Member of the Month - Hans Robert Eisenhauer
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 June 2014 is Hans Robert Eisenhauer, Producer, Ventana-Film, Germany.
As commissioning editor for ZDF-ARTE, and Deputy Programme Director and Head of Theme Evenings for ARTE, Hans Robert’s more than 50 theatrical lengths commissions for TV and Cinema include since 1992: Buena Vista Social Club by Wim Wenders, Taxi To The Dark Side by Alex Gibney, Why We Fight and The House I Live In by Eugene Jarecki, Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang and Mama Africa by Mika Kaurismäki.
Hans Robert has also served as director of the Berlin Film Fund and he is member of the European Film Academy, which he helped to create in 1988.
After his retirement from ZDF/ARTE Hans Robert is living in Berlin and running the small film-and TV-production company Ventana-Film GmbH., focused on international documentary films, including cultural and current affairs TV programs.
His recent German-Syrian coproduction Return to Homs by Talal Derki and coproduced with Orwa Nyrabia’s Proaction Film had it’s world premiere at IDFA 2013 and received the Grand Jury Prize for the best international documentary film at the Sundance Film Festival 2014.
Hans Robert is also working as a consultant and lecturer for different training initiatives like Documentary Campus and the Greenhouse-workshop for young filmmakers from the Southern Mediterranean countries.
EDN has among other things talked to Hans Robert Eisenhauer about his recent and current productions, the upcoming Sunny Side of the Doc, and the transition from commissioning editor to producer.
EDN: Can you start by telling a bit more about your background and your road to ZDF-ARTE?
HRE: I started my work in ARTE in 1991 as deputy program director in the headquarter of the channel in Strasbourg. That was really an adventure, because we, a team of French and German colleagues, tried to create something completely new, an international TV-program, which would broadcast simultaneously in two different languages.
I didn’t have any experience as a commissioning editor and a broadcaster. I had worked as a journalist and producer for fiction series and factual programs in Berlin and Hamburg before.
But all of us, the French colleagues, who mostly came from Paris, and we from Germany were full of passion for this European idea, to create a cultural communication between two countries, which had been enemies not very long ago.
It was an exciting time, although the cultural differences and the different professional backgrounds of the members in our multinational team made long discussions necessary. Patience and some diplomatic talent were helpful.
After more than 13 years I was asked to become commissioning editor and head of theme- evenings at ZDF-ARTE in Mainz. The good thing was, that I could work with very experienced and talented colleagues there, the bad side was, that I had to leave my beloved France and the Alsace region.
EDN: For how many years did you work as commissioning editor at ZDF-ARTE and can you describe how the public service TV landscape changed during the years you were there?
HRE: I started in Mainz in January 2005 and worked on the same position until I retired at the end of April in 2011.
The public service TV landscape has changed profoundly between the time of my start at ARTE and until today. There is much more competition even between public broadcasters.
We as documentary producers and filmmakers, but also the broadcasters are confronted with two tendencies, which are challenging our professional life. On one hand we see a more and more globalized “market” of documentaries, of ideas, of communication. Thousands of new projects are flooding the documentary landscape every year. On the other hand we are observing, that the broadcasters are constantly cutting budgets, reducing slots and are asking more and more for national or even regional content. This is a real challenge for all of us, but not only for the filmmakers and producers, but also for our TV-colleagues. It is also a huge cultural and an economic/financial problem too. The funding became more and more difficult within the last decade. The support of regional, national and local film- financing funds cannot compensate for the loss. But the most important loss is the fact that innumerable interesting and promising projects will never appear on the small and the big screens.
But let me underline, that most commissioning editors, whom I know, are on the side of the producers, writers and directors of documentaries, very often consulting and helping them to realize their projects.
Unfortunately even the so-called niche channels are meanwhile going more and more mainstream.
At ARTE we started with the vision of the European multinational channel. We didn’t care about ratings and market shares. We tried to create an alternative to the mainstream media in both countries and we worked really internationally. The majority of our programs have been documentaries in all formats and genres. That has changed. ARTE’s program-schedule of 2014 is more or less dominated by fictional programs, TV-drama, series and movies. The acclaimed theme-nights disappeared nearly completely, and feature length documentaries are programmed, with some exceptions, close to midnight.
Nevertheless ARTE is remaining as one of the big investors in documentaries and the broadcaster's program profile is far more international than that of most public channels in Europe. For many filmmakers and producers from all over the world ARTE is still a jewel in the international broadcasting landscape.
