A Conversation with Orwa Nyrabia, Newly Appointed Artistic Director of IDFA
By Pamela Cohn
It’s no small challenge to go on record to talk about your very important new job when you’ve only been at it a handful of weeks. But like everything else that comes his way, Orwa Nyrabia rose to the challenge when Documentary magazine asked him to weigh in on his new post as artistic director of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), Europe’s largest (and arguably, most important) documentary film festival and marketplace. As it frequently does whenever I speak to this highly engaged, passionate, brilliant human being, our conversation veered into broader topics surrounding the impetus to continue to effectively support makers of creative nonfiction amidst constantly shifting sands. This support is something Nyrabia has devoted himself to as a producer, filmmaker and festival programmer for many years—first in his native Syria, then in Egypt, and for the past few years in Germany, where he has run his own production company, No Nation Films, while his business and life partner, Diana El Jeroudi, has established DOX BOX e. V., a nonprofit that runs several support schemes focusing on documentary filmmakers making work in the Arab world.
The day before Berlinale opened, I met with Nyrabia at his offices in the Weissensee neighborhood of Berlin.
Your trajectory is fantastic—and I use that word in the sense of something monumental and somewhat implausible. You’ve taken so many on this journey with you—many people you know, but even more that you don’t know. IDFA’s decision to hire you is an extraordinary choice in so many ways. It feels so right for all of us, the extended documentary community, but also for the times we’re in. Why and how did this opportunity seduce you? Did you think about what might be sacrificed, as well as the advantages of taking such a high-profile position with such a high-profile festival?
Orwa Nyrabia: It was a difficult examination because it meant—and it means—a lot of changes in my life. I was not looking for a new job. But it’s also not just a job. A lot of thinking went into applying. But I did ask myself what it was that I’ve been trying to do all along. Is it to become a great producer? I don’t think so. Filmmaker? I don’t think so. Journalist, no. It’s not any of those things, but a combination of these elements, through documentary cinema’s gaze at the world. It’s this dream of changing the world—slowly, gradually, profoundly—through this art form.
It’s not a frequent occurrence that you get to such a place, to try to make an impact, to advocate for creative expression, and to work with others to help make this more and more visible, and more influential in the world today. I’m talking about documentary film at large now, not just about IDFA.
I love producing. But producing in Europe is different than producing in Syria. I’ve been producing in Europe for the last four or five years and so much that surrounds it today is bureaucratic and technical. Producing in a place like Syria was a revolutionary act, energizing, full of motivation and dreams. I think in Europe, a place like IDFA offers this. IDFA is about public benefit, the audience and the industry, dream-filled filmmakers, and curious viewers. After all, why do we make documentary films within such a complex web of challenges, if not for the dream?
It is a huge shift to go from advocating for a very particular vision on behalf of a filmmaker to a large apparatus. Whoever might be sitting at the helm will put his imprint on the curatorial statement that results in a 12-day festival. You’re so well-versed in the history and language of cinema, no matter the genre, but here we have a modern European monolith from which so many other festivals have imprinted themselves.
My experience working with filmmakers, funders, broadcasters, sales agents and distributors does give me a good understanding of the industry and of the filmmakers' experiences navigating it. I believe this will be an important part of my contribution in my new position. Then, remember that together with Diana, I established DOX BOX festival in Syria, which transformed into DOX BOX Association in Germany today. That side of my life—co-inventing a festival where there was absolutely no festival—is linked to this choice. The very first documentary film festival in Syria grew from something like 12,000 tickets to 35,000 admissions over the course of four editions. After the revolution and the crackdown on human rights, we stopped it. But in four years we managed to do so much.
In taking this position now, I’m reminded once again that I inhabit a world of relativity, a Western theory of relativity. I can say that what we did in Syria is relatively bigger than most of what Western festivals have had to do. Syria looks like such a small country because of this common Western paradigm of seeing the world as “those small places,” where we can be charitable or openhearted to the nice people in small countries who do nice things. We didn’t do things. We infused a whole country with documentary films within a context that was absolutely hostile to what we were doing. We had no local funding, skeptical authorities, harsh censorship. The first article written in a newspaper about our festival said that we were battling windmills. But we did it. We triumphed over the windmills and we continued even after we left the country. The credit for this goes to Diana way more than to me. She reinvented that role and kept on going.
So, today from my new seat I see all those wonderful documentary film people fighting windmills around the world. My position towards them has nothing to do with charity or superiority. It is simply a position of appreciating the privilege and being driven by the simple responsibility towards those who do not enjoy it.
