Mike Downey • Producer and chairman of the European Film Academy
“If cinema is our most powerful art form, feature and documentary films are both its beating heart and its conscience”
by Marta Bałaga
- After receiving an honorary award at Stockfish, the “old friend of Iceland” broke down his career and the role of the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk
Mike Downey OBE is a producer and the chairman of the European Film Academy, as well as being one of the founding board members of the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (ICFR). He has just been feted at the Stockfish Festival, where he received an honorary award and introduced Fatmir Koci’s The Rise & Fall of Comrade Zylo [+see also:
interview: Fatmir Koci
film profile], which he co-produced and co-wrote.
Cineuropa: The Stockfish directors called you “an old friend of Iceland” [see the interview]. Can you tell us a little bit more about this connection?
Mike Downey: In 2000, I launched Film and Music Entertainment (FAME UK) with my German partners – the aim was to create a unique Anglo-Irish production house that would collaborate with Europe in a creative and meaningful way. In the early noughties, I began collaborating with the “godfather” of Icelandic cinema, Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, and his producing partner Anna Maria Karlsdottir. I co-produced Icelandic films and brought my own productions to Iceland to shoot, notably Guy X, starring Jason Biggs and Natasha McElhone. Daring cross-border activity within the company is its life blood: not just mainstream Europe, but also the likes of Georgia, Albania and Serbia, as well as Latin America and Africa.
As a producer, what are you usually attracted to? It seems that you really pay attention to the filmmakers.
My work as a filmmaker has seen projects developed with novelists James Ellroy, the late Günter Grass and Thomas Keneally [Schindler’s List], as well as directors Agnieszka Holland, Oliver Hirschbiegel, Volker Schlöndorff, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Peter Greenaway, Paweł Pawlikowski, Juraj Jakubisko and Stephen Daldry. With some of them, I have producing relationships that go back as far as last century.
My favourite experience as a producer is hard to nail down, but there are certain aspects and elements of my work that I am particularly proud of. High on the list would be the four movies I have made in collaboration with the Isango Ensemble in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township, which creates performances with a strong South African flavour by re-imagining Western theatre classics. It also brings me back to theatre, which is where I started.
Do established institutions such as the European Film Academy – or even the ICFR – have more responsibilities now? What are you focusing on?
I made it clear that I wanted my chairmanship to be marked – alongside our commitment to positioning European cinema – by a commitment to supporting filmmakers at risk, working towards a gender-balanced future and bringing the academy into the active world of sustainability.
Film is essential to a healthy and democratic society – that’s why it’s feared by the autocrats. With civil society in danger around the world, filmmakers are increasingly struggling to make their voices heard. The world has seen a growing number of them being threatened, arrested, imprisoned and even killed, and we created the ICFR because, to date, the response of the film community to these cases has been deeply fragmented. It isn’t hard to engage people for some things, but for others it is: Ukraine is easier than Myanmar, for instance. We are now going through approximately 400 applications for support for film-industry workers in Ukraine who have been badly affected by the war. All in all, we have managed to distribute almost €500,000. ICFR stands by the Ukrainian film community, and the Ukrainian people, in such trying times.
If cinema is our most powerful art form, I would argue that feature and documentary films are both its beating heart and its conscience. It’s more important than ever to come together to speak up for and support these filmmakers, here and around the world. This is our trump card, so to speak, a vehicle for disseminating truths about climate and sustainability.
What is your main interest today? Or perhaps your next goal?
Alongside producing films by extraordinary artists, my personal goal is to finish the literary trilogy I began with the novel Istria Gold. It has been an extraordinary pleasure to engage in solitary work, after crossing continents with the armies that are required to make movies. The fundamental difference between making a film and writing a book is control. Producers and directors think they are in control, but making movies is a relentless series of choices and accidents. It’s probably the most infuriating way of creating a work of art. With the novel, however, it’s me who is in control, unequivocally. Not the money. Not the demanding lead actor. Not the needy director or the passive-aggressive accountant.
Also, the most important subject for change in 2023 is climate change. As European filmmakers, we often perceive ourselves as outspoken progressives, expressing our love for the planet and disdain for those polluting it. Well, the very acts of film production, sales, marketing, distribution and all aspects of [the industry’s] international nature are contributing vastly to climate change. We need to start doing something about it instead of talking about it, and we must act collectively and fast. We surely can think of a time, in the not-too-distant future, when people may choose to watch something based on whether it was made sustainably or not. Stranger things have happened.
If we don’t get to grips with climate change, there will be no Europe, no European film industry, no European Film Academy, no European Film Academy members, and indeed no people, for that matter, to defend.
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