The Act of Killing

PBS Premiere: Oct. 6, 2014Check the broadcast schedule »

Interview: Producer Signe Byrge Sørenson

In this interview with POV, producer Signe Byrge Sørenson discusses the making of The Act of Killing.

Read and watch POV's interview with filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer »

Read an interview with The Act of Killing Editor Niels Pagh Andersen »

Signe Byrge Sørenson: Very often in documentary we talk with survivors, and that's extremely important. They can talk about what it means to be persecuted, what it means to have lost family members and so on. But if we speak to the perpetrators we can understand more, I thought, about why they do it... and maybe we can start to investigate what kind of hierarchies there have been, what kind of societies have made this possible and only by getting to understand all of this maybe we can prevent these kind of things from happening.

I saw a first clip at the festival we have in Denmark called Copenhagen Docs at a presentation and I thought that this filmmaker has an incredible vision, using film as a medium to get this very, very important question looked at. It was one of Josh's collaborators at the time, Michael Uwemedimo, from the London collective Vision Machine, who came and did the presentation. I approached him after and I found out that Joshua was the main director on the project. So I called him in Indonesia and asked if he needed a producer — I'd heard that they had academic funding but they hadn't gotten involved with the whole community of broadcasters and film institutes and that kind of thing and I thought that being a producer of documentaries in Denmark, maybe I could contribute with that.

POV: Tell us about Final Cut for Real, about your company, the kind of work you do in documentary and how The Act of Killing fits into that portfolio.

Signe Byrge Sørenson: Final Cut for Real is a company in Denmark. We are three producers, Monica Hellstrom, Anne Kohncke and I, and two production managers, Heidi Kristenson and Maria Kristensen and then we work together with a number of directors and we work project by project. We choose our films from a combination of factors. It has to be a very strong vision, it has to ideally have both the subject and the way that the film is told that those two things come together in an integrated way and it has to be something that we also think we can managed to finance.

We get our funding from both public service broadcasters usually and film institutes, but also from ministries and foundations and we co-produce a lot of films. We have our own films and we also co-produce films that are done by production companies in, for example, Sweden or Norway, but also in other European countries and in the U.S.

POV: How does that work in terms of co-production?

Signe Byrge Sørenson: Well, then we try to find distribution for that film in Denmark. For example, the most usual thing is to get it on Danish television. If we manage to do that, we can also apply to the Danish Film Institute for co-production support. They only support four to six films a year internationally, so it's not a lot of films, and it's a lot of competition, but the criteria is that you have to work creatively together so usually the film must have a Danish editor or a Danish sound designer or a composer or something like that.

At Final Cut for Real, the way we work is very much that the producer and the director are in a partnership. From the very first idea, or when the director walks in the door with a project, throughout the whole process, because we believe that any director decision also has economic and legal and administrative implications and any administrative or economic decision has implications for the director so it has to be a very, very close collaboration.

And we also believe a lot in collaboration and cross between the different producers so we are always one main producer on the film and one sort of back up producer and we try to support each other and we read each other's stuff and so on, it's a very collaborative affair.

POV: Making that kind of constellation work can be kind of complicated. How do you manage it with a project like this, where there's such a defined vision? How do you bring other people into that conversation?

Signe Byrge Sørenson: We very much believed in communication and collaboration and creative input so we try to create a process that's very supportive for the director and also in a way, sheltered. We're very, very careful about when we let people in to comment on any cuts and so on and we sort of try and design a process that's as beneficiary as possible for the director and the editor.

We have a core team, which is the director and the editor and the producer together, and we design a process that where we think, "OK, this is the right moment to let other people in." And especially in the editing, the director and the editor would think, "OK, this is the very, very first assembly, we are ready to show it to Signe," and then I come in and give my comments. Then, together, we decide who would be the next person that we think we could all benefit from hearing their comments and so on.

And that's how we work throughout the whole editing. There are certain demands from financiers and other co-producers and usually they to demand they have to see a rough cut and they have to see a fine cut and and we allow that, but we only allow it when we feel we're ready for it. We try to get their comments in bunches so we can bring them in at the same time and think about all these comments because we also believe that we can get a lot from the fresh eyes of commissioning editors and financiers and so on. But it has to be at a time when we're ready for it.

POV: How do you navigate if you have conflicting sets of feedback?

Signe Byrge Sørenson: The thing is, we are not aiming for a consensus, right? We are aiming for the strongest possible vision for Josh for this film. so we take all the comments, we consider them very carefully, but we use the ones that we think and Josh thinks are the ones that will work. That's discussed in great, great detail.

