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MEMBER OF THE MONTH – SIGNE BYRGE SØRENSEN, FINAL CUT FOR REAL

24.10.2012

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 October 2012 is Signe Byrge Sørensen, Final Cut for Real, Denmark.

Signe Byrge Sørensen is CEO and producer at Final Cut for Real, which is located in Copenhagen, Denmark. She has been a producer for 14 years.

EDN: How did you get started in the documentary business and what made you choose to go in a documentary direction?

SBS: I first got interested in film while in high school, where I attended an experimental 3 year cause focused on media and communication. This was in the country side in a town called Maribo. We had some very dedicated teachers, but we never actually met anyone who made films for a living.

Straight after high school I went to Zimbabwe to plant trees for the Red Cross and to travel around Southern Africa. Meeting the people in Zimbabwe and Botswana, while hitch hiking was a roller coaster ride up and down the social ladder and across cultures. We also did some slide shows and gave talks while back in Denmark and I loved all of it.

Back in Denmark I attended a video course at Kolding Folk High School.  That was the time of umatic low band equipment so we spent a lot of time and effort just carrying all this heavy equipment around, but we did manage to make one little film about two fishermen activists, who fought against the building of a bridge.

After this I went to a university in Denmark called RUC. Here I studied social science, communication and international development studies. I took one Erasmus year in Manchester, and when I came back from there I started looking for a place to be involved with films about/from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

It was a total coincidence that I found a network called ZEBRA. They had some regular monthly meetings for professional people working on these issues – filmmakers, NGO people etc. You needed an invitation to one of these meetings, but I thought it was an open forum and turned up. Luckily they let me stay, and after the meeting I asked if they needed an activist. They agreed, and soon I got a real student job. ZEBRA was not just a Danish organisation, but an international network.  They published a magazine in English and Spanish and organized seminars etc. I ended up working there for 4 years, while finishing my studies, until the network had to close due to lack of funding.

It was also through the ZEBRA network that I got my internship, which was an obligatory part of International Development Studies. I got a place at Lok Jumbish, an Indian organisation in Rajasthan, focused on getting basic education to all children in rural Rajasthan between the age of 6 and 14. Here I worked with two Indian filmmakers Sharad Agarwal and Satyajit Sakar organising particpatory video workshops for field workers and parents groups in the desert.

Later I worked with community media groups and filmmakers in South Africa through ZEBRA, and I ended up writing my thesis on the democratisation of South African media after apartheid.

In Denmark ZEBRA was hosted by the small production company SPOR Media, run by Helle Toft Jensen and Torben Vosbein. They did their own documentaries too and produced educational materials for Danish high schools.

So after finishing my masters I began working with them, while also doing all kinds of jobs teaching, writing, producing web sites etc. to pay the bills. My first job as a producer was on a documentary production called "Ancestors Online", which took place in Zimbabwe. I came in as a substitute, because the producer, Mikael Opstrup, got another job at the Danish Film Institute. It was a very special project, because there were two directors Helle Toft Jensen and Prudence Uriri. Their idea was to shoot together, copy all the material and do each their version of the film. Luckily there were some experienced Zimbabwean production people on board the 6 week shoot, because I was learning everything while it was happening. It was really a case of learning by doing.

After that I produced some more films in SPOR Media for example "Yohanna – Johanna" directed by Thomas Danielsson. It was about bullying and had Johanna Troell as the main character. I was still learning on the job and I also took some courses at the Film School, and attended the EDN workshop Twelve for the Future.

Another very interesting project that we did in SPOR Media, was participating in Steps for the Future, a huge film project in Southern Africa about people living with HIV. We were the Danish co-producers, with Mette Hoffmann Meyer at TV2 and Jakob Høgel at the Danish Film Institute as the main Danish partners. I was in charge of sending a group of Danish editors to work with Southern African directors and I worked on the Danish launch and distribution of the films.

The last film I produced in SPOR Media was "Hotel of Dreams", also by Helle Toft Jensen. That was shot in Senegal, and I brought it to EURODOC. That was an amazing experience. I learned so much about international co-production and some of the people I met there are still close friends and colleageus. Two of them Rafaelle Brunetti and Uldis Cekulis are on the EDN board right now.

I moved to Final Cut Productions ApS in 2004 and started working with Thomas Stenderup, Mikael Opstrup, Lena Lundt, and later Maja Giese. I first started working with this company because I was hired to help Janus Billeskov Jansen to do a pilot for a web-based language exploratorium. It is a long story, but this project in the end resulted in the two documentaries "Voices of the World: In Languages We Live" collected and shot all around the world through a network of linguists, antropologists, filmmakers and activists and "The Importance of Being Mlabri", shot in Northern Thailand in a language called Mlabri spoken by only 320 people. Both these projects were enourmously challenging and also wonderful experiences to be part of.

