«You can feel the confidence and lack of compromise in the filmmaking»

IDFA / Modern Times Review speaks head programmers Laura van Halsema and Joost Daamen on the breakdown of programming such a vast selection of films, how to maintain a balanced lineup, the reasoning behind its 2022 focus programmes, and more.

The 35th IDFA is at its halfway point, with a full-on return to cinemas and venues across the city of Amsterdam from 9 to 20 November 2022.

Opening with Niki Padidar’s All You See and encompassing nearly two weeks of documentary screenings, Industry Forum events, new media Doclab projects under the Nervous Systems theme, theatrical performances, and more, 2022 IDFA is a robust representation of documentary cinema, as well as the state of its industry within our current moment.

With so much to discuss, Modern Times Review managed to catch up with head IDFA programmers Laura van Halsema and Joost Daamen to talk about the breakdown of programming such a vast selection of films, how to maintain a balanced lineup, the reasoning behind its 2022 focus programmes, and more.

Orwa Nyrabia IDFA 2022 opening
IDFA 2022 opens with All You See from Dutch filmmaker Niki Padidar at Amsterdam’s Royal Carré Theater in Amsterdam; PC: Roger Cremers

I want to ask you about the breakdown and dynamics within the wider programming team. As senior programmers, you have many working under you, but you also have to dialogue with the Artistic Director constantly. Can you speak about how these responsibilities and dynamics are broken down between you and the wider team?

Joost Daamen: It’s a bit of a strange team because all the other IDFA departments have a head. We don’t. The artistic director is the artistic director of the festival, but, in a way, he’s responsible for the overall programme. So we work directly under him as a team. We work with five programmers. This year was a bit of a different setup though. We used to have three senior programmers. We also have two programmers based in Amsterdam, and this year we worked with one of our regional advisors. Sara Dawson, Maria Campaña Ramia, Laura, myself, and Orwa Nyrabia do the premiere programmes together for feature-length films. Jasper Hokken is focused on the shorts and IDFA on Stage.

We all work with three advisors. From there, all submissions are divided equally. Then they are divided among the advisors and ourselves. We watch the films. The advisors make a short list for us, and we make a short list to propose to the other programmers. That’s when Orwa comes in. It’s about 100 films that are then discussed in our final meeting.

Laura van Halsema: The three programme advisors are scattered worldwide. This is an important change we made in the last couple of years.

IDFA 2022 Guest Desk
IDFA 2022 Guest Desk in Ita Amsterdam; PC: Jakob van Vliet

Regarding this year’s submissions, did you notice any thematic threads across the films presented, whether programmed or not?

LvH: Joost and I discussed this a lot. Many films were focusing on people’s own lives. Of course, this has always been a favourite subject, to film your past or family. But we saw a big increase this year.

This is why I mentioned the programme advisors, as programming is subjective to what we receive. It can be that the people handing them over are more into such subjects. Or, maybe, one of us is more interested in personal stories than other times. It’s not empirical, but it’s good to mention how there were many films about people’s background, their parents, and so on. We managed to select quite a few. This line has many beautiful films, but it also makes you more critical. You ask if the film is particular, relevant, or even too private.

JD: I think the role of identity in our society is very important. Where do I come from? Who am I? What do I feel? On the other hand, I think the pandemic also played a major role in this. People couldn’t leave or travel or meet others. They had to look for stories and inspirations buried in the lives around them.

LvH: In the last years, there has also been an increase in films using archive or found footage. There may be some practical reasons why a lot of archives are opening up. Another trend we found was from filmmakers from the former Yugoslavia who used archival footage to return to where they’re from or the places their parents were from. So it’s a combination of extremely rich image sources and archives to be explored, and people are increasingly trying to make stories out of them. There are interesting ways of making the historical personal and vice versa.

 IDFAcademy Opening Talk: Gianfranco Rosi in ITA.
DFAcademy Opening Talk: Gianfranco Rosi in ITA; PC: Karlijn van Diepen

How do you maintain a balance on the programme(s)? There is a lot to consider, especially when presented with so many submissions and being a festival that operates activities year-round. For example, how do you ensure that the programme will not be stacked with Bertha Fund films or that there is an over-emphasis on one dynamic, region, or social demographic?

