How I Shifted to Purposeful Storytelling in My Films

Written for: http://ethicalstorytelling.com/purposeful-storytelling/

As I sit in a little café in North London, wondering how I should start this blog post, my computer plays “Soho Waltz” by the Common Linnets. It perfectly reflects why my focus in filmmaking is now to tell stories that need to be heard–what I like to call purposeful storytelling–stories that inspire us to fight for a better world.

“Give me some of that hurt
Give me some of your pain
Give me some of those tears you hide away
Give me something real
I don’t mind the cost
Something I can save before it’s lost
Cause not everything, not every pain stops”

Stories weren’t always like that for me. When I fell in love with the art of filmmaking during my teenage years, I dreamt of creating the next ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ‘Band of Brothers’ or ‘Walk the Line.’ Chasing my dream of creating solely fiction pieces brought me to film school in Amsterdam, followed by studying in LA. Unable to deal with that much sunshine, I returned to London and worked on a couple of fiction shorts. I gradually shifted to a more promotional and corporate path to pay the bills. Still, I dreamt of working for TV shows like Downton Abbey and continued to knock on those impossible doors.

Then the refugee crisis happened in Europe. Heartbreaking images and stories came across the Channel and the Mediterranean Sea. Friends went to Calais and Greece to help out in the camps. And I felt useless. I looked at my life, working away to advertise this type of car or promote this kind of festival. Having grown up with the philosophy that you need to take care of each other, love others as you do yourself, and share the goods you have received, I looked at my goals of working for big TV shows that entertain those who can afford it, and I felt quite empty.

I realized I could do more for my fellow humans if I moved to Greece, rather than staying in my comfort zone in London. Perhaps there was something that I could do–like use my filmmaking to enable others to tell their story–those who might not otherwise get a chance. I could give them a megaphone through my work.

Through this change of focus in my craft, I have come to understand the world of filmmakingdifferently. I am currently working on a short fiction film to support an anti-child trafficking organization in their campaign. We explored different ways to tell their story in the most accurate way. There is a tension between needing a dramatic arc to hold your viewers’ attention, and wanting to honor and respect the difficult and painful situation the victims are in. Any dramatizing of the character will put them into a fictional position, not honoring the reality of their situation. Their reality is sometimes so harsh and difficult to believe for outsiders, that any dramatization will immediately allow the viewer to set their situation aside as something that is ‘made up’. But I am here to tell their story – not to use them as dramatic goods to serve a dramatic film experience.

At the same time, trafficking is a topic that is very difficult to tell people about through documentary. It is not a world one can easily get into with a camera without putting yourself and the victims in more danger than they are already. Many of these young people, even if they have been in care for years, are still sought after by the traffickers. Therefore, we decided to create a fiction short film which enables us to use actors to portray their real life stories.

Through this process, I have come to understand fiction in a completely different light. Sometimes the best way to tell someone’s story ethically is to stay as close to reality as possible. Other times it is better to create a fictional situation based on a true story. Creating a fictional story not only protects the people whose story we tell, but also allows us to tell a story that mirrors reality. It takes the viewer to places where a documentary camera might not be able to go. This took my understanding of fiction merely as entertainment, to fiction as a means of purposeful storytelling.

Together with my writer, we are shaping our script for the anti-trafficking short fiction film carefully. We don’t want to dramatize a teenager with a child trafficking history or uphold any Hollywood stereotypes. We want to tell stories ethically and respect the person whose story we are telling. In our script, our teenager is who he is, respecting him for what he had to go through and is still going through, but not playing with his situation to create a dramatic arc.

For me, the most important thing in telling stories ethically, is to respect the person whose story I’m telling. I am only offering them a medium through which they can tell their stories. I don’t need to dramatize this or gain anything from it for myself or my film. I want my filmmaking to serve others and enable them to be heard so the world can become a little bit more just and compassionate. We can only change the world if we allow these true stories to be heard.

Because “not every pain stops.” So “give me some of your pain,” and I’ll play my part in providing you a platform to be heard in our fight for social justice.

Litter Free Trails

A few years ago, in the middle of the grandeur of one of the world’s most impressive sceneries and near South America’s most southern point, I had a conversation with a friendly hostel owner about the implications of tourism for his much-beloved country. As many people earn a living through tourism-related services, in recent years locals started noticing side effects of the increasing numbers of visitors to the region.

Their worry concerned the growing amount of litter found along the many hiking trails - seemingly carelessly discarded from people’s backpacks or left behind at picnic spots. This man was determined to find a solution, so both locals and tourists could enjoy the outdoors - litter free. The determination with which he spoke about his project and the love he showed for his local area, I found truly intriguing.

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The world is a gorgeous place and I find it incredibly inspiring that many people have made it their life’s work to keep the world a healthy and wonderful place. With care, passion and the conviction that the environment is a great gift and our responsibility. The stories of these people and our planet I’d like to capture and share with others.

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Gerrie is a freelance Assistant Producer and works closely with Noort Filmworks. She attended art school in The Netherlands and is both a teacher and a designer. She also enjoys travel and she goes wild when exciting projects need to be put together.

Gerrie Janssen

Gerrie is a freelance Assistant Producer and works closely with Noort Filmworks. She attended art school in The Netherlands and is both a teacher and a designer. She also enjoys travel and she goes wild when exciting projects need to be put together.

The Magic of Light

When I think back to when I shot my first paid gig, I remember being excited like a child. I had butterflies in my tummy - and I must say, I still get them and they're always there when I prepare, develop or film a story. With a beating heart and a fancy camcorder, I travelled from one village to the other in Zeeland, in south of the Netherlands. It was a promotional shoot, giving insight into the harvesting of wheat. I grew up in this area and the images and sounds of the harvest had become dear to me. For me, the ultimate summer evening feeling still contains sounds of farming machines and images of wind carrying away dust from the dry land - all of this against a pink/orange haze of the late and long evening. When I was asked to capture these moments and tell the story of the farmers, I was more than excited. And at the same time, I was extremely nervous. I was put to the test. The images I treasured in my heart, I now had to capture. I felt the pressure of wanting to translate the atmosphere that had become so dear to me, without having much experience in filmmaking.

Then the magic happened. 

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As I climbed a dusty ladder to get a shot of the massive storage warehouse, the grain dust created a gorgeous light fall from numerous skylights. I remember falling silent for a bit, then frantically grabbing my camera to catch this magical view - as if the sun would set that very instance and leave me in the dark. 

It was a successful shoot – at least, considering it was my first ‘official’ one - of course with too many hours of footage. I had already fallen in love with filmmaking, but that summer I made the commitment to tell stories through film.

It was The Magic of Light that did it, and the challenge of capturing it. So I could pass it on to the people who weren't there to witness it.

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Nelleke is the Chief Executive of Noort Filmworks. She is a film director with almost 10 years experience, and she studied filmmaking in Amsterdam and Los Angeles. Aside from being a history nerd, she loves being outdoors and spending time with family.