In 2014, Morgan Knibbe (1989) made the short film Shipwreck, about the aftermath of a horrific shipwreck on the coast of Lampedusa in which 350 refugees drowned. Shortly afterwards, he made his first feature-length documentary, also about refugee issues: 'Those Who Feel the Burning'. This highly impressive, original and visually strong film was one of the best Dutch films of recent decades. Filmed from the point of view of the ghost of a drowned refugee. Both films deservedly won more than 30 awards, including Locarno's Silver Leopard and a Golden Calf for Best Long Documentary.
The trigger for this conversation was a symposium in late February for filmmakers organised by the Dutch Directors Guild(DDG) and Eye: How high do we set the bar? In it, you said on the stand that since 'Those who Feel The Fire Burning' (2014), it has been very difficult to get a film financed.
'That's right. Despite the many awards I have won with my extreme-low-budget productions, I have to fight for the trust of the Film Fund every time and I am often rejected. But it is a bit more nuanced than the Film Fund consistently not giving me any money. In recent years, I have participated a lot in funding competitions like De Oversteek, which I kept losing, but in the meantime, after trying again many times, I did get some regular development money. Besides, the ideas I presented were quite bold and grand in scope and sometimes, according to the fund, they did not have enough relevance for Dutch film.
In this country, you have to have Dutch elements in your film to get it funded and it has to promote Dutch culture. Personally, I don't understand how that rhymes with the fund's ambition to broaden its outlook and appeal to an international market. We keep seeing the same kind of private polder dramas here. Anyway, I think it is good that I criticised during the symposium, because a lot of people had the idea that I was doing fine after Those Who Feel The Fire Burning.'
I can imagine that the film plan of Those Who Feel The Fire Burning is hard to place before a fund.
'Definitely. I had a lot of creative freedom because the film was funded by a Wildcard, a €40,000 incentive prize I won with my graduation film. I think the funds would have rejected it if it had been submitted for funding in the normal way. What I find striking is that the funds never ask what I mean by the texts I have written. They give their opinions and are often harsh in their criticism, but they don't really try to understand how I arrived at my choices. They ask for depth, guts and challenge, but depth and guts are not always easy to understand and do not always fit within the reader's frame of reference. Anyway, miscommunication and misinterpretation will be common because everything has to be communicated on paper.
It's hard to come up with a funding strategy that works for everyone. With my last film plan, I did get money for writing a treatment received. I don't want to point my finger at people at the funds either, they are also trying to do well. There is too little real dialogue between author and financier/fund. It is telling, though, that the filmmakers who participated anonymously in the DDG survey agitate against funding, but in the audience there are few creators responding.'
Which Fund rules make it difficult?
'Often you just fail to qualify for funding because of bureaucratic rules. There are also rules devised at European level that you have fairly little say in, The films have to be a certain length, written in Dutch, with Dutch elements and a certain amount of Dutch crew. That makes it difficult if you shoot a film in Manila with mainly a Filipino crew. With my completely self-financed film The Atomic Soldiers, I wanted to apply for post-production funding. I thought that was possible because I was shooting at the IFFR, but I was not eligible because you have to shoot in competition.
I hope the Golden Calf and its publication in the New York Times does change that... My friend also won a Wildcard, but she was not allowed by the fund to employ people below a certain fee, while there was a whole group of people in the starting blocks to make a film with passion and put as much money as possible back into the production.'
What is your new film plan about?
'It is set in Manila and is about a 12-year-old, to crystal meth 'addicted bisexual street boy and a Dutch paedophile'
It strikes me that you choose pretty heavy topics, refugees, soldiers as guinea pigs in nuclear tests and street children in Manila.
'I find it important to touch the sore spots in society and make people think and confront difficult issues. Important themes in my work are self-destruction, oppression, power relations, the scars of the colonial past, xenophobia and sexuality. In the Netherlands, films often deal with private subjects. Like grieving, psychological disorders, illnesses, loss. In my opinion, this is a reflection of our welfare society. While that Western prosperity is actually an interesting subject to talk about, but it is rarely discussed in a profound way. '
But more inward-looking films can also be worthwhile.
'That's true, they can also be very beautiful. I have a plan about a more inward-looking idea, but it does deal with gender, sexuality and sexism written from personal experience.'
About your film Those Who Feel The Fire Burning, in it you go to Lampedusa and Greece to delve into the fate of refugees. The film is told from the point of view of the soul of a drowned refugee. His soul wanders around and we see short scenes of refugees in their struggle for survival.
So how did you and your film crew differ from a journalist crew?
'Often it was just me and my sound guy. The difference was that we really wanted to connect with the refugees. We were looking for people who wanted to share their everyday experiences with us, the human side of their existence that we can all identify with. It takes time to be able to capture those things. We always tried to be honest about our intentions, we couldn't give them money but we could tell a story together and we could give these identity-less people a stage.'
How long did you guys run?
'In Greece I spent about three months and in Lampedusa about two weeks. In Lampedusa, I would have liked more time; I felt like a vulture there. I filmed there the aftermath of the terrible shipwreck of 13 October 2013, in which 350 people drowned. I had little time to bond with the people and filmed a lot during the chaos at the port. There were countless journalists who were also filming. Instead of the refugees who are normally seen as intruders, I was actually the intruder.
