My IDFA: A First-Timer Reflects

Last month, our researcher Curtis Gallant represented Whicker’s World Foundation at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). Curtis reflects on his time there and tells other first-timers what to expect from the festival.

2017 marked the 30th edition of IDFA, and one of the world’s most important documentary festivals was bigger than ever before. More than 300 films were screened and thousands of documentary professionals descended on Amsterdam for the twelve-day festival. I had the enjoyable task of informing documentary makers about the foundation’s Film & TV Funding Award. My opening line of “are you interested in documentary funding?” was unanimously met with “yes” and documentary makers were delighted to find out that our top prize is worth €90,000. In an industry where funding can be so scarce, our awards represent a game-changing amount of money to documentary makers trying to get their films made.

One of the most important pieces of advice about IDFA is to plan out your trip in advance. Accommodation in Amsterdam can be very expensive for that period and is snapped up quickly. Most of the screenings and events take place in the vicinity of Rembrandtsplein, but Amsterdam is a very easy city to walk (or cycle) around. One should try to arrange some meetings before arriving at IDFA: convenient places to meet are Café de Jaren and Arti et Amicitiae. However, you should also leave enough time to schedule meetings with people that you meet at the festival. It’s useful to have a distinguishing item of clothing (I wore a purple scarf): that way you don’t waste 10 minutes looking for the person you’re meeting. If there are specific documentaries or events that you are especially keen to attend, these should also be booked early. On a more practical note, make sure that you bring an umbrella: Amsterdam in November can be very rainy (and I say this as a Londoner).

There are so many opportunities for networking at IDFA: the person wearing a lanyard next to you might just be the one who can help get your documentary made. Two daily events that I found particularly useful for meeting people are the Docs for Sale Happy Hour and Guests Meet Guests. I met with people working in every part of the industry and from every continent (though no Antarctic penguins showed up). You will find yourself whizzing from meeting to event to screening: the days at IDFA can be packed and you will likely find yourself burning the candle at both ends.

When you look at the programme, you will see a hugely eclectic mix of documentaries being screened. IDFA features films of various lengths, made by directors with different levels of experience from all around the world. There is so much happening at IDFA and so many interesting people to meet. I’m glad that I attended the festival for a substantial amount of time because it allowed me to fit in so much more.

One of the most captivating films was one that I saw on my first night in Amsterdam. ‘Insha’Allah Democracy’ by Mohammed Ali Naqvi is a documentary about recent Pakistani politics. Naqvi had excellent access, filming former leader Pervez Musharraf for a number of years, in exceptionally candid settings. The way that Naqvi tells the story of Pakistan’s recent history is fascinating and highly personal: he skilfully crafts a film full of both hilarious and tragic moments.

One of the documentaries which I was most impressed by wasn’t even made this year. ‘Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment’ (1963) is a remarkable film which is ahead of its time. Focussing on John F. Kennedy’s battle with George Wallace to desegregate Alabama’s universities, it has perhaps the most extraordinary access I have ever seen. The filmmakers were allowed to record candid conversations in the Oval Office itself. They reveal how the Kennedy brothers reacted behind the scenes of a landmark event in the Civil Rights Movement. In addition, they simultaneously follow Governor Wallace and the two black students whom he tried to block from enrolling. Moreover, the way it is shot feels like it was made this decade, rather than 54 years ago. Instead of a stiff newsreel style, the film is cinéma verite: it focuses less on the words of the protagonists and more on the emotions etched onto their faces as they fill the screen. This film is regarded as a landmark of direct cinema and rightfully so: I highly recommend it to all documentarians.

