IDFA Programmers Tease ‘Brave Films’, Talk New Program Structure


From November 17-28, the 34th edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) will “feel festive”, promises programmer Sarah Dawson, anticipating even livelier discussions than usual.

“I expect that to be a bigger feature. You’re in a room full of people, all sharing these different points of view. During the lockdown, we were stuck in one reality,” she says, mentioning also the new programming structure of the festival, introducing Envision and the international competition as well as the transversal awards (best Dutch film, best first feature film and ReFrame award).

“There is a lot of value that we can give to films by placing them wisely in the program. If you look at Envision, it’s a space for experimental cinema that pushes the boundaries. By creating a section for it, we create a framework for these films. The documentary community is quite large and there are many interests that need to be served.

Fifteen titles will compete in the section, including this year’s first “Four Journeys”, “Eat Your Catfish” and “Octopus”, about the explosion in Beirut.

“I used to work for a festival that had sections for ‘Love’. That’s fine, but there’s something really important about having a more proactive framing when it comes to designing sections “, she says.

Courtesy of IDFA

Acknowledging that today there are many ways of perceiving and understanding reality, as well as representing it, new forms of documentary cinema will be honoured, say the programmers. In total, the festival will present 264 films, including DocLab projects, an international platform for interactive documentaries in various media and disciplines.

“We want to broaden the horizon of what we perceive as documentary cinema, in addition to having a very large branch of new media”, explains Laura van Halsema.

“Curiosity has always been part of the IDFA,” adds Raul Nino Zambrano. “DocLab is already 15 years old, so we’ve always been very open to what’s happening across the spectrum of the documentary genre. We feel responsible for showing it.

With IDFA programmers coming together to co-host chapters, they’re “collectively excited” about this year’s films, van Halsema says, while Joost Daamen calls the new process “more elaborate, interesting and thoughtful”. According to the festival’s manifesto, combining artistic merit and political urgency is always crucial, but not all films need to incorporate all of these elements.

“Some use the camera as a weapon. Others use it as a pencil. We select films based on their own value,” says Daamen.

“There are many who I think are quite brave. They are truly singular, distinctive and confident,” notes Dawson, with van Halsema crediting the IDFA Bertha Fund with delivering some of the program’s best films. Established in 1998, it supports documentary filmmakers from non-Western countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and will present audiences with “As I Want” from Samaher Alqadi, “Day After…” by Kamar Ahmad Simon and “The Last Shelter”, directed by Ousmane Samassekou.

“It’s a really good package and it’s been that way for a few years now,” she adds.

Arguing that the IDFA exists as much as a support structure as much as a festival, the programmers also commented on the challenges facing young marginalized filmmakers in developing countries, particularly in times of pandemic.

“I think it’s a general trend: for the youngest, the confinement has been much more difficult,” explains Daamen. “To build a network, you have to meet people. Not just at industry events, but also when having a coffee. There’s a lot of that “in-between” time that we’ve suddenly lost.

“The lockdown was unfortunate, because we started talking about doing ‘research trips’, visiting places without the agenda of going to a festival but rather meeting film students, going to film clubs. Working outside of those formal structures. There are a few movies that have come out of that that we wouldn’t have found otherwise,” Dawson adds. But tough times won’t change audiences, it seems.

“In general, it’s been a great year for non-fiction films,” Daamen says. “I could have easily picked over a hundred favorite titles by now, which isn’t always the case. Hopefully it won’t be like that just this year!


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