On Sunday, 19 September, the third day of Nordisk Panorama 2021, a masterclass with Danish filmmaker and activist Phie Ambo occurred as part of the festival’s industry market events. Ambo’s most recent film, the climate activist-focused 70/30, had premiered at this year’s CPH:DOX as its opening film. However, her entire two-decade filmography situates Ambo as an intersectional activist and filmmaker.
Having won IDFA while still in film school (Family 2001), Ambo’s poetic and personal approach was established at this early career milestone. Subsequent work built on intimate explorations of the human condition, finding stories within complex issues everywhere from science to sustainability, nutrition to consciousness.
At Nordisk Panorama, Ambo was invited to speak for a 1,5-hour masterclass on her approach to filmmaking and balancing the activism within it. Entitled «Art as Activism – activism as art», and moderated by documentary co-programmer Cecilia Lidin, the event supplemented a dedicated three-film retrospective. Those three films, the aforementioned 70/30, and 2007’s Mechanical Love and 2017’s …When You Look Away, lay the groundwork of the discussion. However, it was the projects outside of the retrospective where the conversation truly lay.
«There is no such thing as artistic freedom»
The overall event started with Ambo discussing her affinity for the 2014 Finnish documentary Garden Lovers (dir. Virpi Suutari). Specifically, Ambo explained her affinity for this film in terms of its place within the trajectory of Finnish documentaries, where most had been reportage-based. With Garden Lovers, the director acts as a subjective storyteller, framing with a plan – the film is staged. Still, it is alive and, thus, allowing audiences to read into the film independently.
From there, the discussion turned to Ambo’s threefold approach to filmmaking as a documentarian with activist interests. The three points that drive her own work are:
- Artistic Obligation: Being obligated to create something around an issue happening in the world right now
- Demanding something from the audience – participation and debate included
- Maintaining sustainability as a working method
These three ethical tenets permeated throughout the world presented. After Family, there was the trilogy of films on emotion, memory, and consciousness (Mechanical Love, Free Your Mind, ….When You Look Away, respectively). Using these three films as examples, Lidin and Ambo discussed a variety of topics including the inclusion of experts, lack thereof, or balancing traditional expertise with the notions and opinions of others on a given topic («I deeply believe we are all experts in our own fields»).
Furthermore, …When You Look Away was the catalyst to a discussion on research methods in documentary. How does one find subjects? («You can go to places where you are likely to meet subjects, but it is not guaranteed»). These subjects, and the leap of faith approach tied to finding them, are further exacerbated by Ambo’s no contract approach («People tend not to open up when they have signed a contract ahead of time»).
The films Sounds from the Soil (2014), and Good Things Await (2014) were then discussed as, by this time, Ambo had turned toward an Earth and nature focus in her work, adjusting her lifestyle and professional approach accordingly. This meant no more plane travels, thus limiting the possibility of where projects could be shot. The former two films were ultimately filmed in the same region, with Sounds of the Soil acting as more a meditation on space and silence and Good Things Await a more traditional observation on biodynamic farming.
«There is no such thing as artistic freedom. You are always restricted by money, geography, etc.», Ambo concludes the masterclass. In this mindset, ethics in approach ultimately set apart an artist as an activist from the artist as solely an artist.
Featured Image: Maurice Wolf