Our Favorites 2021: How Final Cut for Real Presented the World with a New Reality

We looked to those in the film community who went to great lengths to bring joy to audiences this year and a reason to be optimistic for the future in Our Favorites series. We will be highlighting their efforts throughout this week.

Jonas Poher Rasmussen had accepted early on that making “Flee” would never be a straightforward process, given the way the story had been passed along to him. He always knew there was a story, with his friend who would come to be called Amin in the film long standing out in the small Danish community Rasmussen grew up in as an Afghan refugee. After the two had become close as teens and Rasmussen began dabbling in making audio documentaries, he asked Amin whether he would share what he could remember about leaving Kabul as a young boy. He was told it was too soon when the memories were painful, and besides Amin treasured his anonymity, both out of concerns for his own safety and the desire not to be defined by tragedy. But Rasmussen was given the promise that when his friend was ready, he would be who he would confide in.

When that time came, Rasmussen had moved behind the camera and to protect Amin’s true identity, a direct approach to filming was never going to to be a possibility. His mind had been opened to pursuing animation after attending the ANIDOX: LAB in Viborg, Denmark, a workshop that brings together nonfiction filmmakers and animators, and his approach to interviewing, cultivated during his days of working in radio where he’d need to set the scene for listeners with vivid descriptions, was unusually complementary when asking his subjects to lie down and close their eyes to reflect, giving specific and sensual details that could add an extra flourish to any artist’s rendering.

The only issue became who would be able to shepherd such an unconventional documentary to the screen, particularly after Rasmussen’s early idea that the film would be a short swelled into a 100-page script as it became clear that Amin’s resistance to settling down somewhere with his partner in the present day was as much a part of the story as his treacherous path from Kabul to Estonia to Denmark. It would also require a crew larger than the director had ever worked with before, needing an entire team of animators when he was used to making movies with no more than a boom operator and a cameraperson.

Although there had been other animated feature documentaries – just a few years prior, Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” had set the standard a few years earlier — the idea still seemed too far-fetched to raise the proper financing for “Flee” and keep it on track at the level the story deserved, though Rasmussen realized he knew someone who might be able to. When he first started to get interested in film, he handled equipment at Filmworkshop Copenhagen, an incubator for experimental filmmakers, and got to know Monica Hellström, a production manager at the time who would eventually join Final Cut for Real, and year removed from the release of Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking “The Act of Killing,” which the company had been formed to produce by Signe Byrge Sørensen and Anne Köhncke in 2009, Rasmussen asked Hellström if they’d consider taking on his project. While it took no time at all for Hellström to say yes, it would take the next eight years to complete “Flee.”

“Final Cut for Real is an amazing place and at its core, they just want to make good films and make a difference and that sieves through everything they do,” Rasmussen said. “I don’t know anyone who works as hard as Signe does and to work with someone like Monica, who always pushes you and is really engaged in the story, it’s just been incredible to have that support. I’ve never experienced anything like it, to be honest.”

Although no one could’ve envisioned the international sensation “Flee” would become, Final Cut for Real has specialized in seeing the potential of nonfiction stories, both in reach and form, well past the limits most have, an ability that’s been especially clear in 2021 when both “Flee” and Camilla Nielsson’s “President” were shortlisted for Academy Awards and other productions such as “Our Memory Belongs to Us,” “Raising a School Shooter” and “He’s My Brother” have been festival favorites.

Making a mark on the world was always in the cards for the company’s CEO Sørensen, who could’ve made a fine diplomat, having studied international development and communication in college, but instead took her talents for multilateral negotiations into the equally fierce realm of film production. Recognizing the unique opportunity she had in front of her to make an impact from her native Denmark, a particularly hospitable place for filmmaking culturally more inclined towards collaboration rather than competition and public funds remain available for the arts, she began her career working at Final Cut, which produced mostly dramas such as Jan Troell’s “Everlasting Moments,” but in 2008, the company was winding down, leaving her to wonder about what to do next.

