“Strong women and troubled men” is what IDFA’s interim artistic director, Barbara Visser, promises in this year’s selection. “It’s something we have noticed. It could be coincidence, but it’s something we really saw,” she says.
There is also an emphasis on youth. Some films – including Finlay Pretsell’s Time Trial (portrait of Scottish racing cyclist David Millar) and Feargal Ward’s The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid (Irish farmer fights to keep his land from microchip manufacturer Intel) – so impressed programmers that they were bumped up from First Appearance into IDFA’s main Feature-length Competition.
To celebrate IDFA’s 30th anniversary, Visser promises a “very festive” event looking back over the festival’s history, taking stock and contemplating the future. The programme, Visual Voice: 30 Years of IDFA, pulls together 18 leading directors (“a group of giants from the documentary field who’ve been with IDFA sometimes from the beginning,” as Visser puts it), asking them to choose a film that changed the way they see the documentary. There is mutual admiration between Kim Longinotto (who chose Nick Broomfield’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer) and Broomfield (who chose Longinotto’s Sisters in Law). John Appel picked a film by Raymond Depardon, himself a regular IDFA visitor; The Yes Men went for Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. Fred Wiseman opted for Marcel Ophuls’ Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, while Steve James selected Alexander Nanau’s Toto and His Sisters. The screenings will be accompanied by a six-hour “discussion marathon” in the festival’s spiritual home, De Balie. The talk will be followed by an invitation-only party for IDFA’s founder and former director, Ally Derks.
When visual artist and filmmaker Visser was appointed interim director last year, she talked about making the festival easier to navigate and possibly pulling back on the huge number of titles screening. She acknowledges this hasn’t happened, with over 300 films (including DocLab) screening at this year’s event. “A lot of titles,” Visser acknowledges, but points out that the “themed programmes” (for example the “full focus on cinematography”) and the curated selection of experimental, artistic documentaries in Paradocs, should help festivalgoers find their way.
The Shifting Perspectives programme foregrounds the Arab world, with classic and new documentaries. The aim is to provide a view from the inside, rather than the arm’s length view presented by the Western media of Arabs as “others” living in a world of constant turmoil.
Internet & new media artist Jonathan Harris has compiled this year’s Top 10 – and startled the programmers by asking if he could include a book, The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe by Christopher Alexander. “This question of course raised some eyebrows here. I thought it was fantastic. At the same time, where does it end? Will he select ten books?” His other selections include Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, which “blew me away” when she re-watched it recently, Visser says.
As ever, there will be a colourful array of guests attending IDFA. Alongside esteemed directors like Wiseman, Longinotto and Broomfield, there will be rock stars (Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age, who co-directed American Valhalla) and cyclist David Miller, as well as dancers, musicians and protagonists.
In her time at the helm, Visser has travelled the festival circuit widely, taking in Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Nyon and others. “What struck me is that documentary is such a fantastic social world,” she says. Not that there is a constant round of parties: her point is that documentary makers support one another, are excellent networkers and every documentary event will have pitching sessions or rough cut screenings. “That’s incredibly valuable. IDFA played a big role in setting up things like that.”
IDFA’s Forum is celebrating its 25th anniversary and is now one of the most important co-production and co-financing markets in Europe. Meanwhile, the IDFA Bertha Fund (formerly Jan Vrijman Fund) – which invests in and stimulates documentary activity in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe – is now 20 years old. Among the titles it has supported is this year’s opening film, Mohamed Siam’s Amal (which was also pitched at the Forum).
As a former chair of the Academy of Arts/ KNAW (Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences), Visser is used to dealing with politicians and lobbying. One novelty, though, has been spending a year in an office. “That’s something I’ve never done before!” Visser has just completed a new film of her own, The End of Fear, which tells the “insane story" of the Barnett Newman painting Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III (1966-67). No, it’s not screening at IDFA: “I think it would be a conflict of interest to select my own film.” However, Amstel Films will be releasing it in the Netherlands.
Ally Derks oversaw IDFA for three decades. Does Visser envisage staying that long? “I am totally focused on this year,” she parries. “I started knowing that after my year there would be an open call. I am still deliberating whether I should continue. That’s not because I don’t like it, but it would really mean quitting everything else. IDFA is a way of life!”