Every year, IDFA presents the best documentaries, selected from a huge field. This selection is made on the basis of clear criteria. In short, IDFA looks for documentaries that are interesting from a stylistic point of view, or are particularly innovative, relevant to social issues and successfully manage to communicate with their audiences.
IDFA has always focused on creative documentaries. This means that IDFA chooses films that have been painstakingly designed and that express the personal vision of the maker. The creative documentary is an art form. The documentary-maker is therefore an artist - not a journalist. Where the journalist attempts with his or her reports to present reality as objectively as possible, the artist follows his or her own idea. The laws of journalism therefore do not apply to the creative documentary; the documentary has its own quality criteria. Like reportage, documentaries provide insights into the world around us; but they are also characterised primarily by artistic qualities: innovation, originality, professional skill, expressiveness and cultural/historical value.
In a good documentary, the form is no less important than the content. IDFA is most interested in films that reveal the documentary tradition in a new light. In filmmakers that forge their own path, or give a new twist to an existing movement, such as direct cinema.
Whether this cinematographic renewal ensues from technical changes - such as the advent of the digital camera - or a highly personal concept of style, interest in form is a crucial characteristic of auteur cinema. For many years, IDFA has devoted attention to filmmakers with a consistent oeuvre, a clear vision of their own and recognisable signature.
Little wonder then that renowned directors such as Werner Herzog, Kazuo Hara, Robert Kramer, Michael Moore and Ulrich Seidl have all received special attention at IDFA in the past. In addition, every year brings new discoveries of interesting young innovative filmmakers; recent examples include Victor Kossakovksy, Sergei Dvortsevoy and Yoav Shamir.
A good documentary is urgent. In the same way that art is by definition critical and cannot be seen separately from the society that produces it, creative documentaries also offer a probing, surprising window on the world. This is not simply a question of collating the most up-to-date images and the latest soundbites, such as those which constantly bombard us via the media.
Documentary-makers do not spend their time chasing after the latest story. Documentaries are not fleeting, but hold a mirror up to our times. They are able to stimulate the viewer and provoke thought, by approaching the news from a different angle; by placing different accents, applying a slower rhythm, an original point of view.
The social relevance of a documentary is of great importance to IDFA. A documentary festival is the place to identify and analyse the changes taking place in our society, far from the daily media storm and protected from the superficial circus of pundits and soundbites, but nevertheless firmly rooted in the world.
Good documentaries appeal to us. Documentaries stimulate the viewer to think further, to discuss, to ask questions. The best documentaries make maximum use of the opportunity to communicate with the audience, whether through a wake-up call, teasing, shocking or even pleasing.
The latter is not always necessary. The films that finish highest in audience polls - the crowd favourites - are not necessarily those most appreciated by authorities, fellow filmmakers and critics. Sometimes, it is precisely the films that fail to unite the audience in appreciation - but rather divide opinions - that are most interesting in terms of both content and style.
Not every film IDFA selects will score well in relation to all of the above-mentioned criteria. After all, not every documentary is an obvious masterpiece. Selecting films for a festival like IDFA is all about striking the right balance. IDFA does not show only films that are guaranteed to be hits with audiences, nor does the festival select films purely on the grounds of their social relevance.
It is only when form, content and communication are each sufficiently represented that the basis can be laid for a successful festival. A festival that stimulates and offers new perspectives.