The project actually began in 2008. At the time, my film school classmate Sam de Jong and I went on our own with two rickety DV cameras to the port city of Patras in Greece during our first year of study, because we wanted to expose the refugee issue. Back then, the subject was barely alive in the media. We filmed the absurd situation at the port: there were more than 4,000 homeless refugees trying to get deeper into Europe via ferries. At the time, there were many North Africans, Syrians and people from Eritrea, Iran and Afghanistan.'
Why did you choose to make the film from the mind of a deceased refugee?
'That came from conversations with refugees during the first period in Greece. They felt like ghosts in a purgatory, between the hell they left behind and the supposed paradise they were heading for. The perspective of the film is the main character. The ghost tries to see beauty amidst all the misery, which is the only way he can deal with it.
At the end, you see men ritually practising self-flagellation. This sends the spirit to a higher dimension, where it looks at reality in a different way. Then he floats over the city with countless lights. He looks up and sees the stars, merging with the city's lights. This is a symbol of unity.
Film is an extremely powerful medium through which you can share experiences and show a very personal, subjective view of the world. With Those Who Feel, I did not want to make a lament but try to make the viewer feel what it is like to be a refugee. Film is an empathy machine, allowing people to empathise with the situation of others.'
Some kind of illumination?
'Yes, you can see it that way, a union where it is about love and commitment rather than driving people apart.'
Maybe you are too original and too good for Dutch cinema. Dutch people do not tolerate people who rise above the ground.
'Haha, well thank you... But I leave that judgement to the audience. But I do feel that I am pigeonholed and so I often feel misunderstood during development, whereas when my work is finished, it gets recognition.
How I deal with the rejections? I have learned that film-making is a very long process, you need a long breath. To survive, I do all kinds of odd jobs and sometimes make something for Vice or do camera work for David Verbeek's film, for example An Impossibly Small Object or A Year of Hope On street children in Manila.'
About The Atomic Soldiers, a short documentary about US soldiers who took part in compulsory atomic tests in the Mojave Desert in the 1950s. They were not allowed to tell anyone about it.
'Soldiers were forced to remain silent about their experiences and had to sign a contract stating that they were participating voluntarily. Until Bill Clinton lifted the secrecy in the 1990s, but this was done so under the radar that people did not realise it. In total, about 400,000 US soldiers participated in the tests, most of whom died of cancer. Not to mention the radiation spread across the rest of the US and the world, or the tests carried out by the Russians, Chinese and Europeans. Altogether more than 2,000 nuclear tests worldwide.'
What are the reactions like in America?
'The film was aired in a shorter version by The New York Times, the response was very positive. People were happy that this abuse was brought to light. What is striking is that the veterans are angry with their government, yet feel that the United States is the best country in the world.'
I read that you are going to turn the documentary The Atomic Soldiers into a fiction film.
'Yes, that's the idea, the short film is actually the research for the big film. I had to make the film now otherwise the veterans would be dead, I put money into it myself. With the help of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, I tracked them down. There have been films about the tests in the past, but never so focused on the personal stories.'
The style of filming is completely different from 'Those Who Feel The Fire Burning'. That one is very fluid (steadycam) and in The Atomic Soldiers you focus exclusively on the faces of the veterans. Yet another proof that 'Talking Heads' can be very fascinating as long as they have something to say.
I read that you want to make the viewer aware that a film is subjective.
'I think it is important for the viewer to be aware that it is a subjective approach to reality. I don't believe in media objectivity.'
Isn't there then a danger of taking out the viewer?
'You have to dose when you make the viewer aware that it is film. After all, you are trying to draw people into a cinematic, sensory experience. But at the same time, I personally find it important to also make it clear that it is a subjective interpretation of reality. This is a form of honesty that is often lacking in media.'
I am now on the admissions committee of the Film Academy. The other day, a girl said 'I don't want to impose, but expose'. I find that very strong.'
What other filmmakers inspire you? 'At international level, a lot of beautiful things are being made. Most recently Mandy by Panos Cosmatos, Heli (Escalante). Good Time by the Safdie Brothers. Michael Glawogger (Working Man's Death), Hubert Sauper (Darwin's Nightmare), Lars von Trier especially his early work like Dancer in the Dark and The Idiots. Hana-Bi by Takeshi Kitano. George Lucas's first film THX 1138. Under the Skin by Jonathen Glazer, Katherine Bigelow, Sean Baker, Ruben Ostlund, Ciro Guerra, Chris Cunningham, Bahman Ghobadi, Ousmane Sembene, Elem Klimov, Paul Thomas Anderson, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ulrich Seidl, Gus van Sant, Terrence Malick, Antonioni, Kubrick. And Irréversible by Gaspar Noé, one of the best films I've seen. Which Dutch makers? Really countable on one hand. Alex van Warmerdam and Paul Verhoeven. And Hani Abu-Assad, but that's actually a Palestinian'
What was it like for you to be praised so highly after the success of 'Those Who Feel'?
'It does create some performance pressure, but the recognition and awards are very nice. Like the New York Times publication and a report on nuclear soldiers I did for Vice that now has 50 million views. You need the recognition to move forward again.'