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IDFA 2019

Orwa Nyrabia • Artistic director, IDFA

"This is not us being nice, smart and progressive; this is us surviving"


- We sat down with IDFA artistic director Orwa Nyrabia to get the low-down on the raft of changes that have just been announced for the upcoming edition

Orwa Nyrabia  • Artistic director, IDFA
(© Bert Nienhuis)

Cineuropa talked to IDFA artistic director Orwa Nyrabia about the huge changes to the festival that were announced last week (click here to read more), including new programmers, additional awards and a new format for the IDFA Forum. In addition, the gathering has made a pledge to increase diversity, and Nyrabia told us more about how this reflects the current situation and system of financing, exhibiting and distributing documentaries at festivals and through broadcasters. This year's IDFA is set to unspool from 20 November-1 December.

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Cineuropa: How does the IDFA team, which now includes new women programmers from different parts of the world, tackle the lack of films from underrepresented regions at festivals?
Orwa Nyrabia:
We have to be an international team to make an international festival, and we are also getting very close to reaching a 50-50 gender balance in the team. The core of IDFA's policy is now to be what we're calling truly international, to show films and new-media projects, and connect filmmakers and professionals from a wider world than just the segment of it that is usually represented at documentary festivals, and this has to be an organic process.

The strong presence of films made by northern filmmakers about the rest of the world is not enough any more. This is interesting: it's not necessarily a bad thing, but being limited to it is certainly a relic of the past. We know today that we can't just be watching films about the Balkan war, about the Syrian war or about the Congo, without giving a serious platform and due respect to filmmakers from these societies who are telling us their stories in their own way. This way may not exactly be designed to triumph at box offices in the West, but they are there to add to our own cultural awareness and to the development of our understanding of the world, as well as to challenge our own prejudices. This is, to me, the core of this job and of documentary festivals in general, not only IDFA.

What we can add is also the civic debate that a film ignites. It's not that I would not show a film by a European filmmaker about Mozambique. I would if it's good, and of course, I am waiting for a Mozambican filmmaker to make a film about Mozambique. And when I am showing a European film about Mozambique, I'm going to be hoping that I have a Mozambican filmmaker in the audience, watching and discussing, because that is the debate we need to start and keep up. This is similar to our need for European films that respond to the current socio-political life of Europeans. These are made less often than necessary, it seems.

This extends to the filmmaking approach and themes as well. You look at what is happening in "real cinema", and you discover that some of the best films of the last few years have all been three hours long, or longer, and they are all demanding movies to watch. So what do we do with them? Do we erase them, send them to film museums, and then just show movies that entertain?

It's not just about our image of the world; it's about people's own image of themselves as well. We are not doing anyone a favour by keeping up with that. When we give a platform to people so that they can tell us what we don’t like to hear, this is not us being nice, smart and progressive; this is us surviving. The world really is that bad, and anybody who doesn't want to say that may very well win an election, but this is not the core of documentary cinema.

This issue is closely connected to the prevailing financing system, which is dominated by European funds and broadcasters that hang on to their formatted standards. But there are now global players like Netflix and Amazon that could change this.
First of all, yes, there are formatted standards for many of the funders and broadcasters, but not only them. A formatted understanding of what a film that works is, or could be, is a problem that has been there for decades.

The fact that we now advocate public broadcasting in Europe as an important part of European democracy and try to make sure that it can resist the pressure of the extreme right wing and its efforts to slash budgets and decrease prominence, does not make one forget that broadcasting has been trying to format documentary film for a long time now. There are exceptions – and there always were – but overall, the impact is clear when we look at what was commissioned or co-produced by broadcasters. When I look, for example, at which broadcasters showed films by Wang Bing, or the great cinematic documentary Behemoth [+see also:
film review
film profile
by Zhao Liang, it was only one or two. As for films by Indian director Anand Patwardhan – it was probably none. The same goes for Africa: Jean-Marie Téno, Dieudo Hamadi and other filmmakers from the African continent are quickly dismissed as unsuitable for the Western audience. This is a challenge that requires more courage to overcome, and naturally, festivals have the luxury of indulging in such experimentation, inviting their audience to watch something that's not obviously their cup of tea, but we can suggest to them, “Maybe it is your cup of tea and you don't know it yet.”

