In the director’s chair: Mea Dols de Jong on avoiding being pigeon-holed as a female director and making authenticity cinematic

Mea Dols de Jong, Director, Halal

Continuing the director’s chair series, in which The Drum interviews directors on influences, passions and career highlights, Mea Dols de Jong, director at Halal, discusses why it is important to avoid being boxed in as a female director, the flux in the client/agency relationship and why she focuses on authentic stories told cinematically.

An earlier interview in the series saw Andrew Lang discuss funny moments in an Ikea ad and documentary making, while Camille Marotte discussed why the best jobs come from asking to shoot anamorphic and how having many skills, including being your girlfriend’s photographer, can influence a director’s style in another.

Who or what inspired you to be a Director? (or who are your creative heroes and why?)

I always wanted to tell stories. I studied philosophy with a minor in physics, which helped me develop my analytical powers. I still follow philosophy courses, it helps me to sharpen my thoughts about the world around me. In my films I try to find a balance between emotional expression and strong analyses.

While working as an actress I always looked at the director with great respect. I felt very inspired and I started making my own films while I was still in high school. I borrowed my fathers’ old camera and filmed my own stories, using everything I had at hand. My best friends were the actors and sometimes my little sister or 8-year old brother would handle the camera. It was one of the films that I made in this period that got me in to the Netherlands Film Academy (NFA).

Outside of work, what are you into?

I guess I am drawn to undertakings that help me understand the world around me. Reading for instance. I love good journalism. Philosophy is still something I’m very intrigued by, and I enjoy exploring that field even today. In a way, I guess filmmaking is my excuse to get to ask a lot of questions. So journalism and philosophy are definitely triggers from which these questions surface.

But the smaller everyday things like spending time with friends, having good conversation over a glass of wine, is sometimes the most inspiring.

How would you describe your style of commercial/film making? What are you known for?

What I truly love, and what unquestionably drives me, is realism. I want to portray real people, sharing real stories that provoke real emotion. My human centred approach definitely puts authenticity, empathy and genuine at the heart of everything I do. Exposing inter-human relations, and combining psychology with refined atmospheric aesthetics, has become my way to capture that realness. In commercial film making I guess this has often been translated into creating work that provoke an emotion (or tears, as some people say).

Have you got an idea about what sort of projects you’d like to work on or are you quite open minded about what work comes your way?

I am quite mindful to not being pigeon-holed, especially as a female director. It’s more about pushing boundaries and not limit myself to a label or put myself in a box. In my work there is a big crossover between documentary and fiction, and those are the borders I really like to challenge. The same goes for my commercial work, it definitely has strong roots in my documentary background, but I want to keep reinventing myself and I am definitely looking for projects that allow that type of progress.

When you’re looking at scripts and projects that come in, is there anything in particular that you’re looking for?

I am always hoping for genuine stories to be combined with a really good aesthetic and cinematic approach.

I’m always looking for ways to touch and connect with people, whether it’s comical or emotional, as long as it is something that touches, it’s good. In my opinion this has a lot to do with kindly showing people’s vulnerability. So any script that has these elements would be great for me.

What's your best piece of work?

My most recent documentary If Mama Ain’t Happy Nobody’s Happy is the one I’m the most proud of. It’s about my mother, and exploring notions of female independence across four generations in my family. Even though it won loads of awards that’s not the main reason why I think it’s my best work. It was a big personal accomplishment for me, and a turning point as a film maker. I hit such a low point in the process of making that film, and even when it was finished I had no idea what other people would think. But I remember sitting in the editing suite and thinking to myself “OK for me, this is a huge step”.

Which ad do you wish you'd made?

I really like The Guardian’s ‘Own the Weekend’. It is just brilliant. It has that genuine feeling to it, very fast edit, so well crafted, communicates an atmosphere – it ticks all the boxes for me.

How well does the information flow between client, agency and production company on a job?

The flow between these three parties is currently in flux and is changing fast. We are all trying to find new mechanism to push the work to the next level, and it will be interesting to see how these relationships will evolve. It is more open for exploring new ways of collaboration, which is always a good thing.

What's been the biggest change to the industry during you career?

Naturally, I find it interesting that there is currently room for combining documentary work with commercial work. It is a space which opens a lot of new ways of storytelling, and it is being defined at this very moment - it is an exciting time for people like me to get to be part of that evolution.

Charlotte McEleny

Charlotte McEleny is The Drum's Asia Editor, charged with finding all the interesting industry news and insights from the Asia Pacific region. During her year in Asia, she's covered topics as wide ranging as industry overwork to artificial intelligence, and interviewed top CMOs such as Alibaba's Chris Tung, and world famous creatives such as Rankin.

Based in Singapore, she travels the region regularly, attending and presenting at many top events, such as Spikes, Ad Week Asia and Innovfest.

Prior to her role as Asia Editor, she spent 10 years working across the London marketing trade magazines, even picking up an award for Best Digital Team at the PPA Digital Awards during her spell as digital editor at Marketing.

All by Charlotte