An interesting feature of documentary film festival IDFA, which opened in Amsterdam Wednesday, is that although the majority of the films on offer either deal with the world as it is today or how it used to be, a significant portion of the festival’s appeal is the way that it acts as a hothouse to develop films that will offer us a pathway through the world of tomorrow.
Taking place over four days in the middle of the 12-day event, IDFA’s Forum program has become synonymous with innovation. Nothing is off limits, and the Forum features works in progress from all platforms, whether it’s theatrical, TV, streaming or new media in all its digital incarnations.
This year the festival looked at an overwhelming 730 submissions from across the globe before whittling that down to 60, ranging from projects in the earliest stages of development to rough cuts of films that just need help to cross the finish line.
For IDFA industry head Adriek van Nieuwenhuijzen the spirit of discovery is infectious. “I love to see that feeling of joy when the filmmakers realize their film is finally coming to life,” she notes. “But what I look forward to most every year, and what I find always to be very inspirational, is seeing people get together to discuss and debate, whether they’re talking about projects in the Forum or something they just saw on the big screen. I love that communal experience, where people share their knowledge and their ideas. That, for me, is the biggest treasure of this festival.”
What can you say about this year’s projects from an industry point of view?
The Forum has its own selection, but just like the [main] festival, we really strive within our selection of these 60 projects to give an overview of what is happening within the industry. And that means that we want to pick projects from all continents, not only from the Western hemisphere and the Northern hemisphere, and so we are keen on having projects from other parts of the world. And we succeeded.
It’s a real mix, in terms of the types of projects: we have some of the more cinematic documentaries, which deserve a theatrical release, but we also have projects that are more focused towards television, and television finance as well. As in previous years, a lot of projects cross this boundary—they go to festivals, they go into cinemas, and they also land in television, and that is something we really strive for. We feature a lot of investigative, journalistic and political stuff, and we also welcome more poetic, artistic films. So we’re really exploring the whole concept of documentary and what documentary can be, including cross-media projects and new media work.
What’s new this year?
We’ve expanded by organizing an extra day. So we kick off on Sunday with a full day of new media projects. And then also the set-up of the Forum has changed, in terms of what we call “round table pitches.” [That is] where a relatively small group of 10 people—10 decision makers—respond to a project, instead of having 20 to 30 commissioners sitting around a table and responding. Each pitch will have its own group of decision-makers, handpicked for their ability to respond to the project.
After that, there are still one-on-one meetings like we used to have in the past, and, of course, there is still an audience. We kept that because we feel it is a very good part of the Forum—it’s an experience that’s not only for the pitchers and the decision-makers. People observing [the pitch] can see what’s happening out in the field, and they can get the latest information about what the broadcasters and funds et cetera are looking for. That transparency is very valuable to us. Obviously, there are new people coming into the industry all the time, so this is a good learning experience.
You received 730 submitted projects this year. Is that more or less than normal?
Well there’s never a normal year. This year we had 20 less than last year, but last year we had more than a hundred more compared to the previous year. Still, it’s really an immense amount of projects, and it shows that there is a keen interest in coming to the Forum, because people see it as an effective way to gain interest for the project, not only to raise the finance but also to network and hear the response to their project, because making a film is a long trajectory. You realize that when you see the results of the Forum: we have films in the main festival that were first pitched here three, four years ago or maybe more.
IDFA’s pursuit of gender parity has been the big story for the festival this year. How did that affect your selection?
Of course that was on our minds, but when we first went through the list—as a selection team, because it’s a group effort—we simply asked: “What are the most interesting projects to us? Which projects deserved to be presented?” And then when we made the first draft of what we thought the program should be, it turned out that more than 50% of our choices were films made by women.
So it was a really interesting experience. In the past years it was much closer to 50%—perhaps there were a few more men than women. But it’s also very interesting when you see that it’s a trend in the market as well: women are getting more chances, and that is what we’re seeing in the Forum.
What kind of trends have you seen coming through?
The big issues of our time. Questions like, “How are we related as human beings to technology?” We’ve got films about technology, science, and how we, as human beings, relate to that—what are the ethical questions we should ask ourselves? These are films that are designed to make us realize that we should ask all kinds of ethical and philosophical questions.
But of course we also have lots of deeply human stories as well. For example, “The Golden Thread,” about textile workers in India, by Nishtha Jain, which is a beautiful, almost immersive project. It really speaks about the human condition in the changing industrial world. And there’s also a beautiful project from Russia called “How to Save a Dead Friend.” It gives us a totally different view on modern-day Russia.
Pictured: “Alice in Mother’s Land”