EDN Member of the Month – Venla Hellstedt
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 2018 is Venla Hellstedt, Producer, Tuffi Films, Finland.
EDN has among other things talked to Venla Hellstedt about Tuffi Films and the project Conductivity, which she will pitch at the IDFA Forum in Amsterdam. Venla Hellstedt studied literature and film in London and gained an MSc in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Science. In the UK, she worked in a number of documentary, drama and news productions for BBC, ITV and the Discovery Channel.
Venla returned to work in her native Helsinki in 2009, after nearly 14 years in the UK, and has since worked as a Producer of many award winning Finnish films and international co-productions. Two of the films that she produced have received the national Finnish film award ‘Jussi’ for the best documentary. In 2012 the documentary film Dance of Outlaws was awarded at Locarno IFF. In 2018 her first feature film production, Stupid Young Heart premiered in Toronto IFF. She has taken part in several international film professionals' courses, such as EAVE Producers' Workshop and Crossing Borders.
EDN: Can you start by telling more about your background and your road into the world of documentaries? When did you join Tuffi Films?
VA: My mother is a theatre director and my stepfather is an actor, they owned a production company together, producing TV comedy, and already as a teenager I was doing odd jobs for them. I always thought that producing was not so cool – I longed to make something serious and political instead. I fell in love with documentary form at the University of Greenwich, where I studied a BA in English Literature. I did a video production course as part of my studies, and since then I always thought that documentaries are the most amazing form of storytelling.
After graduating, I worked in a small UK charity, documenting social history of diverse Londoners. For some time, I worked at the BBC Drama department, in Talent Rights, but I always wanted to direct, shoot and edit my own TV documentaries. It was very competitive, and so I decided to do a Master’s degree in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I wrote my thesis on Somali Diaspora, and worked during my studies on a refugee documentary for the charity.
After receiving the Master’s degree, I worked in BBC News. It was an exciting time, I witnessed some devastating and delightful events in our huge newsroom team. I really felt that I was in the centre of the world as everywhere all people knew the BBC News. Finally, after more than a year, I got a job working in TV documentaries in a few independent production companies as an Associate Producer. In one company, I was observing my Producer, and thought that job was very interesting and that I could also do it a lot better. So, I decided to try and go for that role. I never thought that I would stay in UK for as long as I ended up staying in the end. Almost everyone I meet always asks me why, but it was very clear to me that I would come back to Finland. I started looking for work about a year before I found one, and packed 27 boxes of my belongings from my 14 years in UK, to take with me to Helsinki.
I joined Tuffi Films in 2015, after I had been with the production company Illume for almost five years. I know one of the Tuffi founders, Kirsikka Saari from school, since we were both 8 years old. I got to know Elli Toivoniemi, who is now my closest colleague at Tuffi, at the Nordisk Forum in 2014. The others I didn’t know and I simply responded to a job advert they had put out for a Producer. Now I am a partner in the company since 2016, and the company has grown considerably since I joined them.
I love producing, I really feel that I am in the right place.
EDN: How would you describe Tuffi Films’ company profile? Do you have a preference for certain, themes, topics or styles of documentaries? How do you choose the projects to take on?
VA: We strive to produce films that resonate the contemporary world in a way that stays with the audiences for a long time. Recently, I have loved working on youth films, such as Hobbyhorse Revolution, it has been immensely rewarding.
We, Tuffi Films partners discuss everything that is offered to us, even though we do not police one another. Usually we agree, but not always.
I want to work with Directors who I get along with, most of the time it takes at least four years to make a film from start to finish so you really have to like each other in order to make it to the end as some kind of collaborators. I have worked on more than one project with a few directors and it is the best case, you get to know each other so well in the process. But I also like a challenge and work with new and exciting points of view and with new talent.
Themes and topics that interest me seem to revolve around migration, politics and identity, but the themes do not even matter as much as the way the filmmaker wants to tell the story and their motives for wanting to be a documentary director. It is a very tough job to direct documentaries, and generally you have to be determined about your film because you will have to defend it at every turn.
EDN: You and Tuffi Films also regularly work on international co-productions. What do you see as the major advantages and disadvantages of working on international co-productions – both as major and minor producer?
VA: When I moved back to Finland in 2008 I was worried that I would get stuck in Finland and never work internationally again. Today, I work more internationally than I ever did in UK. I think you have to want to work with colleagues from other countries so that everyone can enjoy and gain from it.
The major advantages of international co-productions are the feedback you get to your project early on in the development phase. You can test your project, what works and what doesn’t. For me, wanting to make the films travel is at the centre of most things I do.
Disadvantages are for sure the insecurity of financing a project, it takes a longer time to get all your letters of commitment. Finally, it is not cheap, but the rewards can be greater - at some distant future.
EDN: Next week you will pitch the project Conductivity (directed by Anna-Karin Grönroos) at the IDFA Forum. What is Conductivity about and what are your main goals and focus areas while attending IDFA and the Forum?
VA: Conductivity is a story about three young conducting students and their road to becoming leaders. They are all students of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, our main protagonist is Taiwanese, one of them is French and one is a Finnish female conductor. This is my second project with the Director Anna-Karin Grönroos, who I think is a brilliant documentarist and has a unique sense of humour in her films. The documentary is fully financed from Finnish funds and Creative Europe Media.
My main goal at IDFA is to make sales and find potential festival partners for the film. We are aiming high, the material looks amazing, and my last collaboration with Grönroos, the documentary film Ecopolis China premiered at IDFA in 2013.
EDN: Can you share some insights about the current funding landscape in Finland? What are the main sources for documentary funding?
VA: The main sources of domestic financing are the Finnish Film Foundation, Avek and Yle. If the story has a relevance to the Swedish speaking minority you can apply for funding from the Swedish cultural foundation. A new source is for documentaries with a budget over 325 000 €, Business Finland production incentive, that is 25% cash rebate on Finnish costs. Also, some private foundations support documentaries.
The Finnish Film Foundation only supports films that have confirmed distribution in Finland, and Yle is generally the only TV channel that buys documentaries. This means you have basically three commissioning editors at Yle who decide what projects get made. I would wish for more diversity and would like to see the commercial channels also forced to co-produce documentaries through their licence obligations.
Many Finnish documentaries are planned for cinema distribution too, but there are not huge audiences, even though there have been nice exceptions to this too. Finnish documentaries have traditionally travelled to many more festivals than fiction and also their funding structures are statistically more international than Finnish fiction features.
EDN: Do you have any advice to an international producer keen on working in Finland or looking for a Finnish co-producer?
VA: Find a producer with whom you share your ambition and vision. Between documentary producers there is a good collaborative relationship here in Finland. If you need to get in contact with producers, the Finnish Documentary Guild could be a good start and many of us who want to work internationally are active on the forums. We are nice people and easy to approach.
You need to have a Finnish broadcaster on board in order to apply any other co-production funding.
EDN: Last but not least - what lies next for you, and for Tuffi Films? After the pitching is over…
VA: We are now editing Conductivity, we’re about half way there and should deliver the film by the end of April. We will do all of the work in Finland – for a change this is not a co-production. I hope we can find a good festival opening for this film, and I will be working with our sales agents and the Finnish Film Foundation to find the best place.
I am also in development phase of two other documentaries and hope to work on a documentary as a minority producer in the near future. I am also working on a couple of feature films with my Tuffi Films colleagues, and a short fiction film by a new talent – a completely new challenge to me.
For an overview of all previous EDN Members of the Month, please visit: