Serbian filmmaker Zeljko Mirkovic made this interview with me for a Serbian film magazine. He was so kind to have it translated into English and has offered it to sites like docuinter.net, reelisor.com, miradox.ru. Here it is for the readers of filmkommentaren.dk. Thank you, Zeljko! Zeljko Mirkovic:
Since when have you been interested in documentaries?

Tue Steen Muller:
It started when I was at the library school, where I was specializing in film and television and where I graduated in 1972. At that time libraries were very active in showing films. Later I started to work for the Danish Film Board on a free-lance basis and in that way I got hooked more and more on documentaries.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
What were your beginnings in this field?

Tue Steen Muller:
I had worked as a librarian for three years. I was organizing film screenings in the library where I was working two times per week of documentaries first of all and then suddenly, in 1975, there was a job for me in the Danish Film Board. It was a very interesting organization because it had many films to be shown, to be rented by schools, libraries, kindergarten, art cinemas etc. and we were sending them all over Denmark and also for festivals abroad. We had a catalogue of around 2000 titles, Danish films mostly, but also films we were buying from other countries. That was my education and the way I got to know the history of documentaries because the people working there were buying a lot of films for the catalogue. Everything in that time was on 16 mm, so I started my career as a promoter of documentaries, going around with heavy bags of 16 mm prints, showing them all over.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
Why did you decide to choose documentaries over fiction?

Tue Steen Muller:
I think it’s because I found out that this was more my area in one way or the other. I was also writing about fiction film. I was writing reviews for Danish film magazines in the beginning of the 70s. But through my work I gradually discovered this richness of documentaries. I’ve got my knowledge and understanding of the world through documentaries. I’m also travelling a lot and I think that maybe I have this gene of being curious about the world and people. I would like to know people, to know how they live, how they think, how they work, what their problems, hopes and dreams are. I think that a good documentary can do much more than a fiction film because fiction films, at least mainstream films, have one layer, they are one-dimensional, and I think that a good thing about a good documentary is that it has many layers. A good documentary for me is a film which is also philosophical, so you learn something about yourself by watching documentaries, whereas in many fiction films there’s only entertainment. It’s fine, I have nothing against fiction films, of course not, but mainstream fiction films, the American tradition, are mostly about entertainment. When you watch that kind of films at the cinema, you know everything after five minutes and five minutes after you leave the cinema, it’s out of your head, normally. I know that there are fantastic artistic films for the cinema but if I see ten fiction films, maybe one of them is good and I will remember it. If I see ten documentaries, there’s something interesting in each one. Maybe they are not good from a film point of view, maybe the storytelling is not good but I see something in it, I discover something, I learn something.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
You founded the EDN and you have been the director of the EDN for many years, how did the idea of establishing the EDN originate?

Tue Steen Muller:
When the European Union started the Media Programme in 1990, they wanted offices for different genres, so they made an office for fiction, which was in London, they made office for animation, and so on. We had a good tradition for documentaries in Denmark, and we went to the people from the Media Programme in Brussels and said we would like to have the office for documentaries in Denmark. At that time, you should come up with 50% of the financing from your country, and 50% was financed by the Media Programme. We started this office, which was based in Copenhagen, in 1990. Five years later, the Media Programme decided they didn’t want the offices to be divided in that way, after genres, so they centralized everything. The Copenhagen office had already established a network of people so we tried to find a way to continue our work and make a real organization. So we went to the Danish Ministry of Culture in order to get their financial support in order to start the EDN. It started in 1996 and one year later we already had 300 members. Then we started building up different areas and thought about the regions where the documentary film was weak. I thought that Southern Europe was a weak region for documentaries and suggested to the EU that we started making workshops there and they still exist in Lisbon, Barcelona, Thessalonica, and in , Italy. Through these workshops we helped people build up something, an environment and culture necessary for making good documentaries. You have to build it of different elements and the most important thing is that something is happening, so we started with workshops and pitching sessions, which was quite new, and later on I was very happy to see that, for instance, in Lisbon, Barcelona and Thessalonica they had made documentary festivals. In Portugal, for instance, in Lisbon, they now have a very strong documentary association, called ???doc and this is a concrete result of the EDN activities in Portugal. It is the same in Barcelona, in Catalonia. That was our area of activities and we were constantly trying to find out what the EDN members needed. The key word is, of course, information; information and inspiration, encouragement. We also started to work in Eastern European countries. Even before the documentary office and the EDN I had worked in the Baltic countries and we even had a festival of Baltic films in Denmark, so I had good contacts there. I had no contacts in the Balkans, but thanks to the Baltic Media Centre, I was able to start traveling in this region also and I first came to Belgrade in 2001. I think I arrived on a train from Zagreb on the day Milosevic was arrested. Big thing, huh? Than we had a workshop there and friendships came up, connections were made and I’m very happy that this year, for instance, I was in Belgrade in January for the fifth time and now I’m here in Zagreb and I’ve also been to workshops in Skopje, Ljubljana and Maribor, so it’s a good way to build connections and inspire people.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
Documentaries are getting more and more present in the ordinary lives of people. How do you see further development of the documentary genre?

