Jerry de Mars might be the epitome of “everything happens for a reason.” Originally from a background in the social sciences, his first foray into filmmaking came when he was asked if he would be interested in interviewing and filming activists. Since then, in my opinion he has gone on to become one of the most interesting independent filmmakers in the Netherlands.
I first met Jerry a few years ago, while he was promoting his fiction short, Think of Something Blue, based on the homonymous poem by Martijn den Ouden – but he has constantly been on the move since then. Perpetually multitasking, chasing new ideas in the search of the next story he is going to tell, he is currently travelling between different projects at opposite ends of the world.
Luckily for me, he finds the time for a quick catch up in the centre of Amsterdam, where we discuss the capricious nature of his work, and his life as an independent filmmaker.
My first question; “just what are you up to now?”
It is an ‘in-between moment’, where I have a lot of good ideas that I envision moving forward with. I always work on different ideas at the same time. One might go quick, one might have to wait. I do a lot of work on humanitarian issues, so mainly documentaries – which is funny because Think of Something Blue is fiction!
I like working in all different kinds of film, sometimes commercial, sometimes documentary, sometimes art… After Think of Something Blue I got to go to a lot of festivals, received some nice reactions and, for some reason, I got into a programme in Tanzania to make a documentary about women’s rights in coal-mining. It was actually a pilot film, which turned into a short documentary of 21 minutes, and which I am currently sending to festivals.
Presently, I am working a lot for either NPOs or the United Nations to help them with visualise their problems or communications. For the last 4-5 months I was in Mauritania, Mali and then Africa, for different assignments. I need to go back to Mali for a similar project. They want to talk about the importance of their work but, even in the communications department, they are lacking of people with storytelling skills. I work together with another filmmaker and we are both focused on humanitarian issues, also for personal reasons.
It’s so different to commercial work while I’m there, working with refugees in different places. I feel their stories need to be heard! I really like doing this as I studied cultural anthropology, so it is working on projects like this means to combine my cultural interests and wish to express stories like that. The fun thing is that I was raised in France and I speak French; all these countries in Africa speak French, therefore that is also a reason I got those assignments! That is quite cool…
As in independent work, I feel there are a few storylines, which are lingering: an artistic film in France, very difficult to finance, a big idea, but maybe I will materialise it one day. The other project is about Japan, a Princess from the imperial family. When princesses had to move to a different place, they were getting their whole family and structure of the house in a miniature. They would take this with them. They would change it according to the calendar in Japan, which is divided in four pieces and it is strongly related to nature. So, it is about natural spirituality, about how to embody this in your daily life. I find it very inspiring. I feel that, in the western world, a lot of people are looking for these spiritual connections… meditation, yoga, switch to vegetarianism, all of those aspects. People are seeking ways to feel better about themselves. It’s this tendency to change, which I find really interesting to research and I hope this can turn out to a documentary film. But this project is still at the research phase. I am going to go there, meet her, talk about it. This knowledge is unknown even to Japanese people. At the same time, we will be participating in an arts and residency project in Japan.
Furthermore, I am planning a documentary which is based on digital rights online. In our daily life, we have the human rights which are set by the UN. Article 1 is about our freedom. Article 1216 is about privacy, but this has shifted. In the last 10 years, with the revolution of the internet, a different reality comes in place. It is not incorporated in how we deal with human rights. It will be very interesting to consider all online realities: crime, information, girls can be misled; there are a lot of examples of very terrible things happening. What are the rights of a person online? We want to raise awareness with this project. This is something that is starting up now. It is an in between moment.
All this travelling and participation must be tiring. How do you manage to cope with such a big workload?
I make appointments, I prepare things and I try to push things forward. When something goes quick or you feel there is a momentum for something, you dedicate a lot of time on that certain project. There are a lot of people who focus on one thing at a time, they say “this needs to be done.” My mind does not work like that. I like that I can be inspired by different things and also see sometimes certain ideas pop up somewhere. Sometimes you don’t know if something could happen. You depend on a lot of things: time, funding, people, different possibilities, network. In this sense, I think that ideas, projects can be materialised. It takes longer sometimes but it is possible.
