IDFA 2017: The Female Gaze is Gone

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idfa 2017 ;ogoIt’s hard not to appreciate what the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, otherwise known as IDFA, has accomplished during the decades since it was co-founded by Ally Derks, who is rightly revered in the documentary film realm. But Ally Derks has moved on, and IDFA is changing its outlook. This year, the festival dropped its The Female Gaze program and is, apparently, no longer focusing on ongoing issues of gender parity faced by the international community of women filmmakers.

The Female Gaze was but one of the many progressive programs put in place by Ally Derks during her IDFA tenure. Derks was always ahead of the curve in spotting trends in documentary filmmaking, supporting the evolution of filmmaking style and technologies, and setting festival programming to reflect pressing social and political issues as they’ve emerged on the international world stage. She expanded funding and distribution possibilities for filmmakers with the highly successful IDFA Forum for pitching documentary projects to broadcast commissioning editors and other potential producing partners, established the Docs for Sale marketplace, and created mentorship programs with the establishment of the DocLab and the DocAcademy. Derks has also overseen creation of audience outreach programs that have had remarkable and ongoing impact on documentary viewing in The Netherlands and around the world.

ally derks featured image 2In 2014, responding to increased awareness of gender parity issues in all aspects of moviemaking, Derks initiated The Female Gaze program, focusing on women’s roles in documentary filmmaking and giving women documentary filmmakers the opportunity to speak out about their experiences and concerns about the gender-based difficulties they face in an induistry that is dominated by men — even though it’s generally acknowledged that women filmmakers fare better in documentaries than they do in fiction films. The Female Gaze program provided invaluable international networking opportunities. As part of the program, AWFJ presented the EDA Award for Best Female-Directed Documentary to Tea Time, a first award for documentary filmmaker Maiti Alberdi.

IDFA’s The Female Gaze program was continued into 2015 and 2016, each year increasing opportunity for and awareness of female filmmakers at IDFA with workshops organized by Anna Serner of the Swedish Film Institute, Deborah Zimmerman of Women Make Movies and others.

AWFJ participated again during both years by presenting EDA Awards. Danish filmmaker Nicole Nielsen Horanyi received the 2015 EDA Award for Best Female-Directed Film for Motley’s Law, Dutch filmmaker Ester Gould won an 2015 EDA Award Special Mention for A Strange Love Affair With Ego, and Maite Alberdi won again in 2016 for The Grown Ups. also published interviews with the EDA Award winners and with all nominated female filmmakers on our THE FEMALE GAZE blog, which has a sizable international following.

2017 marks the 30th anniversary of IDFA. It is also the first year that Derks has not been at the festival’s helm. In April of 2016, Derks announced she was stepping down from IDFA to take up a new position at the Robert Bosch Foundation, a Berlin-based think tank. The resignation was fully effective this November. Derks was present at the 2017 festival (November 15- 26) for celebrations of her past achievements, but she made it clear that this year’s programming and other festival matters had been handled by her successors, including the festival programming, operations and industry relations team who’d worked with her for years, and this year’s acting director, Barbara Visser.

Visser said she was proud that women filmmakers won several of this year’s juried awards, including the IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary, which went to Mila Turajlic for The Other Side of Everything. Visser and the staff insisted that programming of the festivals 200 plus documentaries was rich in female directed films, but none could cite a percentage or specific number. Nor was there a list of female filmmakers available to the press.

Female filmmakers who attended IDFA 2017 took note that The Female Gaze programming was missing. They said they’d benefited from female filmmaker meetups, workshops and awards in past years and said they were disappointed that the opportunities of the past were no longer on the agenda. “Conditions for women filmmakers may be good in Holland, but you have no idea of how difficult it is for us in my country, and we need for our conditions to be known, to be exposed, so we can demand changes,” said one Polish filmmaker, who requested that her name be withheld. Statistics show that the Polish filmmakers concerns are actually validity worldwide.

Who was responsible for the disappearance of The Female Gaze from IDFA, and why was the program discontinued?

Asked those questions, top IDFA organizers gave rather vague responses, ranging from “women’s programming is inherent” to “we just had too many programs.” Notably, only Ally Derks said — while again affirming that she no was no longer a participant in programming — that she thought dropping The Female Gaze program was a mistake. Judging by the other responses, however, one can only conclude that IDFA 2017 organizers deemed the need for greater recognition of female filmmakers to be of lesser interest than other thematic concerns such as “queer cinema” and gender-neutral topics such as the aesthetics of documentary cinematography. In fact, female programming was of so little interest to IDFA 2017 organizers that there wasn’t even a female filmmaker meetup scheduled to facilitate networking.

What a shame.

Of course, it will take IDFA more than one year to transition from Ally Derks’ leadership that kept the forefront of documentary festival programming. Hopefully, The Female Gaze, or some reiteration of it, will appear in IDFA’a programming next year. In the meanwhile, female filmmakers can expect more support from Dok Leipzig, which is reportedly expanding its female filmmaker programming, as well as Canada’s DOXA and Hot Docs, among other documentaries festivals — and mixed genre film festivals — around the globe.

Read more about IDFA on

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