Janus and I also did another project together called "Letters from Denmark". This was our response to the caricature crises, and it resulted in a documentary made up of 10 films of 5 min each made by 10 Danish directors in collaboration with 10 Danes with roots in the Middle East. I was given a lot of freedom in Final Cut Productions ApS and at the same time I was learning a lot through each project.

Final Cut Productions Aps was also involved in fiction films and in the second part of 2008 I became involved in the post production of Jan Troells film "Everlasting Moments" when Thomas Stenderup had to go on sick leave. This was my first experience with fiction, and working with Jan Troell and Niels Pagh Andersen, who edited the film was a very good experience.

By the end of 2008 both Thomas and Mikael decided to leave active production for various reasons. But I was in the middle of a number of really exciting projects. I had just met Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn the year before and we had started developing "The Act of Killing" together, so I was not ready for a break. In order to keep the projects I therefore decided to start a new company and take over some of the projects that I had in development. I also made an arrangement with the old Final Cut Productions ApS that we finished the finance and the production of "Football is God" directed by Ole Bendtzen. This project had been started by Mikael Opstrup, and we were finishing it on behalf of Final Cut Productions ApS.

EDN: Can you tell more about Final Cut for Real and the company’s history?

SBS: I set up Final Cut for Real in 2009 together with Anne Köhncke, so by now it has been about 3 years. Anne and I knew each other, because she had also worked for a year in Final Cut Productions ApS, before moving on to TV2 Sales and later DR.

The first year we focused mainly on finishing "Football is God" and developing new projects. It premiered in 2010. I also attended EAVE that year with "The Act of Killing" and here I met Monica Hellström and she started working with us half way through 2010.

In 2011 we premiered "The Kid and the Clown" by Ida Grøn, "Returned" by Marianne Hougen-Moraga and "The World's Best Chef" by Rasmus Dinesen. We also got a bit further in 2011 with some of the films that we can premiere this year for example "Traveling with Mr. T" by Andreas M. Dalsgaard and Simon Lereng Wilmont and "The Act of Killing". Another big project in 2012 has been "The Human Scale", directed by Andreas Dalsgaard.

EDN: Is there a common mission or overall idea that is reflected in the projects produced by Final Cut for Real? How do you find the directors and projects?

SBS: Final Cut for Real is dedicated to high-end creative documentaries for the international market.  Our policy is to be curious, daring and seek out directors with serious artistic ambitions. We do not from the outset set any limits on subjects or locations. We look for interesting stories, great characters and in-depth social, cultural and political analysis – and we also try to give the films a twist of humour. 

Our method is for our producers to work closely with “their” directors from the first idea to the final film, and keep on exchanging ideas and feedback.  Together we cover a wide range of development and production expertise – and work with younger talent as well as established filmmakers. We try to create a productive mixture of experience and new approaches to documentary filmmaking.

Sometimes we approach directors, but most often the directors approach us with a specfic project. Then we evaluate if this is something for us and if we think we can finance it within a framework defined by both the director and us, ie. how long time do we all want to dedicate to this project,  what is the time frame for the characters and the story's development, what are the finance options etc. If we think the project is both interesting and possible to finance, and we and the director agree on the terms then we start a development period. And if the development works well, and the finance can be raised, then we enter production stage.

 

EDN: At the moment Signe is busy with the release of “The Act of Killing” directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. The film premiered at Toronto International Film Festival and will also be the opening film of this year’s CPH:DOX Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival.

In summary Final Cut for Real describes “The Act of Killing” as follows:

In The Act of Killing, Anwar Congo and his friends, who are all mass murderers, have agreed to tell us the story of their killings.

When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar and his friends were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie theatre tickets on the black market to death squad leaders. They helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than a year. As the executioner for the most notorious death squad in his city, Anwar himself killed hundreds of people with his own hands.

But Anwar’s and his friends’ idea of being in a movie is not to provide testimony for a documentary: they want to star in the kind of films they most love from their days scalping tickets at the cinemas. We seize this opportunity to expose how a regime that was founded on crimes against humanity, yet has never been held accountable, would project itself into history.

And so we challenge Anwar and his friends to develop fiction scenes about their experience of the killings, adapted to their favorite film genres - gangster, western, musical. They write the scripts. They play themselves. And they play their victims.

EDN: How did you get involved in the production of “The Act of Killing” and at which stage was the project when Final Cut entered?

