October 2017 | Sofia Simeonidou
I left Anna's house with that feeling as if I'd met one of my professors who I haven't seen for years. The right dose of wisdom, perception, and cynicism. All the things I ever loved in my favourite teachers.
How do you define yourself professionally?
I’m a filmmaker. I make documentaries. I’m a researcher.
What kind of documentaries?
I make documentaries of human interest, and occasionally journalistic work for different television programmes. My heart is with documentaries though.
What do you like about your work?
I’m a traveler in someone else’s life. And I have the opportunity to explore and experience other cultures. You travel to places in order to understand what’s behind the story. So the research in itself is a great journey. It’s during the research time that everything takes shape.
Do you also write?
Yes, I do. Especially during the research phase. And I write screenplay also. Back when I started it was enough to hand out an outline or summary of your idea to broadcasters and/or editors in chief. Today you really need to write a lot. The idea has to be developed in order to get a buy-in. But I love writing. I like the preparation work. It’s discovery time.
What did you study?
I studied at Film Academy in Milan, Italy; I have a camera and light degree.
Was it a conscious decision?
Yes. When I was young I wanted to do something that will allow me to travel. So I started studying languages and tourism. But soon I realised this wasn’t the job that will take me places. When I was 16 I went to work at a film festival in Genoa. I was involved in non-mainstream movies, non-commercial. I got in contact with great directors who inspired me. I got a patent to project films and I was also taking a lot of pictures. I wanted to take movie pictures, I wanted to be part of it. That's when it started I think.
When did you move to Amsterdam?
It was 1991. I realised then that there was no documentary market in Italy. The Netherlands had a big tradition in documentary-making, big names internationally. I thought I should give it a try here. My first documentary was about Kurt Cobain and the way Dutch people reacted to his death (With Love Me/Ned1). I traveled all around the country to choose the 3 characters for my movie. I love this country so much because I know this country. I live here longer than I lived in Italy. The connection with your own country is always stronger because of your childhood years and the weight they carry, but what I feel for Amsterdam is also very strong.
Was it easy for you to break through?
It’s never easy. And in my industry, you have to start from zero each time. I remember when I had my daughter and it felt like I had to start all over again. It was so hard to get back. You know this job is just as much about your work as it is about the people you know and the people who know you. If the editor in chief knows you, if they’re happy with the way you worked together before, then it’s easier to get a new idea signed off. Now things have changed of course. There’s less money available, more competition. If you want to make a good production you need money, you need a good producer.
How did it feel when your first documentary aired on Dutch Television?
Well, it coincided with my father passing away. And I always wanted him to see it. My father died a month before I started shooting. And the documentary aired 3 months after that. It was 1994.
When did the big success come?
The big success came with Dreaming By Numbers. It opened the international doors for me. I was nominated for the European Film Awards, nominations in many festivals, the Gouden Kalf, I received many prizes, and sold to many broadcasts around the world, even in Korea. I was happy with it. I wouldn’t change a single thing. Whenever I watch it again, I still think it’s the film I wanted to make.
And what’s the feeling of success?
I was always someone satisfied by doing the things I love. I was never ambitious or entrepreneurial to do bigger. That’s success to me, to do what I love. The kind of success I had with Dreaming By Numbers changed me for a while. I mean if you make something significant, it’s significant to you. But people forget quickly. Let alone you need to make a film a year to keep up with your success. If you reach the top you need to stay there, you need to keep the spot. I was naïve and maybe a bit arrogant as well. I wanted to try and experiment with other things after this film. And that was wrong because people have set expectations from you.
Did you make another documentary?
No, I worked on making a fiction movie. It was a tactical mistake on my part. In that moment, after the Dreaming By Numbers, any broadcast would finance any and all of my ideas, no questions asked. I didn’t grab the opportunity.
How different is a fiction movie from a documentary?
Documentaries are more difficult than fiction. It’s the human element that’s stronger. You deal with real people. You can direct an actor. But just because in documentaries there are real people doesn’t automatically mean that the audience will identify. You need to “fight” more to touch people’s hearts. In documentaries, you can’t control that, or it’s more difficult to do. I like fiction movies because of the control you have. I always saw myself as a reality director looking for the boundaries with fiction. Life is such an abstract thing. Reality is incredible because it can be totally unrealistic.
Is there a process involved to get you in the right state of mind before starting working on a new project?
When I’m in a transition period I start taking distance from everything. I wasn’t that good with this in the past. I could only work well with deadlines. I wouldn’t sleep in order to finish something. And now I changed that and I’m experimenting. I try to be in a process. Now I’d really try to go away for a period. If I need to write a screenplay I go away even for a month to start on a good basis. I was one month in Sardinia writing this summer. By the sea.
What are some of your challenges being self-employed?
It’s the way we approach time and the uncertainty of the next project. I’m not someone who gets stressed but can be very stressful to have a project for 3 months and then nothing. That’s something most self-employed people can relate to. The uncertainty. Especially in my field of work. Maybe things changed now and young people have more opportunities, but back then you couldn’t do this job if you didn’t have already enough money to pass by.
Is it about talent or is it about grit? Can you make it only with one of the two?
I think it depends on what you want to achieve. I see a lot of people with no talent and they are really active, they are networking, working hard on being visible. In the end, they make something, they break through. But it’s not something that stays. On the other hand, if you only have talent but do nothing with it, it’s not going to work at all. You need both. Persistence, marketing, strategy, these are all things you can learn. Talent isn't enough anymore. With persistence, you can still do something. Only with the talent, no.
What’s your best advice to people starting out now?
I had a goal from the beginning and kept pursuing it all my life. With ups and downs and breaks and lots of obstacles along the way but kept pursuing it and still am. So I’d say keep working towards your goal. But I have a special message for women in particular. Don’t lose yourself; don’t give up on your creativity. The older I get the more I understand how many things women sacrifice. We think we can do everything. You can do everything but you end up giving up a lot of yourself. Your time has the same value as anyone else’s. I have to be strict with myself to be ABLE TO SAY NO. Men do it every time with no guilty feelings.
Do you read books?
Not many. I used to read more. At the moment I prefer to watch movies, documentaries, I research on art. I research a lot. Reading a book, of course, is great but at this point in my life, I enjoy research, and the freedom to explore unguided.
Future plans? Are you working on something new?
A few things in the development phase but I'll share when it's done when it's real when it's concrete. I'm a bit arrogant with sharing plans at this point in my life (laughing).