Directors Ilse and Femke van Velzen: The reason why we make documentaries is to create awareness (PART II.)

Two female filmmakers in the wild documentary about human rights issues.
Photo by
IF Productions
Monika Tibenska
March 23, 2021

Ilse van Velzen and Femke van Velzen are Dutch documentary filmmakers specialising in making documentaries in developing countries. Their goal is to create awareness and empower people and policy makers to make a difference. 

Their film Soldiers Who Rape is part of WHY STORIES series of documentaries that brings critically acclaimed documentaries to communities around the world. 

Can you tell us about your role in the filmmaking process of Soldiers Who Rape?

Femke: We’ve been making documentaries together for the last 18 years, producing and directing our own films. During the filmmaking process, one of us would do the sound recording to keep the team very small. 

How and why did you two decide to make a film together?

Ilse: We are identical twin sisters. We were both studying social studies, and in our final year, we decided to make a documentary instead of writing a thesis. We decided to go on this new adventure and make a documentary about the topic of different youngsters living in townships in South Africa. That was our first interaction with filmmaking and from that time we just fell in love with the tool that documentary is. We really see how powerful film and messages you bring can be, and that is our motivation to make documentaries.

You have many films from Africa. Where do you find topics for documentaries?

Femke: If you work on one film you will meet people and hear about topics, subjects that you find very interesting. A lot of times we roll from one film into the other. Our first long documentary was Return to Angola. It was filmed partly in the Netherlands, and partly in Angola. When we were filming in Angola we heard about ongoing rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo because we actually travelled up north very close to the border with Congo. That’s how we started to do more research about that topic and made the film Fighting in Silence about stories of survivors of sexual violence. While we were making that film we roll into the next one - Soldiers Who Rape. So that is how it goes, you find topics while you are working in a certain place. 

What, in your opinion, is the most important feature of a documentary film? What does a documentary mean to you?

Femke: The reason why we make documentaries is that we can create awareness. We always work on topics about injustice. That is the reason why we make a film - to spread the word to create awareness. 

You organised moving cinemas in African countries. How did you come up with this idea?

Ilse: Mobile cinemas existed already in other countries, that is not something that we have invented. The reason why we decided to do it in DRC is because women asked us if the film is ready if they can see it. Because the rural areas are often without electricity, it doesn't make sense to hand out DVDs to people. If we want to make sure those women see the film, the practical way is to have a moving cinema. That’s how the idea started. When we came back to the Netherlands from filming, we immediately started fundraising for this big moving cinema project. 

Do you think the era of online streaming for movies has had a positive or negative impact on the filmmaking industry?

Femke: I think film festivals are very important for documentaries. That’s where you meet people, you watch documentaries together, you have a debate and you can talk about it. That is really really important. On the other hand, by having documentaries online you can reach a bigger audience worldwide. When everything goes a little bit back to normal and we get covid under control, I hope the normal film festivals will also come back. Maybe there will be a little bit more combination, if you cannot go to the festival you can see the film online, you have more opportunities for that. Could be a win-win. 

THE WHY Foundation promotes human rights and raises awareness through documentaries. That aligns with your goal to move minds by telling stories through films. Why do you think films are a powerful medium to tell stories and create a change in the world? 

Ilse:  It takes a lot of time to make documentaries, especially these longer feature ones. We work three or four years on a film to peel off all the layers. The faster media get their stories and get them on the news. But quick news will also evaporate more quickly because other news will be over it. Documentary and the process of making it is different, peeling off the layers is important. We had to spend a longer time in DRC to understand the context and problems, to dig deeper and make more nuances. We always try not to make it black and white but look for the gray areas because nothing is black and white in the world. That is the power of documentary filmmaking. It has a way longer life than the short fast media. 

What are your plans, what topics do you plan to work on or are you already working on something?

Femke: Last year we released Prison for Profit, a film about a privatized prison in South Africa that is run by a huge multinational. Many human rights atrocities are happening in that prison, not only for prisoners but also for people that work there. We are still working on getting that film out. At the same time, the whole topic of privatization of public services is something that we got really interested in.

Watch the film Soldiers Who Rape here.

Read PART I of the interview with Ilse and Femke van Velzen here.

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