EIFF Programming visits IDFA film festival

This year we're bringing you more behind-the-scenes stories from the festival-making process. Today EIFF documentary programmer Jenny Leask shares her experience from the IDFA film festival in Amsterdam.

Attending a film festival as a programmer isn’t as glamorous as it sounds (honest!). I’ve just come back from IDFA in Amsterdam, the biggest documentary festival in the world, where I watched more than 50 films in a week, leaving barely enough time to eat and sleep, never mind go to parties! It is, though, always interesting and illuminating to see how another festival does things, and to compare it to your own. And it’s always a pleasure to visit a city as beautiful as Amsterdam, even if you only see the same three streets between your hotel, the cinemas and the delegate centre!

With a festival of IDFA's size, the sheer number of films can be overwhelming, and careful planning is essential. The first thing I do on arrival is to sit down with the festival catalogue to make a list of the titles I need to see – this will normally include most if not all films in competition, as these tend to be world or international premieres, plus a selection of interesting work from other sections of the programme. Seeing films early in their life is essential, and one of the reasons we go to festivals in the first place – for EIFF we insist on films not having screened in the UK before, so it’s important to invite films sooner rather than later, so they don’t commit to another festival in the meantime. Once you have your list, it then becomes a matter of fitting as many as possible into each day, a sliding puzzle of industry screenings, public screenings and, as a last resort (I always prefer watching films in a cinema), the festival’s videotheque.

Once your schedule is done you get down to the business of watching films. Taking notes is vital, as one film tends to blur into another when you’re watching so many, particularly if there are more than one on a similar topic. This year there were several films about various aspects of the Arab Spring, and, unusually, hardly any about the Israel/Palestine situation. Six or seven years ago AIDS in Africa was a common subject, now it barely features. These thematic trends are interesting to note over the years; one depressing observation is that there seem to be more films than ever about poverty and inequality.

Subject matter is of much less importance to me than whether a documentary works as a film, however. Many times I’ve seen docs on fascinating, compelling subjects that have felt like a missed opportunity because the film itself is perhaps poorly structured or doesn’t engage an audience sufficiently well. And it’s important to try to put aside personal taste and watch a film with as open a mind as possible, imagining that I’m customer who has paid good money for a ticket and wants to see something great. As to whether I found any gems at IDFA this time round, you’ll have to wait and see!

Jenny Leask, EIFF Documentary Programmer

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