How the IDFA Team Snatched Victory From the Jaws of Defeat in the Face of COVID-19

Damon Wise
·12-min read

The festival calendar has had its casualties in 2020, and after a brief glimmer of hope in the fall, with Venice and San Sebastian going ahead—almost—as normal, IDFA had high hopes of putting on a hybrid event that would balance physical and online events in almost equal measure. Sadly, in the final weeks before curtain-up, things changed drastically, putting a block on international visitors and even slashing the numbers permitted inside Amsterdam’s many and mostly quite sizable venues. The sudden return of lockdown would have been easier to deal with for a more parochial event, but the IDFA team were determined for the festival, along with its industry events, educational programs and markets, to maintain its global identity.

There have been glitches, but nothing serious, and, even with a week or so to go, it is clear that artistic director Orwa Nyrabia has delivered on his promise to keep the festival’s integrity alive. “I think what this year has shown,” he says, “is that with moral strength, we can take a year like this. We are still there, all of us, and we are still active in a way that is comparable to last year.” However, he insists, he is not yet ready to accept this year’s edition as the new normal: “It’s a solution for 2020,” he says. “It’s not a blueprint.”

To find out more about festival life in the time of COVID-19, Variety sat down for a Zoom call with Nyrabia, Isabel Arrate Fernandez, deputy director of IDFA and managing director of the IDFA Bertha Fund, and Adriek van Nieuwenhuijzen, head of IDFA’s industry section.

There’s obviously still some time to go, but how has this year felt? How would you describe it?

Arrate Fernandez: It’s an interesting question—I guess it also makes us immediately reflect on what we’ve lived through these last few months. The whole team was working so hard, particularly on the technical aspects, and we had no idea—we didn’t know what the result was going to be. And, actually, now that we can look back on it, with regards to the film program, the Forum, the Academy, and all the things that we did online … Well, of course there were technical problems, but, overall, it’s been really very good. I think we really managed to put it into a shape that worked online, but we didn’t know what to expect when we were working on it.

Van Nieuwenhuijzen: No, but we knew what we wanted to have. For example, when I speak for the Industry Program, I knew what we wanted to achieve, but because it was all in these—let’s say—new technical formats, it stayed quite unclear if it would work the way we thought it would work until it was really happening. [We had] the purpose, and the ideas, and the goals. Of course, now we can look back like and ask, “OK, so how was it for our guests?” Because it’s not about us—the Industry Program is really about [ensuring] that those people reach their goals, and their goals are, of course, networking, selling their films, and meeting people, which is one of the most important parts. Normally, people bump into each other and arrange their own meetings. But we understood from the beginning that that this was not going to happen this year, so we had to be even more proactive in making valuable connections for people.

Did you look at what other festivals had done this year and feel that you had a pathway going into this, or were you like the canary in the mine?

Van Nieuwenhuijzen: Of course, all festivals looked at each other over the past year. We were carefully observing, participating in other festivals and markets online. There was a joint effort by the Dutch festivals—we shared that information very carefully throughout the year.

Nyrabia: To see things in context, it’s worth remembering that, just three weeks before the festival started, we knew that we would have fewer guests than usual, but we thought that we would still have most of the European Union guests come over, and we thought that our cinemas would be accommodating more than a 50% occupancy rate. And then that became 30 people. And then it [turned out] that we could only receive seven [foreign] guests in total. But that last-minute change was not a disaster, because we had already been prepared, since March, to think about [different] scenarios. But, of course, we made our own discoveries throughout the experience. When the Forum started, we ended up learning so much in those three days. When IDFA Academy started, we quickly learned a lot too. We’ve had some technical glitches, for example, when so many people were watching [online] at the same time. This, we managed, to solve. But along the way, we learned an amazing amount of new things that would never come to mind, and that are partly more on the level of policy and philosophy [than technology].

How do you keep tabs on what people are doing in an online festival?

Nyrabia: We mediate that. Adriek?

Van Nieuwenhuijzen: In a normal year we set up meetings, and then, of course, we can see if people are sitting there at, say, table seven—it’s a very simple ritual. And [this year] we could monitor that through our website, so, if we planned a kind of a video conferencing room for people at, let’s say, 12 o’clock, we could see if people were joining from both sides. So there was a kind of an easy way to check if people were really meeting. Like every year, there were cancellations and requests to reschedule, but that’s business as usual. The [main] difference was the different time zones, but we knew from the beginning that we would have to deal with that, so we spread the markets out over more days, because there’s actually less time in the day when everyone can be active, so to speak. And, of course we also organized social events and hangouts, but we didn’t try to control that. We knew that people were there and that they were chatting, but, just like it is [in a normal year] in Amsterdam, we don’t know if that was fruitful or not. That’s just the nature of hanging out with people, and we don’t know what’s going to come out of that.

