IDFA Chief Ally Derks: ‘Documentaries have as much range as fiction films’

Posted by Brian Brooks on 12.2.2013

The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) has been hailed as the "Cannes of the Documentary World." Whether that's true or only partially true, there's no question that the festival annually features the premieres of many films that will later head to the likes of Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca here in the U.S.

As founder and head of the festival, now in its 26th year, Ally Derks presided over the 12-day event that annually welcomes the latest from the veterans of non-fiction filmmaking and the filmmaking medium's new trailblazers. This year's Opening Night film, Return to Homs was a product of the festival's IDFA Bertha Fund, which supports documentary filmmakers and festivals in developing countries. The fund, notably supported last year's Oscar-nominated 5 Broken Cameras, which the festival also premiered. It later hit the festival circuit in the U.S. and elsewhere before opening theatrically Stateside.

This year's festival began on a sad note following the passing of documentary guru Peter Wintonick, who had long been a presence at IDFA, where he organized events and served as a sage to filmmakers and other guests. Ally Derks recalls Wintonick in a conversation with FilmLinc, which attended the festival. She also talks about Return to Homs, which she said is headed to the U.S. "soon." Derks also gives her sense of the documentary form, which is constantly changing and -- she notes -- is just as varied and dynamic as its narrative counterpart.

FilmLinc: This was IDFA's 26th year and it has long been a mainstay of the year's non-fiction circuit, launching many of the upcoming year's most important documentaries and of course there's an international contingent who come here every year. It's also very popular among local audiences, with screenings packed with locals. How do you keep it a pinnacle destination for non-fiction?

Ally Derks: It's again bigger than last year in fact, our 25th. People talk about the films and we work very hard to get people to talk about the festival throughout the year and get people into the theaters during the festival. Every public broadcaster here in Amsterdam have been talking about the festival or the films in the festival. I've said this before… The news moves so fast. It comes and goes and people don't understand [the issues]. The world is getting more and more complicated and many people do want to learn and understand what's happening and documentary is a good place for that. And I think people still like great storytelling -- I hope [laughs].


IDFA head Ally Derks.

FL: The opening night film, Return to Homs received support from the IDFA Bertha Fund, which is exciting. The project came full circle receiving help from the festival and then its World Premiere as the Opening Night film. What about this film gave it the coveted first night slot?

AD: There's so much happening in Syria and we only get one side of it in the news. It is a very complicated situation. The whole world is watching. When I was 19 I was protesting and singing songs in the square against nuclear energy I remember. But here, the situation in Syria has just become more and more violent. The young people that [are captured in this film] did not want to be a part of this violence.

They got trapped in a way and now they're fighting. They're not political or ideological, they just want freedom. They want to be able to think for themselves and say what they want and live the way they want to live. Today of course with the internet, people in Syria and other places are aware of how other people live and how other countries' systems work.

FL: Yeah it's interesting that Return To Homs came out about these particular group of young people fighting in their city against the dictatorship in Syria. Recently in the U.S. Jehane Noujaim's film The Square opened and that also intimately depicts the ongoing Egyptian revolution. It has also received a lot of Oscar consideration lately…

AD: That's a beautiful film. The momentum is here and now and it's sad that we know what is going on and yet we are powerless. People are being slaughtered there and what can be done? In 2010 I was in Damascus. It's a very very civilized society. I attended documentary pitching sessions there and there were great stories proposed. It's really sad…. But we want [Return to Homs] to go for awards in the next year as well. Our other Bertha Fund film 5 Broken Cameras (IDFA 2011) had received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary for 2012.


Talal Derki's Return to Homs.

FL: This year there's a sad note of course with the recent passing of Peter Wintonik who has been a leader in the documentary world generally and has been a friend and partner here at IDFA for so many years…

AD: He's everywhere here. I think in spirit he's with us. We had a beautiful memorial here on Sunday and we showed some beautiful clips of his film pilgrIMAGE (2009), the film he made with his daughter. I miss a friend. I started writing about him and I couldn't because I start crying and I almost am starting again now. He was my soulmate and my partner in crime. Last Sunday was so emotional that the next day I couldn't do anything the next day…

I attend the first Human Rights and Dignity Film Festival in Burma (Myanmar) and was on the jury with Peter Wintonick actually. We had a wonderful time. It was under the patronage of Aung San Suu Kyi and we got to meet her and it was just wonderful. We also saw some wonderful films from many young filmmakers. They're very enthusiastic, working during the day and shoot and edit afterward.

FL: I remember seeing this doc Burma VJ (2008) several years ago, which played a number of years ago and I remember it had all this incredible footage of atrocities committed by the military against protesters, but it was so important at the time because the country had been so closed off from the outside world. It was a pivotal moment on the way to the reforms we've seen in the last couple of years there.

AD: This was a very important film worldwide. As you say, suddenly we were aware of what's going on there and of course, it's still not great. But, the film showed first hand that people there were fighting for human rights and freedom. It has gotten better, but there are still conflict happening now between the Buddhists and the Muslims.

FL: How has non-fiction film been evolving in recent years. Films like The Act Of Killing for instance have used storytelling elements that have been unconventional, have you been seeing a lot of that change generally?

AD: A lot of the films that are here are almost like fiction. I personally don't see a lot of difference between documentary and fiction. Some people say they think documentarians are [journalistic], but no, that isn't always true. We believe in strong, creative films. We are not a journalist festival, but of course there are always going to be films that are more about the content than form. We always look at the balance between the content and the form of telling a story.

[Belgian documentary] Ne Me Quitte Pas for instance is very cinematic. You think it's scripted, but it really is their lives. I thought it was very touching in the end. Shado'man also feels like it's scripted. We are such a huge festival that we have to show the range of documentary filmmaking. You know in fiction, you have such a range. There's comedy, drama, fairy-tales, thrillers, animation, film noir, musicals, nouvelle vague, but it's the same in documentary. It's everything from a poem to political documentary. Documentaries have as much range as fiction films'...

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