When we talk about diversity, when IDFA talks about diversity, when Western organizations and festivals talk about diversity, the proof of this pudding is in having someone like me filling a decision-making position, not to be inclusive or to integrate the other, but rather to partner with them.
That is the courageous, serious step I credit IDFA’s team and board with.
It’s not about making sure there are some colored faces in a special poor-people box in the catalogue, in the process hiring a good marketing company to tout the diversity that exists there. Otherwise, it remains a Northern and Western gaze with a charitable approach to the rest of the world. Being charitable is infantilizing and vain. I see a responsibility here in creating these bridges outside Eurocentrism with serious collaborations, serious views on one another, where we see each other in relation for what we, collectively, are trying to do in our very different contexts.
So what is it that I’d like to do? I’d like to do a lot. There are things particular to IDFA as well as the global documentary scene. Of course I am going to take some more time before I start talking about the particulars of that, before I have a clearer view. But in principle, diversity is not going to be only a requirement but part of the structure, part of the process. It will be the main difference between IDFA and other Western festivals. There will be no compromise on this. This includes the question of women. It’s going to be a very clear mandate where we take part in a global movement, not just “allowing” women a place. We’ve tried this already and it’s not the point. We will not be allowing women a good place here. We will be part of the movement and that includes the processes and the way we do things, not only about how many films by women we program. It should be so much more about the infrastructure. What’s our position towards this? How do we observe this movement and what it can do?
The same goes for other parts of the world. I look at many festival catalogues with documentary film conferences and panels and talks and I look to see what countries all these people come from. It is literally all white and even if there is a person of color there, he or she comes from a Northern country. But it is not about color. It is about the world and our understanding of how big the world really is, the appreciation of the world that is not the West. We hear people in politics talk about the international community. We realize that term encompasses maybe 10 or 12 countries. But no, that’s only one part of the world, a part that is in trouble, just like other parts. It is richer and less dangerous to live in. But it’s just another part. To me, this is a major question to ponder.
In terms of personal aesthetics, storytelling approaches and styles, there is also still a Western mainstream that relies on an Aristotelian structure, considering that as the ultimate reference in any art form. But again, that does not apply to the rest of the world.
The rest of the world might be fascinated by the money of the West and does try to make art that works in the West. But that’s not everything out there. The West needs to be challenged, needs to be liberated from its own boxes. How do we reexamine this, these huge industrial monopolies, the big elephants walking through the garden buying only what is guaranteed to work in the Western marketplace?
Which more times than not doesn’t work.
Exactly. It’s not working. When they open in new markets, they are getting some serious surprises of what works where and what doesn’t. We must be open to discovering and trying out new things, different directions from our collective autopilot mode. That is the place where influential festivals like IDFA can be testing grounds. There we can see if audiences really connect or if that connection is a myth. Is it really true that audiences only connect with content that has explanatory elements and contexts beginning to end or a dependence on some three-chapter structure that ends on a happy note? It seems like this is all that works in many funding schemes for a majority of TV and broadcasting. In different key parts of this industry, this paradigm is the only thing that works.
But haven’t we been discussing the inefficacy of all this for such a long time now?
Have we? I don’t think so. It’s been discussed in intellectual circles but never in industry circles. I think industry circles have always been skeptical of any discussion of it.
Perhaps publically, but it seems as if I’ve been hearing the same expressions of frustration in many conversations I’ve had with various professionals over the years. I think for a while some sort of inertia set in. But with new leadership comes new opportunities for action—one hopes. You and I have talked about this in the context of your own film work and its success in the festival world, but it’s in the other ways we could disseminate this kind of work I see sticking points. With IDFA, you have an apparatus that very much presents itself as a marketplace as much as it does an exhibition platform. In that specific marketplace, what should the goal be to help work that doesn’t fall into the kinds of categories you just spoke about? How are you going to deal with commissioning editors who still must sit in the video library scanning for fare to fill incredibly specific television slots? How does that reconcile with pushing for more artistic freedom for filmmakers with a viable financial structure in place for them?
These are all very vital questions to consider, and also difficult ones. There’s a huge change in the industry that we can see today. In the last few years, we’ve seen a very clear change. There are so many more documentaries going theatrical and so much interest from SVOD giants in documentary and in the emergence of smaller SVOD platforms. All this adds to the problem of television and in particular public broadcasting in the West. For IDFA and for me personally, it’s time to get re-educated about the role of public broadcasting. It’s in trouble politically and also in terms of how it adapts to the future. We defend and advocate for public broadcasting, but we also see that documentary has other possibilities from now on. It’s a very new opportunity.
