Founder Danielle Turkov Wilson is the executive director of the UK Impact Production company Think Film. The UK-based company has produced an array of short and feature films across European countries with an emphasis on creating content that addresses social issues.
Wilson spoke to Rohan Pemmasani regarding the work at Think Film, the filmmaking process, the future of cinema, communal issues, film festivals as well as the Academy Awards.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
For the readers who are not familiar with Think Films and your work, could you please give us a brief introduction on what the company is and its overarching principles?
There is a new concept across the [cinema] industry, which is not so new in North America, called Impact Production. And you know, a lot of you might have already heard of it, you have some great companies in the U.S. that are involved in impact production, including companies like Participant Media and Picture Motion. And you even have some really established documentary film companies, like ones run by Julie Goldman, who are really putting impact into the essence of their film storytelling.
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They’re not necessarily impact companies, but they have impact really in the DNA of their projects. I would say that I was deeply inspired by the way these operations and their work in the U.S. in the film industry. I felt like in Europe, there was definitely a different identity when it comes to dealing with impact, you know, language and cultures and heritage and history that’s slightly different. And therefore means that impact had to be dealt with in a very unique way in different elements of the film industry. So I just really decided that I wanted to set up a new entity in Europe, which would really focus on impact from a policy perspective.
So you know, really thinking about how social policies, political movements and geopolitical discussions could play a role in the way you develop, present, pitch, place and even eventually market and distribute your film. Think Film is really that kind of media consultancy agency, a bit like Accenture and Deloitte, rolling out strategic processes, understanding impactful thinking and political movements, knowing how that can influence a film, a documentary, a media piece and how that rolls across the film supply chain.
There are many filmmakers who prefer not to ‘make a point’ through their film, they just want to present a story through the filmmaking process. Why do you think film is a good medium to have an impact on society?
I think that’s a great question. I, first of all, believe that film in any format, whether that’s fiction or documentary, AR or VR, or immersive, whatever it might be, the art comes first. It is a subjective position that sometimes filmmakers become Ph.D. experts in an issue. They spend five or six years, sometimes even longer looking into an issue and breathing it and consuming as much data and facts they can. So even though they become experts, they’re no different to an academic. In my perspective, at that level, the amount of research that’s done, you know, the art is a personal subjective eye on an issue.
Unlike what maybe you’re used to seeing with impact campaigns on films, I truly believe it’s about impactful thinking and strategy. That means not necessarily driving a specific narrative, but promoting a democratic debate that will reach a compromise with your content. So your content is sparking that discussion and providing solutions or actions for different communities to get involved in, [eventually] giving that stepping stone from awareness to action.
So the art should always be independent, it should always spark their interest in debate. But the impact should be done strategically to bring all different voices to the table. We can really reach a strong compromise on some of the biggest questions, and we all know that there are many different perspectives and opinions on issues in our communities.
And we have to reach compromises. To deny [the compromises] and to only speak to one community with your film, to only advocate and preach to the choir, as we say, is not going to move the needle in society and get someone to empathize with your perspective. So that’s what I think impact is and what we do when we deliver impact strategies and campaigns with our films.
I wanted to talk about the art aspect of film. Someone approaches you with their film — how are you confident that their ability to artistically approach the subject is sound? You worked with the Cannes Film Festival and a variety of producers, so for film festivals and other distributors, how do you know that the art aspect of film will be technically proficient for them?
Well, I think art is in the eye of the beholder, right, just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And beauty is a form of art, in my opinion. Therefore, when you’re looking at who and how people commission, you have to look at their history, their identity, what makes them tick, what kind of stories have really influenced them in the past?
I’m not saying them, we all have to make those same kinds of stories. But knowing what works for them allows you to disrupt a market effectively, and you can only disrupt something that you truly understand.
If you look at the actual impact here, if you look at the geopolitical identity of France, and their relationships with French-speaking Africa and the French-speaking Polynesia, and their history, they have a duty to elevate those filmmakers. So, often you’re seeing some of the stories and films that are selected are based on the need to make sure that they address those questions.
