Ally Derks Talks About IDFA and Documentary Film Trends

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Ally Derks has been the director of IDFA, aka the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, for a quarter of a century. Under her guidance, IDFA , and has grown into the documentary film industry’s preeminent showcase, and a source of fabulous nonfiction film viewing for documentary watchers around the globe.

allyderksDerks and her team provide not only exceptional and trendsetting film programming for the festival, they also run the documentary industry’s most influential pitch forum for the funding of new projects and the most important marketplace for the sale and distribution of documentary films.

IDFA is an established and essential event on the documentary film industry’s annual calendar.

Here’s what Derks has to say about the current state of IDFA and documentaries:

JENNIFR MERIN: Ally, you’ve been helming and growing IDFA for 26 years, establishing the festival as a key event in the annual documentary calendar. In having reached this leadership position, do you find it easier to maintain and grow IDFA, or does it feel, with changing times, like it’s more challenging and more of a responsibility?

ALLY DERKS: To tell you the truth, my whole attitude towards documentary has changed during the years, of course. But I don’t think the challenge has changed or the process. Every year, I just watch the films — with my team, of course — and we like to look at the quality of the films and how they are made. I don’t care who funded them. I don’t care where they’re from. I just care whether the quality is good.

One thing I’ve learned over the years: when you reject a film, you have an enemy. But, then, the next year you except the film, and you have a friend So I’ve learned not to pay attention to that. You have to be professional and you have to invite the films only based on their quality not on friendship or anything else.

My sense of responsibility hasn’t changed. No, I don’t think so. I’m the same person.

MERIN: You speak about your focus on quality. What, then, in your opinion, makes a good documentary film? One that you would invite to IDFA?

DERKS: There are qualities that I love in documentaries. The film must be creative — a creative interpretation of reality, with cinematic qualities. And not all the films are cinematographic, you know, because it is documentary we are also documenting our times. So it’s also that the films give information. But it’s most important that the films give a reason to discuss reality. Because the films are art and art must be discussed. I love it when people come out of the cinema discussing what they have seen. We do have a lot of films that make that happen. Some people might say a film has too much information — but so what!

There is enormous variety in the whole documentary genre and we are not a narrow minded festival. We show the whole range. I think documentary is everything between poetry and political propaganda.

MERIN: Why is it that many people do not understand, even after all this time, that documentary film is not one genre, but many genres of nonfiction filmmaking?

DERKS: In the art of fiction film, you have all sorts of films. You have thrillers, you have political dramas. you have comedy. And, it’s the same thing in documentary. There’s a variety of genres. Some films deal with suspicions about events and issues, other films deal with personal dramas. All of these things you see documentaries, just as you see them dealt with in fiction features. I don’t know why people don’t know that. I think it’s a matter of education.

I often find that critics write only about the subject of the film and never about the form the filmmaker has chosen. For example, Errol Morris’s film, The Unknown Known, is all talking head but it’s still so intriguing and so important. Errol Morris made this film and nobody else could have done that. To get this evil Rumsfeld in front of the camera in that way. Nobody else could do that so that’s also something that you have to take into consideration.

MERIN: What do you think of hybrid films that mix documentary and fiction storytelling techniques?

DERKS: I think we have a lot of hybrid films, a lot of films that go about storytelling in a different way. In our first IDFA catalog in 1988, Joris Ivens wrote: “I don’t see any difference between fiction and documentary. For me, it’s all the same. It’s all an interpretation of reality. You manipulate in documentary the same way you manipulate in fiction.” And I feel that way, as well, as long as it’s done with integrity.

MERIN: Would you consider adding to IDFA’s program a category of films that are truth-based narrative features, where the stories are about actual events where the information is, for example, classified and where the filmmaker done as much research as possible about actual circumstances before making the narrative film which, when released, will probably stand as ‘of record’ in many people’s minds — until actual information about the event might be released at a later time?

DERKS: That is an interesting category to establish. For me, absolutely it is. But you have to embed it in a context or explain what you’re doing with it. In a way, it’s the same that we be doing now with films that are based on the same story — we have a documentary and a fiction, and we show both — and we discuss both, asking why the director would choose to make a documentary or asking why the director would choose to make a documentary film or fiction, or the other way around and what is the difference? And, why is there a difference? Or define why the fiction cannot be called a documentary for whatever reason? Or, why there is a difference? Does it have to do with access, or with things being kept secret, as you said, or whatever the reason? For me, this is all very interesting. It’s something to think about and develop.