How do we manage the growth of documentary film between these different approaches to distribution? Theatrical distribution is a very local matter. But Netflix and Amazon and the others have a global market now with different catalogues for every region. That’s another opportunity. Broadcasting has been and still is a main partner in making documentary films, but it is only some Western public television stations that invest in creative documentary. This does not happen in other parts of the world because there is no interest in challenging audiences with creative approaches to reality. We can turn this problem into an advantage if we see it as an opportunity that leans towards diversity, for more films to find new spaces for both financing and dissemination through this complex web of outlets that we see today. This is how I see working with the industry. I don’t think the era of commissioning editors sitting in the library watching films is over. These people have been doing a good job for a couple of decades and we need them to continue. But we need also to help them see the new potentials in what’s happening. They are aware that they are in trouble, that they are having a crisis with their audience, the average age of their viewers. With their reach and their share of the market, they do have a problem. It’s hard for big institutions and corporations to adapt. But because we want them to remain, we will challenge them.
I’m glad to hear you say that because it can only be mutually beneficial for them as well as for filmmakers. So here you are, a non-Westerner, in a leadership position that will enable you to discover and re-discover what might be possible. I know it’s very early days, but can you talk a bit about your initial goals?
Everything is already in the works. The aim is to sharpen the overall program, to revisit the differentiation between the different program sections, re-polish each section and give it its real value. Otherwise, filmmakers might continue to feel that the main competition strands are the only things that are important and the rest just gives you the ability to put the IDFA laurels on your film poster. This shouldn’t be the case. We have to create meaningful sections so that as a filmmaker you are always happy that your film is in the right section.
Can you give a specific example? I agree that some films actually benefit more from not being in competition. But it’s easy to feel like one’s film might get lost in such a huge program.
That is already advocated at the festival, that each film finds its best slot in the best program for it, that defends it, that says it’s valued and important versus the films that get into this or that competition. IDFA’s ability to introduce new talent has been quite successful the last 30 years but as I said, the polishing must continue. It’s important that filmmakers have a career inside IDFA. You start somewhere but then there should be the opportunity to go to the next level and the next. It’s a place where you can grow a career. It’s not simple. We now have lots of fine fiction festivals opening their doors a bit wider for documentary. We have to be clearer in our position towards supporting documentary filmmakers. We are more visible now. Berlin and Cannes are giving much more support to documentary in their programs. But it is still of lesser importance in these places so documentary filmmakers, even still, are being othered; it’s been a longstanding othering from the entire film industry. So in some sense, some filmmakers might feel like going to a documentary festival is already othering. But when they go to the A-list festivals, they feel so much more othered, actually. They’re not red-carpet material. This is a question for all documentary film festivals.
On the other hand, I do believe it is a historical moment for documentary film, with all of the changes in the industry. This means that we should all go back to promoting documentary films, and not be so busy promoting ourselves. In a sense, it’s not about IDFA continuing to prove that it’s the biggest, most important festival. That’s not the point. The point is that we all go back to defending documentary filmmakers and their opportunities, their chances and our audiences. Programmers, festival directors, sales agents, all of us work in the service of filmmakers. I feel it’s important to diffuse this fake sense of competition between festivals and documentary organizations.
Let’s talk then of the very difficult conversation around premieres at documentary festivals, where oftentimes filmmakers are caught in very awkward and difficult decisions. This is becoming more prominent, in fact. Is that serving filmmakers? I’ve seen instances where festival strategies can be jeopardized by having to make an urgent choice. Festivals are responsible for that and filmmakers are indoctrinated still into this way of thinking about their debut exhibition.Many feel that if they don’t get into a top-tier festival, the film will languish in obscurity.
It’s now part of the game; you’re right. But I don’t think this will always be part of the game because of the big commercial machine that keeps film alive. It becomes an edge in a local or regional way for festivals to start requesting premieres. It is not a direct benefit to the filmmaker but the competition between festivals is one in which we should be competing to better serve filmmakers. The minimum service IDFA can offer a filmmaker by welcoming a film into the program is not small at all. It provides incomparable international visibility and reach. But still, we as documentary-only people need to inhabit a bigger platform by making it part of the larger film world. We make films for diverse audiences, not just the activist crowd.
