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Doc Edge 2013: Superhero Ally Derks

Ally Derks has “the best job in the world”. As founder (1988) and director of the largest and most significant documentary festival in the world, she gets to choose the films that will play to an audience of up to 250,000 who invade Amsterdam annually for IDFA – the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam.

What makes the job so wonderful for her is that she has 15 underlings (my word, not hers – such a generously spirited soul would never describe anyone in such terms) to view the 3,500 or so entries each year and prune out the dross. Each film is viewed by at least 2 people, and if they agree it is referred to her to be considered among the 600 from which she selects the IDFA programme. Given that there are only 365 days in most years, it’s no wonder that she has little time for watching other genres of film, such as drama. How frustrating then it must have been for her when she and her husband took time out to watch Mission Impossible, only to find it “incredibly boring”.

Ally Derks was invited to New Zealand by the directors of the Documentary Edge Festival so that they could present her with their inaugural Documentary International Superhero award, to add to her previous award as Doc Mogul (Toronto 2011), amongst many others.

Festival co-director Alex Lee, who was a judge on one of the IDFA juries last year, described her in his introduction as extraordinarily inspirational. He referred to how over 25 years Ally has changed the landscape for documentary in Holland, developing the festival into an event that turns Amsterdam into “IDFA City”.

The “generosity of spirit that Ally brings to every conversation” (Lee) was evident immediately when she described herself as not working alone but being part of a team; but perhaps more substantially in her belief that as filmmakers we must co-operate with our colleagues around the world – this being exemplified in the encouragement and the practical support she offers to other festivals such as NZ’s Doc Edge.

In an environment where there already existed a number of film festivals, Ally saw the need for a special festival focusing purely on documentary. In 1988 she applied to the Dutch government for a grant and was astounded when she was immediately given 300,000 guilders (equivalent to €150,000) in order to create one. In the first year they screened 60 films, with a special focus on Russia; the total audience was 2,000. Nowadays they sell more than 210,000 tickets every year, and their annual budget has grown to €4.5 million.

This budget includes a fund for filmmakers in developing countries.

From the industry point of view, one particular development turned IDFA into a critically important event – the Industry Forum, a gathering that enables filmmakers to talk to each other and to their audience. IDFA was the first to create an event that is now copied by festivals all over the world. IDFA’s forum was also the first to incorporate a pitching competition, which attracts 400 delegates and has 40 commissioning editors at the table. Clearly this is very scary experience for pitching directors, but also very effective.

For Ally Derks, documentary filmmaking is most definitely art form. Since English is her third language, when speaking publicly in it she often prefers to express her more complex thoughts by referencing native English-language writers, and is particularly fond of quoting a close friend, Canadian filmmaker and activist Peter Wintonick. A sample of his writing on docos as art:

In Truth, documentary is the informational art, the art of information, the art of reality considered.
Art, and especially the art of documentary, can shed light into the dark corners of these dark times.
Art, in all its incarnations and cultural iterations, can fill a people with the inspiration and the means to see its way forward.
Art, however it is defined, can turn us into true, active and creative citizens.
The documentary art shows us that another world is possible. A world where films can change the world. A world where free expression is possible. A world where there are no walls, no barriers, no limits to free speech, no economic impediments to creativity.
It is art that should take its proper place at the centre of all decisions about what our country is, and what it can become.

Not only does Ally Derks regard long-form documentary as an art form, she also believes that as such, a doco should be able to find its own natural structure and length, rather than having these dictated by the demands of television, for example. But at the same time, she’s well aware how the younger generation often prefers to view their doco material on platforms other than the cinema screen. She described how her own teenage offspring are more comfortable with their smartphones and tablets than with traditional formats.

Outlining the history of television in representing reality back to us, she noted that with the reduction of television information presentation to soundbites with no depth, and with no stories of the real people behind the soundbites, the need for documentary nowadays has become even more critical. Documentary takes its time, and in so doing places human communication at the heart of democracy.

Asserting that documentary is just as exciting as any fiction, Ally finds nothing makes her happier than being in a crowd coming out of a cinema talking excitedly and discussing the film they’ve just seen.

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