IDFA 2019: Punks
When her last film was released, Alicia (2017), about a young girl living in an orphanage, director Maasja Ooms travelled all over The Netherlands with it. At sold out screenings, she and her producer Willemijn Cerutti took part in discussions about other children like Alicia. At one of the events, Ooms met a Dutch woman who looked after problem teenagers on a farm in France.
"She invited me for a visit. I told her immediately: I don't make films about the approach or way of thinking of someone who works in youth care. That view is never a starting point," the director remembers of their initial encounter. Nonetheless she decided to take up the invitation. She was due to visit a friend in the south of France anyway and thought she could drop by the farm.
"Arriving there was exciting. Four boys were very curious; a documentary filmmaker was visiting them. Although I planned to stay one night, I ended up staying for five weeks," Ooms notes. She saw an opportunity to make a film about the boys, instead of about their caregiver. The boys were really up for it. ("They were already fantasising about the red carpet.") She explained to them that making documentaries was painstaking and sometimes difficult and uncomfortable work. Her proposal was to shoot for five days during which time she would have access to every part of their lives.
"That way they could experience whether the camera felt good. After five days we would see if all were still on the same page. If not, I would've destroyed all my material. This five-day trial period was also for me, to find out if I saw a film in it."
As it turned out, the boys enjoyed being filmed. Petra, the caregiver, didn't mind that the focus was on them, not her. The boys' parents also gave the project their approval. Ooms knew from the outset exactly what she was looking for. "I didn't want to make a film about what the boys had done, but about who they are deep down. About their struggles and the things that go unnoticed by adults."
Ooms shot the film handheld, in a loose and fluid style. "It is a way of filming in which I can feel the presence of the person I film. In this way I can better feel the tensions or emotions and transfer them through my camera." She ended up shooting 70 hours, doing almost everything herself. "I shoot my own films. I operate as a one-woman-crew, so I am also doing the sound," she says.
On Punks, Sander Vos was her editor. In their work together, she and Vos realised "only long, intact fragments worked very strongly. Only then the viewer feels the tension of the conversation." This meant they had to "kill some of our darlings" and simplify the storyline in order to accommodate what were often lengthy conversations. "Our solution was to take only one main character and understand his story in more detail so that it coloured the other stories without being specific."
The teenagers have now seen the film and they have all also been invited to Amsterdam for the premiere during IDFA at the Tuschinski cinema.
No, Ooms herself wasn't an angry and alienated teenager. "I wasn't a punk. I was quite the opposite. I was a helpful child," she says. "It was later, in my twenties, that I expressed my anger towards my parents for leaving me in a children's home for three years. As a child that fact made me feel very uncertain whether I belonged."
Thanks to her own experiences, the director says she has a natural sympathy for the boys and isn't frightened by their anger. "What I see in that anger is a signal for shortcomings in the family home. Children have no words, they feel pain, sadness or injustice, and sooner or later that is expressed."
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.