Although the situation is difficult and particularly small companies are getting in danger I am convinced, that documentary filmmaking will survive, as TV-programs, on the internet, in some countries in the cinemas, and for sure at festivals around the world. But we have to find new ways of financing, also without the support of broadcasters. And the public broadcasters have to learn, that documentaries represent an important part of our cultural and intellectual heritage. They are part of our audio-visual memory.
Public TV already lost a big part of the young generation. Young people find their information and entertainment increasingly on YouTube, Vimeo and on other internet platforms. This is the current and future challenge for the broadcasters. We could help them to keep an audience, who are not just TV-consumers, but people who care about what is going on in this world, who want to get more than just light entertainment or information about what they already know from the internet. Fascinating and compelling stories, this is the key to open the door to new audiences, available on different devices at any time.
EDN: After retiring in 2011 you became managing director of Ventana Film. What made you decide to continue with documentary production instead of enjoying a peaceful retirement?
HRE: First of all, I really liked my work at ARTE and later at ZDF. My passion was and still is to take part in the creative process of documentary filmmaking. To stop at the age of 65, only because the law says so, seemed not acceptable to me. Independent producers, authors or filmmakers don’t usually stop being creative at that age. Therefore I decided, not to retire from working in this fascinating world of documentaries after my retirement from ZDF and ARTE. By the way, what is “peaceful retirement”? To me this is synonymous to boredom.
EDN: What were the biggest changes / surprises you experienced when shifting to the other side of the desk from commissioner to producer?
HRE: Actually it means more and completely different work. The pressure is higher, because the financing of a project is sometimes a real challenge. In a small company one is working always on the edge of failing.
But I like my independence, my freedom to do what I want to do. And I don’t miss endless meetings about bureaucratic subjects, new schedules and how to improve the ratings.
But compared to most of my producing colleagues I am in a quite privileged situation as a retired broadcaster.
EDN: What do see as the most valuable and useful experiences from your time at ARTE and ZDF, which you can use when producing?
HRE: First of all, I have learned how a broadcaster is working, how TV is organized and how decisions are made, no matter if it is a niche channel or a larger one. Secondly I have met and I worked with commissioning colleagues from around the world setting up many successful coproductions. One of my most exciting experiences was the cooperation with “Steps International” and the colleagues from TV-stations worldwide on the landmark project “Why Democracy?”
Finally I had the chance to work with some of the greatest documentary filmmakers like Wim Wenders, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, Emir Kusturica and Mika Kaurismäki.
My more than 20 years in TV have been the best part of my professional life.
EDN: Your recent coproduction Return to Homs, must indeed have been a challenging production. How did you get involved with the project and how did you manage to find the financing for it?
HRE: I met my coproducer Orwa Nyrabia and the director Talal Derki during IDFA 2011. Orwa and I worked in the same jury and had a good understanding about films and I learned about the political situation in Syria. Since I have worked with the Greenhouse- and the MENA-workshops for young filmmakers in the Southern Mediterranean region I was very interested in the so called “Arabellion”. Orwa showed me a clip, which was shot at the beginning of the demonstrations in Homs. It included an interview with Basset Saroot, a young goalkeeper of the Syrian youth-national team. I was very much impressed by the statement of this 19 years old guy and his braveness. Therefore I was keen to work with Talal and Orwa on helping to develop the storyline and the film.
I then showed the clip to some commissioning editors and tried to convince them to join us. It was a bit difficult, because nobody could say at that time where the journey goes. We expected an end of Assad’s regime within the next ten or twelve months. The first investment in the project came from the IDFA Bertha Fund, where Orwa had applied earlier for development money. Another part of the first investment came from two Arab funds, also applied by Orwa. But we draw up a budget of around 400.000 Euro and were far away from being able to make the film, which we had in mind.
Despite a little doubt I already began to pitch the project during IDFA 2011, and the first letter of commitment came from the German station SWR of the ARD-network. Later, during Sheffield 2012, we could convince ARTE. When I had the first coproduction agreement, we could start in October with the selection of the material in Cairo, where Orwa’s company has settled meanwhile.
It was a little bit difficult to explain to our commissioning colleagues which kind of film they could expect. Some of them, like the BBC, wanted to have a current affairs film. But Talal, Orwa and I decided to concentrate on the characters and the activists in Homs, who constantly filmed their battles and their fight against the regime. Later I could get agreements with SVT and NHK as coproducers, additionally two presales with the Swiss channel TSR and Radio Canada. Talal and the German editor Anne Fabini could start with the editing of meanwhile more than 250 hours of material in Berlin.
