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Member of the Month - Carmen Cobos, Cobos Films


In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group. Our EDN member of the month for November 2012 is Carmen Cobos, Cobos Films, the Netherlands.

Carmen was born in Southern Spain and after graduating as a social worker at the University of Seville she immigrated to the UK. In 1991, following two years of teaching Spanish at the University of East Anglia, she started working as freelance researcher/location manager for the Education Department and the Natural History Unit of the BBC. Then between 1994 and 1996 she worked for several British production companies.                     

In 1997 Carmen moved to the Netherlands where, after working several years as a line producer, she started her own production company, Cobos Films, which is an Amsterdam based company producing high-quality feature length documentaries for cinema and television. In 2001 Carmen Cobos became the sole company director, running the productions with her executive producer Kees Ryninks, and in 2007 she also started to develop feature films in addition to her regular slate of documentaries.          

Through her career Carmen has among others worked with the award winning Dutch filmmakers Heddy Honigmann and John Appel. Her credits as producer include: The Player (John Appel, 2009), Comrade Couture (Marco Wilms, 2009), El Olvido (Heddy Honigmann, 2008), The Last Victory (John Appel, 2003), Forever (Heddy Honigmann, 2006) and many more.

The latest production is Wrong Time Wrong Place by John Appel, which just opened this year’s IDFA festival in Amsterdam.

Besides her producer job Carmen has since 1998 also been a regular tutor at different EDN workshops and for other European organizations plus an expert for several European AV Funds.     

EDN has talked to Carmen about working internationally with documentaries, about producing Wrong Time Wrong Place and about the documentary situation in the Netherlands.

EDN: Why did you make the shift from teaching to working with documentaries and what has kept you in this business?

CC: The switch from teaching to working in documentaries was totally coincidental. I was at the right time at the right place. I met an Englishman in Seville in 1986. He was a researcher for a Channel 4 series about Spain called “Spain in the Shadow of the Sun”, about the future of Spain. They wanted to make a portrait of a typical Spanish village without a future, so I invited them to the village I was born and raised in Extramadura, I helped them find the stories, the people and the locations and I became one of the interviewees myself. To cut a long story short: I fell in love with the researcher and eventually moved to Britain to live with him. Over the first years I was asked sometimes to assist British production companies with their films in Spain. And I loved the job so much that I sent my CV to 500 British production companies. And from then on I worked regularly on documentaries.

EDN: What was the motivation for starting your own company –Cobos Films?

CC: Again coincidence. I had the intention to become a producer by the age of 40 but never really wanted to have my own production company. A few years after I moved to Holland to work in Ryninks Films, my partner was asked to head up the documentary department of the Film Fund and had to pull out of his own company which had five people working for it. We decided that it was best for me to continue running the company and the name was changed to Cobos Films.

EDN: Is there a common mission or overall idea that is reflected in the projects produced by Cobos Films?

CC: Cobos Films makes in general social, political and arts related documentaries. Over the years I concentrated more and more on the bigger cinema films as I was better and more successful with those than with the made- for- television smaller docs. I deliberately always talk about film, as I believe that the film should give the audience an experience and call up emotions. To me the information is secondary. Anyway it is well known that when people are moved by something they retain the information far better.  All my big films are an experience; in The Last Victory you become part of the Contrada trying to win the all-important horse race in Siena, In Forever you are moved by the feelings of the main characters. I suppose if there is one common denominator in all my films it is that they are classic, have a lot of ‘production value’ and find their audiences both nationally and internationally.

EDN: You have worked together with John Appel for several years and on many projects. How will you describe your collaboration and the style and tone of his documentaries?

CC: John is a true documentary-maker and certainly one of the best in Holland. He very clearly knows what he is looking for but he is very open to coincidence. He prefers to be surprised by reality and to respond to it. That is not always easy for me as producer, as there is the risk of always running behind the facts. But it makes for exciting films. Somehow his Nordic character combines very well with my Southern one.  He is analytical and I work more intuitively. And happily enough that works for both of us very well.

EDN: The latest documentary you have done together is Wrong Time Wrong Place, which was the opening film of this year’s IDFA festival. Can you tell what the film is about?

CC: The film is about chance and how we believe we can control our lives but in the end fate determines all. The film focuses on the massacre by Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo and on the island Utøya, in which 77 - mainly young - people were murdered.  The film looks at the role of coincidence within this situation: how for instance one man narrowly missed the full blast of the bomb explosion because he was delayed at work and a Georgian girl became the last youngster killed, because she could not swim and safe herself that way. In this case the film shows her parents who try to find explanations why they had to lose their only child in that foreign country. If only they hadn’t let her go or had taught her to swim. 

EDN: The film deals with a very strong and heavy subject and an event that affected us all. How did you find the persons who participate in the film and how was it to work with these people who themselves had been victims of the events?

CC: Of course it was not easy to find persons, willing to participate. They were all very traumatized. But because it was a more philosophical film and not a sensationalist reconstruction we slowly built up enough trust with some of them to film them. But also here coincidence played a big part. For instance with Ritah, who was two months pregnant during the attacks. She had gone back to her home country Uganda. After months we managed to track her down, only to find out that she had moved to the South of Holland and was due to have her baby. Two days before she gave birth we interviewed her.

