Case Study: Sjeemte Floris Ramaekers made a confronting film about hidden illiteracy.
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Case Study: Sjeemte

Floris Ramaekers made a confronting film about hidden illiteracy.

Functional illiteracy is more common than people think, Floris Ramaekers found out. He decided to make a revealing film about the consequences this shortcoming can have on people. The London-based director from Maastricht tells us all about creating Sjeemte.

"The hardest part of editing I find is to strike the right balance of exposition: how much do you tell the audience and how much will they have to learn themselves."

03 september 2021

Stunned by illiteracy

"The idea for Sjeemte (Mother Tongue) came to me whilst visiting Maastricht, the city I grew up in. I’ve been working as a director in London (UK) for a decade (give or take a year) and had been searching for a project to film back in Limburg for a while. That particular visit when I was home, my parent’s elderly neighbour had just passed away, and they had been catching up with her daughter, who works for a charity promoting literacy in local libraries. When my parents filled me in on what Ivette Sprooten (Cubiss Limburg) did for a living I was shocked. 

The functional illiteracy levels in the areas I grew up in were stunningly high, to the point where I didn’t believe the figures. From that moment on I was intrigued, and after some enquiry, decided I wanted to write a short film on the subject matter. The anecdotes detailing the harrowing experience of people suffering from functional illiteracy, and the ingrained generational shame that comes with the territory, inspired me to write Sjeemte – where I wanted to create a single moment in time - a scene that would show this extreme denial around functional illiteracy that I had come across.

The script itself went through a few iterations, perhaps five drafts or so, where I homed in ever more closely on the actual premise and the thematic structure of the short film. Throughout the different iterations of the screenplay, I was in touch with Reinier Selen, the producer, and he would just offer me his thoughts, without really influencing me or pushing me in a direction I didn’t want to go.

In a way, Reinier would sense-check that whatever I was trying to accomplish, the script indeed accomplished (or not). That allowed me to structure the intent of the narrative very clearly. In the end I pretty much shot exactly what was on the page (yet lost a few chunks in the edit that didn’t work). But as the short film is very much about the internal life of the lead character – Candide’s unspoken shame of her functional illiteracy, all of the action and dialogue - her interaction - is about the fact that she is hiding something, therefore, you can’t really change the script too much as all of the behavioural nuances have to be exact in order for the audience to witness it."

Lead actress found through Facebook

"Preparing for production was quite fun – I’ve always enjoyed this process. As Reinier Selen was based in Amsterdam and I in London, we had to find a line producer who would start pre-pro in Maastricht and Zuid-Limburg. We found a gem of a guy: Yorn Heijne, who started getting things in order for us when I was still in the UK. I believe I came back to the Netherlands about three weeks before shooting, in the middle of the pandemic, so that I and Yorn could work together.

Pre pro was fun – going around different locations in a middle of a pandemic and trying to find a way to feed people on set whilst adhering to all of the restrictions (quite strict ones at that moment in time) put in place by the government was quite the task. I remember three days before we started filming the government actually introduced a bunch more restrictions – and we had some crew members drop out of concern for their safety. But Yorn was on it and quickly found replacements. A lot of the technical crew were introduced to us via the DOP Joris Bulstra, a childhood friend of mine I grew up making little films with as children and teenagers, and with whom I was delighted to work with once again after many years of separation. These guys had been filming all throughout the pandemic and weren’t phased in the least.

The casting process was different from my usual experience. Coming from the UK, where there are big structures in place to find even the most obscure casting requirements, did not exist in Limburg. I was naively shocked that I had to really start asking around to find actors that fit the requirements of the parts. I found Jochum Ten Haaf quite quickly through seeing his performance in another Cinesud short film, and being very impressed with him, Reinier immediately approached his agent for me.

Luka Kluskens however, we literally found through a Facebook post Joris (the DOP) had put out. It’s quite hard to find young actors that can speak fluent dialect that also fulfil all of the other requirements of the part – there isn’t really a talent pool for that. We had been getting self-tapes through from all different kinds of channels and when Luka was suggested to us on Facebook I literally had to chase her a bit to get a self-tape… in which she really delivered of course! We did a couple of rehearsals via Zoom and when we settled on Luka playing the lead the rest fell into place. There is also a baby in the film, and one of my parent’s acquaintances’ daughters had just had her second child. Baby Meis was perfect for the part and her mother was kind enough to cooperate with us on this production."

