Skip to main content

IDA Pioneer Award: Ally Derks Reflects on Three Decades at the Helm

By Sevara Pan

The Pioneer Award, a staple of the IDA Documentary Awards since 2003, acknowledges those individuals who have made "extraordinary contributions to advancing the nonfiction form and providing exceptional vision and leadership to the documentary community." Past honorees have included Ted Sarandos, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program.

The 2016 Pioneer Award goes to Ally Derks, the founder and director of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), who has tirelessly worked towards advancing the non-fiction form and nurturing the works of documentary makers worldwide.

Having founded IDFA in 1988, Derks took the helm as director of the festival the following year. Under her leadership, IDFA has grown from a small gathering of documentary enthusiasts to the world's largest documentary film festival, attracting more than 270,000 to its 2015 edition. IDFA has become the industry's preeminent showcase, boasting a film program that is both cutting-edge and trend-setting. IDFA's co-production and co-financing Forum, which was the first of its kind when it was established in 1993, remains the industry's most important meeting venue and a breeding ground for creative documentaries. Since then, pitch forums and marketplaces have become indispensable components of many contemporary film festivals.

Over the past ten years, Derks has been honored with several awards for her contributions to the documentary film industry, including the Lifetime Achievement Award at Israel's DocAviv in 2007, the Doc Mogul Award at Canada's Hot Docs in 2011 and the Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 2015. Having led IDFA for three decades, Derks will step down in 2017; she will spend the bulk of next year in Berlin, as a Fellow-in-Residence at the Robert Bosch Academy, then will return to Amsterdam in November for the 30th anniversary celebration of the festival.

We spoke with Derks by phone as she was preparing for the 2016 IDFA. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thinking of the context in which you founded the festival in 1988, what was the need within the documentary industry and what did the documentary community look like back then? What were the initial challenges when you founded the festival?

Well, I was running an education film and video festival called Festikum before I started IDFA. Festikum showcased all kinds of films - fiction and documentary films, short and feature-length films, films for children and films for adults. It was a nice festival, but there was no audience to view all of the beautiful documentaries that we were screening.

In the absence of a large audience, one of the Festikum jury members, a film critic from one of the best Dutch newspapers, suggested starting a documentary-specific film festival. I thought it was a great idea because I knew that Holland had a fantastic documentary film tradition. Joris Ivens, Bert Haanstra and Johan van der Keuken—they were all great documentary filmmakers. I do not think we have that tradition in fiction. Since I have always been politically and socially engaged, it fit me like a glove. I started writing ideas for the festival together with the Netherlands Film Institute, which backed me then. I wrote a plan in 1987, and in 1988 we received the funding from the City of Amsterdam and the Dutch Ministry of Culture. We also received support from public television stations, which helped kickstart the festival.

At that time, documentaries were hardly there. There were almost no documentaries on television. In theaters, they completely disappeared, which was very strange because in the 1960s and 1970s there were plenty of documentaries in theaters. However, they seemed to be completely gone by the 1980s. The genre was almost non-existent.

But when we started the festival, documentary was [in a resurgence]. Thematic channels started skyrocketing. Broadcasters like CNN and later National Geographic and History Channel emerged, and they needed content. That was a favorable development for documentary filmmakers because all of a sudden there was a need for nonfiction content. I think it also had to do with contemporary news, which was very fragmented at the time. For example, the coverage of the conflicts in Liberia and the former Yugoslavia was rather disjointed. People needed something that offered a reflection on the events that were happening around them, and documentaries could offer that reflection.

There were different reasons IDFA became successful in its first edition. I guess we were at the right place and time in history. The initial challenge was to build an audience. The films were there, but not as many as now, of course. We receive more than 3,500 entries these days; It is part of what my programming team and I see at festivals around the world. At that time, we received around 400 films. The quantity of produced and submitted documentaries was different. In the earlier days, building an audience that would go to a theater and pay to watch a documentary was a big deal. But we were lucky. Our festival's first edition was supported by the fantastic newspaper NRC Handelsblad, which helped raise awareness about the films immensely. They wrote about the films and the retrospectives. Every day, a large number of people got to know about the festival only by reading that newspaper. In our first year, the audience constituted around 3,000 people. Last year, we sold more than 270,000 tickets. It has changed dramatically. It became huge.

Over the past three decades, the documentary industry has expanded significantly. There are more documentary-specific festivals and markets around the world. There are more opportunities and platforms for documentary makers to showcase their films. What role has IDFA played in promoting the works and nurturing the careers of documentary filmmakers?