MERIN: The documentary’s potential social impact factor has become such a large consideration in the funding of a nonfiction film. From your perspective, as someone who is familiar with the film funding phenomenon, do you think that documentary films actually have greater social impact on public opinion and activism than fiction films, which are generally seen by much wider audiences? Which has the greatest impact?

DERKS: I really do think it’s documentary because, in the end, you have to think that documentary represents something that is real, so you have to discuss it seriously. But in fiction you have an escape. It’s only fiction, so it’s not true, so you don’t really have to consider it. So probably people take documentary more seriously, and have a more serious discussion about the subject. I maybe wrong, but I do think so. With a documentary when people come out of the theater afterwards you always see them deep in discussion. For example, with our opening film, Return to Homs, you really saw people in little groups talking together, and that creates a greater public awareness.

MERIN: Well, if people respond more seriously to documentaries because they’re supposed to be telling the truth, how are general audiences — people who see a documentary but don’t have the background knowledge or skills to analyze the storytelling techniques or other cinematic elements — supposed to discern what part of the documentary is actual and what part is made up? Or what part of the film is discovery and investigation, and what part is essentially propaganda?

DERKS: In the end I think you talk about it. But even for me — and you know I’ve watched documentaries for such a long time — its sometimes very difficult to judge, I have a tendency to always give the director the benefit of the doubt. To trust their integrity. That’s why I think it’s very very important that we are festival and not a television broadcast. Because the directors are here, and if we have questions we can ask them directly. We can ask ‘what was I just looking at?’ I know that not everybody sees the same things I notice in a film, so all of the questions that are asked after the screening inform everyone who’s there — even about things they might not have noticed themselves..

But there is this claim of truth about documentaries, as you know, Jennifer, which is sometimes very scary because the films that we are showing are really subjective personal interpretations of reality. For example, we’re sitting here at this table having coffee, and if we were each going to make a documentary about this meeting, your documentary will be very different from mine. It’s why it’s most important that the directors are here because all these questions we have, we can ask them. And they will react to us.

MERIN: It’s interesting that you put it that way because — not here, but in many other festivals — the filmmaker is transformed by mandatory appearances before the audience into a quasi-celebrity who actually becomes a more important audience attraction than the film itself. Some filmmakers seem enjoy that role — perhaps even to the point where it distracts them from their filmmaking. Others don’t like it at all and don’t, as a consequence, do as well at film festivals. How do you as IDFA’s director create the kind of environment where serious questions get raised?

DERKS: I think it’s different here in Amsterdam. It has to do with our audiences. It’s a very international city, not a very religious city and there’s a great deal of higher education. We are very lucky with our audience. That doesn’t mean that they are all highly educated, very clever people. I don’t want to make a festival only for the elite. I want to make a festival that everybody can go to because we all have to know something about the reality of our world and to be able to discuss that.

Directors are sometimes intimidated by our audiences they really are, because they ask tough questions. They know. But I do think that if you’re a documentary filmmaker you want to get your story across. You want it to be known. But I do understand that for some directors it can be very intimidating because our audience is not always very sweet. I’d say that they are quite challenging, almost confrontational. But in a very good way. Because they pay 10 Euros to see a film and they’re here and they want to get the maximum out of it — the maximum understanding.

MERIN: Smaller documentary festivals — along with documentary fans, filmmakers, funders and distributors — look to IDFA as Mecca for the nonfiction genres. Do you have any advice for the smaller festivals who are growing their relationships with filmmakers and with their audiences?

DERKS: Always try to invite the director. A film without a director is a lost film in the end. Of course all the directors aren’t here at IDFA, either. It’s kind of impossible to invite them all because we have so many films. That makes it very expensive. And some directors are so big they just don’t want to come to us because they want to premiere at Sundance or Toronto. Or Venice or whatever.

A festival should start small, inviting only 10 or 15 films and the directors. That’s much more worthwhile than having a lot of films without directors. Because the discussion and the debate is the most important thing.

Then, not only that, but be nice. Documentary film directors are incredible people and they’re not used to getting spoiled or being treated well. And we have to do that because they deserve it. They really do!

This conversation with Ally took place in Amsterdam on November 23, 2013 at the Schiller Cafe, during the 26th edition of IDFA.

Copyright Jennifer Merin
All rights reserved.

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