'A festival is meant for meeting people and sharing an artistic experience.'

Orwa Nyrabia

Out of more than three thousand entries, artistic director Orwa Nyrabia and his team have spent the past few months selecting 250 films to be shown at the 34th edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, or IDFA. 'That’s meant watching 10 to 12 hours of film a day over the last few months.'

The 2021 festival runs from 17th to 28th November, with screenings in theatres across Amsterdam; at least one session a day can also be followed online, including the interactive part at the end, pandemic permitting of course. Last year, as a result of the pandemic, the festival was only able to welcome a small number of visitors and it largely took place online. 'Hopefully things will be different this year,' Orwa says. 'A festival is meant for meeting people and sharing an artistic experience. Most films are also at their best when shown in a cinema.' That doesn’t mean there’s no place for online showings at IDFA though, both now and in the future. 'We continue to explore the options offered by technology, on top of in-person encounters.'

What can visitors to the festival expect when they go to a screening? 

'Artistic reflections on reality using images and audio'

Orwa Nyrabia

The festival programme will be presented in October. What can visitors to the festival expect when they go to a screening? 'Artistic reflections on reality using images and audio,' Orwa explains. 'It’s that open.' That translates into a wide range of documentaries encompassing a wide variety of genres.

Orwa outlines the documentaries on offer. 'For lovers of classically-made confident, well-rounded documentary films, I recommend the International Competition. Those who prefer artistic adventure and are curious about how filmmakers are testing the boundaries of the documentary art form will find the new Envision Competition more to their taste. If you’re more interested in a journalistic approach, choose a film from the Frontlight section.' 

Other sections include DocLab for productions that make use of digital technology and interactive media, Luminous containing films that depict human relationships and IDFA on Stage for live events that explore the space between documentary film and the performing arts. There are also special programmes on the work of filmmakers Hito Steyerl and Artavazd Pelechian, who have both more than distinguished themselves in the documentary film world. In addition, the festival will honour Johan van der Keuken; it’s 25 years since his film Amsterdam, ‘Global Village’ premiered. In the film, Van der Keuken sketches a four-hour portrait of Amsterdam and how residents from all four corners of the world live together.

German filmmaker Hito Steyerl will appear as the festival's Guest of Honour.

Image Credit: Hito Steyerl, 'How Not to Be Seen: A F****** Didactic Educational .MOV File'

Orwa has been director of the festival since 2018. Before then, he himself was a filmmaker and producer. Together with his wife Diana El Jeiroudi they created Dox Box, a film festival in his native Syria that modelled itself on IDFA. Does he miss making films? 'I enjoy what I’m doing now,' Orwa states. 

The documentary film world has changed thanks to the influence of a growing audience around the world, he points out. 'For example, this has prompted interest from streaming platforms for financing and buying documentaries. Moreover, cinemas are increasingly including documentaries in their schedules. Even in the Netherlands, with its strong tradition of documentary filmmaking, many more documentaries are being shown in cinemas than ten or fifteen years ago.'

For Orwa this growing interest is part of the zeitgeist in which viewers want to discover and explore reality. The challenge lies in depicting that reality in documentaries in all its facets and from different points of view, he continues. 'There’s a risk of streaming platforms, film distribution companies and cable networks mainly investing in documentaries that they expect to appeal to audiences, resulting in streamlined films that primarily examine a single perspective.'

Orwa wants to use IDFA to counter this tendency. 'If art is made to attract an audience, we lose the opportunity to learn something new and discover we’ve got it wrong.' Moreover, to encourage a variety of perspectives, Orwa believes it’s essential to create opportunities for young filmmakers who are just starting out. It’s tough for beginners even in prosperous nations, he says, never mind for filmmakers in less well-off countries. 

Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's Sonita tells the story of an 18 year-old Afghan refugee living in Tehran.

Image Credit: Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, Sonita

Orwa highlights the importance of capturing different views and voices from around the world, in particular, those produced from within non-Western countries. 

'There’s a difference between a native filmmaker highlighting a topic and an outsider doing so. I don’t believe there’s a single objective view of reality.' Via its Bertha Fund, each year IDFA provides financial support for the completion of about thirty documentaries by filmmakers from non-Western countries. These films subsequently premier at IDFA. 

Orwa believes that documentaries can change the world gradually, one step at a time. 'Viewers don’t immediately adjust their behaviour after watching a documentary. A documentary is artistic expression, not an instrument for political activism. They don’t seek to affect the outcome of upcoming elections, rather to get viewers thinking and in doing so contribute to long-lasting change.'

A screening at IDFA has an impact. 'It’s the biggest and most influential documentary film festival in the world.' Orwa is aware that this gives the festival authority and power. It also places a heavy responsibility on the festival’s shoulders, he believes, towards both filmmakers and the audience. 'If we select a production by a young filmmaker, we’re launching their career. A screening at IDFA guarantees global recognition. If a film isn’t selected, we’re delaying that launch.'

'It’s a chance to see documentaries that can teach you something, enrich your life, give you pause for thought'

Orwa Nyrabia

A simple gauge of the size of IDFA is the number of visitors. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the festival attracted nearly three hundred thousand of them, more than twice seen at any other documentary film festival. How many visitors IDFA can attract this year depends on the prevailing coronavirus restrictions in November. Although Orwa is proud of the high visitor numbers, he doesn’t see the ongoing growth in numbers or economic growth as an important benchmark for the success of IDFA. 'It’s one of the elements. If we prioritise growth, what’s our next goal? We’re already by far the biggest festival. I want to be able to serve our target groups, filmmakers and film enthusiasts, even better.'

The pandemic has had an impact on entries for the festival as well. 'Several serious and demanding filmmakers opted not to submit their films last year. The prospect of their films potentially being premiered on the internet deterred them from entering. They’ve worked hard on the images and audio to create a communal experience under the best-possible conditions – in the cinema. Many filmmakers couldn’t stomach their audience watching the film on their laptops from their living rooms.'

Thankfully, there is no shortage of creative output. Film fans can watch documentaries from the programmes of previous IDFA editions all year round. The website contains over a thousand films, about five hundred of which can be viewed for free. 'We offer the films but hope no-one feels obliged to watch them all. It’s a chance to see documentaries that can teach you something, enrich your life, give you pause for thought.'

Orwa Nyrabia is an acclaimed independent Syrian film producer, filmmaker and mentor. He has been artistic director of IDFA since January 2018.

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