EDN: Which challenges did you face in the production process?

CC: If you don’t have challenges to overcome you often won’t make a good film. So I treasure challenges. Yes, there were many, starting with raising the money from the financiers. At that point we had the themes worked out but there was no subject. We were ‘as it were’ waiting for some disaster to happen. Once we decided to focus on Norway it was sorted out. Of course the main difficulties were finding the characters and working in a very expensive country where people seemed to be surprisingly laid back about things. Then of course the subject matter was hard to deal with for the crew and myself. The editing process was difficult, finding a good structure took most of the available time.

EDN: What does it mean to be the opening film at IDFA, which is considered to be the most important documentary festival and which is also taking place in the city where you live?

CC: It is not only taking place in the city where I live but we are kind of neighbours, their offices are around the corner from me, and I have a history with them since 1997. Of course it is a great honor that the film has been chosen so I am very proud. And this year is very special: the 25th edition. So we managed with IDFA to get the film on the opening night to show in 25 cinemas spread across the country. I have always been a great supporter of IDFA, I am even an official life-long friend. I am very grateful to and happy for Ally Derks who has done such a great job over so many years. I am at the moment a very proud Carmen.

EDN: In Wrong Time Wrong Place both ZDF / ARTE, Lichtpunt, Human and Yle are involved TV channels, and indeed many of your projects are financed through international coproduction. What are the necessities of working with international co-production and what are the upsides and downsides?

CC: Of course the most important is having a good story with international potential. That could be a small story but it needs to have international appeal. With the kind of budgets we work with for the bigger films it is not possible to raise all the money domestically. We have already for more than 15 years set up international co-productions starting way before it became fashionable and absolutely necessary, with ZDF/Arte, BBC, Yle, etc. There are more upsides than downsides, both in financial as in content terms. What is good about it is that during the process one gets input from different commissioning editors, making your film more universal. Now that might sound difficult, as it could be that they have different, conflicting points of view. If you cannot find a common ground, then we try to get each party their own version. With one film we even made seven different versions with different lengths. All parties were satisfied and we had the film we wanted, because we always make sure that the first finished version is the film we wanted to make, that one is for the festivals and for the funds. So in the end everyone is happy.

EDN: What does it take to work internationally with documentaries?

CC: International co-productions are all about relationships. It’s a people’s business. It takes years of building up relationships with foreign stations, building up your network. But I also love international co-productions, I am a great believer. I am by nature very curious and like making contact with others, and like listening to people’s stories and telling my own. That’s the advantage of being born in a small village. One is forced to socialize. But if you find that hard or you are just starting, then using EDN and its workshops to build up that network is a clever thing to do. And being patient helps. Sometimes it can take months of hard work to get a foreign commission.

EDN: How do you see the international environment for financing documentaries and what are the biggest challenges and difficulties at the moment?

CC: The international environment for financing documentaries is getting more difficult. Most stations in Europe are facing cut-backs and documentaries are often its victim. Stations have less slots and less money. That is the bad news. The good news is that to them a co-production is cheaper, so to an extent the market is more open for this type of production. I always say that it takes three p’s: patience, persistence and perseverance. With enough belief in your film idea and in your own ability to deliver it can still be done. If that works it’s a great joy.

EDN: What is the situation for documentaries in the Netherlands at the moment overall speaking?

CC: The situation in Holland is getting grimmer by the day. Only last week the government decided to axe the Mediafund by 2017. It is one of the pivotal funds for the financing of documentaries. So that will be a great loss to the Dutch documentary sector. This fund invested in 2011 8 million in 35 documentaries.  They were for instance one of the three main financiers in Wrong Time Wrong Place. Without this fund the sector has a very small chance of surviving in the future. In addition our Film Fund will lose more than 30% of its money by 2013. Instead of supporting 26 documentaries per year they can only finance 17. So our future starts to look as bleak as in other countries.

EDN: Is it possible to get funding from the national funding bodies for international co-production?

CC: Some of the mentioned funding is also for international co-productions so at the moment I have no idea how it will be affected.

EDN: Do you have any advice for an international producer seeking to work and find a co-production partner in the Netherlands?

CC: Dutch producers are looking more for international co-productions, encouraged by the funds. Come with a good project, that is well worked out and you will find a willing Dutch producer. But you can also go directly to Dutch broadcasters, they are always open for good foreign productions. You can get what you want but you have to work hard for it.

EDN: Besides producing you have also for many years been active as tutor at various EDN workshops. What does it mean for you to be involved as a tutor and how do you see the tutor role?

CC: I have been a tutor for EDN since 1998. I always found it very exciting to teach and to help other up-and-coming producers and directors to find the strength in their projects, and to see how projects can improve enormously within a workshop of 3-4 days. It is a very energizing process that also gives me the strength to continue as a producer, to help me see the beautiful parts of our job. Working for EDN has always been a great joy.

EDN: What lies ahead for you and your company?

CC: Que sera,sera – what will be, will be. We have some very beautiful projects with great makers lined up. But the biggest change is that I will start co-directing my own documentaries with my partner Kees Rijninks.  I love facing new challenges, and look forward to direct and/or produce more beautiful documentaries with an international appeal. Other than that, we will see what the future brings.

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