Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet Annabel Verbeke – “Four Seasons in One Day”

Annabel Verbeke is a documentary filmmaker whose film “Les Enfants de la Mer/Mère” won eight international awards and was selected by over 20 global film festivals. “We Will Remember Them” was the closing film of Visions Du Réel 2018 and the most watched documentary film on Flanders’ national broadcasters that year. Verbeke is now developing “T(w)o Work,” a documentary series with national Belgian broadcasters VRT Canvas and RTBF with support from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund. It follows newcomers to Belgium and their struggle to find a proper job in a country they want to call home.

“Four Seasons in One Day” is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

AV: Situated northwest on the isle of Ireland, between the Republic of Ireland and the UK, is a beautiful glacial fjord called the Carlingford Lough. The Carlingford Ferry crosses the fjord on a daily basis, bringing people from one side to the other. We meet passengers from the north and the south who are making the soothing journey through the magnificent, green Irish landscape. The short travel breaks the rush of the day and provokes moments of inner reflection while crossing the invisible border, deep down in the lough.

“Four Seasons in One Day” explores the concept of identity and community on an isle divided by not one, but two borders: a physical one between the UK and Ireland, and a mental one between seemingly incompatible opinions on the role and signification of the border – opinions that often change when personal factors surpass the ideologic.

The waters between each side may be deep, yet they have the unpredictable weather in common. But does the local expression “four seasons in a day” only reflect the weather?

W&H: What drew you to this story?

AV: Being fascinated by borders and the way people define themselves by underlining differences with “the other,” I ended up in Ireland. It is home to an open, welcoming, and seemingly optimistic culture that been through a dark history of deep conflict, which is hard to imagine while meeting the ever friendly and easy-going Irish people. A border connects and separates at the same time. Nowhere else does this contradictory feeling comes to the surface more than it does on the isle of Ireland.

The Irish and Northern Irish people represent to me more than the remains of an old conflict on land and religion. I was fascinated by how social fears and dissatisfaction forced people to reinterpret history and revitalize their culture, religion, and identity. It is a universal example of a well-known statement, “Make our own country great again,” while getting rid of large and impervious unions telling us where we belong. In that sense, all over the world, the concept of borders – especially re-defining and protecting them – has become a hot topic again.

We stand together against what’s coming from outside. We see and hear “the other” less and less. Simple black and white analyses are easier to digest than trying to find nuance in the grey zone. In this film, however, I dive into that grey zone because elaborate stories are rare in regular media, where emphasis placed on the short, fast, and spectacular. But these things rarely offer depth, narrative development, and durable wonder. The main target is instant effect.

That’s why I have chosen creative documentary as my ideal field of storytelling. I like to surprise my audience, show the other, hidden side of universal topics in a creative but democratic way, depicting stories based on real people’s lives. I always take my time to develop stories and characters to create an emotional link between subject and spectator, and between me and your reality.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

AV: I hope they regard their surrounding world in a different way after watching this film. I have the feeling we only hear, see, and read black and white opinions. Social media is full of angry and frustrated opinions. There is us and them, you are pro- or counter-, and we don’t listen to the other side anymore.

In my film, I put different, seemingly incompatible opinions together, and although I may not always personally agree with certain viewpoints, they all get time and respect in my film. My film is an invitation to agree to disagree and to jointly dive into the grey zone. I’m convinced even the most polarizing opinions may have something in common.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

AV: The pandemic. It was quite ironic that the moment we were told to stay indoors, the sun came out. We did all the research and development in 2019 and was poised to start production in spring 2020. Everything was prepared: crew, equipment, characters, locations, hotels – and two days before leaving, we cancelled everything. The consequences of the pandemic, however, would be so omnipresent a few weeks later: the lockdown and restrictions on travelling turned my film into a utopia.

When would I be able to make this film? Would I ever be able to make this film again? Fortunately, for a brief period during summer of 2020, safety rules became less strict so our crew could travel to Northern Ireland. Thanks to the Northern Irish crew members and the great characters, we were able to shoot the film in a limited period of time. A few weeks later, it became impossible to do so.

W&H: How did you get your film funded?

AV: This film is a creative documentary film, but at the same time it’s part of a collection of six films of European border stories under the umbrella title “Borderline.” Four out of six films in the series are directed by women filmmakers. The “Borderline” project was written and initiated by my producer Frederik Nicolai. Although it was a hell of a job to find the necessary financing, after three years we managed to commit several partners and funders to the project. The project started in Belgium and was developed thanks to the support from Flanders Audiovisual Fund, Creative Europe, and Belgian broadcaster VRT Canvas.

The total production budget of the project was an estimated €1,500,000 (about $1.8 million USD), about €250,000 (about $370,000 USD) film. Co-production was set-up between Belgium, Croatia, Norway, and Lithuania. A specific file was for each application to broadcasters as well as public and economic funds, and although the project was mostly evaluated positively, the confirmed amounts were modest.

In the very end, substantial support from Creative Europe gave us all some breathing space, not only to make the film but also to invest in impact producing. After all, the project was possible by the international collaboration between producers and other partners. As a single film, it might have been much more difficult to secure financing for the film. There are no main characters in my film, but my intention always was to make a kaleidoscopic film — something that is apparently hard to sell.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

AV: I grew up in an economically prosperous region, where many think a person’s level of success should be measured by the success of their business, so it was not easy to choose art as my profession – but it was irresistible. I became a documentary filmmaker because I am very curious and sociable: listening to and understanding people’s stories and experiences is something I always wanted to translate into cinema. Letting people feel what I felt when I met certain characters and heard certain stories is my own type of language. I want to poke people out of their comfort zone and urge them to reflect more.

