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Festival pass

After presenting An Accidental Berliner in Dok Leipzig’s market event, Tony Forster headed for IDFA. He reflects on the similarities and differences between two of Europe’s premier doco-focused events.

An Accidental Berliner

An Accidental Berliner: East German passport! West German beer!

In Leipzig, participating in the DOK Markt there, I was told that the relaxed atmosphere that pervades DOK Leipzig was in complete contrast to the “hysteria” that prevails at IDFA – which I thought stood for International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam, but turns out to include the world “Film” in the middle. IDFFA?

There certainly were a heck of a lot more people attending Amsterdam’s doco fest compared to Leipzig’s – IDFA runs almost twice as long, with almost twice as many films as Leipzig.

This year IDFA sold over a quarter of a million tickets to more than 60,000 people for documentary film screenings. This in a city with the same population in its greater metropolitan area as Auckland’s. To cope with these numbers the festival plays up to 15 venues playing at once. On the second Friday there were 14 sessions that did not finish until after midnight – many of which had Q&A sessions following the screening.

Certain films were granted an “Extended Q&A”, but I was surprised to find that the standard Q&A tended to be considerably shorter than we expect in New Zealand, and the so-called Extended Q&A was not much longer, if any longer at all.

Edward Snowden biopic CitizenFour was extremely popular in both festivals, although director Laura Poitras did herself no favours by being a no-show for a workshop in Leipzig, then refusing to answer questions from the Amsterdam audience relating to the $250 million deal that she and Glenn Greenwald have made with the founder and owner of Paypal – the organization which prevented donations going to WikiLeaks, claiming that they were “a threat to national security”!

Both these festivals are about more than screenings for the public. Both festivals have a market attached: “DOK Markt” in Leipzig, and “Docs for Sale” at IDFA. In both cases the markets offer conference and workshops sessions. Most are restricted to registered market participants; but some are open to festival “Guests”.

I attended Leipzig as a result of being invited to have my film, An Accidental Berliner, in the market there. It was fortunate that they were willing to accept a film that is not quite complete – no such luck with Amsterdam, which accepts only fully-completed films for their market.

And so I experienced a stark illustration of how easy it is to enjoy productive meetings with a variety of festival directors, distributors, sales agents, and television commissioners when you are participating in the market; and how difficult it is – nigh on impossible – if your film is not actually in the market.

IDFA's vertigo-inducing venue

A vertigo-inducing IDFA venue

Although I was not able to attend some of the industry events at IDFA, I was able to enjoy many of the industry talks.

Given that there seemed to be so many first-time documentary makers at IDFA, there was one service that I was surprised was not more heavily patronized. This was the Doc Clinic – a room where one could have solo, face-to-face meetings with an expert in whatever aspect of distribution or sales in which you might need advice.

One bonus of being an official “festival guest” was access to a Writing Room. Free use of computers, if you didn’t have your own… And the real bonus here was unlimited coffee – made by a rather large machine that ground its beans freshly for every cup.

Given the proliferation of social events which tend to finish in the early hours at 3am, good coffee, and plenty of it, was essential to take advantage of industry sessions the 9am starts.

The IDFA Filmmakers’ Breakfasts, the early evening social events and the almost nightly sponsored parties are supposed to be where you’re likely to bump into your next important collaborator, be that a producer, director, distributor or whatever.

Another producer and I, neither of whom could be described as spring chickens, worked out that there was a certain attitudinal expectation operating quite widely. If you were middle-aged (or older), you were sure to be on the sales and distribution side; if you were younger you were a filmmaker. As a result, when people were on the scout at these social gatherings for potentially useful strangers to meet, we were invariably approached by younger people!

I had some fascinating discussions with filmmakers from different parts of the world – places I have never been, places where life tends to be considerably more “exciting” than in Godzone, one might say.

Meanwhile the sales and distribution people seemed to be only interested in the younger ones present – of whom there were a heck of a lot. IDFA claimed 2986 official guests. I’d guess that some 90%+ were filmmakers, so the competition to find a distributor/sales agent/commissioner was pretty fierce.

In business terms, IDFA was not as productive for me as the Dok Markt at Leipzig, but nevertheless I had a damn good time – not least of which was becoming part of the Hip Hop-eration support team – and getting to see over 30 films.

One of the biggest pleasures of IDFA, for those of us new to Amsterdam, was the discovery of the extraordinary Tuschinski cinema. Built in 1921 by a Polish Jew who ended up perishing in Auschwitz, it offers a spectacular mix of styles including Jugendstil, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Auckland has its Civic; Amsterdam has the equally unique Tuschinski.


IDFA’s programming is reputedly more mainstream than Leipzig, though with a distinctive political edge; Leipzig presents itself as offering more experimental or innovative titles. In both festivals’ 2014 editions there were strong programming threads around three of the world’s most urgent issues: the current situations in Syria and the Ukraine, plus mass surveillance by governments and whistleblowers. On such themes, films I would hope to see in New Zealand include Drone, The Forecaster, Silenced and, of course, CitizenFour.

I had no idea until these festivals just how many American whistleblowers there have been, not just recently but over some decades. Drone focuses on one; Silenced features several. The Forecaster introduces us to Martin Armstrong and his extraordinarily accurate economic predictions, which, if he continues to be so correct, could potentially blow our present economic system out of the water. Watch out for October 2015!

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