Member of the Month - Estelle Robin-You
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 August 2013 is Estelle Robin-You, Producer, Les Films du Balibari, France.
Estelle Robin-You is producer at the French company Les Films du Balibari based in Nantes. Before returning to her native country to work with film production she lived and worked in Ireland throughout her twenties. Estelle’s productions have been selected in festivals throughout the world, such as Vision du réel - Nyon, Planet Doc Review - Warsaw, Cinéma du réel - Paris, Dei Popoli - Florence, IDFA Amsterdam, Hot Docs, Toronto and New Horizons - Wrokclaw. Among the titles she has produced on an international level are The Man Who Made Angels Fly (Wiktoria Szymanska, 2013, copro Luna W), Village Without Women (Srdjan Sarenac, 2010), The Runner (Saeed Taji Farouki, 2013, copro Tourist with a typewriter), La Machina (Thierry Paladino, 2010, copro Centrala), and the web doc Des Jouets Un Sorin (Samuel Doux). In 2010, she was also nominated for the Procirep Best Producer award.
EDN has among other things talked to Estelle about the recent merger of her company with Point du Jour and her latest coproduction The Man Who Made Angels Fly.
EDN: Can you start by telling a bit more about your background and how you started out in the documentary business?
ER: I started working in production in 1998 in Ireland, Dublin, where I was living. After a few years of working in fiction, in Dublin and Paris, I moved back home to Nantes for a man, my now husband and father of my 2 children. The film community was so small there that I thought it was possibly the end of my work in production. But what actually happened, is that I met with people who were making documentaries, and I discovered and fell in love with this totally new world. I realised that documentary was giving an additional depth to my professional engagement, a social, political and cultural level that I had been missing. I can’t believe I was so uneducated towards documentary films, I had a lot to catch up on, all for the better, as working in fiction has somehow disappointed me.
EDN: For how long have you been working with the Les Films du Balibari and what is your role in the company?
ER: In 2004, I produced a short film by Regis Noel, who was the founder of the company. I was freelancing at the time and after this experience, we decided to join forces and I became a partner. I am a producer, working with French or foreign filmmakers, mostly on TV productions. I was also a co-managing director of the company for years, which, I have to admit, was not my favourite part.
I have developed the international network of the company, with EDN as a guide from very early stages!
Les films du balibari is a very collective working environment; we share offices with 8 other people working in film or web development. It is a kind of hub in the city, great place but sometimes quite hard to concentrate in this very energetic office space.
EDN: How do you select which documentaries to produce? Is there a certain focus, theme or approach, which you are looking for?
ER: It really boils down to how the filmmaker speaks of his or her project, if I feel they really have it at heart, while keeping a clear and critical vision on the project. Respectful humour is always a little plus.
The director’s filmography is not necessarily a deciding factor and we have very often produced first or second films. Our projects are mostly society, cultural or historical topics, but always with a strong human angle. All of them are driven by characters, strong ones. The psychology, the turmoil, the thought-processes they go through are very important to me. So it is vital that the relationship between them and the filmmaker is a solid one.
The selection is rarely made on whether the film fits into a slot or not. Some friends in the business have actually told me I should make more of an effort in that regards! But I can’t help it, and it becomes a great challenge, together with the film director, to get the film off the ground.
EDN: Your most recent title is The Man Who Made Angels Fly. How did you come across this project and what is it about?
ER: I have known Wiktoria Szymanska, director-producer, since the 2009 East European Forum in Jihlava. She was pitching her wonderful project Themerson & Themerson, I was pitching Village Without Women by Srdjan Sarenac. We stayed in touch and in 2011, Wiktoria told me about this amazing Swedish master of puppetry Michael Meschke, with strong connections to the French cultural scene, having lived there for 20 years and collaborated with many such as Etienne Decroux, Mime Marceau, Jean Vilar… Wiktoria had other projects in development, but felt she had to put priority on this one, as the master was aging. Her instinct was right, as she really captured some rare and last moments.
The film is about the incredible relationship between the master and his marionettes, “other children of his”, which he takes out of their boxes for the last time in the film. They are truly amazing creatures, in their exquisite fabrication and in the powerful emotion they trigger. I had never seen such thing in my life.
The film is a very profound immersion in the world of an immense artist, a very creative and poetic look on the power of art and ideas. Tue Steen Muller wrote a very beautiful review on his blog, which meant a lot to us! Wiktoria is undoubtedly a very talented filmmaker with a unique vision, and this film really is a tribute to Meschke’s work, beautifully crafted by her.
EDN: Where did the film premiere and how did it go?
ER: The film premiered in Karlovy Vary and Hot Docs, it is now starting to travel around the world, with a recent selection in Nowy Horizonty in Wroclaw, a great festival. It is next going to Haifa International FF, and Georgia’s Batumi Festival and we have a lot of work ahead.
