Interview with Rafiki-coproducer Ruben Thorkildsen: Sometimes I dream of being a potato farmer
“Film producing is an incredibly complex job, but that is what I love about it,” said Norway’s Ape & Bjørn producer Ruben Thorkildsen, who will present Rafiki in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes International Film Festival
At this year’s Cannes International Film Festival (8-19 May) he will present Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki, aka Friend, which he and his company Ape & Bjørn co-produced with Cape Town’s Big World Cinema. The first Kenyan film to screen on the Côte d’Azur is a coming-of-age tale of two girls, the daughters of political opponents, who fall in love and find their identity and dreams compromised by a conservative society.
Controversy in Kenya
Kahiu’s second feature has been selected for the Un Certain Regard sidebar, and it has already stirred up some controversy in its home country, where it has been banned because it “promotes lesbianism,” violating Kenyan law prohibiting gay sex. “I hope that the film will get a lot of attention and actualise the fact that there are countries which defend laws and attitudes that are completely outdated,” said Thorkildsen.
His interest in film increased when he was 20 – “it was a good time for American indies, and also for Danish movies, which helped me to think that Nordic movies were good, too. I remember Norwegian director Arild Østin Ommundsen’s Mongoland (2001) was inspiring. Three years later I went all in, and since then I have been working on movies every day. I started on a short film production to get an understanding of what it meant.”
Knew what I went into
“I have always seen myself as a producer and never thought of other roles in the industry. I went to the Norwegian Film School in Lillehammer, and since I had already worked on student productions at the school, I knew pretty much what I went into. Many of the other students are now well-established filmmakers, and when I left I started the production company Ape & Bjørn with Norwegian producer Pål Røed, who was part of the network I got at the school.
“I also met Martin Lund, we became friends, and we made our graduation film together. Already then we understood that we should continue our cooperation – we had developed an understanding of how we could get the best out of each other when working on a project. Most of my experiences in the industry I have made with him, so we have ended up having the same thoughts about things, he is an exciting and inspiring person to work with.
Strange company name
“We are now partners in Ape&Bjørn – I think from the beginning we wanted to make our own enterprise. A year before film school I worked for Tordenfilm, which was also a company instigated by former film school students, so I probably thought that was the way to do it. The name of Ape&Bjørn (Monkey & Bear) is strange, you think? That is a well-kept secret which I do not think I will disclose here.
“Most of out Norwegian productions are suggested to us by filmmakers we already collaborate with, or by other directors we weant to work with. Also people will come to us with projects which they want us to consider, and obviously we also have our own ideas which we try to pursue. Our foreign co-productions – such as Rafiki - usually reach us, because we are recommended by a company in our international network.
Motivated by gut feeling
“Personally I am strongly motivated by my own gut feeling – and I need to really fell that I can fight for a project during the years it takes to realise it-. I want to know the reason why to start on something which will last several years. Also who is this writer or director? Is there a good chemistry between us, can we both get something out of working together. It is crucial that they have a distinctive character, one way or the other – I want there to be a strong personal vision that I can take part in.
“In production my main interests have always been to instigate a project and develop it – to work with the writer and the director. All movies are different and have their own prerequisits for a good performance, there is no formula that can be applied to them all – I like the hunt for for X-Factor. But sometimes I dream of being a potato farmer – film producing is an incredibly complex job, but that is what I love about it; however, potatoes seem much simpler.
“Right now we are truly busy. Norwegian director Jørn Utkilen’s Vann over ild (Lake over Fire) will open in Norway on 4 June, and we are finishing Lund’s Psychobitch, which will premiere on 11 January. We are also filming Norwegian director Jannecke Systad Jacobsen's Hjelperytteren (The Domestique), and working on a new NRK series, Kvinner&Cava (Women&Cava), created by Karin Dahlstrøm and Thorkild Schrumpf. Most recently we have joined German director David Wnendt’s international production of The Sunlit Night, which is currently filming in New York, but will soon continue in Norway. Burt we have a lot of exciting projects in development which we hope to realise in the coming years.”