IDFA 2019: Prison for Profit
They are identical twins who share a passion for fighting injustice, are prepared to spend years making their campaigning documentaries and will do everything in their power to ensure the films are seen by their subjects, writes Geoffrey Macnab.
Ilse and Femke van Velzen are fearless and think nothing of taking on the biggest, most ruthless multinational corporations. Put simply, they are forces of nature. In their new film Prison for Profit they expose the way British private security firm G4S allegedly flaunts human rights and common decency in the way it runs The Mangaung Prison in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The sisters are very aware that G4S may try to suppress the film (a premiere in IDFA Competition for Dutch Documentary) but that doesn't daunt them. They've fact checked it exhaustively and have lawyers on hand should the company come after them.
Prison For Profit, supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and the Production Incentive, is inspired by the investigative reporting of Ruth Hopkins who published shocking reports about the torture and death of inmates in the jail six years ago. "We knew her work. We had been following her for a while," Ilse says of Hopkins. The journalist's exposé had been major news, but only for a few days. "Then, in the end, nothing really happened. There were no consequences for the company. The situation in the prison has not changed since. Warders say it's much more dangerous now for themselves."
The sisters therefore decided to follow up on Hopkins' original work, working with her in an attempt to hold G4S to account. "This is definitely a story that needs to be told because the company doesn't have a great track record worldwide," Femke says.
Ilse and Femke began their campaigning at an early age. Even as kids, the sisters (born in Delft in 1980) would stand up for those being bullied at school. "Femke and I are quite fortunate because we always had each other. We stood strong next to each other," Ilse says. "It was easier to stand up against a bully if we did it together."
They didn't originally set out to become documentary makers. It happened because, during their fourth year of study (at separate universities) they decided to make a film together rather than write a thesis. That's how they came to shoot Bushkids (2002) in South Africa. When they showed it to Dutch audiences, they realised that documentary is "a strong, powerful tool" which can be used to change both attitudes and behaviour. They've since made films about such subjects as sexual violence in Congo and civil war in South Sudan.
"We can, side by side, take on those very heavy topics. We can ventilate it to each other. We don't have the burden on only one of our shoulders," says Ilse. Femke adds that they've "improved enormously as directors, producers and storytellers."
The Van Velzens organise impact screenings of their films in the countries in which they are set. In 2011, they set up the Mobile Cinema Foundation. Some of their screenings (for example of Fighting the Silence) have attracted audiences of up to 10,000 and their work has now been seen by millions in Africa. "It is very powerful. The audiences we reach, especially in the remote areas, are unbelievable," Ilse says. Patronising NGO representatives used to try to tell the sisters that their films wouldn't be understood by African audiences. "But of course, these communities are built on storytelling. They can pick it up better maybe than our western audiences."
The twin sisters have now been working together making films for 18 years. They have the same determination and work ethic. If they believe in a project, they "won't let go" until it is completed. As Femke puts it, if they get a gut feeling to make a film, "there is no way back."
SEE NL Magazine #37 November 2019 / IDFA Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.