The reaction of audiences is quite amazing, as they recognise the extremely singular filmmaking of Wiktoria. They really feel they are privileged to have been given access to the world of the master, which is a disappearing one. Some people cry, most of them are deeply touched by the beauty of the film and the emotions it triggered in them. We still need to find ways to promote the film to a larger audience, through cinema screens, but also art galleries, museums, and other bias, as the audience can be vast for such a universal film, which talks about life and death, love, betrayal, all our deep and strong human emotions.
EDN: The film is supported by among others SVT, YLE and AVRO. Can you give us some insights how you got these partners on board and how the production process has been for the film?
ER: AVRO was already partners in Wiktoria’s previous film, and Marijke Huijbregts and Jessica Raspe really support her work. With SVT, we didn’t know commissioning editor Emelie Persson, but we met her at IDFA and she showed great interest in the film. Meschke created one of Sweden’s most renowned theaters, the Marionetteatern. However, the film wasn’t based mostly in Sweden, and is shot partly in English and French. So Emelie has been truly understanding and supportive too. YLE, Jenny Westergard, we have both know for years, and she decided to come on board after our pitch in Docs Barcelona. Jenny has great taste for beautiful films, what more can I say?
The production process was a long and complicated one, and it would be too long to go into details. But we travelled to CPH:DOX, Docs Barcelona, and East European Forum (where we won IDFA best pitch award). Wiktoria who played a major role as producer, went also to Cannes and Nowy Horyzonty’s Polish days in Warsaw. So the film got great exposure, but funding was cruelly missing and still is. Unfortunately, Swedish and Polish funds did not support the project, and we are still hoping that ARTE will come in but we’ve been trying for 2 years. They are really missing in this production and we decided to dig deep into our own pockets. Every step we make now means more financial struggle. We were shooting over 4 countries, and mostly in Super 16mm. In France, with a small TV (Télénantes), we were able to raise CNC, Regional and Procirep funds (but see amounts below). Furthermore Wiktoria’s company secured MEDIA funding, which is great recognition for a European production on one ofEurope’s greatest masters.
We are happy that Catndocs (Catherine Le Clef) is now distributing the film, and we hope it will be picked up by many TV channels.
EDN: You often hear that the funding situation in France is very privileged because of e.g. the CNC (Centre National du Cinéma) and all the different regions. How do you experience the current financing situation for documentaries within France?
ER: My personal feeling is that is has become more and more competitive, which I never felt before. I always felt that a great project with a great filmmaker, and well developed, would always get somewhere in a safe way. Unfortunately, recent experiences have showed me that it is more complex than that, and sometimes TV will pick another film for reasons totally disconnected, and not always the best (in my humble opinion that is!). Of course, I try not to abandon projects, ever, but it is really more and more difficult.
There are two ways to access CNC and regional funds: either the audiovisual (TV) or cinema route. I produce mostly within the audiovisual system, which means that a TV station is a quintessential condition to the funding. So that is the first step, to have a TV on board. CNC is more or less automatic then, (with a few strict conditions), but the amounts are between 20 000 and 35000 euros on average for production funding. The quasi automatic aspect is good, but the average amount seems lower than a lot of national funds in other countries (correct me if I am wrong!).
As for the regional funds, yes, we sometimes benefit from them, when we can justify enough local spends. But again, for a TV production, amounts are around 20-25000 euros. And the local spend can sometimes be a handicap, especially for international projects. So as we all know, each film adventure is a new strategy and it is impossible to reproduce a scheme.
Above all, I think the financing situation for documentaries is France is really being challenged by the choices made by television, and the relationship with the CNC (with more worrying upcoming reforms).
As you know, documentary is a very large word, that encompasses very creative artistic films as well as strong journalistic approaches, classical works, but unfortunately also programs that are closer to a magazine approach than documentary, as we understand it. A worrying number of magazines are getting CNC funding for documentaries, which is why reforms are necessary. But will they be the right ones?
When I see the Scandinavian funds and how they defend a strong vision of documentary films, I am quite envious.
EDN: This year in June your company Les Films du Balibari announced that it had joined forces with the Paris based production company Point du Jour. How did this merger come about and what was the motivation behind it? Did the merger happen for both practical and creative reasons?
ER: It is not actually a merger. Les films du balibari remains a company in its own right, with its editorial line, with offices based in Nantes and me in them. Point du Jour has become an associate of balibari (buying shares in balibari and taking over management). And yes, it is practical and creative.
Luc Martin Gousset (director of Point du Jour) and I have known each other for many years, and him being originally from Nantes was definitely a strong cultural connection. We started with coproducing a film by 2 Nantes-based directors, on French philosopher and activist Francis Jeanson (in 2006). It was a hard film to finance, again because finding the TV was challenging. Luc never gave up, and after 4 or 5 years, the film was made (with France Télévisions and 2 regional funds).
