Orwa Nyrabia on the return to ‘live’, for the sake of filmmakers and audiences

Orwa Nyrabia on the return to ‘live’, for the sake of filmmakers and audiences

Talking on the eve of Cannes Marché, Orwa Nyrabia addressed some of the fundamental issues affecting the documentary industry that have been exposed by and during the 2020 pandemic. 


Firstly, however, the IDFA Creative Director was full of praise for the Spring doc fests that “had to come up with quick answers to massive questions”, commenting how, “they did a great job showing the world, and all of us, that film people are fierce, that they would never go gentle into any such good night.”


But Nyrabia’s concerns lie more with the filmmakers whose new documentaries are being met with a mute response within the virtual ether. “Overall, the on-demand approach to an online festival offer was very difficult to experience for a filmmaker who has been working on a film for years and hoping to be there and feel, see, smell and hear the audience watching their film. During a pandemic, a festival cannot have the full answer to that. A festival can either take place, not take place, or find the statement it wants to make within the context – and the means and technology to make it.”


“But the industry was, and still is, shaken,” he stressed. “We do not know what the future of cinema, television and streaming will be like any more than we know the future of the virus itself. The ‘status quo’ is challenged like never before, and there are many who never felt the ‘status quo’ was in their favour. 


“My main point here is to [underline] that a festival’s job, or that of film, is not to reach the audience in any way or manner it can. Film does not exist on its own in the can (or the hard drive). Film exists when it is on a screen with an audience. That other thing we see alone on a smaller screen is something else. It is better than nothing for sure, but it is not a replacement.”


“A thousand persons watching the film at home over a week are not equal to a thousand persons in a cinema watching the same film… To me, watching a good film in a good cinema with other humans is a privilege, a valuable expression of our human civilization… It is a noble experience that I still want to defend within a civilization that is, otherwise, not much to brag about.”


“So, cinema needs to defend itself like never before. To reinvent itself, to get out of the shop-owner mentality and be the social cultural beacon that it can be, to go where it is irreplaceable by anything else again,” he underlines. “This challenge is much bigger than any mega corporation, it is coming from the very core of human nature, from the question of survival itself.”


“Another challenge of 2020 for all cultural organizations, including film festivals, has been to survive the economic disaster. Here, we can see that the more commercialized the institution, the more vulnerable it appeared this year. Over-commercialization seems to mean higher vulnerability at such times, even though it always seems tempting on the short run.”


Nyrabia addressed aspects of this year’s IDFA programme, specifically as to whether/if the pandemic will interrupt the flow of submissions for potential selection, and if some of the enormous and important contemporary themes/movements, such as Black Lives Matter, will feature in November. 


“It happens that I answer your question at a moment when we now have about the same number of film entries we had last year at the same date,” he responds. “So, not much of a difference. But come August 1, we shall know what’s the final balance of the year. Speculations are going all over the place. Some are thinking 2020 will see so many films hidden in the closet, and 2021 will [show] an even harsher imbalance between offer and demand than 2019… when it was already a problem! I do not want to jump to conclusions. Let’s keep on trying to make sure that good films are not just falling in the big virtual black hole between 2020 and 2021. This is also the responsibility of the press, by the way! Not only of film festivals.”


He adds of the current global political climate: “I prefer to respond to such historically significant issues by slow and structural changes rather than with direct campaigning actions. We will be working, even harder, on being the international festival we claim to be. We will be examining the balance of representation and the right of various groups of people to telling their own stories too. We will not censure anybody, but we will also not feel good about ourselves if we had films about the world and not by the world. Come what may.”


In 2020, IDFA will present its programme both in physical form and online. But some of the core industry events are exclusively online. Why so?


“Indeed, Forum, Docs for Sale and IDFAcademy will be mostly online, but so much will still be taking place in Amsterdam. Many talks, think tanks, discussions and meetings will be organised physically. We are taking these components online to protect their global identity. If they go physical in 2020, they will have to become regional in general. We do not see that as a meaningful change.


“I also do not believe this pandemic will change who we are as much as (justifiable) fear is making some people think today. We will be together again soon. We will use the train as much as we can, we will minimize the number of flights we take per year. However, maybe together we can also pressure the aviation industry to lower its footprint rather than returning even more, consciously or subconsciously, to [a sense of] nationalism.”