Her colleague Anne Köhncke had already left to work in international film sales elsewhere, but when they had started out together, they had a shared passion for documentaries and Sørensen had come across a filmmaker in Joshua Oppenheimer, who like Rasmussen had a project that defied easy description, when he hoped to give audiences the same surreal experience he had in visiting Indonesia where participants in the death squads that were assigned to exterminate anyone believed to be a Communist now lived side by side with what descendants there were left of the dead. The director had already developed an approach to generate such a dialogue on a previous film “The Globalization Tapes,” which engaged Indonesian plantation workers who might fear retribution for speaking out as well as those in management positions, many of whom had previously been involved in the genocide of the 1960s, that resonated with participatory methods that Sørensen had learned in her international development studies.

“The first thing I actually saw from Josh’s work was the piece we call ‘the River Walk’ in “The Look of Silence” and that showed me all the aspects of his method because I thought here’s a guy who is filming these people who are saying something really atrocious, but he’s allowing them to say it, and they are doing things physically that are showing so much more than what they are saying,” recalls Sørensen. “There were a lot of similarities in the way that Josh’s method and the way I was thinking about how do you actually collaborate internationally? How do you make sure that the people you are collaborating with have their voices heard? And that whatever ideas that they have, you make sure you understand that, even if they say things that you disagree with or find problematic in some way. In that one scene, we get to understand that and we are forced to make our own thinking about what’s going on here in front of the camera.”

It was an innovative and open-hearted way into a complex story that would set the tone for all Final Cut for Real productions, but Sørensen didn’t even know there would be a company at first. What she did know was that she was going to do whatever it took to support Oppenheimer’s vision, which ended up resulting in two films – “The Act of Killing,” where perpetrators were able to convey their righteous delusions about the murders they committed in musical numbers, and “The Look of Silence,” which laid out the reality of what they had done through the friend that inspired Oppenheimer to investigate in the first place. Even beyond the gruesome subject matter, the resources required to mount such a production might be difficult to stomach, but as Oppenheimer found, if Sørensen believes in something, it’ll come to pass.

“Signe engages with a passion and commitment that inspires everyone else working on a film. Her sense of ethics – and the her loyalty – are like nothing anyone has ever seen,” Oppenheimer said recently via e-mail. “She will, as a reflex, put her life on the line to protect a filmmaker, a film, and, especially, a film’s participants. She will go to the ends of the earth to ensure a film’s political and social impact is positive, deep, and lasting.”

“I remember that when I started 11 years ago, coming to the market, no one knew the company really and you didn’t get a lot of attention,” says Hellström, who arrived at Final Cut for Real after meeting Sørensen at a European co-production conference in 2010. “Whereas when we come now, there’s a difference.”

Given the time it takes for films with such sensitive subject matter to reach the screen, it naturally took years for Final Cut for Real to make a name for themselves, but there was instant credibility that came with the release of two of the most influential nonfiction films of recent memory in “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence.” Without ever drawing on private financing to stake the company, Köhncke and Sørensen managed to make it through their early years scrapping together what they could and developed a process for financing films where they could build off of what public funds they could apply for, generally comprising 10 to 20 percent of a film’s overall budget, and scoping out co-production funds and foundations in other countries to make up the rest. Often it has meant films that are sound mixed in one country with color grading in another, but the company has welcomed international involvement when their films are meant to build bridges across borders.

“They have this open-minded workflow where they trust people and the trust that projects will be good because we’re all in the same boat,” Uno Helmersson, the Sweden-based composer who has worked with Hellström for the past 15 years, said. “We all want the same thing.”

