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Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet Louise Detlefsen – “It Is Not Over Yet”


Louise Detlefsen’s latest documentary feature film, “Fat Front,” had its international premiere at IDFA 2019. Her films have been shown on both television and at festivals all over Europe, and her debut film “From Barbie to Babe” premiered at IDFA.

“It Is Not Over Yet” is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

LD: “It Is Not Over Yet” is a documentary film about compassion and the power of human contact. It is a verité style documentary feature film about a small, unique nursing home in Denmark, where the founder, nurse May Bjerre Eiby, is using a old-fashioned and controversial treatment.

May and her staff are taking away medicine and replacing it with compassion, creating a feeling of community between the 12 residents and making it possible to live a joyful life with severe dementia.

It is an uplifting and intimate portrait of the residents and day-to-day life with dementia.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

LD: What sparked the idea was a radio interview with May, who was the first person I ever heard talking about the possibility of joy and happiness for people with severe dementia. I was intrigued by her optimistic and natural approach to dementia, and her thoughts on dementia as a way of living in the moment hit me on a personal level — being myself restless by nature, and as many modern people are, always on my way to the next thing, not using my basic human nature to just sit and sense the shift of light, the colors in a flower, or just the touch of another person’s hand in mine.

When we get old and vulnerable, maybe we in some way get closer to our basic needs. So I felt an urge to explore life at Dagmarsminde to contribute to an important discussion about dementia and eldercare in our society, but also on a deep emotional level to explore how it feels to live your life with severe dementia. This was a perspective I had not seen before.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

LD: Oh, there are so many things that come to my mind. But I think the most important is to feel or to think about how important we are to each other as human beings. How much simple emotional contact and a sense of belonging to a community means to us. That living on this earth is basically about feeling and sensing the world around us. The sun on our cheeks, a chat in the garden, a smile, and a hug. Feeling close to nature and other people is so meaningful, and yet in modern society we tend to forget this in all of our planning and performing.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

LD: COVID hit the world when we were in the middle of shooting, so that was a big challenge. In March 2020 the Danish Prime Minister shut down the Danish society and the nursing homes were closed off for relatives and people from the outside, so we stopped shooting and tried to make a plan on how to proceed. Luckily the cinematographer was my husband, so we lived in our summerhouse for ten days shooting, then returned to our family with a couple of youngsters still living at home. That was followed by a quarantine period and we traveled back to the summerhouse while shooting.

Because we had been shooting for such a long time already, May, the founder of this private nursing home, let us work under the same conditions as the staff for the following months until a massive testing facility was up and running in Denmark, and we could get tested before shooting.

Luckily neither we nor the staff brought in any virus and none of the residents were sick, but this was a time with tense nerves. A good thing in all this was that the residents themselves were unaware of COVID because of their dementia, so the time we spent there was like a small heaven without a pandemic.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

LD: In Denmark we are privileged to have a system where the state/taxpayers finance a national film institute — The Danish Film Institute — where you as a filmmaker can apply for funding for your documentary project. At first, we approached the national TV channel, TV2, and started the research with development money from them. We then edited a sales trailer and made an application for The Danish Film Institute. First, we were granted development and then after showing some scenes, we applied for production support and got it.

Together with the producer Malene Flindt Pedersen we also pitched the project at CPH DOX forum in 2020, where we found a German co-producer. Along the way, we got SVT (Swedish Television), Norwegian money, and money from a Nordic film fund, Nordisk Film og Tv Fond. We also applied for support by Eurimages (under the European Commission), which we got.

I always start filming very early and film a great deal on the development budget; shooting material gives the opportunity to pitch the project with new scenes along the way, and I find this much better than just a written pitch.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

LD: I come from a journalistic background, but before that I had tried for some years to get into scriptwriting.  I found it to be a very long processes, and was at that time too restless, so I went to the Danish School of Journalism for four years and specialized in television. After writing a book and working as a freelance writer, I wanted to do more long-term storytelling, and got an opportunity to learn one-woman-one-camera at a production company. I drifted from more reportage-driven documentaries into scenic and more subjective storytelling.

The last 15 years I have considered myself a director and do not do any kind of journalistic work — but my motivation is still to try to make society better. I am attracted to stories about people who are in a vulnerable position in some way, as I find it important as a filmmaker to make their voices heard.

