Signe Byrge Sørensen is a two-time Oscar® nominee for producing THE ACT OF KILLING in 2014 and THE LOOK OF SILENCE in 2016. She was nominated for the Producer’s Guild Award in 2016 for THE LOOK OF SILENCE. She won Cinema Eye awards for the production of both these films.
Signe Byrge Sørensen has been a producer since 1998. She began in SPOR Media in 1998, moved to Final Cut Productions ApS in 2004 and co-founded Final Cut for Real ApS in 2009. She has produced documentaries in for example South Africa, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Thailand, Indonesia, Colombia and Argentina. While at SPOR Media she was the Danish co-producer for STEPS FOR THE FUTURE. She holds an MA in International Development Studies and Communication Studies from Roskilde University, Denmark, 1998 (1st). She did the European co-production courses EURODOC in 2003, EAVE in 2010 and ACE in 2018. In 2014 Signe received the Danish Documentary Award called the Roos Prize and the IB award given by the Danish Director’s Association. She also received the Danish Award called The Timbuktu Prize. Signe has co-produced the fiction film THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT by Tarik Saleh, which won the world dramatic award at Sundance in 2017 and GOOD FAVOUR by Rebecca Daly, which premiered at TIFF in 2017. Her most recent films as a producer are OUR MEMORY BELONGS TO US by Rami Farah, which has just had its world premiere in competition at CPH:DOX 2021, PRESIDENT by Camilla Nielsson, which won the cinema verité award at Sundance 2021 and the animated documentary FLEE, by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, which won the world documentary award at Sundance in 2021, recently won the Gotham award for best doc and the European Film Awards for best doc and best animation and has been nominated for a Producer’s Guild Award, an Independent Spirit Award, an IDA Award and several Cinema Eye Awards.. (produced in collaboration with Monica Hellström and Charlotte De La Gournierer).
What attracted you to Inside Pictures (IP)?
I want to better understand the American film industry. I’ve released films in America, but getting to really understand how the US system works and exactly where, and how it differs from the European and the UK systems, that is my main reason for doing IP. I am currently developing the fiction film musical THE END with my long-term collaborator – and director – Joshua Oppenheimer. This film is founded on the European model, but also requires input from the US.
Since 1998, what are some of the most significant changes you seen happen in the feature length documentary market place?
In 1998 I think there was still a more puritanical view of what a documentary looks like that dominated the field, at least in Denmark. Over two decades, the possibilities have opened up. I think we see more filmmakers be creative with the form now. Some of the newer festivals contributed a lot to bringing the spheres of documentary and art together. For example, Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX. The festivals brought in new ideas about the documentary form, and the industry has responded in a very strong way. This cross-fertilisation also helped documentary to be increasingly perceived as something cool and interesting amongst younger audiences. Which is extremely important for the future of the art form.
However, in the last three years, public service television, has started to move away from artful documentaries and into more journalistic type films, at least in the Nordic countries. We are also experiencing what the trade press have called, ‘the streaming revolution for documentaries’. But if you look at the numbers, it’s very few films that are benefitting. Big celebrity/music documentaries tend to attract the streamers, but if you want to do independent, artistic films about social issues, or political issues, or cultural issues, then it is much more challenging to get the same level of funding as only a few years ago from the TV-stations. Luckily, we still have the film institutes and public film funds, like the Danish Film Institute. They are incredibly important for the artistic development of the genre.
Sundance 2021 you won World Documentary Award for FLEE and Cinema Verite Award for PRESIDENT… Can you talk about when you became involved with these films?
PRESIDENT (2021) is the second – Zimbabwe – film by the Danish director, Camilla Nielsson. The first was DEMOCRATS (2014 – produced by Henrik Veileborg of Upfront Films, not by me, and Final Cut for Real). It is about the struggle over the creation of a new Zimbabwean constitution. She followed the whole process, and when film came out, it was banned in Zimbabwe, which was still being ruled by Robert Mugabe.
Camilla Nielsson is an extremely brave and very committed director, and she took the Zimbabwean government to court over the banning of the film. This turned into a three-year court case. Fast forward to November 2017 and Mugabe is ousted. So, in January 2018, when she went for the last hearing, the new, post-Mugabe, government, probably trying to show that they were democratic, lifted the ban. She won, which was actually pretty amazing. This also meant she could work in Zimbabwe again. Some of the Zimbabweans who had been involved in the first film suggested that Camilla Nielsson come back and do a second film about what they hoped would be the first really democratic election (but also knew would be a serious challenge, since being a democratic opposition in an undemocratic system is extremely demanding, to put it mildly). At that time, we were actually preparing another film, but we decided to change to this project. It proved to be a very difficult process. It took several months just to get permission to film in Zimbabwe again, and it was only because of Camilla Nielsson’s stamina and ability to operate in the Zimbabwean bureaucracy that we got it.
