When you think of a film festivals, it’s likely you picture the red-carpeted premieres and posing celebrities of Cannes’ A-list jamboree. But every November, the documentary world descends on Amsterdam for the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, commonly known as IDFA.
Last year, more than a quarter of a million people saw one of the 300 films shown at 14 locations across the city. Now in its 30th year, the festival continues to go from strength to strength, helped by a huge upsurge in interest in documentary as an artistic medium (driven by platforms like Netflix which have made it even more accessible).
“30 years ago, documentary was pretty niche,” says IDFA’s creative director Barbara Visser. “You’d rarely see them on television, and the internet didn’t exist yet. But the media landscape has changed so much, it’s had huge consequences for documentary.
“They used to be all about reporting on issues, but today we even question the news. We don’t believe you can capture something as an objective truth anymore. Filmmakers realize documentary is not documentation, but capturing the story you want to tell.”
In turbulent times, it feels like documentaries have a different role, and maybe a different responsibility. By showing us new perspectives on the world, the films selected for IDFA (from the thousands of applications) give us new frameworks through which to measure and balance our own experiences.
But that doesn’t mean every film has to be very serious and heavy – take The Record Breaker, a charming film about the man who holds the World Record for breaking the most World Records, including the highest mountain climbed on stilts and the longest time for balancing a lawnmower on someone’s chin.
Other films though do take on bigger issues, especially in the festival’s curated strands which bring together different takes on the same theme. For example Shifting Perspective: The Arab World offers new ways of looking at the Middle East, seeking to correct the image portrayed by western media by letting local filmmakers tell their own stories.
It brings nuanced and individual tales to the forefront, such as Checks & Balances, about Maleck Bensmaïl’s intriguing experiences in the newsrooms of independent newspaper El Watan.
The festival also unpicks the medium of documentary itself. Camera in Focus consists of a series of films and discussions about cinematography, exploring how the technical aspects of filmmaking affect the story that ends up on screen.
Barbara thinks that getting away from the idea that documentaries have to be an objective documentation of reality is one of the most exciting changes in the scene. Once you accept all films are subjective in some way, the emphasis shifts more to the aesthetic qualities, and brings documentary closer to art.
“Yes, you probably walk out of the cinema having learned something new, but what we show at IDFA should feel like a unique encounter that’ll change your perspective on life,” she says. “You can’t achieve this by merely showing facts and data on a screen, you need to be a good filmmaker to be able to do that.”