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  • Nina Reis

Documentaries in a Pandemic: the International Filmfestival Amsterdam

Films can be a form of escape, even those depicting reality such as documentaries. When mentioning documentary, most will immediately think of narrations, news footage, and interviews with experts. While those may all be elements of documentary, the genre extends beyond that. There are poetic documentaries, performative ones, ones without any chronological timeline, or objective purpose. Nowadays, during times of lockdown,

Purple Sea, from Amel Azalkout and Khaled Abdulwahed, was an escape of a different kind. It demanded an intensity of feeling – overwhelmed, lost, guilty, ashamed, horrified, in awe. Numb, and yet so many emotions at once. Narrating her own flight from Syria via Turkey to Italy, by boat, Amel Azalkout links raw footage with personal, poetic storytelling. When I saw the film in November 2021 at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam, I was blown away. And maybe that’s what festivals are for: discovering new films, with a new emotionality.


The International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam, or IDFA, is one of the biggest documentary film festivals worldwide. It also was the first of its kind in the Netherlands, when Ally Dersk founded the festival in 1988, picking up on the very strong documentary tradition in the Netherlands. In the beginning, the festival only sold about 1000 tickets. “During the years it grew, and she [Ally] built an interesting team around her, of people that supported her; also of filmmakers that supported her, and it grew and grew. A big step to becoming a big international festival was when the Forum became part of the festival”, Joost, one of the current programmers at IDFA, tells me. The Forum is the co-production market of the festival, “where ideas and money find each other”, according to him. As such, it becomes clear that IDFA is much more than the screening of films: it is very much about meeting people, exchanging ideas, finding funding for projects, and forging important industry connections. But if a pandemic is taking place, what happens then?

Forum, as one of the leading co-production markets for documentaries, had to take place entirely online. “Of course, in March, when we were entering the first lockdown, it was all – were thinking ‘Oh well, this will be over in half a year and then we can have the festival’. But of course, we immediately started a sort of Plan B (…) The whole industry side of the festival, we immediately decided to do this online.” As the situation got better over the summer, there at least was the hopeful expectation among the IDFA organizers that the films could be shown in cinemas, that filmmakers could travel to Amsterdam. But, as Joost recounts, “then within two months, from mid-September onwards, every two weeks the restrictions got more and more strict. Up to the situation that two weeks before the festival, the cinemas would close and they would close for two weeks, reopening one day after our opening night.” Usually, 3000 filmmakers come to Amsterdam each year for the two festival weeks; now impossible due to the travel restrictions. However, reinventing the festival, the team behind IDFA built an online platform together with the other three big festivals in the Netherlands, Netherlands Film Festival, Rotterdam Film Festival, and CineKid, so that IDFA could continue, even during lockdown. As the cinemas opened up one day after the start, “we programmed it in a way that all films were shown in the cinemas at least once, and another time online”. At the physical screenings, working or volunteering with IDFA entailed receiving a face mask from the festival and the instructions to keep safe distance. “A lot of my time was spent making sure people adhered to the Corona measures (…) It was also a bit different because most people were pretty chill about Corona, but you’re literally seeing 100 people a day so you can’t really take the risk of not keeping distance”, Amber, who volunteered at the festival in 2020, recounts. Overall, this year was something out of IDFA’s comfort zone, the smooth procedure of one of the world’s biggest film festival disrupted and having to readjust.


When considering how the cultural sector has been affected by the current pandemic and the public health measures it necessitates, we rarely think of film. Or if we do so, film seems to be one of the winners of the pandemic, if one can even call it that: If people are staying home, they are spending more time in front of a screen. And who wouldn’t like an escape from the current 24 hours on repeat? But for documentary, a genre striving off filming life, what happens when life comes to a standstill?