Tue Steen Muller:
When we talk about development of documentaries, we always have to remember that the history of documentaries has always been connected with the technical development; technical in terms of cameras, editing facilities etc. The production process has become much easier. For example, you are now sitting here with a small camera which couldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. The costs of making a film technically seen have become much reduced and the way of moving around with a camera has become much easier. Furthermore, the history of documentary in terms of distribution has always been technically defined as well. When I started to work for the Danish Film Board, I was going around with 16 mm reels, showing films, and then in the 80s and 90s we switched to video tapes, VHS tapes, which was good because it was easier for people to get them and nowadays when I’m traveling, I can carry 50 films or so on compact discs in a small box. It’s fantastic, isn’t it? And with the internet and downloading it’s becoming easier and easier for the audience to see documentaries. If you’re interested in documentaries and you want to learn something about the world by watching them you’re not only depending on whether it would be shown on television or not. There are other possibilities nowadays. The festivals are growing like mushrooms everywhere and they have a big audience. People like to watch documentaries. There’s a young generation which is interested in documentaries and I think it’s because documentaries have got a new image. Earlier, documentaries were marked as something which was only educational and informational, so watching a documentary was a bit like being in school class. Today, documentaries can also be funny, entertaining, and provocative; there are new ways of playing with the medium, arranging things. They are not only observational, there are also fiction elements that go in the storytelling and this has created a new image of documentary, which is very good because it opens up to get new audience.
You can learn a lot from documentaries. Even if documentaries today can be very entertaining, sexy or whatever you will call it, the basic is still, in the widest sense of the word, you can learn by watching documentaries, you learn something about the world, about other people. I think this is still the main quality of documentaries and you have to keep that in mind whenever you make a documentary.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
What is your task now in the documentary field?

Tue Steen Muller:
I think I’m doing more or less the same thing I was doing when I was in the EDN and in the Danish Film Board. My task has been to go around and teach, inspire and encourage people, so I’m helping people a lot. I would say I’m a professional helper. I’m professional because when I go around, for instance, here in Zagreb I’m older than most of the people and I’ve seen ten times, hundred times more films than them. That is my advantage so I can say to people you should see this film or that film or you can make the film in this way or that way. For many years now I’ve been involved in these pitching sessions dealing with project presentation and I see myself also as a kind of a talent scout in the way that if I see a potential in someone who really wants to make something interesting as a documentary I try to help as much as I can.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
Some funds have recently started supporting “creative documentaries”. What is exactly a “creative documentary” and what are the main differences between a “creative documentary” and other documentaries?

Tue Steen Muller:
I’m always trying to make people understand that there is a big difference between a journalistic reportage and a creative documentary. The difference is, first of all, that in a creative documentary you can feel that somebody is talking to you; there is a voice in the film, a signature, a handwriting, and there is an approach, meaning that you can feel that here is somebody who is talking to you from a specific point of view, somebody who has something that he or she wants to tell you, whereas the journalistic reportage, with all respect, has to be as close as possible to objectivity, as they say in schools of journalism. Objectivity, of course, is not possible, but as close as possible. If you make something about a problem, conflict, whatever, a good journalist tries to cover both sides of the conflict, whereas a documentary director can allow himself or herself to be personal and express one opinion where there can be other opinions, so a documentary can be creative and one-sided.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
Thanks to you, documentary filmmakers from Eastern European countries and the Balkans have started to follow new documentary trends. They have started their education in workshops and acquired more international knowledge. What does a documentary need in order to be international?

