IDFA award-winning Filmmaker Tom Fassaert on Being a Non-Conformist and Taking Your Own Ideas Seriously

We’re just back from IDFA and no one knows the highs of the world’s largest documentary festival like Dutch filmmaker Tom Fassaert. His stirring documentary A Family Affair premiered at IDFA 2015 and won the Special Jury Award, as well as being nominated for Best European Documentary 2016 at this year’s European Film Awards. A deeply personal look in to his own past and the past of his relatives, the film unpicks Fassaert’s troubled family history in order to find the root of both his father and uncle’s recurring mental health problems. As the festival comes to an end in his home country, we talked to the filmmaker about his non-conformist dreams and the moment during filming that he couldn’t believe was happening…

1. In three words, I became a documentary maker because…

I embrace the unexpected (sorry, that’s four words)

2. Describe a moment on screen, through your camera lens or headphones that made the hairs shoot up on the back of your neck? Why?

The moment my estranged autistic uncle described his image of an ideal beauty in a mother that gives her child unconditional love. A beauty, he describes, that is ultimately transient, like the spring bloom. The moment he described this on camera, tears rolling down his cheeks, I couldn’t believe my ears. The sheer beauty of this scene and the way he verbalised the whole film into this ultimate little scene, touched me deeply.

3.What’s the last documentary that changed your mind? Why?

Grey Gardens, because it broadened the limits of documentary and the position of the filmmaker in relation to his subject.

4. Which moment in the whole documentary process makes you the most happy?

The moment when a whole film- the theme you’re trying to address and the emotions you want to express- all come together in one scene. The moment you know: I have my film!

5. Who or what in the world of documentary do you think is underrated right now? Why?

Documentaries that are ‘hard to sell’ on forums or to broadcasters because they are seen as ‘difficult’ or ‘slow’ or whatever reason the commercially driven decision makers give. Documentaries that go beyond the current affairs, trending topics or popular/iconic subjects, that tell the stories of the unknown, in a subtle cinematic way without giving easy or comfortable answers to complex questions.

6. Who or what in the world of documentary do you think is overrated right now? Why?

Documentaries that sell easily and concern subjects that should be left to commercial television broadcasters. Like docs about famous chefs.

7. What’s your best documentary that never got made? And is it too late now?

I won’t tell you because who knows.. it might just be my next film!

8. If we gave you £80,000 tomorrow (our top funding award) what would you spend it on?

I would spend it on a film about several non-conformists around the globe and their lifelong fight to change something for the better, even when ‘losing’ seems inevitable.

9. What’s the best tip you have inherited?

Have the patience and courage to take your own ideas seriously.

10. What’s the best tip you’d like to pass on?

Exactly that: spend the time you need to on something you really believe in, no matter what the world might expect from you. And have the courage to take your own ideas seriously – however crazy they may seem. Be a non-conformist.

Words by Megan O’Hara