‘I feel an obligation to make films about people that live on the margins of society’ - Raindance

Ditte Haarlov Johnsen is a documentary filmmaker who screened her latest project Days of Hope at Raindance 2014. She recently shared with me how important her work is to her life and how challenging trying to tell hidden stories can be.

It was photography that got me into filmmaking. Or maybe it was my interest in human beings. As a photographer I would spend a long time with the people I photographed, listening to their stories and being touched by human life.

I realised that the single image was no longer enough. I craved more parameters in order to convey the experience of the meeting fully. The film medium gave me sound and movement. I was also longing to get out of the self-chosen solitude that photography had become.

I feel very privileged to have been able to make my films. I’ve gotten funding from the National Danish Film Institute and some arbitrary grants too. It’s not been an easy road to travel; there’s never enough money on the budget, and I’ve done way too much work for free, but I believe that to be a symptom of the film industry that affects both male and female documentary directors.

I do not feel that I’ve had to fight harder in order to make my films because of being a woman. I find that there’s a lot of respect towards what I do; maybe because there are more women doing documentary films in Denmark, and because so many of them are winning prizes internationally. However, there are clear statistics that show that many more male fiction film directors get funding from the Danish Film Institute, than women.

The film industry is a place where one has to be tough in a masculine kind of way, in order to “be someone”. That doesn’t work for me. I deal with it by focusing hard on my own work, and the reason for doing it; to try and create something of meaning in this life I’ve been given. I do believe in equal rights, and as men have been favoured with funding from the various national film institutes for so long in the film business, I do not see any problems with favouring women for a while, until there is a balance.

It took three years to conclude Days of Hope. It tells the story of people that travel from Africa to Europe the illegal way. There were so many challenges along the way. Most of all the pressure of not having enough money, and therefore working with a narrow time factor and of having to shoot at a certain period of time, because that’s when we had the equipment and a photographer available.

Reality can seldom be programmed to happen within a certain timeframe. We had only two weeks in Italy to find out where in the country we could film, to gain access to an asylum camp and to get close to people and their stories. It was also a challenge to work in Mauretania, where being a white woman with a film camera brought me to the police station many times.

Challenges often work as motivation for creative solutions. The highlight is always meeting the people whose stories become the film. They are a huge inspiration on how to be human. I feel an obligation to make films about people that live on the margins of society, and whose voices are seldom heard; be that man or woman.

I am very stubborn, and that has been of huge use to me in the process of filmmaking: never to give up (because there are plenty of reasons to do so). The most important advice, however, would be not to compare my work to any other directors’ work.

My professional life doesn’t exist as a separate part of me. I do what I do because I have to, as a human being. I do what I do to imbue a bit of meaning in what might seem meaningless.

When I work, be that film or photography, I’m 100% in that work; I disintegrate the Ditte that was before and throw myself into a new reality that I live fully until I have to withdraw to tell the story and mend the pieces. From there I grow again, a richer human being, and hopefully a little wiser on what it means to be human. At least that was the way of it before I had my son, whom I gave birth to ten months ago.

I might have to invent a new form of working, where I can also be present in (my son’s) life; where I would like to be in five years, for example, has to do with that, probably much of my time will be spent with my son. There lies the meaning now. I do hope to have finished my book; Maputo Diary then and maybe have made another film. For the rest; it will come along the way.



Katy Vans grew up watching a lot of late night films at a very young age; along with giving her nightmares she also developed a love of Spaghetti Westerns and Stanley Kubrick. With a background in acting, writing, film making and journalism she describes herself as an undisciplinary artist/word thief.