Every Person Has A Story: An Interview With Documentary Filmmaker Susanne Dollnig

June 19, 2014

Documentary filmmaker Susanne Dollnig

NYFA: Hello Susanne, to get started, would you mind telling us a little bit about your background and what drew you to documentary filmmaking?

Susanne Dollnig: I was born and raised in a small city in Salzburg, Austria. I got interested in filmmaking during high school, when we were allowed to do a short film project with professional guidance. From then on, I knew that filmmaking is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I studied at the University of Applied Sciences in Salzburg, where I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Digital Television. During my studies, I discovered my love for documentary filmmaking. My thesis film Vestiges of a Language was a documentary about Ladins, a linguistic minority in South Tirol, Italy trying to keep their culture alive.

NYFA: What attracted you to NYFA’s documentary program and inspired you to make the move from Austria to New York City?

SD: After my studies in Austria, I worked for different production companies and TV stations in Munich, Germany and Salzburg, Austria. My studies at the University of Applied Sciences provided me with a great basic knowledge of film and television production and post production, but I had a feeling that my education was not complete just yet.

After one month traveling through the United States, I was also visiting New York City and saw the New York Film Academy advertisements. Something told me I had to look into this. When I got back home to Austria, I started researching the school and the different programs it had. I was very pleased to find out that they offered a documentary program, since that was what I wanted to specialize in. That the program was a 1-year intensive program was also very appealing to me. Since I already had a basic knowledge of the filmmaking business I felt a further education, which was one year, would be a great fit for me. When I applied and got accepted I was thrilled, there was no hesitation on making the move and I was very excited to start a new chapter of my life in New York City.

NYFA: What was the most important lesson you learned while at NYFA that you continue to apply to your current work and career goals?

SD: There are so many lessons I learned at NYFA, which I apply daily at my work.

If I have to pick one I would say, one of my favorite things about the documentary program was the variety of teachers, with different backgrounds, different expertise, different teaching methods and different storytelling approaches. Getting to know this variety is helping me greatly in my job as an editor today. At the post production studio, House of Trim, we work on many different types of projects, the range goes from commercials to documentaries. With every new project you have to switch up your creative thinking fitting to the clients/directors vision. Having learned at NYFA how people approach the creative process in different ways, I can utilize this and apply it on a variety of projects.

NYFA: How has NYFA’s philosophy of “learning by doing” influenced both your education and current work?

SD: At NYFA in the documentary program you work on your own project in so many different roles; you produce, you direct, sometimes you do camera and/or sound, you edit…and you also work on your classmates’ projects as a cinematographer, doing sound, being a production assistant, etc.

The amount of work experience you gain in just one year of studying at NYFA is enormous. The fact that NYFA is so “hands-on” in every possible aspect of film production is one of the most valuable characteristics of the program. With this much experience during one year, I had my successes in what I wanted to achieve, but I also made a lot of mistakes, which is a very important part in learning a craft. This is the best preparation for your future work environment. You were able to make those mistakes already, which you would not want to happen on your job. At NYFA I learned how to deal with making mistakes, accepting them and most importantly learning from them.

NYFA: What is your personal philosophy regarding documentary filmmaking and what do you aim to achieve in the medium. How has this philosophy manifested itself in your thesis film Just Passing By?

SD: My personal philosophy regarding documentary filmmaking is that every person has a story to tell. Ordinary people have the most extraordinary lives. I believe that you just need to turn around and talk to the person who sits right next to you on the subway and you will find the most interesting story.

This was exactly the premise for my thesis film Just Passing By. You don’t have to be a famous actor, singer, activist, or politician to be recognized. With my documentary work I want to show how every single person is a valuable part of society with sorrows and wisdom living ordinary life.

NYFA: Just Passing By utilizes a unique premise—placing a table with two chairs and a coffee table in various locations around NYC to engage in conversation with people you might not otherwise engage with. What was your goal in creating the film and do you feel that goal was achieved?

SD: As I believe that everyone has a story to tell, my goal with making this film was to demonstrate the variety of incredible stories in ordinary people. I needed to set up an environment were people can get comfortable. I decided on an Austrian coffee table, since I am Austrian and a big part of my culture is the “coffee house culture” where you sit for hours over a cup of coffee and philosophize about life.

By setting up the table I did not have to wait long until people were willing to sit down with me and have a conversation. I got told the most fascinating stories of people from all walks of life, young and old from all corners of the world.

Right now Just Passing By is participating in an Online Film Festival “We Speak, Here”.

You can watch it here: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/51044/Just-Passing-By

NYFA: Were there any films, directors, or other inspirations that helped influence the concept behind Just Passing By?

SD: There are many films and directors that inspired and influenced me in doing this project. One of the first documentary series that I was very fond of was a series called Wir sind Österreich (We are Austria). It was a series of portraits on Austrian artists, athletes and musicians, these four- to five- minutes portraits were so sincerely done on how they portrayed these individuals, that I was inspired to do my documentaries in similar manner.

One part of documentary filmmaking is doing your research; what films are out there, what has been done before and how? During the production of Just Passing By I was researching many films about interviewing ordinary people and every film was very valuable for understanding what I wanted to achieve with my film. These were films from Chronicle of a Summer, by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch, Talking Heads by Krzysztof Kieslowski to The Interview Project by David Lynch.

NYFA: One of the first films you completed after graduating is called ASEXUALLIFE about a female dancer who does not experience sexual desire, a condition that 1% of the human population has. What drew you to such an original and fascinating topic? What did the process teach you about the collaborative process of documentary filmmaking?

SD: The short documentary ASEXUALLIFE was a collaboration of NYFA documentary graduates. We got together to participate in the 2014 International Documentary Film Challenge, where you make a documentary within five days. The DocChallenge gives you a theme and a genre that you have to make your documentary in. We were assigned a Character Study with the theme “Behind the Curtain.” After many different ideas, our director Bianca Zanini suggested the topic of asexuality, which is not commonly known. Within half a day we found our character Caroline “Bauer” McClave, who was so kind to let us shed some light on what asexuality is.

This challenge was a very intense experience because making a documentary in five days puts you under a lot of pressure. One of the things I learned in this collaborative process was to trust my colleagues with their part of the work, so I can focus on my part of the work. I like to have control over productions and always have to have an overview on what is going on. We chose our team beforehand and I knew I was going to work with very talented people, so during this project I was actually able to let go of some of the things I wanted to manage, because I knew they were in good hands. And it paid off: ASEXUALLIFE was one of 12 finalists from over 100 entries and got to be screened at HotDocs Canadian International Documentary Festival, which is one of the most important documentary film festivals.

NYFA: As you are originally from Salzburg, Austria, would you ever consider making the move back to Austria to pursue your passion for documentary filmmaking?

SD: I have a great job at the Postproduction Studio House of Trim and I get to work on so many interesting projects. I can see myself staying there for a long time. Also through studying at the NYFA documentary program I have a solid network of other documentary filmmakers to work on different documentary projects as well. But, you never know what the future holds; four years ago I could not have imagined that I would be living and working in New York City. Austria is where my roots are and if the opportunity presents itself I can definitely see myself going back home one day, but at the moment my life is here in New York City.

NYFA: Any parting words of advice that you would care to impart to individuals considering a career in documentary filmmaking?

SD: Documentary filmmaking is a wonderful profession, you get to meet many different people, travel the world and experience different ways of living. Always be honest and sincere about your intentions and your work. Be open-minded and listen to your subjects with care and respect and you can find true beauty in individuals telling their stories.