How did the transition happen, from cultural anthropology to filmmaking?
It is a combination of different worlds: my cultural anthropology, social science studies and filmmaking come together in what I do now. I first studied social science, so I am Social Therapist. I used to work in youth prisons and with drug addicts. I then started studying Cultural Anthropology. During those studies I met some people in activism that used film.
I don’t remember how, but I got in touch with a Professor at the University of Amsterdam, who was presenting a book about women striving for utopian worlds and how they incorporated this utopian idea in activism and into daily life. She asked me to help her with research and film it. I borrowed a camera and went to interview those girls, we edited the film and it got presented. While doing so, I really liked the process. In my research, I started filming more. When you do research, you write things down but then I thought I can film it and then watch it- just being lazy. I find it very important to see the non-verbal expression as well, while conducting research. Of course, you have memory. But that is why I used film a lot.
Then I got into a collective, a lot of filming, journalism… I then started organising movie nights at the OT301 [an independent cinema collective in Amsterdam] and we had a big TV show in the north, we would have politicians and different people. In order to make money, I started making some music videos, followed by starting a company with a friend of mine to take on assignments. Finally, I decided to study directing in the Czech Republic, because I felt I needed more knowledge in directing. No one ever asks for your paper work – except today! I got an email for my project in Mali and they asked me to share my diploma, which is unbelievable! But this is the African culture, you need to do everything according to rules. They cannot hire someone without a diploma. Our diplomas are not important here anymore, but they are in Africa!
Does your identity as a filmmaker derive from those beginnings?
Not on purpose. I am now 37 and, if you asked me at 23 if I wanted to be a filmmaker, I would look at you like, “I don’t know what you are talking about; I have no idea how to do this.” In my youth, I was never connected towards art forms and that whole scene. Now I am fully into art. It was my own wish to do research, to understand things. After 10 years of research and creating I feel I kind of know what I like aesthetically. I think this is the moment to start creating.
I think I never felt the freedom to create. At some point, I told myself, “If you want to take yourself serious as a director besides directing small items or commercials you need to make something cinematic.” I needed to do it to take myself seriously. It’s very easy to dream, but actually creating and the dedication needed to create something takes time… Everything you will make will never be perfect. You see it, you say it’s good and then you move onto different projects.
How did the idea of Think of Something Blue come in mind?
There was a night at the Eye Film Museum about a Dadaistic group. They worked on cinematography and poetry by movement. They played with visuals to express poetry. I found that interesting, because I love reading poetry, but why don’t I start looking at poetry and changing it with visuals? That was when the idea came up. I was reading poetry of a Dutch author, Martijn den Ouder, who I also personally know. I found it so interesting, because when you read it you can also see it. That is also the risk, because when you see it, it will not be interesting to read it, so there is a friction.
I was curious about where images and storytelling could be combined and where images could create a second reality, an emotion mainly towards the story of the poem. In Think of Something Blue, the images and the reality connect with each other: you see the blue cocktail and you see the blue car, but at the same time because of the emotional aspect of the actor, you create more story in your mind. How can I script something with only images, which at the same time it resonates with the poem and it adds an extra layer of reality? That was my aim.
How would you describe the journey from the first time you came up with the idea to the moment you saw it complete on a screen? How was it emotionally and practically for an independent filmmaker?
It is quite a process. I knew the script was difficult. I had to film it somewhere, in a house, with a blue sky, blue waters. Of course, you think about Greece quickly. The camera man later said to me, “I was not really certain if this project would be materialised, it sounded very artistic.” I knew that as well. I knew I created something difficult on production level, on finance level. I have this thing; in order to move forward I need to fulfil a task that feels extremely difficult. For example, I am rebuilding my house and the first thing I did was to put the bathtub in. I don’t know why, but I need a certain challenge, but I need to resolve it myself to do the rest. Or maybe by doing so, the rest seems less big of an effort, you know? I don’t know why that is.
