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Those 'Dam Docs!: IDFA is the Gold Standard for Nonfiction Festivals

By IDA Editorial Staff

Ally Derks is the director and founder of IDFA

By Ally Derks

In 1988, the first International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) took place in Amsterdam. Around that time, documentary cinema in the Netherlands was in a deep rut, and documentaries were hardly ever shown in theaters. I was working as an intern at an educational film festival and could not believe that there were no documentary festivals in the Netherlands. On the documentary front, my country had a few names to be proud of: Not only Joris Ivens, but also Bert Haanstra and Johan van der Keuken were examples of Dutch documentary filmmakers who had created a furor. Together with a small group, I decided to start an international documentary film festival. Our goal was to create a professional stage for creative documentaries, and to get as many people as possible to come and see them. 

In addition, IDFA had to be a place for meetings and debate, for development and production, for education and reflection. We decided on Amsterdam because it has always been a center of trade and free speech, and therefore an important meeting place for different cultures and religions.

Renowned documentary filmmakers committed themselves to the first festival; these included Ivens, Haanstra and van der Keuken, as well as Ken Loach. What's more, Ivens lent his name to the festival's most important prize, after I went to Paris to ask his permission. On the part of both audience and professionals, interest in documentary film appeared to be significant, and several Dutch TV stations announced they would broadcast a documentary each week.

From the very beginning, IDFA's primary interest has been in the work of authors--filmmakers with a point of view. These might be directors who already have a reputation for their innovative or consistent oeuvre, but it can also include young filmmakers who put their stamp on the genre in a completely individual way. Films with these qualities all find a place in the various festival subdivisions. When selecting films for the festival, I also look at how a given documentary makes an intelligent contribution to societal debates, both local and international ones. Documentaries must be able to communicate with a wide audience, not just the elite.

The first edition of the festival set the tone for the years that followed. The competition programs, the Top 10, retrospectives on filmmakers and countries, theme programs and seminars became recurring elements at IDFA. In the Top 10, filmmakers get a carte blanche to select their 10 favorite documentaries. Directors who have compiled a Top 10 over the years include Krzysztof Kieslowski, the Taviani brothers, Robert Kramer, Werner Herzog and Ulrich Seidl.

Although IDFA only had the Joris Ivens Competition in its first few years, the festival now features four competition programs and the Audience Award. All the same, the Joris Ivens Award for documentaries longer than 60 minutes remains the most important prize. Films that have won this award include Christo in Paris (1990) by Albert Maysles, The Belovs (1993) by Victor Kossakovsky, Atman (1996) by Pirjo Honkasalo and Checkpoint (2003) by Yoav Shamir. The Monastery-Mr. Vig & the Nun by Pernille Rose Grønkjær won the award in 2006.

To compete at IDFA, films must be world, international or European premieres. In this manner, IDFA retains its status as a festival where new films get discovered and screened. 

From the very beginning, IDFA has also screened intriguing films outside the competition programs, coming under the heading of Reflecting Images in 1994. These films supplement the competition programs; they are controversial or innovative, ushering in new genres, or perhaps they already premiered at other festivals and enjoyed considerable success there.

In order to stimulate the documentary climate in developing countries, we established the Jan Vrijman Fund in 1998, named after the inspiration of IDFA. The Jan Vrijman Fund provides filmmakers and organizations in developing countries with financial grants on a biannual basis. So far, the fund has financed more than 300 projects, including Tishe! by Victor Kossakovsky from Russia, I am Cuba, the Siberian Mammoth by Vicente Ferraz from Brazil, and And Along Came a Spider by Maziar Bahari from Iran.

In 2004, we added ParaDocs to the festival program. This serves as a stage for the most daring international experiments that straddle the boundaries of documentary, art and photography.

A festival's character and success do not only rely on the films the festival screens. IDFA's power is also found in the gathering of directors and festival-goers over the course of 10 days each November. IDFA brings professionals and audiences together. Daily talk shows and discussions in the cinemas connect up with the films and the questions of the day. I cherish the festival's informal character that allows everyone to meet up in a relaxed setting.

With IDFAcademy, our goal is to stimulate new talent and develop it further. Since 1998, experienced filmmakers and prospective documentary directors have been able to attend master classes given by renowned filmmakers and other professionals. During these meetings, the invited guest speakers provide detailed accounts of their artistic form and technique, using their work as a jumping-off point. Frederick Wiseman, Kim Longinotto, Albert Maysles and Ulrich Seidl have offered master classes in recent years.

Since 1993, the FORUM for international co-financing of documentaries has coincided with IDFA. For three days, the foremost producers from dozens of countries present their projects to an international audience of more than 100 commissioning editors and other professionals. The FORUM would appear to be a vital link in the international co-financing of documentaries. A large number of the projects that are offered during the FORUM obtain the extra financing required to get them made. The commissioning editors in attendance represent broadcasters such as the BBC, HBO, the Sundance Channel, ZDF, Arte and TV Denmark. Since 1997, we have also been organizing Docs for Sale, an internationally oriented digitized documentary market for professionals. Visitors to Docs for Sale include buyers from TV stations worldwide, film festival programmers and distributors looking for new documentary films.

Since its very beginning, documentary cinema has undergone all kinds of developments. With new activities and programs, we consistently do our utmost to stay with the times. In 2000, we introduced a festival program centered on interactive and online media. Since then, digital developments have taken flight and play an increasingly important role at IDFA. Cross-pollinations between documentary and new media are more and more widely accepted, and an important new stage for creative documentary culture is coming into being online. Aside from its status as a physical meeting place for documentary filmmakers and connoisseurs, IDFA will develop into a virtual institute in the coming years. The goal is to create a place where the international documentary community can go all year long to watch documentaries, do business, make new contacts and keep up on the latest developments.

This year, IDFA is turning 20. In the upcoming edition, which takes place from November 22 to December 2, we will be reflecting on the past two decades as well as looking forward to see what the future holds. I congratulate the International Documentary Association on its 25th anniversary and hope to see you all at IDFA 2007.


Ally Derks is the director and founder of IDFA