IDFA’ 13: Syria, Southeast Asia and stand-up comedy

As the 26th annual International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) kicks off today, festival head Ally Derks (pictured) discusses the opening night film, and this year's focus on Southeast Asia and stand-up comedy.
November 20, 2013

As the 26th annual International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) kicks off, festival head Ally Derks (pictured) discusses the opening night film, and this year’s focus on Southeast Asia and stand-up comedy.

As the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) kicks off today (November 20) and runs until December 1, this year marks the first time a doc supported by the IDFA Bertha Fund for filmmakers from developing countries will open the festival.

Directed by Talal Derki, Return to Homs follows a pair of young revolutionaries in the embattled Syrian city of Homs who start out as peaceful protesters but eventually become armed insurgents.

“For the first time one of the films we’ve supported ourselves will be the opening film,” festival director Ally Derks tells realscreen. “We’re always a little bit shy to do that, but when we saw how 5 Broken Cameras did – which was also one of our funded films – we said ‘OK, we can do this.’

“It’s a tough film, but we’re a documentary festival. It’s not an opening with a lot of lust and fun but, on the other hand, that’s the nature of our business.”

She hopes the film will help refocus the conversation around the Syrian War and the people engaged in it who have been framed in the international community as jihadists.

“A lot of revolutionary fighters feel like they are abandoned by the rest of the world,” she adds. “Most of these kids really want a better life. That’s the only thing they want. I think the film will arouse a lot of discussion. It takes you inside this war. It’s a tough film and it’s heartbreaking.”

Derks and the organizers of the 26th annual Dutch event are expecting some 2,200 visiting guests across its industry programming, including the IDFA Forum, Docs for Sale and the IDFAcademy.

Filmmakers set to attend include Claude Lanzmann, Kevin Macdonald, Rithy Panh and Marina Goldovskaya.

Another film Derks is looking forward to is A Letter to Nelson Mandela, South African filmmaker Khalo Matabane’s exploration of the ways world leaders have interpreted the former South African president’s messages of freedom, truth and reconciliation. The doc features interviews with the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Joachim Gauck and Arundhati Roy, among others.

The film is one of 19 that will be followed by an extended Q&A with the director and experts. Others include Robert Stone’s doc on nuclear energy Pandora’s Promise, and Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie, which Derks expects will be a hot ticket in the bicycle-friendly city. The extended post-screening Q&A will feature sports experts and a psychiatrist.

IDFA is also casting a spotlight on emerging filmmakers from across Southeast Asia in a 14-film program. Additionally, Cambodian director Rithy Panh has selected this year’s Top 10, which will screen alongside a retrospective of his own work.

“Young kids [in Asia] don’t even bother with the money – they just make their films and put them on the internet, which is so important,” said Derks. “We in the West go to these countries and tell their stories, but it’s so much better when they tell their own stories. I hope commissioners will see these films and invest in these kids to give them their own voice.”

New to the festival this year is an eight-film program focused on stand-up comedy docs, which includes Whoopi Goldberg presents Moms Mabley, Marina Zenovich’s Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, and John Wager’s Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor.

In addition to lightening up a festival traditionally heavy on challenging subject matter, the program and its comedian guests will draw parallels between the documentary and stand-up mediums.

“Both reflect on reality and politics and are very engaged,” says Deeks. “Comedy is maybe not well represented in documentary, but it gives the whole genre a little bit of air.”

Earlier this week, IDFA added a series of events paying tribute to late documentary filmmaker and festival supporter Peter Wintonick, who coordinated the annual event’s talk shows and died on Monday (November 18).

From November 22-27, Deeks will look back on the career and achievements of Wintonick at daily Hi-Tea events at 4 p.m. in the Tuschinski cinema VIP lounge. On November 24 at 3 p.m., his friends and colleagues will get a chance to speak at a memorial event held at De Kroon.

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