LvH: It’s part of the process, which makes it hard to have an overview of those elements during initial staging. We look for interesting films. It’s an obvious answer, but it’s as simple as that. Only when you compile your lists will you notice certain patterns like, for example, the majority of filmmakers on it are Northern European men. If that were the case, I would go back and be more critical. But this isn’t the case anymore. We have such a high number of submissions the overall input is quite large. But, as Joost described, we have 100 films premiering in the final week, and then we look at the balance. The first would be gender parity, an ambition we have spoken about for years. It also has to do with regional diversity. We have also have Queer Day for years, and it’s important to select films that are not just about the LGBTQ+ community but made by members of it. It’s not a dogma where we say that you can only make a film if you are from that community, but we are sensitive towards the reality where a small group of people run the risk of speaking about the rest of the world.

JD: It’s important to say that the festival programme works independently from the Forum. Of course, we have a relationship with the films, but that’s more of a historical fact. We know when they are coming as our Bertha Fund and Forum colleagues follow up with us, but as programmers, we decide to programme it regardless of the existing relationship. This is also the case with Dutch films. We are an international film festival, so we screen Dutch films with everything else.

We look for interesting films. It’s an obvious answer, but it’s as simple as that.

What about the Focus topics? This year there is Playing Reality and Around Masculinity. Why do you feel these two are relevant in 2022?

JD: You can say there is a difference between programming and curating. Programming is making a selection of the films on offer regardless of idea. Focus programmes are more curated. We start with an idea, polish it, and then curate around it. Around Masculinity is a more rounded topic, while Playing Reality is more stylistic. You could call it a formalistic programme.

Regarding Playing Reality, we moved to the International Theatre Amsterdam. Orwa has a background in theatre, so there was always interest in incorporating such organisations. We would programme documentaries that used theatre strategies of theatre as a formalistic approach. On the hand, they would programme theatre plays based in reality – documentary theatre.

ITA Leidseplein
IDFA Festival 2022 in Amsterdam. ITA Leidseplein; PC: Roger Cremers

And what is the ultimate mission of these focus programmes?

LvH: At the moment we started talking about this year’s focus programs, it was right after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All the things we had in mind felt extremely irrelevant or, at least, disconnected from the things we were also feeling. So we set ourselves to come up with something connecting a lot of aspects that came with the invasion, as well as some topics we had been looking at for the last few years. At the same time, pragmatically, not to have something ready in May if the festival is in November, given the quick news cycles. We felt there was an interesting collision and relationship between the war reality and discussions we have been having about inclusivity and the environment for some time. We saw an interesting paradigm within the thought of masculinity. It was quite ambitious. So we came up with some examples in the first research stages and sculpted them from there. We came up with many films about dictators or domestic abuse in those early stages. Some ended up in the programme, but the main point was to develop something more than the sum of its parts. It’s about rethinking films you may know within the focus context—for example, the Maysles Brothers’ Meet Marlon Brando.

IDFA de Volkskrant
Amsterdam IDFA 2022 de Volkskrant-dag in Carré Amsterdam; PC: Jurre Rompa

When looking at the final programme, what immediately strikes you in its importance or relevance?

JD: I’m happy that both competitions are a good mix of personal and films that explore beyond the lived experience. Before we started our final meeting, I was a bit cautious, hoping there wouldn’t be too many personal films, but I am very happy that we have a programme with films that are curious about life, people, and systems. Plus, they are still good films!

LvH: In addition, there are a few films that the filmmakers have worked on for a long time, fighting for that particular film they wanted to make. In some cases, they are young filmmakers who persisted in their creative ideas. That is also interesting. There are many formats and people in the industry constantly telling you what is working and what isn’t, but this defiant attitude resulted in some truly outstanding and original films. You can feel the confidence and lack of compromise in the filmmaking. This is very exciting.

Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Communications Manager and Industry Editor at Modern Times Review.

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