The festival celebrates the return of its IDFA Competition for Short Documentary after a decade-long absence, with a special Shorts Day programme of screenings and events around the genre on Wednesday.
“With all the new distribution opportunities for short documentaries, both offline and online, there’s really something going on with the genre. There are some fantastic films out there. It was obvious we had to start paying more attention to shorts again,” says senior IDFA programmer Martijn te Pas. “Shorts are no longer simply a stepping stone to a first feature; they’ve become a craft in themselves, and are often very creative.”
A total of 15 shorts are screening in the inaugural new competition, all of which will be showcased in a special programme in Tuschinski on Wednesday. They have also been playing throughout IDFA’s wider programme in double bills with medium-length works.
One Day in Aleppo, for example, screened alongside Black Stones, capturing the life of a field hospital at the height of the siege of Homs, while Jessica Beshir’s poetic Hairat, about an elderly Ethiopian man’s relationship with a pack of hyenas, was paired with Erik Gandini’s The Rebel Surgeon about a Swedish surgeon working in Ethiopia. “We thought it was a good way to get people to see a short film they might not have gone to see if it played on its own or in a shorts programme. It was a way of making the audience discover the films,” says Te Pas.
IDFA junior programmer Jasper Hokken has also been instrumental in relaunching the competition, visiting several key shorts festivals over the year, such as Clermont-Ferrand and Oberhausen, to get the word out. He highlights the stylistic range of works in the competition. “We tried to pull together as wide a selection as possible. We have animation, an archive film, a hybrid work, a film using puppetry and a number of personal truth stories,” he says. Te Pas notes the presence of Ben Knight’s The Last Honey Hunter about an ageing Nepalese honey gatherer. “It’s a beautiful 4K work from National Geographic, and not a typical IDFA film.”
Other highlights include the world premiere of As We’re Told, capturing life in Sweden’s bureaucratic state employment agency by combining transcripts of real conversations between the employees with puppet representations — with deadpan, comic effect. It is co-directed by Swedish filmmakers Erik Holmström and Fredrik Wenzel, best known in the film industry as the cinematographer of Ruben Östlund on works such as Force Majeure and The Square. Dutch entries include Tara Fallaux’s Love Letters in which five people in their 20s read out loud the most intimate letter they ever wrote.
There are also two animation works: Five Years After the War, about a French Jewish man who goes in search of his roots in Iraq, and Lon about a talented Jewish theatre set designer working in Antwerp in the 1930s, who died in the Holocaust.
Other contenders include Personal Truth, examining the power of fake news, by British director Charlie Lyne, whose recent work includes Fish Tale. It is produced by Lyne, Catherine Bray and Anthony Ing for Loop Projects Limited and Laura Poitras for Field of Vision.
Jason Hanasik’s How to Make a Pearl — a moving portrait of visual artist and musician John Kapellas, who lives in darkness after developing a medical condition known as photosensitivity — get its international premiere at IDFA after world premiering at DOC NYC last week, and was executive produced by Minette Nelson and The Guardian’s head of documentary, Charlie Phillips.
“This was a rare acquisition for us. We took it after Jason showed it in his graduation show at Berkeley,” says Phillips. “This is rare for us — nearly all our films are original commissions, but I felt like this could do something different for us. It’s so moving, so mysterious, so strange; a little pearl.”
Phillips will be among a number of professionals sitting in on an industry session on Wednesday entitled Short Opportunities, looking at the evolving short doc scene. Other speakers will include Lindsay Crouse, editor at the New York Times Op-Docs department specialising in short non-fiction, as well as Tom Oyer, membership and awards manager at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Oyer’s participation is linked to the fact that, with the reinstatement of the shorts competition, IDFA is now a qualifying festival for the Academy Awards shorts category. This means this year’s winner will automatically be up for consideration in the 2019 awards.
Wouter Jansen at shorts distribution and festival strategy agency Some Shorts, who will be moderating the session, welcomes the return of a shorts competition. “It makes a lot of sense. Watching the films they selected this year, you clearly see the diversity of short films and also the type of storytelling that’s only possible in this timespan,” he says. “Because of the lack of strong commercial dependency, there is a lot more freedom for the filmmakers. They can stray from the conventional paths you see in features. A film like Hairat or As We’re Told wouldn’t be possible in a feature format.”
He notes, however, that while there are more funding and distribution opportunities than ever for short documentaries, it is still extremely hard to monetise short content. “Only a few weeks ago, a big newspaper contacted me because they wanted to premiere a short documentary in one of their online articles. In return we would only get some ‘good exposure’ for the film. Although people understand the power that short films have, they don’t want to pay for this.”