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Ally Derks

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Close Ally - Ally Derks Interview

Speaking from Berlin, where she has been spending a year as a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy, Ally Derks, founder of IDFA and until very recently its director and guiding light, reflects on how the event that was launched 30 years ago has grown into one of the biggest and most influential documentary festivals in the world.

“First of all, we created this documentary family,” Derks says of the way in which IDFA has been turned into a gathering that everyone in the documentary community, whether filmmakers or distributors or commissioning editors, wants to attend. “I think that is something to be really proud of. Nobody 30 years ago expected it would get this big.”

The inaugural IDFA, which lasted for four days, sold 2000 tickets. There were 40 international guests and a staff of eight. Now, the event “started by three women,” has turned into a huge machine. These days it sells over 250,000 tickets, with over 500 volunteers on hand during the event.

“It’s not just a festival any more. It has become a real documentary institute,” she says, pointing out that the staff members are busy all the year round, not just for 10 days in November. Derks pays tribute to her old colleagues, whose passion and drive has helped transform IDFA into the festival it is today.

One enduring source of pride to Derks is the achievements of the IDFA Bertha Fund (formerly known as the Jan Vrijman Fund), which has kickstarted numerous projects from filmmakers in developing countries, among them such gems as 5 Broken Cameras and Ukrainian Sheriffs. The Fund has supported over 350 films since its launch in 1998 and has enabled a filmmaking infrastructure to spring up in some countries where there was previously no documentary tradition at all.

As for her own highlights over the last three decades, there are many. She takes satisfaction in films like Jos De Putter’s Solo Out Of A Dream, Hubert Sauper’s Darwin’s Nightmare or Leonard Retel Helmrich’s Shape Of The Moon, all of which started life in Amsterdam before traveling the world, picking up countless awards as they went. “In a way, IDFA sets the agenda for the rest of the film year,” she says, adding that it’s not just completed films that gain recognition – so do the projects presented in Forum to the international industry.

One of her obsessions was to ensure that filmmakers attended the festival. Without their presence, their documentaries would have been shown in a vacuum – and Derks has always insisted on debate and conversation. The screenings have only ever been the starting point.

Another goal was to include the younger audience – to show documentaries to kids and to get them media savvy. “Don’t take everything for granted. Watch films critically” has always been the message for the many school children and high school students who pack out screenings. (There were 12,000 kids in attendance last year.)

Not every trend in the documentary world is positive. Commissioning editors have far less money at their disposal than a decade ago. Some of the most famous ones (notably Storyville’s Nick Fraser) have retired or moved on to other things. Those who remain tend to focus more on home grown docs rather than backing projects from further afield. On the other hand, as Derks notes, new players like Netflix, Amazon and HBO have come into the arena.

Many of Derks’ most illustrious old friends from the documentary world will be in town for this year’s festival. Legends like D.A. Pennebaker and Fred Wiseman will be at IDFA to celebrate the festival’s 30th anniversary, to take part in debates – and to pay tribute to her. (On Nov 18, there will be a marathon interview involving Kim Longinotto, The Yes Men, Hubert Sauper and many others who lit up the festival during Derks’ tenure. Drinks will be served from Ally’s Cocktail Bar.)

As for Derks herself, she is looking forward to enjoying the festival as a guest. “I will have the opportunity to talk to a lot of people for longer than one or two minutes!” 

Geoffrey Macnab
SEE NL Magazine #29 November 2017 / IDFA Issue


SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.

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