In the 1980s, there was no real gathering of documentary filmmakers and the industry. There were great festivals in Nyon or Oberhausen, for example. But the industry as we know it today hardly even existed. Our Forum for international co-financing of documentaries was the first one in the world. In 1992, a documentary filmmaker would be a one-man-show. He was his own cameraman, his own producer and his own sales and PR agent. That changed when we started the Forum [a year later]. It provided a venue for directors, producers and commissioning editors from dozens of countries to meet, discuss projects and give financing. At the Forum, directors and producers could present their work to a panel of decision-makers instead of sending stacks of paper to their offices.

I think one of the innovative aspects of the Forum was its co-financing focus. The reason documentary films were hardly made at the time was because it was too costly for one country or one television channel. By joining forces, broadcasters from different countries like ARTE, ZDF, BBC or VPRO could help finance projects that they believed in together. I do think that the most important aspect of the festival is that it became a meeting point of people who buy films and people who sell films - the makers and the distributors. And by distributors, I mean television stations, film theaters and festivals. Nowadays, we receive more than 3,000 international guests, who attend primarily for selling their projects and networking. That is a vital aspect of the festival. We organized the first industry Forum and we sold our concept in 1993 to North America's largest documentary film festival, Canada's Hot Docs, to establish their own Forum. We shared our database and sent one of our colleagues to work with the Hot Docs team. In the next years, we would see our concept replicated in a number of countries across the world. Now all of these local, smaller festivals have their own Forums as well. It was like an ink spot that grew.

I believe it is essential to learn how to pitch a film, so I am happy about the creation of such Forums around the world. Directors and producers can pitch their films in front of local and foreign commissioning editors, who in turn may take these films back to their home countries. I do think that it has helped build bridges between the documentary community and the gatekeepers of the industry.

Ally Derks, Jan Vrijman and Walter Etty, 1990. Photo courtesy IDFA.

As a curator, how have you succeeded in maintaining the festival's preeminence?

We showcase around 300 films at IDFA. Not all of them are in competition, of course. What you see at IDFA this year is what you are going to see on television and at other festivals next year. We are kind of programming a lot of other documentary film festivals; we have over 130 programmers coming to IDFA to select films for their festivals.

I also have a team of 20 so-called viewers who watch films before I do. A selected group of viewers then grades the films, which is followed by a commission meeting, where we choose films for different competition programs. These viewers are film critics, festival programmers and people working for film/art houses and television stations. In a way, they are the gatekeepers of the festival who help make a compelling and diverse program.

I think what keeps IDFA preeminent is its focus on diversity. In our program, films from the West sit next to films from developing nations. That has been the case since the onset of the festival. We also provide workshops for non-Western filmmakers, where we share different outlooks on storytelling, artistic forms and techniques.

Besides the programming and training aspects, we also run a foundation, the IDFA Bertha Fund, with which we support non-Western documentary filmmakers. The IDFA Bertha Fund became possible when Tony Tabatznik from the Bertha Fund joined us to set up the fund; Tony received an IDA Award last year [The Amicus Award]. Besides supporting individual filmmakers, we also fund film festivals in developing countries. The sum of around €20,000 may not be much here, but it is significant if you live in Nairobi or Morocco.

We also invite some of these festival programmers to IDFA to select films and compile a program. When we founded the festival, we did not want to be a European or an American festival; we wanted to be an international festival. The festival belongs to the multicultural and multi-religious city of Amsterdam. We program IDFA that way, and I believe this diversity is much appreciated by our audiences.

Moreover, IDFA is known to be more political than a lot of other film festivals. I think it is critical that we showcase films that are more open for discussion and debate. That does not mean that we do not show pure art films. We do, but a good film has to communicate with its audiences.

One of such films, Return to Homs (Dir.: Talal Derki, 2013), was a recent grantee of the IDFA Bertha Fund, right?

Yes, the film received the funding in 2012, and in 2013 we screened it at IDFA's opening night. It remains a very important film, more so today. If you look at Aleppo now, who would have predicted that it would get so out of hand?

At IDFA, you have a special award, the IDFA Alliance of Women Film Journalists EDA Award for a best female-directed documentary film. Could you speak about the need for this award in the industry?

This year, we had a whole discussion around the disproportionate representation of male directors at the Academy Awards. In the documentary world, the situation is somewhat different. There is a higher female presence in the industry. There are many more female directors and female producers in documentary than in fiction film. But there are still a lot of men. Our programmers are instructed to pay attention to works by female directors. We created a separate award three years ago in order to raise awareness about films by female directors. Each year, we show ten new films directed by women. And these ten films are selected by Jennifer Merin, President of Alliance of Women Film Journalists (AWFJ), who in turn chooses two other jury members, either female film critics or female filmmakers. Each year, this international jury watches ten films and honors the best one with the award. These films are all new and all world premieres.

Can you speak about the challenges that you have faced during your tenure at IDFA?

