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

Running from Nov. 17 to 28, the 34th edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) is going to “feel festive,” promises programmer Sarah Dawson, anticipating even more heated discussions than usual.

“I do expect this to be a bigger feature. You are in a room full of people, sharing all these different points of views. During lockdown, we were stuck in one single reality,” she says, also mentioning the festival’s new program structure, introducing Envision and International Competition as well as cross-section awards (Best Dutch Film, Best First Feature and ReFrame Award).

“There is a lot of value that we can give films by thoughtfully placing them in the program. If you look at Envision, it’s a space for more boundary-pushing, experimental cinema. By creating a section for it, we create a frame for these films. Documentary community is quite broad and there are many interests that need to be served.”

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

“I used to work for a festival that had strands for ‘Love.’ It’s nice, but there is something really important in having a more proactive act of framing when it comes to devising sections,” she says.

Agreeing there are many ways of perceiving and understanding reality these days, as well as representing it, new forms of documentary filmmaking will be spotlighted, say the programmers. Overall, the festival will show 264 films, including DocLab projects, an international platform for interactive documentaries in various media and disciplines.

“We want to expand the horizon in terms of what we perceive as documentary cinema, in addition to having a very big new media branch,” says Laura van Halsema.

“Curiosity has always been a part of IDFA,” adds Raul Nino Zambrano. “DocLab is already 15 years old, so we have always been very open to what is happening within the whole spectrum of the documentary genre. We feel the responsibility to show it.”

With IDFA programmers coming together to co-curate sections, they are “collectively excited” about this year’s films, says van Halsema, while Joost Daamen calls the new process “more elaborate, interesting and thoughtful.” According to the festival’s manifesto, combining artistic value with political urgency is still crucial, but not every film needs to incorporate all these elements.

“Some are using the camera as a weapon. Others, as a pencil. We are selecting films on the basis of their own value,” says Daamen.

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

“It’s a tremendously good package and it has been like this for a couple of years now,” she adds.

Arguing that IDFA exists as a support structure as much as a festival, the programmers also commented on the challenges awaiting young, marginal filmmakers from developing countries, especially during the time of pandemic.

“I think it’s a trend in general: for younger people, the lockdown has been much more difficult,” says Daamen. “In order to build a network, you need to meet people. Not just during industry events, but also when getting a coffee. There is a lot of this ‘in between’ time that we suddenly lost.”

“The lockdown was unfortunate, because we started to talk 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 these formal structures. There are a few films that came from that that we wouldn’t have found otherwise,” adds Dawson. But challenging times won’t short-change the audience, it seems.

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

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