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IDFA 2022 - Artistic director Orwa Nyrabia on statements and an open eye: 'Rather ask tough questions than confirm our prejudices.'

The 35th edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) kicks off on 9 November with the world premiere of the Dutch film All You See (All you see). The first feature-length documentary by Niki Padidar, who left Iran when she was seven. She originally confronts the viewer with experiences of so-called newcomers in the Netherlands.

The programme again ranges from the International Competition for more or less classic documentaries, and the Envision Competition for more daring work, to the DocLab programme full of extraordinary VR and other new media experiences. Among the Dutch contributions, new work by up-and-coming alongside renowned makers such as Coco Schrijber, Jos de Putter and Clara van Gool, and filmmaker couple Peter and Petra Lataster-Czisch. With the re-screening of Crazy IDFA honours Heddy Honigmann, who died this year. Around Masculinity is one of the Focus programmes.

Guest of honour this year is the highly committed filmmaker and activist Laura Poitras, awarded an Oscar in 2015 for Citizen Four. Her latest work is the Venice Golden Lion award-winning All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, now here at IDFA. A passionate and gripping portrait of photographer Nan Goldin, and of her struggle with the Sackler family's notorious pharmaceutical company.

What you stand for

At the recently held press conference, artistic director Orwa Nyrabia rounded off the presentation of the programme by commenting on the selection. It is, he stated, 'not only a judgement, but also a statement'. Which I freely translate as: you choose not only the films that are the best, but also those that show what you stand for.

So I ask later in an online conversation with Nyrabia: what does IDFA stand for? What is that 'statement'? Speaking to the originally Syrian festival organiser, filmmaker and producer in English, I leave the term 'statement' untranslated.

He has to laugh for a moment, only to note that it is a difficult question.

"Because IDFA is a big event with many different activities, all with their statements. You can't sum that up in a simple slogan, that's just not how I work. Instead, IDFA makes room for a complex commentary on today's world."

Poitras

Laura Poitras (photo: Jan Stürmann)

"So if we choose Laura Poitras, for example, as the guest of honour, we are definitely making a statement. Especially given her latest film about artist and activist Nan Goldin. That statement is not that Poitras is the very best filmmaker in the world. The statement is that we believe in what she does. It means looking at the role of art and culture in creating a more open, more... (Nyrabia searches for the word for a moment) democratic society."

To add that calling attention to artistic experimentation is itself also a statement. As happens in the Envision competition, where filmmakers push artistic boundaries. And also in the Paradocs programme and the DocLab with new media.

Young people

This may clash with the idea that the documentary should above all reach a lot of people. Against that commercial viewpoint, Nyrabia argues that "I like to bet on a few young people who are curious and who, by seeing films at IDFA and attending other activities, might start looking at the world a little differently. It's not about making films for a large audience. It is about being honest and sincere. Rather asking tough questions than confirming our prejudices."

"I'm sure those young people are out there. The older generation may think they are all TikTokkers, but we are talking about millions of young people here. Some spend all their time on TikTok, but others see nothing in this. And there are also those who find creative uses."

"I believe it is very human for us to try to identify what is good to do and what is bad, and then rest on our laurels. Film should try to disturb that repose. IDFA's statement is not just about a platform for an open approach to what film is. It also extends to thinking about the issues of society and politics from a point of view that is less straightforward and simplified than is often the case."

Artistic and political

When I try to sum that up by saying that there are two sides to these statements, artistic and more political, Nyrabia has to laugh, emphatically stating, "It's one and the same thing."

"Basically, everything IDFA does is the result of long and thorough discussions with the team. My job is to set the broad outlines and strategy of our work. But I don't do anything alone. It's a great team of skilled people that I believe in. And besides our relationship with the audience, IDFA has many other statements towards professional visitors," Nyrabia laughs.

"IDFA is also a leading festival for the global community of film professionals. We contribute to issues that are topics of conversation in the industry. For example, at IDFA we also talk about film criticism. Last year it was about representation, this year we want to talk about so-called 'slow criticism'. The fight against the commercialisation of film criticism."

Serial killer

"And there is more. These are interesting times for the documentary industry, as streamers and other big players have discovered it as something to invest in. What does this mean for the freedom of the art of documentary? An example of films that need to reach a large audience is the rise of the serial killer as a subject. These have gained star status. This tends to exploit one of our weaknesses, our fascination with evil. Ultimately, at the level of society, what does this do to our ethical and philosophical understanding of art and the world? I think such exploitation of the public should definitely be a topic of discussion."

All You See

All You See

Back to the film programme, and in particular the opening film All You See. In a seemingly simple, but also unusual and very direct way, Niki Padidar shows the feeling of alienation that strikes four 'newcomers' in the Netherlands. The feeling of not being seen but being watched. Does this film also say something about the kind of statements IDFA makes?

"Yes indeed. It's a film that speaks to us in a very elegant way about things we'd rather not see. A very sincere, seemingly simple film that invites us to see that it is very easy to blame the far right or even fascism for all racism. While ignoring how we ourselves exhibit a lot of racism in very mundane ways. These are difficult issues, and I believe a film like this can open our eyes to that."

Subjective

"When it comes to statements, it is good to remember that everyone is always making them. Festival programming is a subjective process, even though festivals have traditionally tended to pretend that they can judge what is good. But when we're talking about a sincere, artistic approach to our field, I think there's no getting around the fact that it's subjective."

"In a master talk at IDFA two years ago, Gianfranco Rosi said that filmmaking is not an Olympic 100-metre race. There is no such thing as a better film. There is only a film that someone thinks is better. There are no objective standards. So it is not true that we choose the best. The criteria are constantly changing. What I think now will be different in a few months' time. If I see the same films again then I will probably think differently about some of them."

Cannes

"I think we should suppress the tendency to see festival programming, film distribution and film criticism as an objective stamp. But we are part of the international community. When Cannes was asked about the gender issue, the answer was: we are outside that, it is the industry, we are at the end of the pipeline. That is an unacceptable evasion of the question. We are not at the end of the pipeline. We have influence, we have responsibility."

So every review is also a statement.

"Absolutely. Our judgment is not objective. It's what we as a team, or at least some of us, are very appreciative of at the moment."

Good to know Good to know

IDFA will take place from 9 to 20 November in Amsterdam and a host of other locations in the Netherlands. This opening film All You See can be seen simultaneously at Theatre Carré in Amsterdam and in 35 film theatres across the country. For the Amsterdam festival programme with films, post-screening talks, events, immersive and interactive installations see: www.idfa.nl

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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