Ten years ago, we started the new media program DocLab. It has to do with the new technology, be it interactive and non-linear documentaries, virtual reality experiments or cross-media projects. I do not have expertise when it comes to such films, but my colleague Caspar Sonnen does, and he runs the new media program within IDFA. When you run a festival like IDFA, sometimes you have to delegate responsibilities over some of the programs to your colleagues who may know much more about a particular field than you do.

Another challenge that we faced was the economic crisis, which led to severe budget cuts in the cultural sector. We were forced to seek financing in the market. It was not easy to go to a company and say, "We have a documentary film festival, and it is about climate change or the impoverished." It is not very sexy to sponsor something like that. But we succeeded; we are alive and still thriving.

At the moment, we are strengthening our educational program. Throughout the year, we run a number of educational programs [i.e. Kids & Docs Workshop and IDFA Mediafonds Workshop, organized in cooperation with the Dutch Cultural Media Fund]. We hold in-school masterclasses in a range of academic institutions, from an elementary school to a high school. And we offer workshops for postgraduate students who are working on their first documentary projects. At the moment, we run these educational programs only in Holland, but I think it is imperative to expand them internationally because there is a lot of expertise out there. As for the international programs, we run a Summer School between the end of June and early July, where first- and second-time directors from all over the world come to Amsterdam to work on their rough cuts or film plans. Moreover, we host the IDFAcademy, which coincides with the festival dates, where some 80 students come to hone their skills, meet industry people and attend workshops.

IDA just concluded its second Getting Real conference, in which the central themes were Art, Diversity and Sustainability. We have talked about diversity; let's turn to art. What have been some of the most inspiring and dramatic developments in the documentary form?

Well, it depends on how you look at it. Documentary is a creative way of looking at reality. Documentary can even shape reality as a creative form. You can also turn it around and say that contemporary fiction is very much influenced by documentary. Transcending boundaries within the documentary form is not new. Films like The Look of Silence are not new. These kind of films were made in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. They were just not as exposed to the general public as they are today, and they were not seen by as many people as nowadays. If you take a look at documentaries from the 20th century, films from the 1920s and 1930s like Nanook of the North or some of Ivens' and Haanstra's films, you will find them to be more art concepts than documentaries. For example, Microcosmos (Dirs. Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou), which was made in 1996, recorded the interactions between small animals and between insects; however, there was also a social concept to it as it peered into our reality from a completely different perspective. It stirred a lot of discussion.

There have been so many hybrid documentaries. In the 1990s, we had a program that featured a range of hybrid documentaries, with all of its forms and sub-genres.A documentary can be anything from poetry to propaganda. It can be a journalistic reportage, an art film and everything in between. We have also shown Leni Riefenstahl's films - Triumph of the Will, for example. It is a propaganda film, but you can discuss its form and why it is a good film or not. You may not like Riefenstahl's message, but she still made great films. The fact that the film served to propagate a certain ideology does not make it less of a masterpiece. Another great filmmaker, Ivens, started his career with The Bridge (1928) and Rain (1929) - very poetic films, which were made in the late 1920s. But between the 1940s and 1970s, he also made films that one may refer to as leftist propaganda. And they were also documentaries, and we screened these films as well. Why not? As long as you can discuss and debate the films.

Despite the dramatic growth that we have witnessed in the documentary community, only a small fraction of documentarians can actually support themselves solely on their work. What can be done to address the challenges of sustainability?

There are only a few who can live off their documentaries. Nevertheless, I do believe filmmakers should address these challenges. The good news is that there is a huge industry now, which did not exist 30 years ago. I know that for filmmakers, it is crucial that their work reaches audiences. There are many streaming possibilities these days. There are a lot more opportunities online to showcase films. However, the funding does remain an issue. And I do not think that we will solve this problem in the coming ten years. There will always be a shortage of funding in the documentary industry. Nevertheless, it is important to stay independent. It is important to work with an array of different financiers - not only public television stations but also companies and non-governmental organisations, among many others. A documentary filmmaker's independence has to be guaranteed. And speaking of financing, some 60 to 70 films are pitched at our three-day Forum, and around 80% find financing. That gives some hope.

Do you have any advice for smaller festivals that are trying to build and connect to their audiences?

If you run a festival, the most important thing is the presence of directors at the festival. Invite them. If directors come with good films, you will have a compelling program, and then the rest of the industry will follow. Start with directors; do not start with the industry.

Sevara Pan is a Berlin-based film journalist and writer. She previously wrote for the leading European documentary magazine DOX, an initiative by European Documentary Network, and worked on the award-winning Pipeline (Dir.: Vitaly Manski) and The First Sea (Dir.:Clara Trischler).