Arrate Fernandez: With a program like the IDFA Academy, for example, normally we have a 100 participants, then we put them in a building together and they follow, during four days, a full program, and then the [various] interactions follow from that. We knew that wouldn’t be possible this year, so, by making certain changes to the program, we tried to create another way for them to be together. So we had fewer participants, to make it more controllable, and we divided them into groups of 15. We gave each group a group mentor, and they would meet each day, at least once or twice with their group mentor, besides the sessions they were following. And that way, through the group mentors, we were getting the feedback of how people were experiencing the sessions, what they needed, and what changes needed to be made. So there was a constant monitoring, not so much in numbers, but in getting the feedback of how the participants were living through the whole program of IDFA Academy.

Did the time differences have any impact?

Arrate Fernandez: No, we soon adapted to time zones, and we have time zone specialists in our office now. [Laughs] No, really! For example, with IDFA Academy, we had four groups, and we knew that everybody from Europe to the East had to be in the two groups in the afternoon and that everybody from Europe to the other side had to be in the time zones in the morning. And it was the same with the Forum.

Did it affect the selection of the Forum in any way?

Van Nieuwenhuijzen: No. The selection was very diverse, and that is always the goal. And that’s also why we decided very early on to have an online Forum, because we knew that people from outside of Europe would not be able to travel [to Amsterdam]. And then, as Orwa explained, in the end, it turned out that no one at all could travel. But precisely because we are so keen on having not only a European gathering but really a worldwide coming-together, we decided early on to have it online and, indeed, take into account the time zones. But people are [very accommodating]. I mean, we had several Japanese people, and we asked them, “Do you not mind, even if it’s one o’clock in the morning [your time]?” and they said, “No, it’s not a problem.” They didn’t mind at all! They were very happy to help us out. And that went for everyone. People were really flexible.

Arrate Fernandez: As Adriek was saying, it was a key decision from the beginning, because it’s so much a part of what IDFA is. We wanted to keep that international participation and not suddenly, because of COVID-19, turn into a European-only event. From the very beginning, this was something that we wanted to keep and make possible.

Orwa, how did that affect the selection?

Nyrabia: I don’t think it affected the selection. The selection process was as usual—the films submitted to us, right until the deadline in the beginning of August, were films that did not begin their production during COVID-19. But we were already making use of technology to make our selection process more inclusive. This, I think, paid off very well at the end—when you look at the program, and even when you look at the awards lineup, you see the map of the world almost covered, which is a good outcome for years of work for the whole team. But, in a way, that is not connected to COVID-19. Nothing changed there. What changed was actually the experience of the audience and the experience of the filmmakers. We talked to many filmmakers and sales agents and distributors and so on, and we ended up with the decision that, no matter how small the audience, we needed a premiere in a cinema. That was key, no matter how symbolic. We did that and it was actually impressive. We developed a technical solution where the filmmakers could actually watch the cinema while their film was playing— they could always see the audience, and they could count if somebody left, and they could remember what they looked like and hate them as much as they wanted!

Arrate Fernandez: Really?

Nyrabia: Yeah! I mean, we had a filmmaker who was really angry at a couple who left in the middle of his film. Obviously, it’s not like being there, but it is at least a message to the filmmakers that we understand the difficulty and we are not ignoring this problem. So in this sense, I think we did the best possible job, not without glitches, but it was a good thing that we managed to make the filmmakers feel less estranged, less alienated.

Arrate Fernandez: My way of experiencing this in the last 10 days or so has really been through the point of view of filmmakers that had a film in the program, the ones supported by the IDFA Bertha Fund. And I think it worked really well to do it this way, particularly for their experience. I mean, most of the IDFA Bertha Fund films that are premiering in the program this year are first-time filmmakers, with a first film they’ve all spent five or six years working on. So this was the moment they were waiting for—they saw the audience walk in, they [saw the screening], they had an online Q&A. It’s not the same, but it was a way to create a special moment for them, for their film being launched.

How much of a physical audience are you seeing? Who’s actually attending?

Nyrabia: It’s many different audiences. You go to some films and you see older people, you go to other ones and you find younger people. I couldn’t get a total feel. Interestingly, the Classics had a young audience. That was very interesting for me, to see that the overall audience attending Robert Kramer’s “Route One/USA” (1989) or the Italian, black and white, four-and-a-half-masterpiece “Anna” [Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli, 1975] were, on average, in their mid-thirties, it was not older people. It’s the classical subject-based, socio-political subject-based films that are drawing an older average of people attending, which is, I find, very interesting because it’s kind of against the assumptions that people are generally making about the new generation.

Van Nieuwenhuijzen: That’s exactly why these classics are so important, I would argue—they are classics that should be known by everyone. So also the young generation, right?

Nyrabia: People are definitely showing up. It’s very limited, but we also have seven films going to 44 cinemas around the Netherlands, and each cinema is doing two and three screenings for each one of these seven films. This is another way of outreach, because you can also go, as one of 30 people, to watch a film in your own town, rather than watch it at home online. All of these screenings are already almost sold out, and it’s an interesting experiment. I think, in the same way we will think about how we include online screenings in a post COVID-19 era, we will also think how we can protect this kind of outreach to cinemas around the country. Both are learning curves.

More from Variety

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.