After this long but successful collaboration, during which I got to know the very dynamic, hard-working and human Point du Jour team, we were even more inclined to find a long-term way of collaborating. 2012 was a very critical for balibari, during which we decided to really put our thinking caps on, and see how we could organise this association. We have now signed, and we are in the really hands-on phase of making things smooth from an organisational point of view. Point du Jour is now handling the administrative, legal and financial aspects of balibari (the company and the productions).
It is of course one of the most concrete practical aspects, the other one being for me that having a base in Paris, with offices and a production team, is a very strong bonus.
This new organisation means that I can concentrate more on the creative aspects of my projects. The core of the projects I am producing has not changed, and the films I have in development are really ‘balibari’ as such. I will keep working on author-driven creative documentaries.
Their approach is different, maybe more on the investigation or journalistic side, and always a very rigorous and intelligent way of making programs for television.
But the idea is of course to confront our ways of producing, to share our networks and connections, and to set-up new international coproduction adventures. For instance, Vladimir Donn, one of their producers who lived many years in Russia, is helping me on my project Sex in the USSR – a Double Life by Inara Kolmane.
But most importantly, we soon want to start the next phase, i.e. explore new ways of production based on a collaborative approach.
EDN: What will this new structure mean for you in practical terms in your daily running of the company?
ER: More phone calls and emails to the Paris team, and a minimum of 2 days in Paris every two weeks, to be with the team there and share ideas, thoughts, problems… Being in Paris regularly is a must for any ‘regional’ producer though, as our profession is very centralised. So this means that I will be doing it in a more comfortable way, with a family welcoming me with open doors in Paris! Of course, it means a good organisation for all of us, and we are actually getting there quite fast.
Practically it also means that I will be better connected with the Parisian club of professionals (TV CEs, producers, directors, funds…) and so will my coproduction partners and filmmakers.
For Point du Jour, it will mean having to adapt to a different way of producing, and getting to know my partners in the UK, Australia, Latvia…, but also throughout France. Luckily, most of the team originates from the west of France, so we can relate…..
EDN: Do you feel the current situation in Europe makes it more difficult to survive as a small production company?
ER: Yes and no.
For small producers in the regions of France, one of the challenges to stay alive is to deal with the weakening of the local and regional TV stations and their participation in independent production. It probably has far connections with the European situation, but on a day-to-day basis, it is more felt like a regional/ national crisis.
For small production companies trying to do things on a European level, it is of course more and more complicated to deal with budget cuts and also funding linked to local spends.
And of course, we are all curious to see how the European funds will evolve.
But I also have noticed that getting a project selected to a pitch has become a costly challenge in itself, with quite a lot of work to be done previous to application in order to have a chance. Many filmmakers have come to recognise the benefits of pitching and getting exposure to a project, so the competition is sound and motivating, but fierce.
EDN: Do you think we will see a tendency in the near future where more production companies will join forces?
ER: I don’t know outside of France, but definitely within France, many of my colleagues have been talking about it, trying to find the right way for them. It is harder and harder to manage small companies, very often carried by one or two individuals, and joining forces is tempting. Les films du balibari always had several partners, until recently, so I know the positive sides and downfalls of that, in this very passionate and personal profession of ours. It really depends how one manages to combine the business and the passion together!
This Point du Jour-balibari adventure is certainly one of the first in France, one of many I don’t know. We have received many congratulation wishes for our marriage, and of course for better or worse, we will do our best to make it last long and happy!
EDN: Last but not least – which projects and plans lie ahead for you in the near future?
ER: I have 3 films in production, as well as the finishing and promoting of The Man Who Made Angels Fly.
One of the films in production, by director Céline Thiou, in on ‘Enfance’ (childhood). It is a very joyful, simple yet complex film, just as childhood is. It is a macro vision of what I was talking about earlier, the psychological and thought processes of human beings traversed by turmoil and joy!
Another film is an Australian French coproduction (with Film Project, Australia) by director Anne Tsoulis. It is a film about a ‘cultural bolshevik’, one of Australia’s most controversial yet talented writers, Christopher Barnett, who has been living in Nantes for 20 years. In Nantes, no one knew about his era in Australia, but all recognised him as an incredible mediator with marginalised people. So the film is a very exciting adventure of two communities getting together to tell this incredible life story.
I also hope to get into production shortly on Latvian director Inara Kolmane’s project Sex in the USSR – a Double Life, which I have been developing with Film Studio Devini in Latvia (supported by the Media program, CNC, Procirep, Region Pays de la Loire).
And finally, developing one of Nantes upcoming talents Marc Picavez’s project African River, which embarks aboard the eponym commercial ship with its sailors, on journeys from Africa to Europe, weaving personal human stories into that of our globalised world.
Next project is revisiting my website (in transition right now, but you can see what it is going to look like).
Also with Point du Jour, we are preparing a big gathering of our collaborators at a workshop to exchange ideas, methods, opportunities regarding collaborative creation (i.e. start from an idea and build it up with various talents and disciplines, for different platforms).
For more information visit www.balibari.com
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