Joost’s favorite film out of this year’s screening, and the winner of the IDFA Feature-Length competition, Nemesis from Swiss filmmaker Thomas Imbach, is not about life in standstill, but rather a camera in standstill. “I saw it just a month after we went into lockdown here in the Netherlands, mid-March. The great thing was of course; we were sitting all day at home; we couldn’t be outside (…) so I was alone at home. And then also immediately, the meaning of the film sort of changes (…) You can watch it from a COVID new-world perspective. I think that’s fascinating; a film that reflects the times so specifically, without made with that sort of intention”. The film consists of Imbach putting his camera on this window and filming his street, the developments, the building and walking past and ongoings, from there. So much was happening, with the camera in standstill.


IDFA’s Feature-Length competition is not the only competition of the festival. There’s also the first appearance competition, the student competition, the best graduation film, the best Dutch documentary, the best mid-length and the best short film competition, the award for best creative use of archival material, the best film for children, and the interactive, non-fiction programme of the film festival, DocLab, hands out two separate awards as well. In addition to the different competitions, IDFA has a Best of Feest section, featuring films which have been in the film festival circuit all year. Purple Sea was one of them. And usually, there are two or three focus programmes, highly curated and screened in the context of an idea. However, “last year we didn’t do the focus programmes because most of them are archive films and films that really need to be seen in the cinema. As it was so uncertain, we were really focusing on the new films.” A big change on the programming side due to the pandemic – but most likely not a permanent one. For Joost, the focus programmes hopefully will take place again this year as they show a lot of classics: “I think that’s also important for IDFA - to show these old classics, these forgotten films, and bring them back to the big screen and let them find a new audience. Especially for documentaries of course, because they have much less air time. We also see it as a very important task for IDFA, to bring back all these classics back to the screen.” With the festival receiving more than 3000 submissions of films, the team surrounding the Artistic Director, since 2018 Orwa Nyrabia, and the five programmers watches all the films and creates a shortlist for each competition and section. Every film that fits the formal regulations of a certain competition is submitted automatically to the selection committee for that competition, who watch the films and eventually propose a shortlist to the Artistic Director. While each Director may have their own curatorial signature, “one is dependent on what you get offered”. But film isn’t just a film, a documentary is not just documenting. As it is about reality, it becomes about what we want to depict and how. Why is it necessary and good to show this aspect of life? In the selection process, for any competition or section of the festival, the big question a programmer like Joost faces in his curatorial task: Is it genuine? Is there really a sense of interest from the filmmaker for his subject? Or is somebody being exploited?

Maybe that is all there is to it. So many documentaries are starkly different, unique in their style of filming and subject matter, that it becomes a challenge to define what a ‘good’ documentary is – good alone is multifaceted: skilled, or morally good? Over the last few years, people have become much more aware of what camera can be, and what a camera can do. Maybe we have developed a sense of hyperrealism, getting used to presenting a certain idea of us publicly. “I once learned, somebody told me that it’s also one of the reasons why we are so keen on these cat movies. They have a certain authenticity to themselves, which we as human beings sort of completely lost”, Joost tells me. Regardless of questions of authenticity and reality, documentaries are still different from an Instagram story. They seem to be a part of cinema, with big ideas, in a different time, with different feelings. While documentary, much like social media, is about the world we live in, it is about reflecting on that world by losing ourselves, enjoying a great film, and experiencing a depiction of the world that we haven’t seen before. For Joost, “I don’t care f you don’t understand everything in a film - I think cinema is great also to get lost, to not understand everything”.


Feelings of getting lost, while simultaneously feeling incredible connected – seemingly contradictory, that might just be what IDFA is about. Its programmes are made to forge connections, bringing people together over their love for documentary cinema. But it is also this documentary cinema which provides an escape, and maybe confusion, depicting different nuances of reality.


If documentary cinema is about connection – between a filmmaker and their audience, between filmmakers and producers, between all kinds of people, united in their passion for documentary – then Amber’s volunteering experience at IDFA can be seen as a unique one. “My favorite part of volunteering was watching Fire At Sea; I got to sit in on the Q&A with the filmmaker [Gianfranco Rosi] (…) And apparently, I hit him with a door. I was cleaning the room, and I hit an Oscar-nominated director.”

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