Today the great and the good, the esteemed, the celebrated, the talent, the money, the commissioners and the facilitators all working within the sector, will gather at De Balie (where else?) to deliberate on the current state of documentary … and to say goodbye to Ally Derks, who has been at the helm of IDFA for the past 30 years.
When Ally spoke to the IDFA Daily on the eve of today’s Visual Voice Marathon event, she didn’t want to talk about her favourite films (future IDFA audiences will be able to see her Top 10 in due course), nor did she want to wrack her brains thinking up favourite memories (an exhausting exercise, and there are always one or two you forget to mention). But she did want to go back to the very beginning, to explain again the establishing ethos of the festival that has become pre-eminent among international doc-makers. And to remember some of the special people who have made IDFA so magical over the past 30 years.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that serious documentary filmmaking is in need of a festival at which to present it. That is what Ally set out to do in 1987, when she was working at the worthy but underachieving Utrecht-based Festikon fest. She was, herself, politically active and vehemently anti-fascist, with a background in film studies and with two documentaries under her belt. One was on the Dutch writer Dick Laan, another on an eye doctor who protested against cruise missiles by strapping himself for three days to a ballistic mock-up in Amsterdam’s Dam Square.
So the will was always there, but the real lightbulb moment came during Festikon when Dutch journalist Hans Beerekamp, who was on the jury, turned to Ally and complained how there were so many great and beautiful docs, but no audiences for them. “He said, ‘We need a festival for documentaries’.” So Ally went into action and quickly raised the money from the City of Amsterdam and the Ministry of Culture, as well as a cash injection from the Dutch broadcasters, which enabled her to organise what would later become the Media Workshop. Her first guests at the workshop were British filmmaker/agitator Ken Loach and revered Dutch filmmaker Bert Haanstra.
One of the eminences grises behind IDFA in its early days was Utrecht academic Sonja de Leeuw, under whom many of the leading lights within the Dutch cultural sector studied during the 1980s. Ally was one, as were two more of the festival’s foundation stones, Industry chief Adriek van Nieuwenhuijzen and Willemien van Aalst, who went on to head up the Netherlands Film Festival. (Former IFFR head Sandra den Hamer, now head of EYE, was also one of De Leeuw’s charges.) “It was a circle of people over the years studying with the best teacher - and she gave me her best students. And most of them stayed. It was a golden generation.” De Leeuw was instrumental in setting up many of the first retrospectives and Doc as Witness programmes.
For many people, not least Ally, De Balie was and remains the spiritual home of the festival. It was the nerve centre of the operation, where you went to talk docs (and dance like a nutter). It was where deals were done and opinions expressed, and all exchanges were fuelled by alcohol – or so it seemed. “De Balie in the early years, it was of course the best,” sighs Ally. “I have a lot of nostalgia for the place, but it was hopeless. We couldn't get the [close-by] theatres anymore; one was bought by Joop van den Ende, which we couldn’t use at the weekend. Then the City Theatre was completely renovated, with only small cinemas, and the Alfa disappeared completely, so we didn’t have the venues.”
The decisive moment for the festival therefore came in 2007 when Pathé offered IDFA the art deco Tuschinski, just off the Rembrandtplein. “Yes, that determined the festival’s move to the centre. We thought it was fantastic for documentary filmmakers to show their films in one of the most beautiful theatres in Europe, a place reserved usually for James Bond. But on the other hand, De Balie became very expensive. The prices skyrocketed and it became too small for what we needed.”
IDFA audiences are, Ally underlines, very vocal, very engaged, highly knowledgeable, politically savvy, sometimes rude and often passionate, and they constitute a breed of cineaste that visiting filmmakers need to be briefed about in advance. “I say to directors, ‘Take care, this is an Amsterdam audience, they are not always polite’,” she says. “Which is why IDFA is really an appropriate meeting point for filmmakers and audiences. They share the same chemistry I think.” What’s more, a large percentage of IDFA audiences are still of school age (12,000 kids attended in 2016). “The Kids & Docs programme that Meike Statema is doing is so important. It’s about applying wisdom, or media literacy, to make kids question everything – to show them things they see are not always real, that images are often manipulated, and that what you digest is edited. You have to teach these kids how to read what they see, and why it is being made that way.”
There are names, which Ally cites, of departed friends whom she will be missing during today’s 30th birthday celebrations. These include the legendary Jan Vrijman, after whom the Bertha Fund was originally named, and former IDFA chairman Jan Schaefer, left-wing politician and constant campaigner on behalf of Amsterdam’s poor and homeless. But none more so than the wonderfully Falstaffian Peter Wintonick, who died on the eve of IDFA 2013. For those new to IDFA, the polymath Peter (filmmaker, polemicist, raconteur, writer et al) was the irrepressible (and irreplaceable) host of much of IDFA’s nocturnal activities, talk-shows and events. Curiously – or maybe not so curiously – Ally oscillates between past and present tense when she talks of him.
“Peter was the best ambassador for documentary in the world. He was very clever, very wise, very empathetic. He was very funny, and a great teacher for young students. He did his research diligently, selecting films, travelling around the world. I remember in De Balie, where our office was, there was this big couch where he would sit surrounded by all these people working for IDFA, all very young at that time, and he was telling stories about the films he made and saw, the adventures he lived through, his teaching in China, his trips to Canada, his thinker-in-residence status at Adelaide.
“I was with him in Myanmar 3 months before he died, and then he was staying at my house in Amsterdam when he was diagnosed with cancer. My best friend, my teacher and a very hard worker. I remember when he persuaded Albert Maysles to allow his niece to use some of his material. He was appealing to his conscience, ‘Albert come on, it’s your brother, it’s your niece.’ Peter was very political – some people thought he was too political – but the debates he had emanated from the documentaries he loved and screened.”
Ally may be avoiding trips down memory lane, but she can’t help herself on occasion, especially when recalling the early days of staying up until four in the morning with the Russians or the Georgians, drinking Armenian cognac. “[Adopting a Soviet accent and holding up an imaginary glass] ‘For the friendship between our people’, and then they would make another speech,” she says. “Bert Haanstra was there of course, all these old guys having fun, and Kossakovsky was there constantly raising his glass to Haanstra and his accomplishments.”
Of course, such intimacies became impossible for Ally as the festival grew in size over the years. “But in the future it will be quieter for me; next year I can just watch films and really enjoy that intimacy again.”
“I will come back every year of course, to support the team and see how it is evolving without me being part of it,” she adds, before casting her eye over the festival’s future. “IDFA needs young blood, and that young blood needs to be able to develop new ideas, like Caspar did with DocLab, which didn't exist ten years ago but which has been a pioneering force ever since. I think it is important that the management supports them in that. There is a lot of expertise at IDFA to be shared with the newcomers. That is the only advice I can give. It is important for me to stay at a distance and allow the festival to evolve in its own way.”