Producer Jesper Jack, co-founder of Danish production company House of Real, has taken an unusual approach to filmmaking in order to give his work a greater depth of understanding and expertise – by bringing academics into his production teams.
“We bring insight into storytelling,” said Jack.
“Journalists and documentary makers are very often generalists – they know a little about a lot of things... so we go to the academic societies saying 'so what’s going on? What are you studying? Does anyone have any ideas which should be told to the general public?’”
Jack's latest film about the Chinese property market, 'Chinese Dreamland', directed by anthropologist David Borenstein, has recently been broadcast as part of Al Jazeera English's Witness series.
The series aims to bring world issues into focus 'through compelling human stories'.
Anthropologist David Borenstein directed 'Chinese Dreamland' for House of Real. [Credit: Jesper Jack]
“I haven’t seen this method of filmmaking and storytelling outside of Denmark. It's hard to say when it all started, but it is a trend that we are still working on within House of Real – currently producing four projects in this way,” Jack said.
Jack explained how, by doing this, the expertise, knowledge and findings from the academic world will be brought to the attention of the general public and give a greater understanding of issues rarely reported on.
“The idea came out of meeting a lot of brilliant people and hearing them discuss brilliant things that weren’t out there,” he added.
“In Denmark, I would talk to academics such as anthropologists, scientists and sociologists that would have a lot of insight. All of it would end up in academic papers that were very rarely publicised for the general public."
By asking academics to become part of his production team, often taken on as co-directors or producers, his films are made by the people who are experts on the film's subject, allowing the work of professional academia to be brought into the public discussion.
“We don’t use experts – we work with them,” Jack said. “We get them on our team, work with their connections and in their network, as opposed to just attacking them and asking them to share their knowledge with us.
"We are addressing a structural problem and create teams that match the needs of each individual project, rather than always copying the traditional organisation of the film being led by a producer/director".
Promotional video for 'Chinese Dreamland': Documentary produced by Jesper Jack and directed by anthropologist David Borenstein for House of Real.
By working with an expert in a particular field, Jack said filmmakers can also get quick access to vital sources in a limited time, which could otherwise take them a few years to obtain.
This relationship, based on mutual respect, leads to a more insightful and accurate film produced for the viewers.
“I am really persistent that I want academics to not only share their information, but also to take part in the production process.
"We found that particularly in the scientific world, scientists really want to get involved, as they lack the tools of approaching the public with their research,” said Jack.
"Many have had bad experiences with the press, where their research has been simplified, so they often isolate what they know to the academic world, which is a shame."We don’t use experts – we work with themJesper Jack
Jack's unusual method of filmmaking has won his films many awards: 'Ticket to Paradise' and its sequel 'Love on Delivery' both explored immigration between Thailand and Denmark, with the former winning the 2008 'Best Documentary of the Year' in Denmark, as well as receiving a nomination for the 'Best Mid-length Documentary' at the IDFA documentary festival.
Both films were directed by a former anthropologist named Janus Metz, who has now gone on to become a documentary filmmaker himself.
The trend of pairing filmmakers with academics has proved popular over the last 10 years in Denmark and many scientific documentaries have been produced by various filmmakers in this way.
Workshops are now facilitated by both the Foreign Ministry and the Danish Film Institute, bringing academics and filmmakers together to discuss ideas for films.
“People who were in the know, who had stories and who had done years of research would be coupled with storytellers and filmmakers who were looking for good ideas, but were spending a lot of time getting access to information with very limited funds,” Jack explained.
“It makes for inspiring meetings between two different spheres that didn’t previously have a lot of interaction.”
The idea has "definitely been catching on", as even Denmark's foreign minister expressed a desire to "gather people who had different stories from developing countries and couple them with filmmakers", explained Jack.
“It has been a while since we have been actively looking for people, but we see that a lot of scientists are now approaching documentary filmmakers with their ideas, which is brilliant.”
Jesper Jack (left) with anthropologist David Borenstein at the premiere screening of 'Chinese Dreamland' at the Frontline Club
The production process
Mixing Jack's talents as a creative producer with experts' academic knowledge makes for an in depth and interesting production process.
“When you are working with these academics, you are are also training them. It takes a lot of time,” Jack said.
With no career history in filmmaking or storytelling, he works with people who think very differently.
“Normally the scientists, the anthropologists, the sociologists will have a thematic approach, and then it's my job to try to find a storytelling strategy for promoting the academic ideas, by interviewing them and maybe meeting the people who they have been doing the research with.”
Topical films within Scandinavia are not as popular as character driven stories.
By avoiding 'talking-head interviews' and the traditional documentary approach of interviewing experts on camera, Jack explains the issues within his films through characters.
As a creative producer, he focuses on story development and creative strategies, rather than the practical element of producing.
He believes journalism and filmmaking can be combined to develop thoroughly investigated issues into character driven stories, in order to engage audiences to appreciate and learn more about an issue.
“We do an analysis when we interview someone who has the storyline. If it is an academic, we do a lot of research with them, asking what the core issues are and what they know about them," Jack said.
"After, we write a long list and try to brainstorm how the idea can be played out as an observational documentary.
"It takes a lot of thinking when making decisions on how an issue can connect to a character’s story.”
Jack often finds that an issue investigated by academics has more than one angle and points of interest, which he believes should be captured through his 'sustainable filmmaking' approach.
“The general experience is that filmmakers lose a lot of knowledge and work in the process of editing their material,” Jack said.
Instead of just creating a film, he aims to get as much from the academic knowledge as he can, by using his footage and research in other formats like articles, photo series, infographics and traditional news packages for the web.It takes a lot of thinking when making decisions on how an issue can connect to a character’s storyJesper Jack, House of Real
“With a particular storyline that you are following, there are a lot of other scenes and knowledge that has been collected over the years that is wasted.
“Back in the day, you used to use it as B-material on your DVD, but it was considered secondary material and now we look at our work as a project that would have a lot of different forms.”
House of Real is now starting over with 'Chinese Dreamland', editing it from scratch to explore different themes within the story.
“It is pretty crazy. We've got a fresh editor in to explore new themes and scenes, new priorities, gender priorities, et cetera," Jack said.
"Sustainable filmmaking is very much about using our collected data in as many ways as we can.”
This technique is part of House of Real's aim to create 'media experiences', by drawing a lot of attention to an issue.
“Not only do we do a multitude of different formats with the same story, we also look into a lot of issues that connect to the grand theme and we use different journalistic strategies, which drive traffic."
Jack's advice for journalists, filmmakers and documentary makers looking to explore House of Real's production techniques is to "live and breathe their topic".
“Go to universities, go to lectures, call up the academics, read a lot and exchange books. Surround yourself with the people in the know,” he said, "but most importantly, have fun with it.”
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