Tue Steen Muller:
This is a very difficult question to answer because there is no recipe, but I think the better a documentary is, the more international it can be. And in some cases, which is what I really like, you see a documentary which on paper looks enormously local but it travels. Why? Because it touches upon something universal, some universal theme which appeals to all of us. I don’t know if this is an answer but you cannot say this is an international theme and this is not. Of course, if you are doing something that you would like to travel to other countries, you have to think whether it’s too complicated for a foreign audience or not. You have to have that in mind. You have to understand that the people you are talking to or making the film for maybe don’t have the same knowledge as you. If you make something about this region, for instance, you have to know that there are many people who don’t know where Montenegro is, or don’t really understand, for instance, the question of Kosovo. They don’t have the background for that, so if you’re making a film about that, you have to remember that something needs to be explained in one way or the other, because otherwise the audience will have problems with it and won’t understand it. I don’t know if this is an answer but I think that, as I mentioned earlier, the more layers a film has the better. I mean if a starting point is existential or philosophical or a person, a character who is interesting I think, in that way, it can work. Of course, you have to know your professional skills, you have to know that this is filmmaking and you have to know what you can do with the combination of sound and image, the editing, the structure, and the way of building the story. This is what you learn in film schools, and if you don’t go to film schools, you have to learn it by yourself or by watching other films. You have to remember that great French directors Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard said that the best film school is the cinema and they watched the same film ten, fifteen times to find out how the other directors had done it. That would be my advice also: if there’s a film that you really like and you want to improve your own way of filmmaking then watch, watch, watch, find out, analyze. I think this is maybe the answer.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
How can independent authors from small production companies, which is mostly the case here in Serbia, sell their films on international markets. What is the best way to do that?

Tue Steen Muller:
I think that every Serbian filmmaker who has an interesting film has to think about the strategy, about what they can do for their films, about festivals that are good for their films. There are hundreds of festivals, of course, but you can’t go to all of them. So you have to make a priority and decide which could be a good place for promoting your film. Then, of course, use the technical skills again. I think that every filmmaker who has a website should promote their film on the website, have a three-minute trailer of the film, and then give the interested spectator a chance to buy the film. I mean, you can sell it at the website, on your own production website or you may try to profit from distributors as there are many places now where you can put your films. If you are alone or with two or three people in the production company, the main thing for you is to make films. So if you have made a film, try to find somebody who can take care of it, who can sell it for you even if they want money for that, which is fair enough. Do that because you will not have time to go around to all big markets and to the TV people etc. and try to sell it there. It’s much better to try to find a good distributor who can take care of it. There are many distributors who will do the work for you. Secondly, and it can often be the same person, try to get the film on on-line distribution platform so people can download it or people can buy DVDs. That is the second thing. If you want to sell your film to television companies, for instance, you have to know the rules of the game, meaning that a film should meet the international standards in terms of duration, some 52 minutes or more. I’ve seen so many good films with the duration of, for example, maybe 38 minutes and you can’t sell a film like those because the market requires something else. So you should be orientated to the needs of the market. And then, of course, the most important thing for you is, if your film is at a festival, you try to go there, show yourself and talk to people, so they could get to know you and remember you the next time you make a film. This is very normal.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
You are very well informed about Serbian documentary production. Do you think that good documentaries are now being made in Serbia?

Tue Steen Muller:
In Yugoslavia, you always had a tradition for documentaries, especially short documentaries. I saw many Yugoslav documentaries around 1970 or something at festivals, beautiful films, ten, fifteen minutes long, and they were all meant to be shown at the cinema before a feature film. It’s different now, but I think there are more and more films that can travel being made in Serbia. I think it’s very good that Serbian directors make films and go out and show them in international festivals and keep their own voice because I think that film projects from this part of the world have a lot of originality and that is why I love to go to Belgrade and Zagreb and so on. There are many film projects here with original themes and storytelling, so this is my main advice: don’t try to make films like the rest of the world does. My worry in general about documentaries is that the influence of television made them become very much alike, so a film from Holland looks like a film from Germany, Slovenia or Serbia. Films have to be different; they have to have a special flavour.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
What is the main problem of Serbian documentary film today?