SBS: I heard about “The Act of Killing” at a seminar at CPH:DOX. Michael Uwemedimo, a member of the film collective Vision Machine from London presented two projects by Vision Machine and this was one of them. Vision Machine had been discovered by Dola Bonfils, who was commissioning editor at the time and Jakob Høgel was hosting the talk. I was blown away by a clip with two perpetrators, who reenacted how they used to kill their victims on the bank of a river.

I found out that Joshua was the main director of this project and I called him at a time when he was in Indonesia. This was by the end of 2007. I just asked if he needed a producer. He was a bit surprised, but sent me his PhD, which was about his film work. I read that and called him again, and I think that this persistence and the fact that I actually read his thesis pursuaded him that I may be worth talking to. At that time I was still working in the old Final Cut Productions ApS. We invited Joshua and Christine Cynn over and when they showed us some samples of their material every one of us understood that this was something extremely exiciting and interesting. So I was given the mandate to proceed and Joshua, Christine and I started working together.

At that time Joshua's vision was very clear, but the format of the final product was far from given. They had worked in a university setting until then, and that had given them a lot of freedom, and very few restrictions in terms of tv-slots, audience demands and delivery formats. But at the same time they also wished to make a film that reached a wide audience, and they needed resources to have the kind of elaborate shooting and editing process, which the project demanded.

EDN: Can you tell more about the production and the filming – what is hard to get permission to film in Indonesia, how and why was it decided to have the former mass murderers write scripts and play themselves in the documentary and how did you convince them to do it?

SBS: It was never hard to film in Indonesia as long as we were filming with the perpetrators. No one ever asked for permissions. It was only when we were filming secretly with families’ victims that we had to be careful.

The method used in the film has been long underway. If you see "The Globalisation Tapes", which was the first film bade by Joshua and Christine in collaboration with plantation workers in Indonesia in 2003 you can see some traces of the ideas that were later fully unfolded in "The Act of Killing". 

Also, previously in the US, Joshua had infiltrated a right wing militia group, and in London, he had infiltrated an anti-gay group, so the idea of working with people, he did not agree with was not foreign to him.

When Joshua had first discovered the boastfulness of the Indonesian perpetrators he and Christine had worked with a man called Amir Hassan. He used to be a primary school art teacher and he was still running a drama group for young people. Also, amazingly, he had written a graphic novel about the killings that he himself took part in, seen from the point of view of the victims. Joshua and Christine started working with him, but he quit after a while, partly because he got worried about the project and partly because during the tsunami he lost two of his grown up children and needed to focus on his family.

Joshua kept filming with perpetrators, documenting as much as he could of what had happened in this region. He followed the chain of command and that lead him to Medan and here he met Anwar Congo. When he discovered Anwar Congo and his gang and their special relationship with cinema a lot fell into place. The process actually started as a regular documentary process, but Joshua realized that Anwar and the others had not only been inspired by American genre films when finding methods of killings, they had also, already at the time of the kilings, be inspired to perform roles while killing. So the use of fiction reenactments became a way to open a space, where it would be possible to see traces of their understanding of themselves, their victims and the killings at the time, but also to understand how they continue now to view the whole story. We call this method for “documentary of the imagination”. And combined with the documentary footage of their present day political acitivities, their everyday life and the film production process, we hoped to answer the question of how this phenonomen of open boasting perpetrators had become into existeince in the first place.

Also, it is important to note, that precisely because these perpetrators have been celebrated as heroes in their own society, it was not so difficult to persuade them to talk about what they had done. Of course, they know, as you see in the film, that in other countries these kinds of acts are sometimes punished. But they also know that they have totally impunity in Indonesia, and therefore they don't fear persecution. They may, sometimes, be afraid of revenge by the victims, but they also know that this is not very likely given that most families of victims were so suppresed after the 1965-66 killings that their children and grand children are still strugling just to recover, and that they have no political platform of any significance and no economic resources. 

EDN: How did it affect these former mass murderers to play themselves and in that way relive the killings they took part in?

SBS: I think this question can best be answered by the audience seeing the film for themselves.

EDN: Will “The Act of Killing” be released in Indonesia and have there already been reactions to it there?

SBS: “The Act of Killing” will be available in Indonesia. That is all we can say right now. It has been screened to some journalists so far, and it has already created a lot of waves. The most important result so far has been Tempo magazine, which is a political magazine like Times Magazine, which has published a 75 page special section on the 1965-66 killings. They write about “The Act of Killing”, but the journalists from the magazine have also found many similar cases from across Indonesia, so the magazine documents the very large national tragedy in an extremely open and powerful way. This has let to a lot of debate both in the Indonesian language press and in the English press in Indonesia.