At their offices in Copenhagen, English rather than Danish is what one is likely to hear spoken for the benefit of interns who come from all over the world, hailing anywhere from Spain to Italy, and the company has steadily built up a collection of partners globally — Murmur Media in Canada, Spring Films in England, Making Movies, Oktober and Tuffi Films in Finland, SP Films in Ireland, Piraya Film, Sant & Usant and Mer Film in Norway, Story, Atmo, De Andre, Malin Andersson Film, Vilda Bomben, Anagram and Nonami in Sweden and Louverture Films in the U.S. — that can support projects that can live up to the high standards they hold for themselves. It isn’t easy to get a green light at Final Cut for Real where Hellström, Heidi Elise Christensen and Maria Kristensen would join Köhncke and Sørensen to form a core team that decides what projects to work on, but after a decision is made collectively, the support is unwavering and producers are empowered to work individually, developing relationships with directors and members at every level of the crew that deepen over time.

“The company is comprised of producers, directors and a master editor,” Joslyn Barnes, a co-founder with Danny Glover of Louverture Films, told me via e-mail, making a particular note of Janus Billeskov Jansen, whose can count his longtime association with Final Cut for Real productions alongside his work cutting Thomas Vinterberg and Billie August films. “I think that combination has given them a really healthy perspective on how the best work is made: collaboratively. The idea is to create an environment that brings out the best in artists, and I have seen them succeed at that time and again. The quality of the work speaks for itself, and the honesty, integrity and genuine kindness of all the partners at FCFR does, too.”

Barnes seemed destined to cross paths with Final Cut for Real when Louverture has doggedly pursued the same mission of cutting through the noise with films that haven’t been merely content with sharing stories from parts of the world that aren’t typically represented but to do so in a way that cuts through the noise, revealing reality in such a fresh way as to feel as if it’s being experienced for the first time, free of any influence of previous narratives and the power structures they were created inside.

After producing Göran Hugo Olsson’s “Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,” she and Hellström were brought together as producers on the director’s follow-up “Concerning Violence,” which drew on the inspiration of a Frantz Fanon essay of the same name and utilized archival footage produced by Swedish activists from the 1960s and ‘70s to illustrate African independence movements following the end of colonial rule. It was the start of an ongoing relationship that has grown when separately the companies have established themselves at the forefront of innovative nonfiction — with Louverture behind such films as RaMell Ross’ “Hale County This Morning, this Evening” and Viktor Kossakovsky’s “Aquarela” and “Gunda” — and together, they have collaborated on a string of some of the most distinctive films of the past decade including “Life is Sacred,” “Shadow World, “Strong Island,” That Summer,” “Flee” and “President.” When most of these films are only possible with the cooperation of dozens of production companies, the pair provide the start of a backbone formidable enough to be bold.

“Having a network of relationships across the globe has been central to the work of both Final Cut for Real and Louverture Films, and that we have both really striven to create and participate in a family of companies that have shared values,” said Barnes. “This has undoubtedly made productions easier, especially the more challenging projects that require independence of financing, careful shepherding and protection, and ensuring space and time for creative artistry as well as final cut (for real).”

All these considerations were likely running through the mind of Camilla Nielsson when she had to make a decision whether or not to pursue what would become “President.” She had already been developing another project with Sørensen when the opportunity suddenly arose to accompany Zimbabwe presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa in the country’s first Democratic election. The director had earned the trust of those close to Chamisa during the making of “Democrats,” in which she documented the drafting of Zimbabwe’s constitution following the ouster of Robert Mugabe after nearly 40 years, but that film had also made Nielsson’s return to the country somewhat improbable when she had been embroiled in a three-year court battle to have it shown publicly after it was all but banned by the censorship board, which gave it a rating they would assign to pornography. She re-entered Zimbabwe to hear the verdict, which ended in vindication for the film, but at the celebration afterwards when asked if she’d consider filming the election by associates of Chamisa, she was understandably ambivalent. Even if she were to agree and could rely on the experience she had with the years she put into making “Democrats,” covering a campaign was likely a different beast.

“It was when I got off the plane and had decided to go back to Zimbabwe, [Signe] was basically into that idea in a split second,” says Nielsson. “We didn’t know if we were going to get the filming permit, so she had to really pull some strings and work her magic to be able to even fund a three-month shoot in Zimbabwe on a development budget because we were really doing this on a shoestring, but she knows how to do that.”