Thanks to Gudrun El Ghomri, Claudia Bucher, Axel Arnö, Tomoko Okutsu, Gaspard Lamuniere and Jean Pelletier, who made it possible, to do this challenging coproduction.
EDN: The film follows the Syrian uprising first hand and is shot under very difficult circumstances. Can you name some of the biggest challenges in the production and maybe also some of the rewarding moments?
HRE: Originally Talal wanted to concentrate on Ossama, the young cameraman as a storyteller, who had introduced him to Basset, the football star and leader of the demonstrations in Homs. Ossama should also be one of the main characters. But in early summer 2012 he was detained, when he came back from medical treatment in Lebanon. Ossama, whose only weapon was his camera, disappeared until today. We had to change the narrative and the structure of the film. Our only main character was Basset from now on.
It was a great shock, when Orwa was arrested at the airport of Damascus only one month later. I got a call from Diana, his wife, and it was clear to me, that we cannot continue without him. Fortunately Orwa was released after four weeks in a horrible Syrian jail.
Another problem was to bring Talal to Germany. He lived with his family at that time in Beirut and needed a Schengen-visa. We tried everything, the broadcasters and I wrote letters to the embassy there, but it didn’t work. Finally the German minister of cultural affairs at that time, Bernd Neumann, supported the project and us. Talal received a 90 days permit to come to Berlin. But we had planned an editing period of about three or four months, and Orwa couldn’t come to Berlin, because the Egyptian government had decided, that Syrian citizens could leave the country, but wouldn’t be allowed to come back. Therefore he had to stay in Cairo, where he and Diana had moved.
Talal and editor Anne Fabini, together with the assistant editor Martin Reimers, became a fantastic team, right from the beginning. I was very happy about this collaboration. One of the most beautiful moments during postproduction in Berlin was, when I watched the first very rough collection of material of about 150 Minutes. It was far away from a proper rough-cut. But at that very moment I was sure, that we would have a very powerful film at the end.
EDN: Which new projects are you currently involved in?
HRE: We just finished a coproduction with the finish production company First Floor, a film about a mysterious murder case in rural Finland, a CSI-like documentary by Pekka Lehto. Furthermore I am working on two projects with Alan Hayling’s company Renegade Pictures.
The two major projects of Ventana-Film are currently a documentary about the German Secret Service BND, a film for the ARD network. The second one is a feature length documentary about the roots of the Hawaiian Music, which are going back, you may not believe it, to Germany. This film will be produced for cinema and ZDF-ARTE, a marvellous story.
I am also very happy to continue the cooperation with Talal Derki on his next film.
EDN: What is the profile of Ventana Film and how do you usually find projects and partners for co-productions?
HRE: Ventana-Film is a small production company, which focuses on production and coproduction of documentaries. We are making cultural and current affairs programs for TV, but also character driven creative documentaries for cinema and TV.
My experience as a producer is still too short to say, where I am "usually" finding projects. Within the last two and a half years I have met potential partners who have pitched their projects at IDFA and Hot Docs, at Sheffield DocFest, in Berlin, in Tbilisi, at ZagrebDox and finally during the Krakow Film festival. When I am working for development workshops, like Greenhouse, I use to find interesting projects there and try to help the producers and filmmakers to get them made, normally as a consultant or adviser. Additionally I have a long lasting relationship with Renegade Pictures in London. We worked on different coproductions for ARTE during my time as commissioning editor and I am happy, that this cooperation could continue after my retirement from TV.
EDN: This month you will be taking part at Sunny Side of the Doc under the EDN umbrella stand. What are your aims for the market?
HRE: I will pitch my own projects and I try to find partners for coproduction of two wonderful projects, coming from Hungary and Georgia, both by very talented young filmmakers and producers.
EDN: What do you see as the benefits / necessities of taking part in physical markets? What makes it impossible to do the job from behind the desk only?
HRE: As a producer who is keen to do international coproductions it is absolutely crucial to meet colleagues, commissioning editors and financers personally. We are not producing screws or something like that. Our role is to enable authors and directors to tell their stories about human fates and the diversity of life on this planet. The cinematic art of documentary films has the same cultural importance as literature, theatre, opera or concerts. This needs debate, struggle, exchanging experiences, love and passion. The personal relationship cannot be replaced by emails, smart phones or Skype.
EDN: What lies next for you and Ventana after Sunny Side of the Doc?
HRE: Three weeks holidays in Brittany, then the Leipzig Documentary festival, Documentary Campus and IDFA.
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