler than that. It’s about cinema. And cinema is about transcending us. This linear rationalism is very pragmatic and neoliberal in many ways that make us or trained as viewers to expect something and not be prepared for something else.

Now, a film from Bangladesh to me is about me, or it’s doesn’t exist. In a way, cinema is all about that. When I watch from someone like Fred Wiseman, I ask myself if it has meaning to me? Or is the film teaching me about a remote place? That is a key point. In good cinema, it’s not a touristic experience of learning about Bangladesh or Boston. It is a visceral experience where I am exploring myself, my prejudices, my opinions, the way I feel, and how I think. I don’t watch Fred Wiseman because America is a great country. I watch Fred Wiseman because the film is great. And the film is great not because it tells me about a place but because it connects me to it. To me, Boston is as exotic as Kenya is to Northern European. I’ve never been to Boston. When I see it, it feels quite exotic. That’s the point – can the audiences be open and relaxed enough to allow the filmmakers to show them that this is actually relevant to them?

can the audiences be open and relaxed enough to allow the filmmakers to show them that this is actually relevant to them?

And that’s what I ask: is the traditional audience open to alternative thought processes and ideologies?

This is the point of going to the cinema. To my mind, this is not about technicalities, screen size, or whether you can watch a film at home or not. This is about being in the milieu and atmosphere that prepares you to be open to something you did not know you might be interested in. That is why I want us to go to the cinema. In the cinema, we have invested time, effort, and money, and we will be more patient. We want to win this bet after all. It is about being patient and open. This training is missing. The film market has trained us on a particular kind of filmmaking and a particular purpose on why we watch a documentary film. When you talk about the big films today, you are seeing the vast majority being stories of supernatural humans who came from extreme poverty and broke through the class layers to reach success in an inspiring story. This is an «iteration» of the American Dream. It has been forgotten since the end of Cold War that half the world before that believed that the American Dream was an evil exploitative concept. It was, there and then, seen as a form of demagogy convincing people that their failure is their own responsibility. In a way, this kind of filmmaking is the biggest now. In some cases, it is beautiful. But the problem of thinking this is why I go to watch a film – reassuring me that I am “good” – then what? For example, my friend who are invested in climate change have a large number of films to watch to prove they are right. Then what? Where is that one film that is not oblivious? It is not like an ostrich with its head in the sand. Where is that one film that is respectful of the climate change situation but also critical about some aspect of it? I don’t see it. I only see films that tell us “let’s mobilise.” This is how it becomes propagandist. It creates a dynamic of audiences going to watch films that make us feel good about ourselves but maybe not films that make us better human beings. 

There is undoubtedly more to say on this topic in the future!

Finally, what aspects of this year’s programme that you are personally looking forward to?

We have Marco Bellocchio, who has made the film of his life with Marx Can Wait. He made 25 fiction films that have brought him many prestigious awards. No, he makes the persona film of all his film. I see him defending auto cinema at 82 years of age – coming back to show me that his entire career in cinema came from very personal pain. This is the question of transcendence that was talking about. Most critics saw this film as an advocacy of family. To me, that was surprising. I saw it twice, and I always thought the film was a very sincere acknowledgement of what cinema is to this man and why he made the films he did. It is a very precious monument at IDFA this year. The fact that we will have him there for a serious talk is something I find exciting.

Another thing is the cultural role of the festival. The fact that we are premiering the first banned film from Vertov – The History of the Civil War is a big deal. This is a film that the shot. It was seen once by 400 party members in 1921, who decided that others should not watch it. It was killed right then and there. Now we are bringing it back, and it’s magic. 

Also, having Andrea Arnold make a documentary film is exciting. Most fiction directors make disappointing documentaries, but with Andrea Arnold, it is different. Cow is a milestone in her career. This is multi-layered cinema. This is not a movie about a cow. Or, it is. It could be. But this cow is a metaphor for our entire relationship with ourselves and our planet. 

There are many great things to look forward to, Orwa, and I look forward to being back at IDFA soon!

Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He writes for some platforms and does some other things as well.

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