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An Interview with IDFA director Ally Derks

As International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam puts finishing touches on its 20th edition, set to launch November 22-December 2, festival director Ally Derks takes a moment to muse on this year’s standout themes, the joys of playing with a three-million-euro budget and the merry mischief of hiding a fake film for audiences to smoke out. Filmfestivals.com reached her in Amsterdam during the calm before the storm.

FF: Is it a challenge to program a documentary festival that comes a week after Sheffield and not much before Rotterdam?

AD: We’re so big. There’s no competition for us, just Berlin and Cannes. But on the other hand it’s great because finally documentaries are being noticed. We attract over 2,500 professionals from all over. Last year we sold 130,000 tickets. At Leipzig and HotDocs, they sold around 30,000 tickets. So there’s not a lot of competition for us, because we started 20 years ago showing films and bringing directors. There are a lot of festivals who can’t afford that.

FF: Given the writers strike in the U.S., could the films at this year’s IDFA become worth more money if broadcasters and distributors are concerned about securing product for their pipelines?

AD: Difficult question! It would be great. There may be a better opportunity to sell documentaries, since you need to fill slots—there are no soaps. It could be a big interest. But money and documentaries are already a problem. There’s not much money in documentaries. Here in Holland every night there’s always a documentary or two. In the states there’s PBS and ITVS, but besides that it’s basically neglected. There are news items, not really documentaries.

But most of what we receive from the U.S. is made outside of Hollywood. These are independent voices against American policy in Iraq and the Middle East, that sort of topic. These films are being made because the channels in the States don’t show them. They’re Americans who have their own point of view from FOX and the other mainstream channels, and a forum like IDFA is the only outlet that they have.

FF: What were some of the key themes that rose to the surface this year?

AD: A lot of films ask for people to undertake action. You’ve got films like Angels in the Dust or Chicago 10 or Operation Homecoming--it’s our opening film this year and it says, “power to the people,” which is very old-fashioned. This year a lot of documentaries are saying, “Come on, we have a different story to tell from what you see on the news. Like Sicko, for instance. It says, “People, we can change it!” We can discuss it and debate it. Ninety percent of the people can’t trust the politicians or the politics.

I was surprised by the difference; that’s what I noticed during the pre-selection. There was so much about war, about what art or letters can do against it: art as a weapon. It’s the media war--real war stopped finally by the pressure of the media. These independent films really want these media wars, and they want the politicians to stop the real war. There are always a lot of personal films, but now they’re going in a different direction.

FF: Any thoughts why?

AD: Maybe because of the election they’re trying to change opinion. Also the media is fragmented through different channels and broadcasters. There’s so-called objectivity for ten minutes. That’s how we form our opinion. Now filmmakers want the barricade. They want activism.

FF: Are you seeing this trend elsewhere besides the U.S.?

AD: England is also starting to make these kinds of films. They’re also fed up with their politicians and Iraq. And in Belarus the media is oppressive and one-sided, like in America. We’re showing Music Partisans, set in Minsk’s Kalinovski Square, about the bands playing music and political protests. It’s by Miroslaw Dembinski, who did A Lesson of Belorusian. I call him the Michael Moore of Belarus.

FFT: How have these converging themes influenced your programming?

AD: There are a lot of stories about war and peace. We have an anniversary retrospective of two films--the first film, Dear America -- Letters Home From Vietnam, we showed at our (debut) festival, about American soldiers’ letters to their loved ones back home. Now, 20 years later we have a film that is based on letters and poems of American soldiers in Afghanistan, called Operation Homecoming. These films are very, very much alike. The form, the content, it really is a kind of coming around.

There are also a lot of films about love and friendship and unusual love affairs. Also people are looking for lighter subjects in their films, not just war. We put them all together in “Love and Friendship.” For example, The Champaign Spy is about an Israeli spy who works for the Mossad and who starts a new family in Egypt, told from the perspective of his son. Cat Dancers is a film about a man and a woman who are trainees of lions and tigers. The guy is obviously bisexual and another guy comes in and they have a triangle. Then they get eaten!