I chose to capture real people and real stories because the magic of documentaries is that the characters don’t stick to the script. The journey will always be an adventure that can take you to a different destination than the one you expected. Reality is always a bit more extraordinary than anything you could imagine.

Also, it’s not easy to make a documentary. You have to build trust with people. You have to respect your subjects, but you also have to challenge them. It’s this double-edged reality that keeps me awake.

There is delight and fear in making a documentary: fear that nothing’s going to happen and that I won’t find a story. But in the end, I always do. I am convinced that documentaries and films by themselves can’t change anything – there has to be a recognition and a desire to change. But I feel that a filmmaker can trigger a latent desire to change. That’s why I became one.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

AV: It’s a cliché, but “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” I also remind myself about a piece of advice my parents used to give me: “Be a little more patient and take it step-by-step.”

I learned that small steps are just as important as the big ones. It’s all about the journey and being at peace with where you are now, so I give myself more time and space to grow. I still set goals, but I don’t measure myself with success nor do I compare myself with others because everyone follows a different path. This thought makes me stronger, more grateful, but also more humble. Setbacks and windfalls come and go. It’s an illusion that you can shape your life exactly the way you want it.

I don’t know what exactly is going to happen with this film and I can’t predict if it will lead a good journey or not. I just have to let the magic happen. And sometimes there is no magic at all. We all just keep following our enthusiasm and try not to fixate on the result. A filmmaker can’t fail as it’s already a success to be one. Success is an ego boost, but the opposite of success shouldn’t kill you, neither should your relationships or friendships.

Another piece of advice: “Learn to say no.” I admit that it is a hard exercise but remember that you can always make another $100, but you can’t make another two hours that you just wasted on something stupid.

The worst advice I ever got is another cliché: “The sky is the limit.” Sometimes you have to be more thankful for the smaller things in life. We all want so much that we often forget about the essence of what we do have. We are all volatile passengers on this planet – there’s tragedy but also beauty in that.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors? 

AV: I would say that women directors tend to have more doubts. These could be doubts about themselves, their talents, but also about their ideas. The advice would offer is trust your inner self and ideas more because I still believe that we, as women, have a strong intuition and we should turn doubts into a powerful tool.

To doubt is not a weakness: it demonstrates an open-minded attitude that helps to redirect and enlarge attention, which can result in a better project and even personal growth. But at the same time, put boundaries on time and trust your intuition by following it. Persevere! Stay true to yourself and the work you want to make but be open.

Consider criticism as your best friend. It helps you to develop and see your work through someone else’s eyes.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

AV: There are so many wonderful films directed by women. I immediately think of Heddy Honigmann, who brought pure personal creativity to a universal level. The creative way she depicts humans and their emotions, and how can reach a worldwide audience is a great example to me.

There’s also Chantal Akerman, whom I admire for her great poetry and uncompromising, innovative filmmaking.

Lola Arias’ “Theatre of War” is one of my favorite documentaries. I admire her bravery in diving into the male-dominant world of veterans. At the same time, I find it incredible how the film she created is so innovative, unravelling, and touching.

One of my favorite fictional films – although it has a documentary look and feel – is “Home” by Fien Troch, a Belgian female director. Her film left me speechless and gave me goose bumps. The story, the visuals, the editing, the characters, the music were all very daring, breaking the rules of classical cinema. You need guts for that!

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

AV: These days are very difficult to me, just like for any other filmmaker. As a documentary filmmaker, you have to be able to go out and explore the world to meet with people and to grab their stories – and all that is not possible anymore. Furthermore, documentary filmmaking is an art form with the goal of sharing your work with an audience. But would our audience still be able to see your work when theaters are closed? And will a community, a society still be prepared to invest in arts?

This was a tough and insecure period. The entire world has been in the same boat. In the beginning, I felt slightly paralyzed but it didn’t take long before I started to enjoy my headspace when I decided not to follow the COVID case numbers on a daily basis anymore.

Challenging times are always interesting. You don’t know how lucky you are until something has been taken away from you. I was forced to take a break, which I think was needed. I became thankful to have this luxury of being in the position to take a step backwards. I started to read the books I bought but couldn’t read, to watch films that were waiting for me, to write for myself, and to learn to do nothing, which was the biggest challenge.

It was a very inspiring period of time and after a few months, I got used to the situation. I was then able to slightly resume my filming activities again. I shot “Four Seasons in One Day” during the summer of 2020 and started up production of my new project, “T(w)o Work.”

Knowing I can’t complain, I do confess, however, that I am not a big fan of online events nowadays: meetings, festivals, and even filming. I miss physical contact a lot. You realize what you miss when you don’t have it anymore. Zoom is a great tool, but not on a daily basis. However, I do like to secretly wear sweatpants in online meetings without anyone noticing.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing – and creating – negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

AV: In all my films, I aim for an inclusive representation by showing the multicultural society as a natural fact. Today, people of different backgrounds and ethnicities are part of our society, something that still seems to be strange or hard to accept for some. Stereotyping and stigmatizing are far too ingrained in our society. As a filmmaker, it is my duty to counter these biases. We can achieve the best social impact and change by not being preachy nor blaming those with opposing opinions.

At this moment, I’m directing – with six non-European filmmakers – “T(w)o Work,” a documentary series in which we follow the footsteps of young migrants in Belgium and their long-term struggle to find a proper job. I’m convinced that through their individual lives – the challenges, emotions, and doubts portrayed by foreign filmmakers – we get a completely different, fresh point of view of our society. By starting at the concept of work – something so recognizable and crucial to identity and well-being – the project “T(w)o Work” is not just about immigration, but also aims to explore the search for individual identity.

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