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Why IDFA Founder Ally Derks is the High Priestess of Documentaries

IDFA's Ally Derks on the Rise of the Pop-doc

As founder and head of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, Ally Derks presides over one of the year’s most anticipated annual nonfiction film events. Now in its 24th year and under way through next weekend, Derks has witnessed first-hand the rise, evolution and challenges of documentary.

Indiewire caught up with Derks to discuss the rise of the “pop-doc,” how opening film “The Ambassador” almost didn’t make it to an IDFA screen and a tease on what may come next year for their 25th anniversary.

The opening night film was almost shut down because of a lawsuit, but “The Ambassador” went ahead. Was this the first time this happened?

Of course we expected arousement around this film, but didn’t expect it to go this far. We do get letters every year from people threatening a lawsuit to stop films. Two years ago, it was about “Stolen,” a Moroccan film and their embassy threatened to sue us, but usually we just ignore their threats — and that wasn’t an opening film. But this guy this year was very serious, so we took our lawyer by the hand. And this guy who was in the film made a big mistake and went on public television with his story and you saw his name and his face, so it was too late. We didn’t have to blur his face, which is what he wanted. So we just released a note saying that one of the protagonists of the film didn’t like the film.

And now “Pink Ribbon,” which we saw in Toronto and we showed to some journalists here in Holland, and they started researching Pink Ribbon Holland, which is even worse than Pink Ribbon in North America. And now Pink Ribbon is trying to sue this television program that investigated them here. In North America, only about 20% of the money raised is given over to cancer research. And you see all these women running for cancer, jumping for cancer and dancing for cancer.

That is shocking to me, I just assumed there was more money going for cancer research.

We always [used this] pink thing, and now we hear that even the money isn’t used for cancer research. Really upsetting.

So you’re having the 24th edition of the festival this year, what are some broad changes you’ve noticed over that time?

A lot has changed. In 1988 we still had 16mm and 35mm. Now everything is digitized. I think we have only one 16mm film this year. Also [the content] is completely different – they’re less dogmatic, really entertaining, provoking and even the ‘casting’ in documentary is really fantastic. We call them “Pop Docs,” and “Docutainment,” docs that have larger appeal and craftsmanship. Also the broad docs about climate change, globalization, 9/11, religion have turned to smaller stories that reflect the big picture.

Do you or the festival have a definition of a documentary?

I think the best one is the creative interpretation of reality with a personal view. You can go everywhere.

Are there particular regions of the world that you find exciting as far as producing nonfiction?

For years, the Danish have produced great films. This year, of course, we have “The Ambassador” as our opening film and there’s also “Ballroom Dancing” in our First Appearances section. It’s a small country, and I don’t know how but they find the financing to tell a great story and they’re international. Also we’re looking to China and Asia. They’re getting much better.

Brazil, which is a focus this year has an extreme difference between rich and poor. Ten years ago, Brazilian cinema was buried, and now there are fantastic filmmakers. And again, less dogmatic.

I noticed some new programs you’ve launched this year including the afternoon High Tea you host with Peter Wintonick.

It’s an intimate small thing. Everything is so big and official here and serious, so this is chit-chat for a half hour, not only about the films but about life.

I think people have a preconception about documentary festivals about being overly serious and of course some of that should be serious, but I feel like this festival and others like True/False in the United States have created innovative ways to make the overall atmosphere fun.

I think it’s very important; I’m a person with humor. Of course you take life seriously, but you can’t always take everything so seriously because then you won’t survive through it. And now we’re so much bigger and we’ve missed some of the things we had when we were smaller, so we’ve started some events like High Tea. There are 340 films now, though the program hasn’t gotten bigger, but we show in more and more venues so we don’t have as many sellouts so quickly. Now the problem is that we don’t have enough people moderating over 1,000 Q&As. And it’s a good challenge though because I think this year, we had about 95% of the directors who came, which is great.

After this year’s done and you’re looking to your 25th edition, what sort of philosophical parameters do you give to your programmers?

I don’t really instruct my viewers. They’re not really the programmers because I program. I don’t see all the films because we got 3,600 films submitted this year. There are 50 people who see the films before me. I ask them about tendencies, so we know what’s not there. There were not so many about climate change this year, for example. There are around 600 films that I see and I have this “helicopter view.” It’s like building a statue. If there’s something missing here, then you add something there so there is a balance. We also look at the docs themselves so that there are some from investigative journalists, but also have cinematic masterpieces, or action. At the end of the day, I’m responsible for the programming.

And again, the tendencies this year are what we call the “Pop Docs,” really films that are entertaining for large audiences but still very good and not without content, but maybe in a way are [presented] lighter. Barbara Kopple, Joe Berlinger, Morgan Spurlock, [2011 IDFA film] “Putin’s Kiss.” All these are examples of where this is coming from and we’re going to talk about this as a topic [this week] during one of our talks.

Do you think there’s an element of escapism right now maybe because of hard economic times in both Europe and the United States?

It’s what you also saw during the interbellum between the two world wars in other art forms. There was almost a real decadence then. There’s like a live theater.

Next year at 25 will be momentous event.

Yeah, I’m waiting for people to ask me when am I going to stop.

Oh, I wasn’t going to ask that… Don’t stop!

Thank you! (laughs). That’s really nice, I don’t want to hear that. But one thing we’re going to have next year is a documentary ball and it will be really beautiful. We already have the venue and everyone’s going to be invited.

I was talking to Peter [Wintonick] and heard that ticket sales have been really brisk this year, despite the economy.

Well, one thing is great is that it’s cheaper than other areas of entertainment, it’s still only €10. Box office is still going well. We’re hoping for 210,000 sold tickets this year. Last year was 180,000, but we’ll see this week. This is the first year that people have been able to buy tickets through the internet, so the queues are much smaller.

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