Swiss filmmaker Nathalie Berger is currently completing a Masters in Documentary Film at the Zurich University of the Arts, while Leo David Hyde is a filmmaker and youth activist from Aotearoa, New Zealand who has worked in journalism and film production for NGOs and media. The pair spoke to Indy Film Library about how being “young, qualified, and jobless” inspired them to make their exceptional documentary, Call Me Intern, and on the importance of forging support networks with other independents.
Is it easier for an independent filmmaker to address certain topics than if they have studio backing?
Independent filmmaking, especially for documentary filmmakers is something very special. For us, it is a privilege to focus on social and political topics that we think are important to bring to people’s attention without compromising on story, content, or form. Our first film, Call Me Intern, is about the exploitation of young people in the labour market through unpaid internships.
We realised that so many of our friends were complaining about doing unpaid internships, but no one was doing anything about it. By making a film that focuses on exactly why unpaid internships are harmful, we were able to throw the norm into question and provoke audiences to rethink the practice in order to essentially de-normalise it.
However, for us, the goal of provoking discussions and policy changes didn’t stop when we finished the film. The challenge of distributing the film and calling out organisations and companies on their internship practices with the documentary to back us up has been as important.
How do you deal with cast and crew as an independent Director? Is there a limit to what you can expect of them, and how do you go about pushing them toward your expectations then?
We personally decided to do everything by ourselves since we didn’t have the privilege of finding external funding to pay for a crew. If you have funding and you can afford a crew, make sure you pick people who believe in your project almost as much as you do. That way you can be sure they will stick with you until the end – through the ups and downs of making the film.
Do your ideas often out-strip your resources (time, money, cast, crew, technology, etc.)? How do you cope with that?
The difficulty of starting off with independent filmmaking and having no background or connections in the film industry is tricky, especially when it comes to raising funds. Building up legitimacy was a challenge – funders and industry officials want to know that you are the best person to make the documentary and that you have the ability to carry it through until the end.
We tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to having expensive dreams and decide instead to be creative with how we make things with less money. This includes learning new skills yourself or reworking things in post-production afterwards if possible.
For a first-time filmmaker looking to start their inaugural project, what are the key first steps?
Making a film that you believe in is the very first step. If it’s your first film, then chances are that you will be working on it for a long time, so you want to make sure you are making a film that still excites you and that you can stand behind and defend even a few years after beginning it. It’s a good idea to seek industry allies: mentors who already have experience in filmmaking that will support you through the process of making the film. A general rule we’ve learnt is not to be afraid to ask for help!
What support mechanisms have you benefitted from in order to keep making films (e.g. film networks, festivals, etc.)?
Festival workshops helped us a lot with making our first film. The first one we attended was organised by the European Documentary Network (EDN). We spent a week with talented filmmakers and producers and learnt about the film industry and how to pitch our film in front of commissioning editors. The experience gave us the chance to meet lots of people who later played a large role mentoring and supporting us during the editing process.
We learnt to share our film with those who have more experience than us. Something I will never forget was when another attendee at the workshop told us, “whatever you do, make sure to finish this film.” Four years later, we finished it and we thank him every day for pushing us to the finish line.
What advice would you give other filmmakers when it comes to receiving feedback?
Knowing how to make films is a steep learning curve. It includes failing a lot, not knowing how to move forward, and doubting yourself. Receiving feedback is possibly the most important thing in the filmmaking process for us after believing in your own ability to make the film. However, it is important to be fully aware who you are asking feedback from and being clear what kind of feedback you want to receive.
Keep in mind, feedback is always subjective – it is very different asking your friend rather than someone who works in the film industry. Always do your background research on that person: know what kinds of films they have previously made, what style they like, if they believe in the importance of your film – all of this will have an impact on how you accept the feedback. It can be helpful to provide a feedback form to ensure that their responses are structured and are the most valuable to you. Last but not least, always ask for feedback from various people at the same time!