‘Syrian Conflict Is Not a Civil War,’ Oscar-Nominated Signe Byrge Sørensen Says (EXCLUSIVE)

Annika Pham
·8 min read

Copenhagen-based Final Cut for Real CEO Signe Byrge Sørensen might be unassuming and soft-spoken, but her vision, will power and fire for urgent stories have made her a world-class producer. Her documentary credits boast countless festival hits and accolades, including two Oscar-nominated films, “The Act of Killing” (2014) and “The Look of Silence” (2016), to the 2020 CPH:DOX top winner “Songs of Repression,” and recent Sundance Grand Jury Winner “Flee.”

Her company Final Cut for Real is delivering five competition entries at this year’s CPH:DOX, including Sørensen’s own-produced “President,” a Sundance Special Jury Prize winner, and new pic “Our Memory Belongs to Us,” both running for the main Dox:Award.

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Helmed by Syrian-born Rami Farah, with Sørensen serving as co-director, “Our Memory Belongs to Us” is a unique window into the Syrian conflict through the lens and memories of those who took part. Brought together by Farah to mark the 10 years of the Syrian uprising, three Syrian civilian journalists and activists, Yada, Odai and Rami, meet for the first time since escaping from Syria in a Parisian theater. In the safe environment, the three friends share memories of events that changed their lives, as they watch on the silver screen footage shot by them or others in the city of Daraa, birthplace of the Syrian revolution.

In this exclusive interview for Variety, Sørensen discusses the film, her personal journey, producing for traditional platforms and streamers.

Where does your urge to tell politically charged stories, generally set in developing countries, come from?

I didn’t go to film school. I studied International Development Studies and Communication Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark. My passion and interest were always for these topics. Then when I finished my studies, I joined Spor Media Copenhagen in 1998. Their focus was on doing films notably in Africa, in collaboration with African filmmakers. The first film I worked on was shot in Zimbabwe – a country which I had first visited a decade earlier after high-school to plant trees for three months. At Spor Media, I gradually learnt how to produce, also by attending co-production courses at Eurodoc and EAVE, before moving to Final Cut Productions in 2003 and starting Final Cut for Real in 2009.

For you what are the essential criteria to lift documentary filmmaking to the highest artistic level, to make them stand out in a crowded marketplace?

It is complex, but there are three basic ingredients that are extremely important. First is strong collaboration between the core team: the director and producer. Secondly, the strong collaboration with the rest of the team and with the subjects. Then time is key – which means money! We need time to build trust with the characters, time to evaluate the material after filming, time to edit, do proper sound, etc.

You rely on the traditional business model of public support, co-productions and single territory distribution. What relationships do you have with global streamers?

We have mainly sold finished films to the streamers and would love to collaborate earlier on some projects in the future. For the moment, we’ve worked mostly within the traditional business model, as we can rely on the Nordic public support system and public broadcasters, who are willing to engage with our films. For us, it’s extremely important to have our artistic freedom, that the director has final cut. Our films aren’t straight commissions. It’s the director’s vision that we’re bringing to the screen. But I’m sure it will be possible to collaborate with global streamers. We just need to find the right projects.

What did the Oscar nominations for Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence” change for you and your company?

These films were extremely important, both for me and our company. We gained a lot of knowledge and experience, first by making those films, then by doing outreach, and by getting the films out to A festivals, working with publicists, sales agents, distributors around the world. That helped us establish a network within the industry. This also helped for our next films. That said, raising financing for new films isn’t easier, as every film is different and a new beginning. Still, we do have a better chance now to attract people’s attention.

“Our Memory Belongs to Us” is your second film with Rami Farah after “A Comedian in a Syrian Tragedy.” How did you first meet and how did the idea for this film emerge?

We met at IDFA a few years ago and were introduced by the non-profit organization International Media Support. Basically Rami and his wife French/Palestinian journalist and producer Lyana Saleh came up with the idea. They had a hard disk with footage shot by the citizen journalists from Daraa [birthplace of the Syrian Revolution] and showed me and editor Janus Billeskov Jansen some material. There was so much of it and it was hard for us to grasp what was happening.

Once they started to explain the context, we began to understand. I realized in the process, how little I knew and how important it would be to find a way to incorporate all their knowledge and analysis of the situation in Syria into the film, if it were to be understood also by a European audience.

We created a data base, with all the material, classified in a clear way. Then together with Rami, Lyana and Dima Saber, a researcher from Birmingham University, we started to discuss the timeline. What had happened to each protagonist, the key scenes filmed by them and other citizen journalists. We already had the idea to bring them in a safe place, in a theater stage, for them to reflect on the images and explain them to us. That took time to gather them all as Yadan, Odai and Rani are exiled in different countries.

Had you discussed with each character the scenes you had selected?

They knew we would take them through the process, show them some of their own material about the uprising in Daraa, but they didn’t know what exactly. We were aware how difficult it would be emotionally for them to process all this in only a few days. The idea was to create a space for reflection. A visual space, which would be Syria outside of Syria.

It reminded me of the staging in the film “Reconstructing Utøya,” where the protagonists are reunited and had to deal with a shared trauma…

Yes. This is one of the reasons why we used Henrik Ibsen as cinematographer. He had worked on “Reconstructing Utøya” and we were inspired by his work on that film.

There is a beautiful feeling of togetherness, warmth and even humor between them, as the four friends share slices of life – made up of laughter and cries…

They hadn’t looked at that material for a long time and hadn’t met each other, physically, until that reunion day in the theater. Therefore, their reactions were totally genuine and fresh. What is beautiful in the film and we didn’t know in advance this would happen, is how much they support each other emotionally, while watching the images. They hold each other when one breaks down. There is so much warmth and humanity, which was such a contrast to what they have experienced.

As co-director, how did you assist Rami Farah?

My role was to be the outsider, ask the naïve but hopefully necessary questions, so that other outsider audiences would start to understand the complexity of the Syrian conflict. Together we analysed the material, what parts of the story should be told, in which order. Then once in the theater, when the camera was rolling, Rami was in control, as all the dialogues were in Arabic. I was camera number three!

You cite in the film George Orwell’s quote from his cult novel “1984”: “Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past.” Are the Syrian citizen journalists real-life Winston Smiths fighting tyranny by documenting history and protecting the truth?

Yes, that’s the reason for putting the quote in. We wanted to point out the importance in Syrian society of who is in charge of the narrative and writes history. However, also in democracies it is important to keep track of what determines the dominant narrative and sometimes challenge it. Today, people in Western media often describe the Syrian conflict as a civil war, but it’s not. It’s a proxy war, an international war. By calling it a civil war, we tend to forget why the Syrian uprising took place in the first instance: citizens simply wanted freedom of expression, to free themselves from tyranny and Assad’s dictatorship. And by calling it a civil war we also free the international community of any responsibility. We owe it to the people who fought, lost their lives, to those who crossed the Mediterranean as refugees with their families, to tell events and history the way they’ve experienced it.

How will the film be distributed and promoted on social media and impact venues to mark the 10-year anniversary of the Syrian Revolution?

We’re dreaming of bringing it out together with Farah’s “A Comedian in a Syrian Tragedy,” to communities across Europe, Syrian and non-Syrian. Hopefully the characters in the film and Rami will be able to present the films in person, and hopefully the films can contribute to the ongoing cross-cultural conversation, which is so important right now.

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