History in the Making

in International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA)

by Senem Aytac

Between November 8th and 19th, attending the 36th International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) the role of being a mere documentary spectator transcended into something else. For nearly everyone involved, it was an experience of being part of history in the making rather than witnessing or engaging in what has already happened.

In a preceding press conference, the festival’s artistic director Orwa Nyrabia acknowledged that the current festival coincides with a challenging juncture in history. He emphasized that they cannot conduct the festival without recognizing the profound pain experienced by people in various regions all over the world today. He underlined that the role of IDFA should be an open and safe space for responsible and serious debate where everyone opinion can be shared and discussed.

On the opening night of the festival, three cultural activists unveiled a banner with the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Upon taking the stage, the activists commended Nyrabia and IDFA for their inclusive programming that also featured Palestinian cinema. However, they did not shy away from critiquing the festival for what they perceived as a lack of solidarity with the Palestinian people, contrasting it with the overt support given to the Ukrainian people in the previous year. Back then, the festival prominently showcased the Ukrainian flag across various platforms, and this year’s opening film, Olga Chernykh’s A Picture to Remember (2023), was a co-production between Ukraine, Germany, and France.

“A Picture to Remember” was the opening film at IDFA 2023

The slogan sparked a heated debate and put the festival under pressure, so much so that the organizers felt the need to issue a statement, apologizing to those offended by the slogan, followed by a second statement calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine.

Meanwhile, finding these statements insufficient, members of the Israeli film industry launched a petition, demanding that the festival should take a clear stand against racism towards Jews and rising anti-Semitism, emphasizing that they see the slogan as “a call for the destruction of Israel, the Jewish homeland, and Jews in general.”

At the same time, the Palestine Film Institute also launched a petition and a call for solidarity, demanding “IDFA’s acknowledgement that their statement unjustly criminalizes Palestinian voices and narratives”.  Subsequently, the Palestinian Film Institute announced its withdrawal from all events organized by IDFA’s marketplace, noting that the slogan was deemed legal by the Dutch judicial  system. And one by one, Palestinian filmmakers, along with filmmakers from around the world, began to withdraw their films from the festival in solidarity. They stated that Nyrabia’s apology criminalized the slogan and that as Palestinians in the diaspora, their only tool against genocide, freedom of expression, had been taken away from them. By the end of the festival, 22 filmmakers had withdrawn their films from the festival, two jury members stepped down, and many others used their personal platforms such as pitching sessions or Q&A’s to amplify the voices in solidarity with the Palestinian filmmakers.

Throughout the entire festival, there was space for debate and discussion, both on various platforms or through conversations among attendees. The closing ceremony, in particular, emerged as a pivotal space for individuals to express themselves, either by sharing personal experiences or by sending messages of solidarity, calling for a ceasefire and urgent humanitarian aid.

One thing that marked the closing ceremony, was the support for Orwa Nyrabia, even though he was also criticized again. Nyrabia, who received the support of the international film community when he was arrested in Syria in 2012, is known as the person who opened IDFA to dissident voices and for establishing the festival’s international ties. He is also one of the founders of The International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (ICFR) and, at the closing ceremony, the organization expressed their gratitude towards the filmmakers who had withdrawn their films from the festival.

There was a special moment when Nyrabia and Palestinian filmmaker Mohamed Jabaly hugged each other in tears on stage, after Jabaly had received the Best Director award in the International Competition for his film Life is Beautiful (Al haya helwa, 2023). It was not only one of the most emotional moments of the closing ceremony but an apt summary of these days full of pain, grief and the need for international solidarity.

Senem Aytaç
Edited by Pamela Jahn