Sven Peetoom: “My films search for life in its purest form”

Interview by Carlos Alan Eperon Beltrán

Today we are starting a new series of talks with young and talented filmmakers from Rotterdam.

We are kicking off this series of interviews with Sven Peetoom, a 26-year-old filmmaker from Rotterdam who has already directed and written many short films and documentaries. In 2019, his project Samoeraai was part of the official RTM selection for the International Film Festival of Rotterdam. His latest short Fietsvakantie, a road movie about two friends on a cycling trip, is now touring around festivals in the country.

  • Hello Sven, how are you doing?

I’m doing okay! Although I must say this is not the best time of my life – sitting inside all the time – because of the corona crisis. I really miss the film sets, the cinema, the travelling, my friends and family.

  •  Has the current situation with COVID-19 affected the projects you were working on?

Yes, a lot of the commercial projects have been canceled. So I’m reliant on support from the government at the moment. I do have a small amount of work, and I’m writing a lot of new scripts. One of the newest projects which has been financed is a series for OPEN Rotterdam (the city broadcaster), which would be situated in the nightlife of Rotterdam. Since there’s basically no nightlife left in Rotterdam at the moment, the co-writer and co-director Chris de Krijger and I are rewriting the whole script to fit in corona times. The hardest part is actually not setting the film during this crisis, but filming and organising a whole shoot within the “1.5 meter society.”

  • When did you make your first short film?

When I was really young I used to write comics, and since my mother worked in street-theatre and children’s -theatre, I played a lot with her costumes and made up all kinds of stories. However my first “real” movie, which I co-directed with three classmates, was when I was 18, as an end project for our high school. The film got the first national prize at the NFFS (Netherlands Film Festival for highschool students). So we got to fly to Pyrgos, Greece, and attend a film festival and workshop there. It was really inspiring to meet like-minded people and see the film in the cinema. I guess the idea that I could be a filmmaker started there.

  • What kind of stories do you like to tell?

That’s a hard one. My stories usually start with an intense feeling or atmosphere. Something from the past or the present which I think is really important in some way, which I can’t explain rationally. I think art is a search for the sublime, for the things in life which make life worth living. However these things are as well beautiful and ugly. My films are a search for “life in its purest,” that’s the highest ambition anyway.

The films I end up making are the ideas which keep on coming back to me. The images I can’t get out of my head. Usually films without a lot of dialogue, with a focus on characters and atmosphere. No “clever” or “punch-line” films.

  • Your film Samoeraai, which has been well-received at many festivals around the Netherlands, reminds me of the British Social Realism cinema (which follows social issues in modern society). Has this genre ever served as influence on your projects? Are the characters and story of Samoeraai completely made up or did you get inspired by real life?

The film is mostly autobiographical, based on some of my own memories which I then dramatised. I like the comparison, I love some of the British Social Realism films. It was not a direct influence but I could see how films like KES for instance or the short film JERRYCAN indirectly influence my work. I like following my characters and trying to get into their heads instead of forcing the audience into their perspective.

  • Your documentary Collectief follows young people who have built their own sustainable utopia’s in the Swedish woods and cities. How did you find these collectives and initiatives?

I made the film together with Myrte Rischen who lived in one of the collectives. Her contacts made it possible to make this film.

I started out being quite skeptical about these idealist communities:” If you’re living outside of normal society, you can’t make a change, since you’re just isolating yourself instead of changing what exists.” That was what I was thinking when we started . However, while I was filming, I became more and more impressed with these people. I love the idea that you don’t need any luxury, and that you can make most of your furniture yourself and plant your own food. These people tried to find an alternative to modern living, and they actually shared a lot of their knowledge with outsiders. And I can tell you that they looked a lot happier than the people I meet in the city.

  • You have worked commercially for many clients such as TU Delft, Tomorrowland and KPN. In the coming years are you going to pursue more of a commercial career or an independent creator career?

My dream is to work full time creatively. However since it’s not realistic to live from film grants (I end up putting my own fee back into the film in every project I make), I have to do some work on the side to pay the bills. The gear and skills I need for both kinds of careers overlap most of the time, so that’s fortunate. Currently, I’m happy that I end up investing most of my time and money in my creative endeavours. 

  • Together with some friends you founded Cinemannen, a film production company in Delft. Can you tell us more about the projects Cinemannen produced?

We started Cinemannen when we were all quite inexperienced. Doing a lot of gigs for TU Delft gave us the chance to develop ourselves in editing, camerawork and storytelling. I’m really grateful for the “real life film school” we got there. Now, the individual members mostly went their own ways. Floris is now working for the biggest festivals and DJ’s, and I’m making more arthouse stuff and documentaries.

Sven receiving a prize for Samoeraai – Best Dutch Short
  • If you were to produce a film for an international distributor such as Netflix, would the script be in English or in Dutch? Do you think films in the Dutch language can reach audiences from around the world? 

Hard question. I don’t think all my films will be necessarily in Dutch. I also directed films in Icelandic, Swedish and English. However, I know that there’s so much fucking potential in the Netherlands which doesn’t prosper internationally for some reason. Somewhere, a gear in our film industry is really broken since a lot of amazing young talented people don’t get to make films which are shown and distributed internationally. I really hope that with time we can build a solid foundation to start distributing more internationally from the Netherlands. In documentaries and children’s films it’s already happening. But arthouse and fiction? Not so much. I’m a firm believer that the potential is there though.

  • Rotterdam is home to one of the biggest film festivals in the country, but how do you see the filmmaking scene in the city compared to Amsterdam? 

Rotterdam is smaller than Amsterdam. I have the feeling it’s more tight-knit, everyone knows each other. In Amsterdam there’s a lot more going on. But I like that Rotterdam people overall have less pretentiousness and are less focussed on money or overall production value. It’s hard to say though, since the borders are blurry. I’m Rotterdam-born but I’ve also lived in many cities in the Netherlands, including Amsterdam. I think that the Netherlands is so small that the filmmaking world is going way beyond city borders. But there’s something like the “Rotterdam spirit” – raw hard work – which you can find in the filmmakers from the city.

  • In 2010 you starred in the short film Light, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival. Since then you have not worked as an actor anymore. Will we see you act in future films or are you going to mostly focus on the behind-the-scenes aspects?

It was a strange incident. My stepfather was directing a short film and he needed to fill a role which I applied for. Then suddenly we were walking the red carpet in Cannes, when I was only 16… I’m not really focused on acting in the last years, but I still think it could be a possibility in the future… who knows?

  • Can people find your films on the Internet?

Yes. My film Samoeraai is available for free on Cinetree:

Some of my other work is available on my website.

Samouraai – Teaser

Check out Sven Peetoom’s short film LOS on the online edition of ROOM’s Short Movie Night, streamed on The Day this is Over FM.

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