Camaraderie, tweaking the edit and making music

"The production itself was a fun experience for me. Of course, there was stress whilst shooting, like losing all daylight in the afternoon because it was the dead of winter. But the general atmosphere was unlike anything I had experienced in a while. Filming in Limburg had a somewhat freeing effect on me. Even though the industry is small, the people involved are all so extremely enthusiastic in ways that are hard to find in London, where the fact that it’s a real industry brings with it good work ethics but less of the camaraderie of the likes I found in Limburg. 

Our schedule was tight but I think we overshot the schedule only on one of the three days. That was when we filmed the longest scene of the film and the baby is in this scene throughout, which can always have a bit of an unpredictability factor.

Sjeemte was funded through Limburg film office, Cinesud, Cubiss Limburg and a handful of private investors. Once Cubiss came on board, I felt like I had a real chance at getting the short film made. As Cubiss is the organisation dealing with functional illiteracy in the region, it created a sense of legitimacy around the short film that really helped pull all forces together. Of course, after Limburg Film Office decided to support the production, we knew we could really make the film.

As the editing was done back in London, I did most of it myself, alongside the help of London based editor Rachel Hayes. The edit did go through some iterations, as I had decided to ditch some of the material we filmed that was really not essential to the story. Much of the editing process was actually about the same process as rewriting the script – focussing on the premise and ditching everything that doesn’t serve the structure or the right point of view.

I believe I must’ve done about eight cuts, not varying massively after the second or third, but just making little tweaks that make a bigger difference than one might think. The hardest part of editing I find is to strike the right balance of exposition: how much do you tell the audience and how much will they have to learn themselves, and in effect; at which point do you therefore kill the interest in the narrative or actually nurture the audience’s curiosity. Showing it to other collaborators on this project like the production company Rinkel Film, who tested the edits on people who knew nothing of the story, really helped with this process.

The music was also an area where I had great fun. As my father is a musician I love to drag him into my projects. This time it was the music for the end sequence of Sjeemte. I had a very distinct feeling in mind and sent him a bunch of references. I then sat right beside him as the two of us tinkered on his keyboard – I probably greatly annoyed him. After a lot of back and forth he got a sense of what I wanted and he locked down a melody I was happy with. We then recorded a cellist friend of my father’s, playing the actual melody that you can currently hear in the short film."

Watch this short at Shift Film Festival

September 17-19, online.

Tickets & more info.

Festival selections

"Most of the postproduction was done in London, as my connections are based here. The colour grade, sound design and 5.1 mix were all done in London by people and postproduction facilities I usually work with anyway. The DCP itself was also created by a company here, but doing some research I do know that there are solutions like ‘easy DCP’ which allow filmmakers that don’t have access to postproduction facilities to create their own DCP’s and quality check them. I even think Davinci Resolve (of which there is a free version) has the capacity to create a DCP.

Rinkel Film took the reins in deciding a festival strategy for the film. They’ve submitted the film into festivals that they figured appropriate, many of which we don’t know whether we’ve been accepted or not as of this moment and are still waiting for the results. Having said that, Sjeemte will have its ‘avant’ premiere at Shift Festival and its main premiere at NFF 2021. It has also been accepted at Braunschweig Film Festival and we hope it will show at more on our festival list."

Tips for other directors

"I'm not sure I’m the right person to be handing out tips for other directors, I think every creator’s situation is specific to their own position in life… But I did learn something valuable by making Sjeemte. I had left the Netherlands for the UK because I didn’t see myself fit in the creative landscape back home. 

This was true to a certain degree, but it felt incredible, perhaps even cathartic in some sense, to come back to my roots and really embrace the place where I was born creatively. I guess that’s more of an anecdote but if I were to phrase it like a tip I’d say something like; ‘don’t run away from who you are and where you come from creatively'."

(c) All visual material is used with the filmmaker's permission.

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