Anyone interested in following this debate can look at the film's facebook page - www.facebook.com/actofkilling. We hope that the debate will continue on all levels of Indonesian society in the coming months.

EDN: Both Werner Herzog and Errol Morris are credited as executive producers on “The Act of Killing”. How did you get involved in collaboration with these two documentary legends?

SBS: Errol Morris became involved in 2010. Joshua and Joram ten Brink, who is professor at University of Westminter and one of the film’s executive producers, were planning a book about film and violence and they wanted an interview with Errol Morris to be part of the book. Joshua went to Boston to talk to Errol, and Errol asked Joshua what he was working on. Joshua showed him the clips we had selected at the time, and he got extremely interested and offered to come on board at executive producer.

Werner Herzog came on board much later, during the very last part of the editing. This time it was our British executive producer André Singer from Spring Films, who introduced us. He is also executive producer on some of Werner Herzog's film and Joshua and Werner were in London at the same time. André made sure that they met and Joshua showed Werner some samples of our cut, and they really found each other. After that they carried on their conversations on Skype.

EDN: “The Act of Killing” is co-produced by production companies in Norway and the UK and supported with financing by among others ZDF ARTE, SVT, VPRO, DR and both the Danish and Norwegian Film Institute. It must be quite a puzzle with all these partners – can you give some insights to how to get these co-producers and partners involved and how to tackle the involvement of many partners and voices?

SBS: All co-productions are a bit of a puzzle and the more partners you have the more complicated it gets. Finance wise we approached every one in the normal way, either at pitching forums or directly. It took a lot of meetings and screenings of material, but when people were finally on board they have all been very supportive and patient throughout a process, which took longer than first estimated. In the editing period we collected notes from everyone and then discussed those together in stages. I.e. after the first rough cut, after the second and after the fine cut. We try to manage so that everyone can give input, but only at certain selected points, so that the director and the editor have space and time to work for themselves in between.

EDN: Several of your previous and upcoming films are also co-productions – e.g. “Football is God”, which was co-produced by Making Movies Oy, Finland and “Cathedrals of Culture”, where Final Cut for Real is the co-producer. Can you say a bit about the advantages and necessities regarding working with co-productions?

SBS: Co-productions are essential when you finance bigger international films, because as soon as you do something that is not in the national language and with national characters, then the TV support you can get in your own country becomes fairly limited. Then you have to get other countries’ TV stations and if possible film institutes or film funds involved and that means you need co-producers, because they can apply to these funds on behalf of the project. The advantage of co-productions is that you can raise more funds and resources for your film and that you get a wider distribution of it afterwards. But co-productions are also difficult and often just the fact that you have to co-produce makes the budget bigger, because you have to travel more and you have to place processes that you could do at home in other countries for example sound work or editing.

EDN: Are there good conditions for getting support for co-productions when you are based in Denmark?

SBS: Yes, the conditions are fairly good. There are two to three deadlines a year for minor co-productions, and the Danish Film Institute can give between 20.000 and 50.000 EURO.  But they support only around 6 documentary films a year, so the competition is huge. And you must have secured Danish distribution of the film first, and have a plan for the Danish creative input.

EDN: Finally - What lies ahead for you and Final Cut for Real?

SBS: Right now we have CPH:DOX coming up in November. Besides "The Act of Killing" being the opening film we have premieres of "The Human Scale" by Andreas Dalsgaard and "Traveling with Mr. T" by Andreas Dalsgaard and Simon Lereng Wilmont.  "Canned Dreams", which is directed by Katja Gauriloff and produced by Oktober Oy, Finland, is also in the program. Anne Köhncke is also organising a seminar together with Erwin Schmidt from Neue Road Movies in Berlin on their project "Cathedrals of Culture", a 3D project which involves directors such as Wim Wenders, Michael Glawogger, Victor Kossakovsky and Michael Madsen.

The next premiere we have after CPH:DOX will be of our co-production "The Pirate Bay – Away from Keybord", directed by Simon Klose.

This winter we will finish a documentary called "Last Dreams" by Estephan Wagner. We will continue financing and developing Andreas Dalsgaard's film "The Element of Trust". We also have some new films in development for example a film called "Sumo" by Simon Lereng Wilmont, and Joshua and I will start developing and financing his next film from Indonesia, which will focus on the survivors.

 

For more information on Final Cut for Real visit www.final-cut.dk

For more information about The Act of Killing visit www.theactofkilling.com

 

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