Barbara Visser talks about her year as artistic director of IDFA.
In the festival offices three days before IDFA ends, ‘interim’ artistic director Barbara Visser is in a cheerful and relaxed mood as her first (and last) experience at the helm of the world’s biggest documentary festival nears its end.
“It has been better than I expected,” she says of the stress levels over the last few days. “I thought it would be exhausting, but you get a lot of energy from seeing the audience so enthusiastic; seeing the filmmakers; speaking to the filmmakers and seeing what IDFA means to them.”
It helps, too, that she has a very efficient assistant. “One thing I was a bit afraid of was the schedule. You want to be in all places at the same time. I asked for a PA who could help with that puzzle – and that has been very helpful. I’ve been almost everywhere on time and well prepared!”
One of her minor frustrations is with her title, ‘interim’ artistic director. “I hate that word, I hate that word. It’s an awful word!” she says. There will soon be an application process for a longer-term artistic director, but Visser has revealed she won’t be a candidate. “Although I have tremendously enjoyed it, I decided not to apply,” she says. As an artist and filmmaker, she feels the festival “may need someone who has more experience in managing.” Part of her wanted to stay. “But you also need to think what is good for IDFA, not just what is good for me. With pain in my heart, I decided that.”
This year, Visser has been overseeing the 30th anniversary of the festival in the presence of IDFA’s co-founder and moving spirit, Ally Derks. Visser believes that the “intimacy” characterising the festival in the early years, when it was housed in De Balie, still remains. The event may now be huge but filmmakers and industry delegates alike still feel as welcome as ever. “That has to do with the human interaction we put at the foreground and the individual attention we give to all visitors, even if there 3,000 visitors from the industry. They get a personal letter, they get a personal phone call.”
As for the rebellious spirit that has always characterised IDFA, Visser suggests that this still remains, but is now taking a different form. “I think it will change. The way you have to operate to change things is different because the media landscape is different. It requires different actions to reach people who do not yet agree with you. Of course, you can preach to the converted, but to reach audiences who don’t already know about IDFA, you need to use different strategies.”
Sometimes, she elaborates, “aesthetics or surprise” can draw people in just as effectively as activism and demagoguery. “It is important not to create oppositions but to reach out.”
Like Derks, Visser believes in the importance of IDFA securing premieres. “For the general audience, that doesn’t matter because they don’t go to other festivals, but we are an industry festival, with a lot of industry guests. They want to see new things they haven’t seen in other places. Of course, we look for world premieres and we go actively after them but if it’s a European premiere and it’s a great film, we’ll take it.”
One of her personal highlights this week was the industry talk given by visionary filmmaker and internet artist, Jonathan Harris. “It was a full Tuschinski 1, so a very beautiful setting, and everybody there left somewhat changed. He is so eloquent and manages so well to talk about things that are very hard to talk about. He builds up a story of his own career and his life. He’s very personal. You get a sense of how a career develops, of the choices he makes and of how the digital world doesn’t satisfy him … he had this beautiful insight that our bodies are already “virtual reality”. You don’t need tools for virtual reality. We are the tool! The web and the computer are all great but are extensions of that great tool we have, which is our eyes and our perception and the way we interact with the world.”
As a contrast to Harris, Visser also relished hosting so many “Masters” in the Visual Voice programme celebrating IDFA’s 30th anniversary. Guests here included D.A. Pennebaker (now in his 90s) and Fred Wiseman, who is well into his 80s. How do they keep going so long? “I think curiosity is the key to getting old happily. Whether it’s Wiseman or Pennebaker, if you talk to them, they are curious. They are open. Often, old people kind of shut down, think they’ve seen it, done it and are out of society. But they are engaged with life.”
Audience figures overall are at roughly the same level as last year, but record numbers of school children have attended IDFA screenings this week. (Around 15,000 kids have visited the festival, often seeing movies like Lenno & The Angelfish.)
Visser will stay on at IDFA for “a few months” after the festival ends. She’ll be here to tie up loose ends and help in the evaluation of this year’s edition. When she does step down, she is determined to stay in the IDFA orbit. “One thing I know is that I am so fond of the documentary world that I would really like to remain in that field rather than say goodbye and go back to the visual arts where I was operating before.”