I tend to make documentaries about emotional problems, community, and all the feelings that are considered taboo in our society.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

LD: I have a postcard over my desk saying, “If you never try, you will never know.” It might not be advice from somebody, but it is a reminder to not sit around and wait and overthink stuff, but to act on my ideas and intuition and get out there and try it out. Do research, feel it. This is for me the best way to work.

Also a producer, I have worked for many years and used to say that all the important stories in life can be told in a million different ways. Just because there is already one documentary about teenage love or sorrow doesn’t mean your way or perspective cannot be relevant. When I was younger, I tended to feel that everything should be something completely new to be good enough. Now I am more secure and I know that I just need to find my own angle and be true to that.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

LD: Just do it. It sounds simple and irritating, but I feel that often the worst critics can be ourselves. And the first step is always the most scary, so you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Especially in the first years of my documentary life, I co-worked many times with another female director, developing projects, doing casting, writing applications together or on individual projects, just helping each other. We started a documentary series and my colleague took it through editing when I was on maternity leave, and a year later it was vice versa, when she got pregnant. Women supporting women!

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

LD: I have many favorite woman-directed films. One of the first films that caught my attention was “Ratcatcher” by Lynne Ramsay because of its harsh social theme and fantastic visual style.

I also love “Fish Tank” directed by Andrea Arnold. It opens with a scene where the main character, a young woman from a dysfunctional family, dances alone in an abandoned apartment overlooking the tenements. In one shot she shows a character of great power and great sensibility.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

LD: I have been so lucky to have been able to shoot with only a five week break in March/April of 2020. The research and development of “It Is Not Over Yet” I had done before COVID, and then I finished shooting in September and was able to work until January 2021 with the editor and a few others from the production company to finish the film. I even managed, with a good hygiene set-up and testing twice a week, to travel to Germany in March 2021 to do the post-production there.

I have been lucky and have just begun doing research on a new documentary, so I feel good. Although I am a bit sad that I will not be able to go with the film and sit in the cinema at the international premiere in Toronto when it premieres at Hot Docs. Hopefully more festivals will follow and I can travel with the film and meet the audience!

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

LD: The issue of representation needs attention by everybody working in the film industry. I have myself told many stories about Danish people of color with various ethnic backgrounds. I did these stories because they had important stories/messages and were the best protagonists, not because I was thinking of representation specifically. But talking about the importance of diversity will hopefully push that process.

I am against all kinds of limiting directors in terms of storytelling. I am a white female in country with a majority of white people, I am also heterosexual, but I have made film about girls of Middle Eastern origin being suppressed and controlled by their family, as well as doing a documentary about a young female dancer falling in love with a woman for the first time and struggling with accepting her own bisexuality.

In 2019, I made the documentary feature “Fat Front,” together with director Louise Unmack Kjeldsen, about four fat Nordic women fighting against the discrimination of fat people. The film created debate in the Nordic countries and has traveled to festivals all over the world. In “Fat Front,” we showed a body type that is normally not represented in film as the strong protagonist, but often as the silly or dumb sidekick. Even though we ourselves have not lived a life as fat women, even though we have not felt the discrimination on our own bodies, we managed to make a strong documentary about it. And the situation is the same with people of color. They need to be protagonists in all kinds of films, made by directors of all kinds of colors and genders. Let’s lift each other up, not limit each others’ storytelling.

As a director, we go out into the world to explore and have great loyalty with our protagonist, so I think we should have the artistic freedom to make documentaries about anything and everybody, as long as we do it in an ethical way.

I don’t know if this is the answer, but maybe the way the underrepresentation of women in film in Denmark has been handled can be an inspiration. After strong pressure from the directors’ union and strong female producers in the business, there has been a positive shift in the amount of women receiving funding from The Danish Film Institute. For many years, about four out of five directors given funding were men, but now things are changing and I just saw statistics saying this year it is 50/50 between men and women. A way forward could be to generate these statistics about the representation of women, the representation of ethnic minorities, or other genders etc. To make it visible is the first step.

In Denmark, we often discuss quotas, but already having a discussion and pressure from the directors’ organization and others have helped the number of women being given film support. But there needs to be a pressure, a discussion between the financiers and the directors and producers to make it happen. But I believe that if we insist, we can change the pattern.

I think one of the strongest tools is having role models, helping and guiding other women to go into documentary filmmaking. Sharing experience and helping each other. I think working with female producers for the last 15 years has meant more to my progress than I have realized along the way — we make each other stronger.

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