There’s a sign affixed to the door of Sørensen’s office at Final Cut for Real that reads, “Everything is going to be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.”

“It always gives me the chills when I walk past that one,” says Simon Lereng Wilmont, who has made four features with Final Cut for Real, the most recent of which “A House Made of Splinters” will soon be premiering at Sundance. The film originated from a frequent question he received while traveling with “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” which told of a young boy named Oleg living on the border of Eastern Ukraine with his grandmother, a danger zone ever since Russian separatists began bombing the countryside in 2014. Merely staying alive and growing up in such unfathomable conditions was what Wilmont had been primarily concerned with, but he was asked enough at festivals what would happen to Oleg if his grandmother were to pass away and he thought it might be worth answering that question, even in spite of how arduous the previous shoot had been.

“They’re open to if a director wants to push the boundaries and they see that it’s a real project, that’s where they step in and instead of saying, ‘No, that’s too unsure or we can’t do this or you can’t do that,’ I think it’s quite the opposite,” says Wilmont, who has known that every time he’s on the front lines that his longtime producer Hellström is right behind him. “Here at Final Cut, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that sounds interesting. Let’s see if we can make it happen.’ They’re open to all kinds of different experiments.”

While every project at Final Cut for Real carries considerable risk, from the safety of filmmakers and their subjects in extreme circumstances to the formal experimentation that can make the films so immersive and at the same time always at the precipice of what may or may not work entirely, the company has increasingly mitigated it with experience. Collaborations between producers and directors often extend beyond one film after trust has been achieved and the structure of the company, where producers can be dedicated to their specific projects but float in and out of their colleagues’ to offer informal feedback, has a way of keeping the quality high without ever feeling forced. (Says Hellström, “Each project has a lot of eyes on it and we challenge a lot what we see how directors are working and what they’re making.”) In talking to directors that have worked with Final Cut for Real, a common theme that comes up is the idea of transparency as to what is achievable, a rare quality when the films so often have no template to compare against.

“Perhaps what I rely most on is Signe’s ability to take a vision of seemingly preposterous ambition and break it down into achievable steps, devising just the right process for each,” Oppenheimer told me, now working on his third project for Final Cut for Real, a musical narrative called “The End,” which will star Tilda Swinton, Stephen Graham and George MacKay. “Whenever I’m overwhelmed by the task ahead, a talk with Signe makes everything feel achievable – stress evaporates and necessary but painful compromises become sources of new inspiration.”

That proved to be the case with “Flee,” where animation was the only way forward in order to protect the anonymity of the subject, but it was an entirely new form for all involved. Although Rasmussen could lean on his experience in radio to lay the groundwork for the narrative, working in concert with the editor Billskov Jansen to give the film shape from the interviews he conducted, there was no way of seeing what the film would look like beyond an assembly of storyboards and scraps of archival footage when the costly process of animation needed the entire blueprint in place to proceed.

“We learned a lot of discipline, which for documentary people, you know, we can always carry on — you can always film longer, you can edit longer,” says Hellström, who with Sørensen could assemble the right team of financiers and crew for Rasmussen to accommodate the trial and error necessary to get “Flee” where it needed to be without being questioned about the overall vision for the film. “But with animation, it both opened up a freedom to think more creatively about how to express things like [a character’s] inner thoughts and the past that we can’t [traditionally] do in documentary in that abstract way.”

Beyond creating a fluid workflow between collaborators who would need to be less rigid in their approach than they typically are, whether coming from animation or nonfiction filmmaking, choices about who to bring into the project had a subtle yet significant effect on the story itself when a separate team of animators was assigned to handle memories of the main character Amin from those telling his story in the present, and throughout, the filmmakers collectively were seizing opportunities to take moments they might not give much attention to when they came so easily as part of their traditional practice and see what the possibilities were.

