IDFA Industry Program Chief on Supporting Brave, Cinematic, Creative Documentaries

The Industry Program of documentary festival IDFA launches Friday as an in-person event, while also offering remote access for those who are unable to get to Amsterdam. Head of industry Adriek van Nieuwenhuijzen and market manager Selin Murat speak to Variety about what participants can expect.

What was learned from the digital experimentation put in place last year has not been lost, van Nieuwenhuijzen says, and what has been delivered this year is a hybrid. “We know that, for the whole industry, these personal encounters, in-person meetings, are crucial,” she says. “But we also learned that we are far more accessible for many people [through remote access]. So that’s why I’m happy that we still have the opportunity to offer some visibility for [the producing] teams who cannot come to Amsterdam.” The online passes that IDFA is offering are “a great opportunity for people around the world to see what’s happening and to stay up to date,” she says.

The team behind the Industry Program had made some changes to its in-person activities in 2019, which have now been revived. “We made the whole pitching experience for the pitch team – so for the producers and filmmakers – as well as for the audience, and the decision makers and industry professionals, far more intimate. So less the feeling of a UN type of meeting or board meeting. It became more an intimate space where it’s far more about an exchange of ideas and your cinematic approach.”

The Producers Connection, part of IDFA Forum, is a new strand, with 15 projects selected, but it grew out of what was called the Producers Program in 2019. The idea was to encourage producers to work together more broadly, rather than on one-off projects, and to encourage them to finance projects through co-production, without being dependent on the backing of platforms, broadcasters and distributors.

“It’s really about collaboration between producers and encouraging their creative input. It’s not that these projects are being presented to a potential financier, such as platforms or broadcasters or distributors,” Van Nieuwenhuijzen says.

One objective is to encourage the development of “brave, cinematic, creative documentaries, which are challenging, a little bit out of the box,” she says.

This acts as a counter-balance to the preference among many broadcasters for more conventional approaches to documentary filmmaking, which is also true of most streamers. “Most of these streamers are very commercial, and they are making films for the vast majority [of viewers]. So it’s hard for them to experiment with other styles of filmmaking, different types of narrative,” Van Nieuwenhuijzen says.

Murat adds: “We made a selection of all kinds of feature-length projects [in the Forum program] that could be interesting for broadcasters, streamers and independent cinemas. We went with a selection of projects that we feel strongly about in terms of their creative narratives.

“You’ll see many kinds of projects, and some could be exciting for streamers. What we want to show them is the breadth of what can be made, so maybe they’ll feel inspired to take some chances.”

Streamers are “always evolving,” Murat says, and IDFA is “hoping to attract different kinds of platforms.”

Meanwhile, theatrical distributors are emerging from a very tough time over the past year and a half. “To put it mildly, it’s not the best time for them,” Van Nieuwenhuijzen says. “It is really difficult to come back from that.”

Among the popular topics that are explored in projects in IDFA’s industry section is gender identity, such as Kani Lapuerta’s “Niñxs,” Nada Riyadh and Ayman El Amir’s “Land of Women,” Paul B. Preciado’s “Orlando: My Political Biography,” and Viv Li’s “The Two Mountains Weighing Down My Chest.”

Another hot topic is migration, but rather than following the journeys the migrants make, the films tend to look at the experience of the migrants when they settle in their new homes and the response of the host communities. In some films, filmmakers or the subjects of the documentaries “reflect on the fact that they feel displaced, or they are looking for their own cultural identity,” Van Nieuwenhuijzen says.

In Joseph Paris’ “The Flag,” the director looks at how the French media has driven a hardening of attitudes toward those citizens who have a different background from the majority, turning them into “the Other.” Hanka Nobis’ “Brotherhood” looks at a young Polish man who has antagonistic feelings about immigration, but then goes through a process of de-radicalization.

The widespread uses of smartphones with video cameras has provided some filmmakers with a wealth of material from which to weave their stories. One example is Victoria Mapplebeck’s “Motherboard,” for which the BAFTA awarded director documents her life as a single mother over 17 years, shooting on various devices.

Filmmaking in some parts of the world is a dangerous activity and some projects are being kept under wraps for that reason, and Van Nieuwenhuijzen says one of IDFA’s roles, with the support of the IDFA Bertha Fund, is to champion such projects, especially when it is difficult for them to attract backing in their home countries or they are subject to political repression.

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