Of course, for me, aside from what festivals decide, how do you know the art can really come out authentically in the story? I think there are two things. I think a storyteller is either was living or is living, evidence of an issue they’re dealing with. They have either been through it themselves, they have fought that fight — they have lived that, they breathe that issue or they have been deeply affected by something they’ve seen.
I still believe in today’s world, we should have filmmakers from Uganda come and make films about migration in Europe. I think that we need to empower more diverse and more authentic storytelling. But the day when the observation part of filmmaking, the art of the observation, is lost, is the day we actually lose the empathy to make powerful stories.
Because we can’t just make the stories of the lives we’ve lived. That would mean we’re not pushing the boundaries of what we could conceive and think about stories from the world. So I think yes, identity plays a huge role. So both the personal experiences, the observer, the need to observe others’ experiences as well.
The film directors or filmmakers, I would like to imagine, are the individuals that experience the ‘societal issue.’ But what is the process for selecting the cinematographer or the editor – which are more technically demanding jobs. Do the filmmakers select their team? In other words, how do you have confidence that the filmmaker will have the ability to make a film that is equivalent to their original idea?
I think creativity in this setting is just like in any other setting. A film production is really like setting up a business every time. In my opinion, when you’re setting up a business, you’re kind of looking for the right counterparts that don’t have the same skills as you but feel empowered by the same visions as you or you feel a connection to the story or the style or the approach. And every time when you’re resetting your team, you’re looking for the right pieces to elevate the success of that business.
So here, we’re talking about the success of the film. And so of course, what you’re looking for is someone who can own that part of the story in a way that they are the expert, and that you respect that deeply. So if you’re a director, you’re going to want a DOP or, that you trust their vision so much that you don’t even need to question them at all. They are going to deliver something that is within their expertise set, and that’s a tough thing to be able to do as a creative to allow someone to deliver their expertise.
But if you do that, then often what you’re seeing is the power of everybody’s talent coming together and in a way that makes your piece elevated. If you try to micromanage every element of your production, you kind of lose the essence of what film production is, which is [for example] allowing the editor to be the magic storyteller that pieces all the bits together that sees the gaps that you never saw. It should be empowering because they are themselves storytellers in their own right, in your story. And yes, you may be the director, but everyone plays a role in a film, and everyone brings that film together, or that media piece together to create success.
So I think the protagonist, the talent, the director, the producer, the editor, the impact producer, the line producers, we all play parts in bringing the story to life.
Speaking more about craft and festivals, I’m sure you’ve heard of the news about the Academy Awards. I wasn’t originally planning on asking you about the Academy Awards, but given the news that they are planning to pre-record some aspects of the ceremony intrigued me.
They are planning on handing the following awards off-air: Editing, Sound Design, Original Score, Documentary Short and Live Action Short. What do you think are the implications, and does this change the perception of Think Film’s content or general audiences regarding the craft of a film?
Well, I would say that I don’t, you know, necessarily agree with that decision. I feel that taking certain roles out of the public eye means that you potentially diminish their value in the production, and you make people feel like those roles are not equivalent to or relevant to be recognized in public space.
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Often, these people spend hours getting traumatized. Some of the people I’ve worked with work on trauma content or documentaries and spend hours in a room, you know, almost traumatizing themselves with the content. If these are people that don’t deserve to be recognized for their work, I really don’t know why such awards exist, you know, and I believe we have a duty across film production and directors to stand together against that and protest. And so we prefer that this was done publicly.
And I also believe that, you know, there should be criteria that assess the impact value of a film as well. If you look at “Parasite,” you know, the whole underbelly of that film is social injustice and poverty. And if you look at Squid Games, it’s about debt, and what lengths people will get to when they’re in debt. That is, these are all social justice issues, the best stories are changing the way people feel — people didn’t even know the debt issues of Southeast Asia and Asia. They are one of the largest economies that are suffering from debt.
And so I just think, to not qualify awards for jobs, that you’ve just mentioned, is kind of denying the power that film can, can have to maintain justice, make people accountable, share new ideas. If we lose that, then I think we’re really heading into a dark era.