In Conversation with Marijn Poels

Marijn Poels is a documentary and independent filmmaker, who stole my heart with his extraordinary film stories. He focuses on making reports and films worldwide for organisations, governments and educational films concentrated on human rights. Apart from being a filmmaker he is also a writer and photographer. Poels’ film style is characterised by real-life recordings, as a result the viewer gets a pure view of reality without being directly given any opinion by Poels.

In February 2011 Poels won the international Dodie Spittal Award for his VSO documentary ‘The Voice of 650 Million Times One’ in Calgary, Canada. He also received ‘The Voice of Peace’ medal in Lahore, Pakistan. This medal is annually awarded to people who commit themselves to the fight against terrorism and violence in Pakistan and also fights for human rights.

‘Between the Worlds’ is a short film directed by Ruud Lenssen about Marijn and his incredible journey to 8 different Third World countries, it was screened at the Let’s All Be Free Film Festival in 2013. I have to admit that I was mesmerized by the film. It’s a moving and compelling story and it is worth our attention.

View of the Arts: Please tell me about your experience at the Let’s All Be Free Film Festival.

Marijn Poels: Being part of the festival was a truly inspiring moment. I met lots of enthusiastic guests and college filmmakers from around the world. Discussing the meaning of ‘being free’ is interesting because we all have different interpretations of ‘being free’. There was also a very striking choice of documentaries which were screened. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to stay the whole weekend but who knows, maybe next year.

View of the Arts: The documentary, that was screened at the festival, ‘Between Two Worlds’ focuses on your journey to 8 different Third World countries. Why is that?

MP: It was an eight part documentary series called “Route 2015”, co-produced by a Dutch Center for International Cooperation. They wanted to have a TV series about the ‘so called’ Millennium Development goals, Eight targets which are set out by the United Nations to reduce the inequality in the world. The original concept is from a TV-format which I wrote and produced back in 2008 and 2011. In that format I followed Dutch people who are somehow working voluntarily in a development country. That concept was a success in Holland. I produced these series twice and travelled to 16 different developing countries within two years. For “Route 2015” I basically copied that same format with some subtle changes towards the Millennium development targets. Every documentary is focusing on one of the eight targets. The Dutch people in these documentaries shorten the distant reality and are making the political targets accessible for a wider audience.

I had the possibility to travel the world more and more and I witnessed the inequality on our planet. For me, as an independent filmmaker and speaker, this became a solid way to see those political ambitions in practice. But at the same time this experience became confusing as well. The production of “Route 2015” was pretty hardcore. Two weeks shooting in a development country, three weeks at home to do the editing whilst also doing the preparation for the next journey.

I mean, Latterly I was working between two worlds for the past years. Shooting the footage in a country where I saw people dying because of the lack of one malaria pill and editing at home in Europe where people are dying on a overdose of LSD. I have seen babies born dead in Africa with no aftercare for the mothers whatsoever, while at the same time my girlfriend was pregnant at home and received all the love a mother should get. During the birth of our first son it was a cocktail of emotions for me. I was, without a doubt, the happiest man on earth but confused as well. The privilege we have to live on a continent where happiness has become so normal made me feel so weak. Thinking of all the mothers who are still out there on their very own.

That’s why filmmaker Ruud Lenssen came up with the idea of making a film about the production series. In the beginning I wasn’t quite happy with that idea. I think my spot is behind the camera. I’m just a journalist, a bridge between the voice and the public. When you make the bridge too important you won’t see the message anymore. A guerilla’s place is behind his weapon, never in front. But finally we compromised that “Between Two World” should not become an ego-product but a documentary with a clear message towards international cooperation.

View of the Arts: Do you feel that by making documentaries about poverty, hunger, human rights and the lives of simple people, you may change people’s perspectives on, in their opinion, what they already know about these particular topics?

MP: A documentary can change perspectives, and they do. Lots of people underestimate the impact a film can have. Unfortunately I’m not able to change the world with a film but I can bend the mindset of people, whether that is in Europe or Africa.

I’m always trying to involve the people who I filmed as much as possible wherever in the world they are. Trying to let them know what their voice / their contributing in the film is doing throughout the world. Back in 2012 I won an international film award in Canada with the documentary “The Voice of 650 Million Times One” which was about disabled people in developing countries. During the award ceremony in Calgary I renounced the award and waived it to those I filmed in the Kibera Slum in Kenya. I flew to Nairobi and handed over the award to two people with a visual impairment living in Kibera. Despite corruption, bureaucracy, gangs and cartels they build a solid monument, together with a local artist, in which they integrate the award. Finally, the monument is placed in the biggest slum of Africa, where it stands out as a symbol of respect for humanity. A story of courage, the account of the people from Kibera who dare to stand up for their Human rights.

It certainly didn’t changed the world nor the perspectives of the Kiberaslum but it was a powerful statement whereby we were able to raise awareness in the Kiberaslum that People with a disability do have an important voice and do matter in community.

Another journalist joined me during this process and made an interesting report called “Down The Lane” The trailer can be seen on and the completed documentary

View of the Arts: What sort of audience would you like to attract while filming documentaries?