POV: In terms of outreach and impact, in Europe and elsewhere, how are you getting support for that? What kind of goals do you have around outreach?

Well, internationally, outside of Indonesia, our main goal has been first to get in on festivals, to get it in cinemas and as many countries as possible because that's where you get the reviews. If you get the reviews, more people read about the film in the papers, and even if they don't go to the cinema maybe they see it on DVD or they see it on television when it gets there. So we worked a lot with our sales agent Philippa Kowalsky from CINEPHIL who has helped getting contact with distributors in all these different countries. Josh has done an enormous amount of press work all around.

Of course, this film has really been very, very important in many European areas. We've done a lot of screening in ex-Yugoslavia and for them this whole issue of genocide and the perpetrators talking and so on is scarily urgent.

It also had a big impact when we screened in Berlin because of the history of Germany. So in that sense, we've tried to work with people locally in each country and contextualize the film in each area. In Indonesia it's been a totally special situation because we worked with local human rights organizations already long before the film was finished, planning how to get it out as widely as possible.

POV: How do you support that additional work? You can get funding from the film institutes and the broadcasters to produce the work but all of this other stuff takes a lot of other resources.

Signe Byrge Sørenson: There are foundations that also support outreach and we've been lucky to get some grants for that. Of course, that is always a struggle afterwards when you try to do all this kind of work and it's not covered by the production budget. But for example, in Holland — there's an organization called Movies That Matter and they have supported the outreach program and recently we were very honored to receive the Impact Award, and that's also money that will go towards the continuation of the outreach program in Indonesia.

POV: Outreach has, for quite a few years, been a big component of a film's life in the United States. It seems like that is becoming more and more the case in Europe, too. Is that something that people are thinking about more with films or more broadly, about how they can use films in communities and schools?

Signe Byrge Sørenson: I think that's extremely important and in Scandinavia, this is often connected with film institutes. When we get support from our film institute, we also give away the educational rights for that market. It means that all Danish schools and libraries can access this film and then we often do special websites for the educational markets. We get teachers to review the films and we put in questions and background information and articles and that kind of thing. We're working on one for Denmark now and we also will work with all the other distributors to try and do something similar. We use the materials from each country that can be beneficial for everyone.

POV: So you've been doing screenings with some high schools? How have those been?

Signe Byrge Sørenson: It was actually amazing. I did one with a high school class. In Denmark, they would be around 16 or 17-years-old in second year of high school. They had studied some history of Indonesia and they had also focused in their history lessons on the issues of genocide. They were asking very, very sophisticated questions. But I think it's very important, when that the film is in that kind of an educational setting, that people get the context first. Because it's also a tough one to watch and shocking to many people.

POV: What are some of the key things that when you're looking for, because you're looking at projects all the time?

Signe Byrge Sørenson: I look for projects where there is a strong vision. I have to think, this filmmaker has a real reason for being at this place, focusing on this issue. There have to be some characters that we can identify with. I'm very interested in politics and I think it's there are lots of important issues out there I'm also very interested in creating films that can talk across borders — People from Denmark shouldn't just watch films about Danish people in Denmark speaking Danish. They should be inspired by all the amazing things that people are doing around the world and vice versa.

POV: What are some other kinds of key trends or challenges that you see within the broader documentary landscape that we need to be thinking about, that filmmakers need to be thinking about more?

Signe Byrge Sørenson: These last few years have been a time of crisis in many parts of the world after the sort of economic problems in 2008, and I think what happens in each period of crisis like that is that every country become more nationalistic. And I think that's a very, very dangerous trend.

These documentaries that we are making can open the world up to a lot of audiences so that they understand that they can connect with people in other parts of the world and that maybe those people in other parts of the world are fighting with the same problems, are struggling in the same ways.

The world is one global community where we have to take each other into consideration. And I think that's very easy to forget in a time of crisis. We should should focus on remembering that with the kinds of films we are making.

POV: Like you, we work with a lot of emerging filmmakers and they're all looking for tips or a piece of advice, particularly for those first time filmmakers who are either struggling to complete their first film or they've just finished it and want to know how to get it out into the world. What's one piece of advice you want to give to them?

Signe Byrge Sørenson: I think the most important thing is to find some collaborators. Don't just try and do everything alone because there are lots of people out there with lots of skills and they could be very well be interested in helping you if you approach them. So approach the community that's already there because there are a lot of creative people and they may have experienced some of the same problems just before and be able to give good advice.