The art and craft of filmmaking is not necessarily to be disconnected from the content or ethical angle. But mobilization and good-cause propaganda is the lethal element in documentary.
We have to re-think documentary cinema. We need to abolish this idea of trying to change the world directly. This direct action imperative makes this art form a very pragmatic tool for activism. But it also disconnects itself from a potentially much larger audience.
There is a whole side industry now in documentary that has grown from outreach work to find audiences for a film into a full-blown side business to utilize films as activist tools, with campaigns attached. Sometimes those strategies are set in place even as the film is being made. Many funding applications require an explication of an outreach plan.
Yes, we can make good films and then we can campaign with them. Or do we make campaigning films? That’s the question. You could campaign with a fiction film or a group of them about, let’s say, women’s rights. It doesn’t need to be documentary. On the other hand, the problem is when we make a film with a campaign as the objective, as political discussion. This renders the whole experience of watching a film rather meaningless, more or less. This is where the examination of the future should be placed, I think, if we want documentary to keep growing and remain important.
We all know there should never come a time when we can wrap our arms around all of it. What would we talk about then? Here’s a practical question for you: What happens to No Nation Films, this little empire you and Diana have created?
Well, obviously, I will move to Amsterdam but will not disconnect with Berlin. Diana will stay mostly in Berlin. We’ll travel between the two cities. No Nation Films has three works in production we will finish. My direct administrative and technical engagement will be minimized and someone else will take over. I will, of course, stay with the filmmakers until they finish but without the day-to-day administrative side of producing. The company will go on with a new manager and we’ll see what kinds of films the next team will be interested in making. It’s a micro-company, but we have a track record that I think is worth preserving and cherishing. Still, the filmmakers who entrusted us with their projects should end this experience in the best possible way, so for me, right now, that’s it.
What’s the most exciting thing for you about being in a curatorial position?
We’ll see. It presents a very different mandate than what I’ve become used to or have done before. The advantage I have, as someone coming from outside the European festival world, is that there’s no accumulation here. First I come to support a really outstanding team of programmers. They’ve been doing a very good job for years. My leadership will mean that they are allowed much more space for their own personal voices.
When I spoke of diversity earlier, I meant this also, in part. There must be different curatorial voices in this process. When at the end, it is my responsibility to find synergy between all the different program sections, I want to be sure that the dynamic of the different opinions within the team is a strength of the entire program and adds value, much more than the value of a singular editorial vision would. That’s number one. Number two is cinema, cinematic language. That’s what I celebrate and appreciate and what I want to stand behind, cinematic ambition. Sometimes it fails; sometimes it wins. I’m not talking about the final format, but the creative process through which a filmmaker moves from initial spark to finished film. I’m critical towards what I could aggressively call ready-made documentary, a collection of high-definition footage about something that is obviously interesting and then a very good editor comes along to put it into his or her very experienced structuring machine. You end up with an accessible, smart film about something we all care about. But there’s no director’s voice in it. The main crisis happens between minute 58 and minute 63 pretty much always. You can set your time code by it. To me this is relevant to creating a program. Editing software can make its own festival. We are still a festival of humans.
Look, I am very okay with pressure. That’s not the part I’m scared of. But I’m going from being a small entrepreneur that makes films that don’t sell to something else entirely. For three months now, I’ve been shuttling between Berlin and Amsterdam, but I will be in Amsterdam full-time within a few weeks. IDFA looks so good from the outside so, yes, I had some trepidation about seeing the inside. But I will go back to talking about the team there because I really have to praise them. When I opened the lid to see what was inside, it was so much better and more sane and, most importantly, more self-questioning than I ever expected. The team’s constant questioning of what they do is exceptional. This is the key to IDFA’s success. Nothing is off the table. This questioning nature brings a deep humility with it. It’s moving to me to see this. This is the true discovery about this new job. This assures me I will fit in. I have this disease of being incapable of not questioning myself and the world around me on a constant basis—this is the process that works for me. We will see that because of these small shifts and adjustments, the festival will be very different in a few years. These changes were in question before I even got there. I cannot claim credit, only the credit for helping to make sure these desired changes happen and adding some value to the whole thing. In this sense, there’s already a great dynamic at work.
I presented myself in my interviews as the iconoclast that I am, and they still took me despite my blunt critiques about everything. That means they and I already care about many of the same things.
Pamela Cohn is a Berlin-based curator, festival programmer, writer, and nonfiction story consultant. She works with traditional documentarians, as well as with artists who use documentary practice in moving image work.