MP: That of course depends on what kind of a documentary I’m making but in general I’m making these stories for a wide audience; ordinary people who are normally not involved in international issues. My audience should go to the cinema, watch and enjoy the film with a laugh and a tear. Once home I hope they will be left with a gnawing feeling, unconscious incitement to think about what they saw. I hope my audience will create at least their own opinion on what they see.

My goal is to put political stories and global challenges into plain common sense. Without using too much words or politic. I’d rather portray an Ethiopian mother taking care of her children somewhere in a village than president Wolde-Giorgis. Besides that, a good story needs a certain cinematic entertainment. Whether that is the adventure, the beauty of a country, ethnic tribe or a certain humor. I’m making people aware and inspire them of our extraordinary planet we are a part of. By understanding our planet and the people we will be more aware of the values of a global cooperation. Like the Dalai Lama said; “The whole world is like one body”. When there is a problem in our world we should not ignore it. The problem might look far away but in reality it’s always closer than we think.

Besides that, my aim is to break the mythology that is put out by the mainstream media which is nothing more than a political construct. Developing countries are too often portrayed as pathetic bottomless pits where poverty and corruption that are pulling the nations downwards in their vicious circle. But I see countries of hope, with potential, and I’m mainly focusing on solutions and hope instead of disaster and poverty. However, having said that, after all I hope my audience will develop their own opinion on what they saw.

View of the Arts: Apart from being filmmaker, you are also a photographer, writer and international speaker for human rights. How do you combine these three with making films?

MP: Basically I’m not a photographer but during all my travels I’m inviting a photographer to be on my side to do documentary-photography as well. My production company “Marijn Poels Films” strongly focuses on telling stories through different channels. The photography-part is being used for press articles, diaries, DVD covers and posters as well. Besides that, my photographers are being involved in the process of filmmaking and are my sound board as well. The purpose of writing is to express more my own opinion within the topics of my films. In my films I’m trying to be as neutral as possible without having an opinion, in contrast within my writings. As a filmmaker, writer and international speaker its strange enough not to feel like doing three different jobs. I’m a storyteller. Sometimes I do this in a book or a reading but most commonly through film.

View of the Arts: You have many projects coming out. What’s your latest one? And could you tell me more about it?

MP: The latest one is the documentary “By Choice or Chance”. This story follows three different single mothers in the capital Hanoi. Women who, by choice or chance, become a single mother. For us, Europeans, it might be a completely normal thing but in the socialistic republic of Vietnam this is completely not done. Vietnam is strongly attached to their cultural values, where they say that every family needs a husband, whether he is good or not. “The man is always considered as the pillar in the family, when the pillar is not there anymore, a family structure collapse”.

These are old traditions and habits, it’s what makes this part of the world so pure and interesting. The solidarity and unity which these systems possess and should be cherished and preserved. On the other hand, those traditions and cultures, especially in the countryside, are not evolving simultaneously towards the prosperity the nation needs. The traditional male-centred-ideal is holding women back from development, meanwhile the prosperity needs them to grow to human and international values. Although emancipation is often not accepted in these centuries old cultures, the love of a mother to her child is apparently invincible. A strength which dare to step beyond the line of ancient thought. Constrained or conscious, women are off the beaten path without losing their respect towards their roots. These traditional systems are slowly moving towards emancipation step by step. Not only in Vietnam, but everywhere in the world women are careful raising their hands for equality and empowerment.

This documentary was released in over 30 countries on March 8th (International Women’s Day) It’s great to see the impact of this movie in Vietnam. We released the Vietnamese version of “By Choice or Chance” online so the whole country is able to watch the film for free. The trailer can be seen on Currently I’m doing research for a feature-length documentary. Consequently, I have recently been to Ethiopia, Libya and Rome. Unfortunately I can’t explain more yet but I guess that is a good reason to stay tuned.

View of the Arts: If you could change one thing in the world what would that be?

MP: I would exile the inequality in our world in a very broad perspective.

* 2005 – Full of smiles and mines – Cambodia
* 2005 – The American Dream – New-York
* 2006 – The Shadow side of a metropolis – Rio de Janeiro
* 2006 – Heideroosjes in Japan
* 2007 – Chapter Eight, Golden State – Hollywood
* 2007 – Surviving On God’s Guidance – Zambia
* 2008 – Millenniumwar – Holland
* 2008 – Ethiopia on Wheels – Ethiopia
* 2008 – Nothing About Us – Ethiopia
* 2009 – L1mburg Helpt (TV documentary series)- Romania, Uganda, Congo, Brazil, Peru, India.
* 2010 – The Voice of 650 Million Times One – Kenya, Vietnam
* 2010 – It’s Noy Always About Succes – Netherlands, Wales
* 2010 – My Name is MAX, Netherlands
* 2010 – Building Dreams in Darkness, India
* 2011 – Route 15, (TV documentary series)- Brazil, Mali, Sierre Leone, Suriname, Kenya, India, Pakistan, Filipijnen
* 2011 – Down the Lane, Kenya, Canada
* 2012 – L1mburg Helpt (TV documentary series), Nicaragua, Ethiopië, Peru, Indonesië, Kenia, Armenië.
* 2012 – By Choice or Chance, Vietnam
* 2013 – Retour, Netherland, Spain

Interviewed by Maggie Gogler.

Edited by Roxy Simons.

Picture courtesy of Janpath.

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