IDFA’s Artistic Director on Defending Seriousness, Dreams, Experimentation in Documentary Filmmaking

Amsterdam’s documentary festival IDFA’s 34th edition wrapped on Sunday as an in-person event, having weathered the partial lockdown in the Netherlands. Variety speaks to artistic director Orwa Nyrabia about this year’s edition.

He says of documentary filmmakers: “I prefer to spend my life with this bunch. These people are beautiful, they are kind, accessible and down to earth,” adding that they make him think of Johnny Cash.

“Do you know this song, ‘Man in Black’? That’s what this community feels like. It’s a good exercise to organize a festival that celebrates them, that’s chic but not too chic to make everyone uncomfortable. After all, these films depict the world that’s in pain. It was wonderful to show Andrea Arnold that by making ‘Cow’ she came to the place where she is not being asked about what she’s wearing. We are curious about what she does.”

Nyrabia, who took over from IDFA’s founder Ally Derks in 2018, intends to keep putting filmmakers first, he says.

“It’s easy to fall into this abusive relationship where a festival treats people badly and they still want to come. We want them to think that IDFA is a good place to premiere their films and it’s a massive undertaking to show them they are right. That’s how I understand the job, basically.”

While he notices a tendency toward escapism in documentaries, or the growing pressure to offer the viewers some hope, he blames industry players rather than the ongoing pandemic.

“This ‘seriousness shaming’ is very common these days. Buyers, exhibitors want to make sure they are not taking something too gloomy and filmmakers feel compelled to prove there is always this ‘ray of hope.’ I do believe in hope, but I find this to be narrow-minded,” he adds, also mentioning ‘superhuman’ documentaries about famous artists or scientists.

“It keeps pushing this narrative of going from ‘rags to riches’ and suggests that if you haven’t made it, it’s on you. It’s spreading a very unhealthy way of interpreting the world. I watch every blockbuster and before the festival, I watched ‘Cruella.’ But this blockbuster understanding of what a film should be can be dangerous. I am not against selling, but this greed is causing harm to society.”

Nyrabia also commented on “the supermarket aspect” of streamers (“Their objective is that you binge. Here, you commit, instead of switching to something else after 10 minutes”), pointing out that he would like to see the industry embrace more experimentation.

“The best way to describe it would come from Martin Scorsese’s essay for Harper’s Magazine, where he mentioned what Gore Vidal told Fellini after watching ‘8 ½’: ‘Federico, next time, more story, less dreams.’ The films that have more dreams are being marginalized.”

It’s that kind of thinking that has led him to introduce new festival sections, refusing to arrange films by their duration or any other technical aspect.

“It’s not useful – maybe just to the buyers. I think of IDFA as a living creature, it’s a continuous work in progress. I was very happy when the Envision jury said they never knew what to expect,” he adds, mentioning the section’s “One Take Grace,” ultimately awarded for outstanding artistic contribution.

“It’s a film that does all the wrong things, but it works! It makes me sad that the market is not willing to take similar risks. It’s a waste of a historical opportunity because now, after these two years, we have a chance to restart. When we announced the program, we were very loud in saying: ‘We are shifting to the arthouse.’ And yet we had more audience than we expected. 2019 was our biggest IDFA ever, we worked toward a comeback based on 50% of that. We are ending at 67, 68%.”

While the Audience Award went to “Writing with Fire,” “The Velvet Queen” also came close, says Nyrabia.

“It’s a nature film that’s not really a nature film, philosophical and contemplative. You are watching two men sitting on top of the mountain, reading poetry and waiting to see this rare leopard. That’s the most rewarding thing: witnessing people connect over something like this and not just ‘uplifting films’ or another ‘David and Goliath’ story. It’s time to focus on Goliath instead. Everyone hates him, but maybe he was just bullied?”

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