“Normally, you go out and you record your material and you’re a slave to what you got, but here in animation, you can reframe — if you were missing a close-up of a certain character, you could have a storyboard artist draw it and you would get it in the edit,” says Rasmussen, who found he could get at a truth about his central character, who was understandably reluctant to reveal his true emotions, by conveying his emotions through the style of animation being employed and had the rare privilege of having a parallel in the narrative and the making of the film play out where both he and his lead could gradually see a full picture for themselves. “In the beginning, you’ve got these very rough storyboards and then you get rough animation and then you get a background and then you get clean animation and then you get a color and then you get everything put together — it was like very slowly developing a photo and you see it in all its clarity. It was really incredible to see all these different artists come together.”

It wasn’t the only production Final Cut for Real had been working on at the time where the company knew they had something special on their hands, but the path ahead was hardly obvious. In addition to “Flee” and “President,” “Our Memory Belongs to Us,” which has yet to announce distribution plans, but premiered locally at CPH: DOX and Stateside at the Camden Film Festival, has been prone to leave the audiences that have seen it shaken to their core. Sørensen had been attending IDFA when she met Rami Farah and his partner Lyana Saleh for the first time and afterwards, she was sent a hard drive of footage that had been entrusted to Farah by his friend Yadan Draji, a Syrian citizen journalist who began filming in Daraa when the Arab Spring protests reached the city and encouraged four of his friends in the region to film what they saw, even when being seen with a camera by authorities could have devastating consequences. Naturally, the footage was compelling, but with 12,756 surreptitiously-shot videos to comb through, Sørensen wasn’t entirely able to make heads or tails of what she was seeing.

“It took a while because Rami basically saw all the footage on the hard disk and we analyzed all of it [to write] a very extensive treatment to understand the timeline of what had happened in Daraa,” says Sørensen, who began to realize that the questions she was asking Farah in order to provide context could be used to structure a film around while Farah thought of reuniting Draji and his surviving compatriots to explain what they had shot. “Then at the end, we made a dramaturgy or an order of clips that we could show these guys when we brought them together in order to tell the story.”

Like “Flee,” the film conscientiously offers a slightly indirect way to its subjects to confront long-buried details about how they survived such harrowing circumstances, doing so at their own pace, but prompted by the footage they’re shown after being invited to a theater in France 10 years after the events that prompted their eventual escape from the brutal Assad regime. With two of the five cameramen becoming casualties of the ongoing strife, Draji, Odai Al-Talab and Rani Al Masalma are brought together for the first time outside of Syria, all having been scattered across Europe in search of asylum and although pain resurfaces for the men, the opportunity to hash out what happened from the images that loom large on a screen above them allows them to make sense they can out of a situation that made absolutely none in the moment, something that becomes even more poignant when their perspective offers an alternative narrative to the one that was commonly accepted around the world, derived from state-run media when foreign journalists weren’t allowed into the country.

“What we hadn’t counted on and what turned out to be extremely important was the relationships between them and how they were helping each other and how much you could actually see all the human emotions involved in this,” Sørensen says. “The friendship and the love and the way that you see them on stage when one is breaking down and others are holding onto them – all that somehow mirrored what it must’ve been like to be in Syria at that time.”

It may have been one of the least complicated shoots Sørensen had presided over after all other aspects of the production had been worked out – just four men, including Farah on a stage, reacting to what was in front of them – and in fact, “Our Memory Belongs to Us” can be seen as the very essence of what makes Final Cut for Real’s films so profound, gracefully navigating past all obstacles that can interfere with an audience getting lost in an important story and giving the microphone back to tell such stories to those that continue to live with them. That may sound simple enough, but it’s work that is never done as anyone at the company can attest, though just as they have invested in filmmakers with a strong vision, they have always been able to fall back on their original mission statement to guide them.

“For all of us, it was a joint vision in terms of making a space that could host projects that had a very strong artistic vision, but also wanted to make an impact on the world [in such a way] where both the content and the form were complimenting each other,” said Sørensen. “And also having this open-mindedness around what is it that we do in terms of how we can develop the documentary form.”

A little over a decade in, Final Cut for Real has taken it further than anyone else has before.

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