Tue Steen Muller:
I think the main problem is that you need to get a better structure for production. I think you should try to do like they do in many other countries. Build, for instance, a film fund, a film institute, have a structure where you have people who distribute the money from professional point of view and then try to educate television stations that they should give their financial support, and I know it’s very difficult because they are in a bad financial situation themselves, but maybe it could be possible and maybe a collaboration between the Ministry of Culture and television could be possible. In Denmark, for instance, the Ministry of Culture is giving money to television, and it has to go for creative documentaries. This kind of things, I think, is important. Next, continue to make festivals, write about films, create a public opinion, and try to make the decision making transparent. Assessments of film projects must be professional, so that films are not supported because somebody knows this or that director. You should keep everything over the table, not under the table.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
In which way can we engage greater number of the Balkans television stations in further promotion of documentaries and get them to start buying independent production films?

Tue Steen Muller:
I don’t know how it works, but my experience tells me that the state televisions in both Serbia and Croatia are very conservative, in the way that they have a lot of in-house production and I’m a strong believer of production made by independent companies, out of television. I think that more films made by independent companies should be shown on national televisions. I think this would make the quality better because if you continue to do it in the old-fashion way, as it was when everything was run by the state, you will not get fresh air. You have to get fresh air into television because otherwise people will stop to watch television. They will not want to watch it because it will only be about entertainment, quiz shows and bad American series. I think this is enormously important. Maybe the battle is lost, and now I’m not talking about television stations in this region, but in general, maybe this wonderful medium called television, which should also be open for artistic experiences, has already been taken over by the people who only want to entertain.
Zeljko Mirkovic:
In Western European and Nordic countries, as opposed to the Balkans, the documentary has its place in the cinema distribution. How does this kind of distribution function there and is it possible to do the same in the Balkans?

Tue Steen Muller:
Of course it’s possible if people are interested in documentaries and I this is the case now. If you have a good film with duration of 90 minutes, like feature films, why not? Why shouldn’t it be possible? There are more and more digital cinemas, meaning that if you want to have a film screened at the cinema, it is not any longer a necessity to make expensive 35 mm prints which is a thing which is stopping a lot of distribution. You can show it from a hard disc, or a DVD, or from HD or whatever. I think this also stimulates the distribution of documentaries at cinemas. I believe that there are many films which deserve to be at the cinema and to be watched with many people in the room, but we shouldn’t overestimate it. They are still relatively few, but it’s much more than five or ten years ago, which is nice, but you have to remember those are not box-office blockbusters. I think it’s important for the promotion of the documentary as a genre that you get the film to the cinema and get reviews in the newspapers, have people talk about it etc.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
How do you see documentaries in ten years?

Tue Steen Muller:
If the genre continues to develop as it is now, I see a good future for documentaries. I see more and more people watching documentaries on-line, via the Internet. I see more and more people buying DVDs in shops because you can compare a documentary film or a film with a book today. It’s quite easy to get a film as it is to get a book. At least, it should be. If you want it, you can find it. That’s for sure. And I think that festivals have come to play a very important role. When I started to go to festivals way back in 1970s, festivals were for the happy few, for the elite, for the people who were film enthusiasts and who had it more or less as a profession. It’s completely different now. Now it’s general audience, so called ordinary people, who go, buy a ticket, sit with other people, watch a documentary, so you have to remember that watching films is also a social thing. There’s a huge difference between sitting in front of your computer and watching a new documentary and sitting with 500 other people. It’s fantastic to sit with 500 people, I mean, you feel the audience reacting to what’s going on, laughing, sighing, crying, and this is what is so wonderful about films.

Zeljko Mirkovic:
In the end, what is your general advice to young documentary filmmakers?

Tue Steen Muller:
Make good films. Express yourself, use yourself, don’t try to play according to the market, make only films which you think is important. It has to be important for you. Otherwise, it won’t be important for me as a viewer. Don’t make it as a product. Make it as something that has to be made for you. Don’t waste your time on stupid things.

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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