Throughout the festival, you will have the opportunity to rate the documentaries that you watch on a scale from 1-7. On IDFA’s website, you are able to track which documentaries are getting the most praise: On my last day, I was able to book a ticket to the film which was, at that point, leading the way in the audience award: ‘Muhi: Generally Temporary’. Ultimately, it was pipped on the final day by ‘Deaf Child’ whose director Alex de Ronde took home the €5,000 award. ‘Muhi’ follows the life of the eponymous boy: a Palestinian quadruple amputee who is stuck in an Israeli hospital. It is an emotional rollercoaster – a documentary which is simultaneously heart-breaking and uplifting. By taking it down to such a personal level, the film explores how the conflict affects every aspect of people’s lives. Furthermore, the characters are incredible: Muhi himself is the soul of the film, but the relationship between his Palestinian grandfather and his Israeli friend shows how, even in such desperation, the way to peace is tangible. It was excellent to be able to ask questions to the filmmakers, Rina Castelnuovo-Hollander and Tamir Elterman, after the screening.

At the Vlaams Cultuurhuis Brakke Grond, one can experience so many innovative and ground-breaking types of documentary. I tried VR for the first time at IDFA – I highly recommend it to anyone who has not experienced it before (the viewing slots booked up very quickly). Occasionally, the Virtual Reality can seem gimmicky and doesn’t really add much to the experience. However, some of the films used it very powerfully, particularly ‘Bloodless’ which highlighted the dangers faced by Korean sex workers and ‘The Last Chair’ which was an intimate portrait of elderly Dutch people.

Of course, Whicker’s World Foundation is not just about filmed documentaries, we also have our audio awards. There were two audio walks available at IDFA this year. One of them (‘It Must Have Been Dark By Then’) invites you to create a map by walking around the city. As someone who specialised in cartography at university, this was very much up my street. However, my mapmaking was curtailed by a torrential hailstorm! The other one, ‘I Swear To Tell The Truth’ focuses on honesty and how fake news is affecting our understanding of current affairs, such as the Syrian Civil War. Whilst some of it was slightly silly, overall it had a powerful effect. Because you are in charge of what happens, the audio walks were so much more personal than watching a film.

I also attended a DocLab event which exhibited different ways that technology can be used, from human alarm clocks to a smartphone orchestra. The event ended with a showcase of DuoDisco, an app where only one other person is dancing to the same song and you have to figure out who. There was a live leaderboard and I managed to win the competition by getting the most matches (though I don’t think this is necessarily indicative of my dancing ability). IDFA featured such a fascinating range of films and exhibits at the cutting edge of documentary making: I definitely recommend experiencing some of them between meetings and events.

One of the things you will need to decide well in advance is what sort of ticket you plan to purchase. Different tickets entitle one to attend certain events and should be chosen based upon what you hope to achieve at IDFA. The most reasonably priced passes are the Festival Pass Light (€125 plus VAT) and the Press Pass (€50 plus VAT). For more information on this and other issues, visit IDFA’s website:

I attended the IDFA Forum, the sessions of which were packed and full of lots of interesting people and projects. The pitches were on a wide variety of topics and even included some crossmedia projects. In one session, I was seated immediately behind the pitchers and I was very impressed by their ability to explain their projects while encircled by 30 intimidating panellists. Top decision makers from around the world were on the panel and those lucky enough to pitch their projects were given an outstanding opportunity.

Two of the pitches at the Forum especially stood out, receiving rapturous applause in the Compagnietheater and heaps of praise from the panel. One was a Chilean production by Maite Alberdi called ‘The Mole Agent’. It is the well-observed and humorous tale of a pensioner going into a nursing home as an undercover agent, in order to examine how the elderly are cared for. The other was ‘Writing with Fire’ by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas. It is the powerful story of an Indian journalist standing up to the patriarchy by challenging politicians on their failure to investigate crimes against women. The panel were falling over themselves to be involved with this project: ‘Writing with Fire’ is definitely one to watch.

I had a wonderful time in Amsterdam but for first-timers, the expense can certainly be a major challenge. Nonetheless, I would thoroughly recommend that anyone working in documentary making, or even those with an interest in documentaries, should attend IDFA.

Mini Whicker’s top tip is to set aside some time for clothes shopping!


Written by Curtis Gallant