If the documentary film industry doesn't renew itself, it will die. And one of the ways the Western industry can develop is to look toward underrepresented areas in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. That's the outlook of Syrian film producer and festival organiser Orwa Nyrabia who took the position as artistic director at IDFA in January 2018 with a clear objective of creating greater inclusion and artistic diversity in the festival programme.
In August, Orwa Nyrabia visited the Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen, where he watched films and met Danish documentary filmmakers. On that occasion, we got him to expand on the festival's new profile and selection criteria.
Inclusion takes an effort
IDFA, like other leading festivals, has signed the 5050x2020 gender-parity pledge. Looking at the latest festival in November, the percentage of female directed films reached 41 percent. "It was higher than usual, but still low. We're trying to keep pushing the number up," says Nyrabia, although he strives for an average gender balance over a period of years, rather than meeting an exact quota every year.
In the same spirit, Nyrabia makes an effort to include films from other parts of the world. That requires determined action, because films from non-Western countries don't automatically land on his table.
"In our team, we get so much of our worldview from travelling to festivals and receiving guests from our own part of the world that has great institutions like the Danish Film Institute. If we are lazy at our job, we end up only programming films from countries with good public service. That's why I believe it's our job to invest in going out to meet the industry in underrepresented and underfinanced regions," Nyrabia says.
Southern countries were already better represented at last year's festival, but Western European countries still provide the largest part of the programme by far, followed by films from North America and Eastern Europe. Together, European and North American films make up for 70 percent of the programme.
"It's a reality that these regions produce much bigger quantities and have a more stable tradition of documentary filmmaking. But I think it's unacceptable for a big festival like IDFA only to have 4 films from the African continent out of the festival's 250. Even though I have no control over African politics, economy or film production, we must do more.
"We don't work with quotas, but I want to invite everyone to endorse the new wave of filmmakers from countries in the South that try to own their narrative and find a platform to express their own history, stories and realities, rather than staying with the pain of feeling misrepresented and invisible," says Nyrabia.
Festivals can't stand idly by
Cultural festivals often excuse the lack of equality with the fact that they don't control the supply and have to choose from the films or artists that are available. But Nyrabia doesn't acknowledge that argument.
"It's true that festivals are at the end of the pipeline, but everybody on the pipeline can influence it. At a festival like IDFA that also has a comprehensive industry forum for financing and education and a platform for young talents, we have a serious responsibility. We can't just wait passively for what is produced and then handpick from that."
The festival chief finds that there is a big pool of films to pick from, especially from Latin America, but also, for example, from India, China, Malaysia and Indonesia. But we aren't open enough in the West. While he watches the Danish film school graduation films every year, he only recently discovered that the recognized director Gaston Kaboré from Burkino Faso has headed a film school in Ouagadougou since 2005.
"Why did I have no idea what was happening at that film school? Because they don't have the same support system that makes a DVD boxset or a communications team that brings those films to my table. So, I think it's my job to go there and dig them up."
According to Nyrabia, another challenge is that many filmmakers from developing countries don't feel respected by the Western festivals.
"They have a decades-long bitterness of feeling that the European festivals are only interested in their films if they fall into a particular topical human rights issue. They don't feel respected as equal peers."
We need new inspiration
When it comes to the production side of documentaries, Nyrabia sees co-productions and financial schemes focusing on compensating for the lack of support for filmmakers in the poorer part of the world as an important way to contribute to the global film culture.
He's conscious of the economic challenges caused by many European countries' cuts in co-production budgets, following the rise in right wing politics in the last decade. But when producers do succeed in establishing collaborations between north and south, Nyrabia encourages Western producers to show openness to other ways of filmmaking.
"Go meet people, watch their films and don't think that directors who make films in a different way are doing it wrong or need to be 'corrected'. They might actually inspire us."
Nyrabia thinks that we in the West have become so skilled in producing well-crafted documentaries relying on Aristotle's narrative arc that the films tend to become formulaic.
"You can almost always look at your watch two thirds into the film and note that now comes the climax," he says polemically.
"There's a danger that strong craft makes the art form more mechanical and loses sincerity, and I think that applies to a large number of films from countries with a high production. Our strong tradition of craft needs to be challenged, and that can only happen through openness to other ways of creating films. To me, it's about survival. The only way our documentary tradition can survive is to develop."
For Nyrabia, diversity isn't just about gender and geography, but ultimately about artistic expression. First and foremost, in selecting films, he looks for "sincerity and artistic originality" – films that dare to experiment, and where the director has looked closely at his own motivation to make the film.
"I can't stop the commodification of documentary films, and it has a place in the world. But that's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for films where I can feel the filmmaker's emotional connection to it."
Accomplished Danish documentary in demand
Nyrabia describes Danish documentaries as generally very well made and is often impressed by both editing, dramaturgy and post-production. But sometimes, in the moment, he feels so carried away by the efficient and engrossing narrative to an extent that he afterwards has difficulties assessing the film's qualities at its core – what it really has at heart.
However, he praises the Danish editors who have contributed to advance the documentary genre globally and finds that Danish documentaries range widely from the classical observational to artistically courageous and boundary pushing.
"Denmark is among the very active countries in the field of documentary film and provides good films. As mentioned, we don't select films according to quotas, and I don't expect there will be less Danish films in our programme. I just hope there will be better films from everywhere."