FF: And that’s not part of the animation sidebar? Speaking of which, what’s the concept behind this program?

AD: One of the biggest issues now is, What is fake? what is fiction? and what is fact? What’s a documentary and how can you tell? That’s why we’re doing a sidebar of 40 animations. Also, we hid a fake documentary in the festival. So look for the fake. At the end of the festival we will tell. It’s somewhere in the competition sections. There’s a huge debate going on right know about lying. There are some in the industry who say you can only edit the way you shot the film. So many films are being questioned. Even in An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore says that Holland will disappear in 50 years because of the sea level, but now they find out that not everything is correct. That’s what broadcasters and commissioning editors are dealing with now. They have a big problem because when the audience doesn’t trust the documentary anymore and becomes more critical, it won’t just accept programming like it used to. Hany Abu-Assad shot Ford Transit, about a checkpoint in Israel, and there’s a scene where an Israeli soldier hits the driver, but they found out after the film was shown in Israel--people said this guy is a Palestinian extra dressed up as an Israeli, and we know him. It caused an uproar. Whether a documentary is staged and scripted is also a hot debate at the BBC, and we are very aware of the topic at IDFA.

FF: How do IDFA’s two siblings—the Docs for Sale market and FORUM—dovetail with the festival?

AD: At the FORUM, which is where projects are being pitched, 30 or 40 commissioning editors will get 60 films being pitched, but in that stage it’s still only a paper project. It doesn’t mean they are going to be shown in the festival. We want good films that will be shown in the theater, whether they were pitched here or not.

FF: You get to play with a budget of three million euros. Does that feel like as much as it sounds?

AD: Yes, three million is a lot of money. Seventy percent is from our own sponsors and box office. We fight the whole year to get the sponsors. Normally it’s 45 percent from the ministries and the rest from the cultural institution itself. Thirty percent is from the City of Amsterdam together with the Ministry of Culture. Together that’s 700,000 euros, and the whole budget is three million. That’s without the Jan Vrijman Fund (to support non-fiction filmmaking in developing countries), which is financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ department that deals only with developing countries.

FF: Who helps you select films?

AD: We have more than 100 festival programmers, last year it was 135, from China, Ukraine, Africa--from all over the world. It’s like a documentary community and we share our thoughts and get the word out about documentaries. We also have a great audience. The Amsterdam audience loves documentaries and our theaters are always packed.

FF: How will your new quarters affect this year’s festival?

AD: I really think it’s a step forward. We’ll have better screens, more comfortable chairs and we have a second alley where we can hang out a few meters away. In the beginning I was very nervous, but now I’ve checked out all these places and I really have confidence. The city theaters we have used are under renovation. We will go back to our original home, maybe in the future. And we may use the city cinemas as well. I need 3,000 seats to fill every two hours.

FF: There are now more than 4,000 digital screens in the world. Are IDFA’s theatres among them?

AD: I remember in 1991, people were attacking me--there was cursing in the church, as we say—“How can you show video?!” Now there are a lot of digital screens and digital is also a choice of the festival.

FF: To what extent are submissions in digital formats?

AD: Eighty percent is digital. For Chicago 10, there’s a 35 mm print, but most of the directors and producers can’t afford that. For the first time, documentary is walking ahead of film. Digital distribution is the future. You can download it and have it on the televison or in the theater. We receive 3,000 entries per year, and you can distribute it digitally among your viewers. I remember in 1988 I had to wire to the Telex, and now we have this whole netork in our oufice of 60-70 computers. And for a lot of filmmakers who don’t sell, digital is a way of getting their work out. Finally a lot of filmmakers are getting a lot of opportunties. When I met Spike Lee in Venice recently, he said when he first started making films, no one wanted them. He didn’t have the Internet back then.

FF: What should festival-goers know about IDFA?

AD: We also have a lot of time to dance. It’s not always heavy dance. It‘s always Studio 80, don’t forget!
By Laura Blum

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