We began the development shoot in July 2018. I was involved throughout the whole production, but it had this whole history of standing on the shoulders of her previous film. The intimate cinema verité scenes about burning political issues you see in the film were only possible because Camilla Nielsson had the total trust of the participants in the film from the very beginning – and because Henrik Bohn Ipsen is an amazing photographer and editor Jeppe Bødskov did a fantastic editing-job. What you see in PRESIDENT in terms of the political situation in Zimbabwe is bad, but after that it actually got worse for the country, and right now the situation is pretty terrible. Our main character Nelson Chamisa was recently shot at while on a voter registration campaign. Luckily, he was not hurt, but main opposition leaders, journalists and activists have been arrested and some have been beaten and even raped and tortured. The so-called new dispensation and all the talk about democracy, which Mugabe’s predecessor Mnangagwa promised has proven to be empty words indeed. PRESIDENT opens in the US on 17th December 2021. We are working on the release in Zimbabwe, but it may take some months, because there is a censorship process to go through.
FLEE director Jonas Poher Rasmussen came to my colleague producer Monica Hellström with a story about his friend, an Afghan refugee, and his difficult journey from Afghanistan to Denmark. The nature of the story he’s telling, meant it needed to be anonymous. The solution was animation. Collectively we have a lot of experience with documentary in Final Cut for Real, but none of us had ever done a feature-long animated doc. We had to learn all the processes involved from scratch. We edited the sound first, with very rough story boards. It had to be working as a story before we started animating, as we could not afford to animate scenes that would not make it into the cut. One of the biggest challenges was how to approach the editing of his story, which had two levels:
- Amins story about what he had experienced as a child and a young man.
- The present-day story of how he had been and still was being affected by his experiences fleeing his home.
The award-winning editor Janus Billeskov Jansen (ANOTHER ROUND, STRONG ISLAND) edited FLEE. He is also my mentor and has taught me most of what I know about filmmaking. Janus is an incredible editor, and this was his first animation film too. Monica and I worked with director Jonas Poher Rasmussen and Janus on shaping the animatics rough cut. It was a journey of discovery, constantly going back and forth between analysis of Jonas’ original interviews and Jonas going back to do new interviews to understand more about how Amin felt about the whole experience now and how it had affected his adult life. The film was also an enormous challenge economically for our company. It cost more than double of any of our previous films, and it was our first project with a private US investor on board. We got Ryot/Vice on board and the negotiation process with them was extremely complex and taught me a lot about how the practice in the US differs from our Nordic or European practices. During Sundance we sold the film to NEON and that gave us yet another experience of long form contract negotiation and of a large-scale US delivery.
Please can you talk about how the diptych of THE ACT OF KILLING and THE LOOK OF SILENCE came to be made.
Joshua Oppenheimer was part of Vision Machine, a collective of four British based filmmakers. In 2007, Michael Uwemedimo, one of the four, came to do a presentation at CPH:DOX. He showed, what later became ‘the River Walk’ scene in THE LOOK OF SILENCE. I wrote to Joshua Oppenheimer to say I was extremely curious about what he’s doing – and did he need a producer? He then sent me his PhD about the project, which I read and became even more intrigued. He and his collaborator Christine Cynn came to Copenhagen and showed me, and editor Janus Billeskov Jansen, some more footage. We both fell in love with the project. Joshua and I started working together, at first long distance, between London and Copenhagen, before Joshua moved to Copenhagen during the editing period.
Joshua and Christine Cynn had shot in Indonesia before. A film called THE GLOBALISATION TAPES (2003) about a big union of food workers, about how people locally in North Sumatra experienced globalisation. Some of the people they talked to for THE GLOBALISATION TAPES had lost family members or they had been imprisoned for being communist. Josh wanted to do a film about and with the victims first, and they also started filming, but very soon it became clear that this was still too dangerous. One of the participants suggested to Josh that he should try to film with the perpetrators instead. Of course, Josh was hesitant at first, but he realized that they were happy to talk because of the way their acts of murder had been celebrated by the regime in power in Indonesia. Josh interviewed and filmed with many perpetrators before he met Anwar. Some of them you see in THE LOOK OF SILENCE.
