Documentary’s gatekeepers are playing it awfully safe lately, in the estimation of Orwa Nyrabia, artistic director of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, the world’s largest documentary film festival.
In conversation with Deadline before the start of the 36th edition of the festival, Nyrabia assessed the landscape of nonfiction film, finding streaming platforms and other distributors inordinately risk averse.
“I think post pandemic especially, it seems like everybody in the distribution space is really striving to make up lost money,” he told Deadline. “And this is translating into really only betting on very, very clearly winning horses. So, everybody is looking for films with preexisting IP. I mean, they don’t say so. But when I look at what it is that is really working [for them], it is all about celebrities who have their audience predefined, and when that’s not possible, then relying on preset formats such as serial killers and crime. In a way this is about relying on the safest bets.”
He observed, “To me, this is another phase of populism, even if these films were against populism politically, but they are populist as films.”
Nyrabia said his goal for the festival is to present a lineup that’s “different in the sense that it is extremely fresh, and it is not what the market says it’s looking for. It’s what we think the market should be looking for.” [We spoke a few days before Wednesday night’s opening ceremony which was interrupted by pro-Palestinian demonstrators. You can read about the controversy that ensued here].
“Our job as a festival, as I understand it, is to be intriguing and playing this game of intrigue together with the market, saying, ‘Maybe you are wrong. Look at this film and look me in the eye and tell me it’s not great. And should you not take a risk on this film?’” he commented. “In recent years — and I think this is pandemic and post pandemic — a huge amount of cowardice can hit my dear distribution friends. I think this is a mistake because they cannot all live off Taylor Swift and so on and so forth. I mean, there needs to be some courage.”
This “safety first” mentality is not limited to U.S. platforms and distributors, Nyrabia said.
“I think the American market has this problem, but the European market is no better today,” he observed. “The European market used to be more adventurous and to see more localized interest in particular films and themes and so on. And that is becoming less and less noticeable to me post pandemic. So, I think everybody in post pandemic is trying to be as populist as they can.”
He added that such a strategy is “not going to work. It not only negates the actual ethos behind this profession, it also is pragmatically not going to work.”
The festival, which runs through Nov. 19, is providing a showcase for 250 films that originate from virtually every corner of the globe.
“It’s our most international to date,” Nyrabia declared.
By way of example, he pointed to 1489, a film premiering in International Competition from director Shoghakat Vardanyan, “a first-time filmmaker from Armenia who made this brilliant film. It’s a very urgent film that is at the same time very personal. It’s the story of how she and her family are waiting for news about her brother who was lost on the frontline in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Also in competition is The Clinic from director Midi Z, a Myanma native now based in Taiwan who is best known for his narrative oeuvre, including Ice Poison.
“Midi Z is a filmmaker whose fiction works were often in Cannes,” Nyrabia said. “And now he made this brilliant documentary film that is a bit — it’s not [quite] hybrid because the hybrid element is that it actually has a film being made inside the film. And next to that you find the Indian master Anand Patwardhan, who’s not new to any of this scene [his film playing in International Competition at IDFA is titled The World Is Family]. So to me, this is the adventure — to have a film by a first time filmmaker [Shoghakat Vardanyan] next to a film by a great, famous filmmaker.”
IDFA opened Wednesday night with the world premiere of A Picture to Remember, a film set in Ukraine directed by Olga Chernykh. Nyrabia called the documentary “very brave artistically, but also as a film that is, in one aspect of it, a personal film on the filmmaker and her family. It’s a film that carries you there but is not in any way a propagandist take, it’s not a film that’s telling you the old views. It’s taking you to the human experience within this crushing reality [of war].”
Palestinian filmmaker Mohamed Jabaly, who lives in Gaza, premieres his new film Life Is Beautiful, which documents his experience trying to work on a film project in Norway in 2014. While he was abroad, the border to Gaza was shut indefinitely, stranding him in the Scandinavian country. But, as the IDFA program notes, “[T]he Norwegian government would not accept his Palestinian passport, meaning that Jabaly was now stateless.”
“It is a brilliant film… It is not a piece of propaganda. It is a piece of sincere sharing of experience with the audience and that is very valuable,” Nyrabia said. He noted the context in which Jabaly would be attending IDFA, in the wake of the devastating October 7 Hamas attack on Israeli civilians and Israel’s retaliatory bombing and invasion of Gaza that has claimed thousands of lives. “My job here is to make sure that he is safe,” Nyrabia said of Jabaly. “Make sure that someone in such a very difficult moment of his life with his family all under bombardment, coming to show a film from the heart to an audience that he doesn’t know with professionals around and buyers and potential exhibitors — I need to make sure that he is protected and that he can still feel that it is a safe space for him.”
Nyrabia described the selection of a film set in Gaza for the 2023 IDFA program as “kismet, serendipity… whatever you want to call it… We finished our programming work way before [the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel]. So we are not in the business of direct response. We’re not first responders.”
There is, however, a sense in which nonfiction filmmakers, with their acute antennae, serve almost as “pre-responders,” going on the ground in places today that may explode in the future. For instance, in 2017 IDFA programmed Simon Lereng Wilmont’s The Distant Barking of Dogs, a film that showed the impact of the Russian-backed separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine years before Russia’s full-scale invasion. Last year, the festival screened Guy Davidi’s Innocence, a film that examines the militarization of Israeli society. The documentary left viewers with little reason to hope for peace between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
“I said it and I keep saying it, if you’ve been watching documentary films, you would’ve known for a long time that this was happening soon because many filmmakers in their films from Palestine and from Israel and from other places, too many filmmakers made it very clear to all of us long time ago that this was going to happen. That if this is reality [now], then this is tomorrow. If this is today, then this is tomorrow,” Nyrabia stated. “And that’s it. We didn’t listen.”
Nyrabia indicated his observation should not be construed as political. The point he was making is that documentary filmmakers, on the ground around the world, are training a keen eye on the human condition.
“I’m really giving the space [at IDFA] to this collective voice of filmmakers,” he noted. “They care about the world, that’s why they chose this profession.”
Nyrabia was born in Syria and studied acting in Damascus. In 2007 he produced his first documentary, Dolls: A Woman From Damascus, directed by his wife, Diana El Jeiroudi. When protests against the Assad regime in Syria broke out in 2011, in the early days of the Arab Spring, Nyrabia was among a distinguished group of international film professionals who published a letter demanding democracy in Syria. A year later, the Assad government arrested and jailed him.
IDFA’s artistic director appears to think similarly to the late critic Roger Ebert, who famously described film as an “empathy machine,” a way “to step into someone else’s shoes or experience a perspective that the real world could never allow,” as Ebert’s website puts it.
“I grew up in Syria, we grew up with Israel as the absolute enemy. Where I grew up, Israel was [justified as] the reason why we have dictatorship – “Because it’s necessity, we are under threat, continuous war threat.” Until, smuggling VHS tapes [into Syria] of brilliant Israeli films made one much more open and realize that this is not a kind of homogeneous enemy creature that you have to hate. It’s so much more rich than that. And there are brilliant people [in Israel] and there are critical people and there are many different kinds of wonderful people to be friends with, and not only the occupation. There is the occupation, but then there’s also all of this richness that is normal to any human society.”
He added, “This is what film did to me. It saved me from chauvinism and counter chauvinism.”