With the new SVoD platforms, we can see the global nature of this – let's call it – neoliberalism 2.0. They have their primary market in North America, but now they are discovering that they need to have local content in every region they go to. This has resulted in them being open-minded and interested in discovering what they can find in each part of the world. In Africa, Netflix has a massive budget for productions by African filmmakers and producers.

This is positive, but we will have problems with that as well, for sure. What remains is the fact that there will always be filmmakers making low-budget movies because they feel they will be suffocating if they don't make the film, but they cannot compromise enough to secure decent funding. These movies are the ones that festivals have a responsibility to promote, as they have no other place to be proven, tested out with an audience or presented to the critics. This is critical, I think – it’s the actual meaning of a good festival for me.

The IDFA is making significant changes to its awards system, is it not?
We are discontinuing the second-place award, the Special Jury Award, in all sections and introducing new prizes for the Feature-length Competition and First Appearance, as well as bringing in a cross-sectional award for the use of archive materials. This is about acknowledging that filmmaking in general, documentary included, is not just a one-man show. At fiction festivals, you will see that they usually have various awards for various crew members. And documentary as we know it today would never have been so successful had it not been for the development of its film editing that we’ve witnessed in the past two decades. The camerawork is also developing a great deal, and technology has created new challenges and visual aesthetics. The same goes for other crew members and the producers, too. Some might say it is because I used to be a producer – and I say yes, it's because I know how important and crucial a producer's job is. Still, directors will always be on top, and this is not to undermine them. So the main prize will be shared by the producer and the director, and there will be a separate Award for Best Director.

How is the IDFA Forum going to address the developments in the industry?
The next IDFA Forum will be the beginning of a new Forum. We have heard, taken notice of and shared with the stakeholders the critique of forums at large – and that goes for IDFA's and others'. The criticisms are that there is too much of a show factor, which comes at the expense of the filmmakers. It attempts to keep up with appearances much more than actually being beneficial.

The second issue is the limited group of stakeholders sitting around the table at IDFA’s Central Pitches, which results in particular types of projects being suitable over and above others. I think this exposes the gap between the films being made in the world, which are getting more and more artistically courageous and ambitious, and the financing in the world that is not stepping up as quickly to the challenge of being artistically meaningful. This gap is the main point that we need to address.

Like many people, I have personally learned so much over the years from observing the Forum. Observers will always be welcome, but financiers will be rotating according to the projects in the Central Pitches now, as is already the case in the Round Tables setup. For those familiar with the Forum, imagine the Central Pitch as a “Super Round Table” from now on.

Financiers will be consulted about projects in detail beforehand, and we will end up with those who are interested, or those whom our team thinks might be interested, in a particular project. It will be much more curated. This will allow us to bring projects that would work only for one group of financiers and not for everyone, and another project that would work for another group of financiers. No type of project will take the place of another.

We are diversifying the pool of financiers taking part because it is already diverse out there in the world, and we don't want our Forum to be any less diverse than the industry itself. In this way, we go back to efficiency, to meaningful value, and have a serious discussion about the creative and financial aspects of film projects that will hopefully lead to some real added value for the film team. The aim is simply to service both financiers and filmmakers better and smarter. We want to celebrate the healthy diversity of artistic expressions and film teams as well as financing and distribution channels.

IDFA's Forum was the very first testing ground for this entire format, but it was designed in an era where it fitted and was working organically. Now the factors have changed. The players are changing and the balance is changing.

This is a trial-and-error process. We are testing this, and we need everybody's help for it to work and to develop. We need everybody to accept that we are changing together. The world is changing, and we have to step up and take risks in terms of changing setups that we are very used to.

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