In 2009, I met Anwar and the other perpetrators. I wanted to look them in the eyes and see what this was for myself. Otherwise, I didn’t know how I would be able to bring out the film, if I hadn’t actually met these people. The same goes for Adi and his family, the main characters in THE LOOK OF SILENCE. I was on the whole shoot for THE LOOK OF SILENCE and was very much aware of the dangers from making this film for the Indonesian people who told us their stories.
We always knew there should be two films – because the form and the content of each film was so specific to each set of characters and each story. However, originally, we had a hard time persuading the broadcasters that they should come on board two films from Indonesia.
After THE ACT OF KILLING was released in 2012, we did a two-year outreach program in Indonesia, because the danger people were in didn’t finish when the filming was over. We did exactly the same in 2014 for THE LOOK OF SILENCE. So, for four years, we were managing outreach programs on the other side of the world, in collaboration with our Indonesian key collaborators, who did the physical distribution of the film across the whole of Indonesia.
Now you’re developing a musical with Joshua – THE END… How has it been developing a scripted feature compared to a feature documentary?
The thing that is easier is that it’s not real people, and it’s not real danger, but scripted is a lot more expensive and also incredibly complex in its own way. Luckily, we have amazingly talented Heads of Department, whose experience is so important for both the process and the final film. I haven’t worked with actors, and I especially haven’t worked with agents before. It’s an even bigger challenge to do a fiction film that is also a musical. Developing all the aspects involved in a musical, in parallel, is really complicated. The financing is a different ballgame too, but luckily, we have some great European co-producers in The Match Factory, our German co-producer, which is also our international sales agent, Wild Atlantic Pictures in Ireland and UTA in the US.
What was the impact of COVID?
The pandemic pointed out how fragile the whole co-production setup is. All our documentaries are financed internationally. It means we do the colour grade in Norway, and the sound in Estonia – that kind of thing. With COVID, suddenly, it became much difficult, and sometimes impossible to work within the co-production requirements. For example, people from two different countries, who were supposed to be in the same room to work together, couldn’t travel, because of COVID restrictions. On one project there was Denmark and Norway spend, Norway was closed. You couldn’t get into Norway. I understand the need for international co-productions, but COVID restrictions made it unworkable at times. Of course, we could set up double processes, which we did, but it was not ideal for this kind of work.
What’s changes or innovations, in response to COVID, have you seen in the film industry that will be for the greater good of the industry going into the future and what can’t you wait to see be ‘normal’ once again?
Pitching online, for example, has been extremely useful. It works. You can easily pitch a project, share written materials, show a trailer and talk to people in a Zoom Room at a virtual festival/co-production market.
I think we will be travelling a lot less. It’s wonderful to meet people, but I think we can cut down on the travel side of things. I hope that commissioning editors will cut down on travel too, because it’s hard for us, waiting to get answers from them. If they have a chance of cutting down on travel, then maybe we’ll have faster responses.
In a company like ours, everyone, both directors, producers and crew members work so hard, but in the documentary world you don’t necessarily earn huge amounts of money. We do it, because we love film and believe the films’ we make will have an impact. However, it is really hard to experience the real impact if you don’t get to watch your film with an audience. So, I hope we soon get to do that again.
In a wider sense, knowing what we know now. Not that we know a great deal, other than it keeps mutating. What might you have done differently if we were at the start of pandemic today?
I would have gone directly to the Nordic film institutes to say we have to reframe the existing ideas of co-production to make them work during a pandemic. I would have done that straight away, but in March 2020 we didn’t think it would last this long. For example, if a Norwegian project was supposed to do sound in Denmark, now they could do it in Norway, and we could take this colour grade from Norway, and do it in Denmark during this period until everyone can travel again.
Another issue has been how to do celebrations in a good way during the pandemic. We realized that the way we normally celebrate throughout the year, when a film is doing well, is really important to everyone involved – it is such a landmark because often our films are often more than 3 years underway. For example, when we had both PRESIDENT by Camilla Nielsson and FLEE by Jonas Poher Rasmussen selected for Sundance, we decorated one of a part of our office to look like Park City – with mountain (posters, snow (posters), hot chocolate and waffles (in the morning) and burgers (in the evening). And when we had a VR piece called Hush selected for Venice and we celebrated that with a boat trip around Copenhagen harbour. However, it’s not quite the same as being there with your film for real. But still marking these events are important.
It’s a Sunday afternoon. It’s raining. You’ve nothing else to do that day. What film you’re putting on to relax with?
I have not actually had a day like this for a long time, but right now, I’m watching Sandra Oh in everything I can get. So, that’s like THE CHAIR (2021) and KILLING EVE (2018-2022). I think she’s pretty amazing.