The Doyenne Of Documentaries

Ally Derks, the founder and director of IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, is passionate about many things…..but documentaries are high on the list. Since 1988, she has been the forceful and formidable Executive Director of the world’s largest and arguably most influential non-fiction film festival, forever expanding the services that IDFA offers not only for 10 days in November  but throughout the year. IDFA is one of a handful of festival events that has embraced new technology with all its complexity and multiple layers. Via IDFATV and IDFAOnline, there is an “all day everyday” representation of the organization and the documentary format that reaches way behind the confines of Amsterdam. Derks has also established a truly pragmatic and functional market sidebar Docs For Sale, which deals really do happen. IDFA is an event where a documentarian can find funding for his/her next project and a sales agent can make multiple deals to sell their work to eager buyers the world over.

When she was awarded the Doc Mogul prize at last May’s Hot Docs, the prestigious Toronto-based documentary festival, presenter after presenter praised Derks for her passionate and unflagging dedication over the past 25 years in championing the documentary industry, both nationally and internationally, and especially for supporting freedom of expression by providing a platform for filmmakers from countries ruled by repressive regimes. In accepting the award, Derks shared that her work at IDFA and promoting international documentary film is “a way of life.”’ She expressed thanks and dedicated the award to her mentor, Jan Vrijman, who supported her when she started IDFA in 1988 and whose name is attached to a fund that supports documentary work with development monies for documentarians from the “third world”.

There is no greater spokesperson or champion for freedom of expression and support for documentary filmmakers. She is currently using her substantial clout to point to human rights abuses for aspiring filmmakers in repressive regimes and to take on European bureaucrats who are looking to cut cultural funding down to the bone. As she opened the 2011 IDFA yesterday at Amsterdam’s historic Tuschinski Theater, her speech was, as usual, full of strength, resolve and optimism. She encourages us to be aware of what is happening around us and to fight for what we believe in. It roused the audience, so I am happy to share it with you:

“Last year, on this stage, I stood and talked about the yellow ribbon campaign to save the art and cultural institutions in this city ….. in this country, in Europe …… in the World….. across the Universe… Well, it didn’t help much. Over the last 12 months, the cultural sector won a few battles, but lost a few others. We are not yet over the dark days for culture. Our documentary industry has been rocked by the winds of change. Some of our brother and sister organizations are living with an uncertain future.

Here at IDFA, we are a bit luckier. We’ve been granted status as one of Holland’s major cultural institutions. But we’ve had to a price to pay. We’ve had to cut our budget – and some of our Jan Vrijman Fund, which has financed 370 films in the developing world. Our supporters in the City and the National Government are taking a long-term view. This will allow IDFA to sustain itself – at least for a few years. So, we all are very thankful to the City and the National ministries for that.

When we look back, it has been an incredible year. A year of upheaval. Osama bin Laden is dead. Economies and climates are melting down. All over the world, revolutionary spirit is in the air. People across the Arab world are rising up against corruption and dictatorship. From Occupy Wall Street to the streets of Amsterdam and Athens … 99 percent of people are fed up with the greed that drives our financial system. We are living in a time of both fear – and empowerment. Of action and apathy. We move between the shopping mall and the poor house. From the cabaret of beautiful diversions to the cinema of wishful thinking.

In this context, there is even a greater need for documentary in this time of change ….. and for change ….. in this time of documentary. In this context, what IDFA offers, as the largest non-fiction film festival in the world, might seem impossible. It is something called HOPE. There are signs of hope everywhere in the 340 films and trans-media projects in this year’s program. They have been chosen from a record 3,600 entries. They came from almost every nation on Earth. From Vietnam to the Barbados. From Bolivia to India. So, despite the bad news, somebody, somewhere is still making documentaries. And to tell the truth, everyone is.”

For her vision, her perseverance, her sensitivity, her drive, her chutzpah (is that a Dutch word?), we proudly dub this doyenne of documentaries our Person Of The Week. IDFA continues its remarkable run through November 27. Check it out at: www.idfa.nl

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