Marijn Poels is director of By Choice or Change (my review of it can be found here), which shows the difficulties single mothers have to go through in Vietnam. He also is a very active documentary maker. More info on his work can be found on his website.
In the west the image of single mothers is something everyone expects and it’s something which doesn’t stand out. By Choice or Chance shows that the situation isn’t like this all over the world. What’s the goal you want to reach with this documentary?
The movie will get its world premiere on March 8th (International Women’s Day) in 24 different countries and 46 different cinemas. Even in countries as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam and India where there is still a lot of inequality between men and women. The goal of this film to give women in those countries the courage to step out of the traditional thinking and fight for their rights. In the interest of equal rights and their children. I hope it will inspire women and make them think. For single mothers in the Netherlands and Europe this is a recognisable story which we had to go through in the sixties/seventies. Still the story this movie tells remains something which is beautiful to watch as it’s about the love between mother and child.
What’s the reason you chose Vietnam?
Through producer Peter de Vries, who already lived in Hanoi for four years I heard about single women who stood up for their own rights despite it still is a taboo in their culture. He regularly came into contact with the stories about single mothers. It inspired him en he admired the strength en courage of the mothers. That’s something beautiful, that a positive change is being made by the local people.
For me Vietnam was very interesting because it still is a socialist country in which deep rooted culture within the walls of a family is very important. The man is seen as the pillar of the family and the woman is usually still trapped in a culture which is centuries old and traditions in which the man is the dictatorial centre of the family. Which often includes domestic violence or sexual abuse. The thoughts which have been rooted into the culture for centuries make the man invincible and powerful, and the woman humble, obedient and captured. In the business world discrimination of women has decreased but within the walls of the family the woman often is still a possession of the man. This is what makes Vietnam a complex country. They want to keep the family traditions while also want to do something with emancipation.
The middle east would probably be a more obvious choice for such a film. Especially the inspiring side of the Vietnamese women is something which I found beautiful. They manage to stand up for their rights while still respecting the current traditions and culture.
How did you get into contact with the women and did it take a lot of effort?
Through producer Peter de Vries I managed to contact the women. He already did the preparations, months before I came to Hanoi. When we started out it took some effort to talk about intimate things as they are generally very closed. Because of the socialistic system they were often very diplomatic which sometimes made it difficult to clear up the details.
Still I’m convinced that you can work with everyone if you really want to. As a director you work in service of the story and you adjust to the situation. Still you are constantly trying to find the limits of your subjects and see how far you can go, just because you want to get as much as possible. That is what makes the journalistic part of it exciting as you sense where those limits are.
You want to people to think about what they have seen. Is your ultimate goal for your viewers to take action and do something with it? Or do you just want to make them aware?
First of all I want to make people to think about what they have seen. Make them aware of the two very extremely different worlds in which we live. One part of the world is dying of an overdose LSD while in Africa people die because of the lack of one malaria pill. Somewhere in the middle of these two world the civilization we are looking for can be found. Of course I hope that people change after seeing my stories. That is the ultimate success which I can reach. On the other side I have to confess that I want to entertain people with my stories. I want to visualise the, often difficult, subject matter in the most beautiful way possible. You are giving your audience a beautiful story with a message. I think that’s a beautiful balance. You can see me as an activist who propagates his ideology in an artistic way, hoping it will make people see things differently.
With the story of By Choice or Chance I want to inspire women and encourage them to stand up for their own rights.
Are there other directors who inspire you?
A filmmaker like Michael Moore inspires me. As a filmmaker and as a human being. I think he has found the right balance between entertainment and intelligent content. He’s not afraid to confront the world and have a different opinion than most other people. It’s what makes him controversial, but to me also brave. I’m also inspired by a director like Peter Jackson. It’s fantastic to see how someone is able to show such a complex and beautiful story with so much passion, love and patience. That love and enthusiasm is something you feel when you watch his movies. No matter how unrealistic the setting is, through his direction you lose yourself in a completely different world.
You are someone who isn’t afraid to search for the limits and go to places where it isn’t always safe. Are you thinking about that when you are actually filming?
When I’m preparing I always try to see what the risks are to make sure I’m aware of what could happen and what that could mean. Despite that, I have a strong drive to film the stories despite the risks. It’s especially people who live in those situations who need a voice and it would be cowardly not to listen to them. Ignoring human rights because it is dangerous can’t be right, or at least isn’t my style.
In 2011 you received the “Voice of Peace” price in Pakistan. What does such a prize mean to you?
It’s appreciation, recognition. That’s beautiful and pleasures my ego. But I always have mixed feeling with prizes and awards. I think that the people in front of my camera have are more entitled to that recognition than me as a filmmaker. I’m only the bridge between the voice and the public. If you make that bridge too important you don’t see the content anymore and that’s something it always needs to be about. So appreciation and recognition are beautiful, but they should never put the content in the shadows.
Every year you make a big number of documentaries. What is a subject you would really would like to still make a documentary about?
There are still a lot of stories to tell in the world, unfortunately. I think it’s becoming more import for me to search for stories within Europe. A lot of what’s wrong within the world start with the capitalistic frame of mind in the west. We shouldn’t forget that Europe is already feeding of Africa’s resources for decennia and it makes our economy go. Paradoxically over half of Africa is still living in extreme poverty. I also think the aging population in Europe is a very interesting phenomenon. We’ve invested in becoming older for years. Now that we managed to do that are the elderly the big problem? Those are interesting chapters I want to focus on in the future.