In this story, it was about the car. The one I needed was difficult to find. I contacted rental companies and, at some point, I found the car on Marktplaats. I don’t know how that happened, but it happened, maybe something magic. I figured, “Shit, I found it, so there is no way back.”
The car cost €8,000, which I could not really afford. I thought maybe I could borrow it. The owner would not do it. Then I used my savings and tax money, which I had to pay in December to buy the car. This was in June and I figured that, if I buy the car, make the film and sell it by December, I can pay my taxes. That is what I did, although I do not recommend it to people. I knew I had to protect the car, I put it in a storage unit. I knew I had the car and that there was no way back. It was a big journey, but mostly to prove myself what I want to do and so complex I did not even ask for producers. I thought it was too complicated.
Then the crowdfunding came along… when I saw the film I was very emotional because I knew everything I had to overcome. It was a long-lasting process because everyone worked on it without money. I found it very difficult. If you are a perfectionist and you work with people for free, there comes a boundary of what you can ask from them. At a certain point you think “I want something but I cannot ask for it.” You know that someone worked super hard on something and then you say “I don’t like it.” Even now I can think of 20 things I would like to have changed, or adapt or do differently. When you see the result though, it’s pretty cool.
Would you do a similar project again?
Oh, yeah, I would but I would do it differently. I did this project because I was proving something to myself. This could be a very good drive to do something, but not always the best one. I would try to find a producer, maybe. It is difficult as an independent filmmaker, because the producers want money and they would only work with you if you have already made a film. Even with this film it is difficult to get producers. If you have a big project in mind, the best thing to do is small projects that are ‘arguments’ to show that you can do a big project. If you want to make a film about- I don’t know- some criminal underground scene, in some world, then make a film in which you show how it is to make this kind of filmmaking. Start small, show that you are able to build dialogue or that you understand cultural differences. And then, when you have made a few of those examples, a producer will also trust you more. I did not do this, but I think it is better to create and create things that are shit than telling yourself “this is not good enough” and keep aiming for perfection. People who come from art academies know this, they keep making and making and making. I come from an academic background and I am programmed differently and I need to get rid of this. Creating means to make mistakes, rehearse, try and try and try till you think it is kind of ok. It is a completely different process.
What is the biggest challenge as an independent filmmaker? Is it that you are a perfectionist and always want to make it better, or funding?
Someone sent me this meme about the independent filmmaking process, and I found it very funny how people perceive this type of work; the fixation with funding. Even if money does not exist, you can still make things. You want a certain level of imagery, but storytelling is more important. If you have a good story, you can make it with your iPhone. Now even TV series are made with this minimum tech. You can have a few means and make a good independent film, without worrying about the budget.
There are a few independent filmmakers I envy because they create good shorts with very little budgets. If you think of a story and you think it is too difficult to make, think of ways to simplify it, see if the essence of the story remains the same. My personal challenge is to hold onto a story to like, trust myself I am able to do it and stop the argument, which is if someone is waiting for this. You should just make it because you want to make it, like poetry. Real poets say that a poet will die if they don’t write. Of course, that is very dramatic, but there are people in arts who need to create and that becomes the most important thing in their life. I think this is something very difficult in this day and age, but for me these are the true artists. I don’t consider myself an artist because I will select to do different things and I am ok with doing something else for a while.
What piece of advice would you give to a new filmmaker who is trying to make it as an independent one and does not want to go commercial?
Stick to your core values and ideas. Make it as underground as possible, by using very little means. Say, “My story is the most important thing.” Don’t let yourself be guided by what people think or feel or what the trends are. Try to be an independent person. Everyone will be pleased if their film is seen by people. You should not say commercial work does not exist. There is a system of distribution and festivals. Try to do things without budget. Don’t try to earn money by filmmaking. Work in a place where you can find a lot of stories.