Amsterdam Focus: Mea Dols de Jong
Mea Dols de Jong makes people cry – not only has she become a go-to director for brands wanting ads that provoke tears, she’s making other directors pretty lachrymose at the speedy rise of her career. This was kicked off by a graduation film that attracted plaudits, a signing and commercial work by exploring the average woman’s most significant struggle for freedom – independence from mother.
Still under 30, Amsterdam native Mea Dols de Jong is enjoying the sort of vertical career trajectory that must have other young directors gnashing their teeth. As well as scooping multiple awards, including best short documentary at Slamdance for her graduation film, she’s been named one of Variety’s top 10 European directors to watch, and, having been snapped up by local production company 100% Halal, is building a strong commercial reel. “I’ve been really lucky,” she says modestly of her stratospheric rise. “It was kind of a snowball effect.”
It all started with If Mama Ain’t Happy, Nobody’s Happy, a docu-drama exploring notions of female independence across four generations of Dols de Jong’s family, through the prism of her own relationship with her mother. “It’s almost two films within one,” explains Dols de Jong. “There’s the scripted film, the one I, as a filmmaker, wanted to make – and then the ‘real’ film, where my mum goes off-script. That’s the interesting part, because it’s where our relationship really starts showing.”
A relationship film with relatability
Intercutting footage from old family photos and videos with interviews, If Mama Ain’t Happy, Nobody’s Happy is by turns nostalgic, poignant and slyly humorous, an all-too-relatable portrait of the awkward transition, in relationship terms, from a dependent child to an equal, and all the accompanying guilt and exasperation that entails. No wonder then that it has struck such a chord with viewers – at the premiere, middle-aged men were coming up to Dols de Jong in tears, “crying about how they recognised themselves”.
Dols de Jong was always destined for a life in film: her father, Ate de Jong, is also a director and she spent much of her early childhood on sets, shuttling between Amsterdam and Los Angeles. Her own career began with a starring role in popular Dutch TV series Gooische Vrouwen aged 17. But after getting a degree in philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, she decided to move behind the camera and won a place at the prestigious Nederlandse Filmacademie where she graduated in 2014 with her award-winning short.
The mother of invention
Initially drawn to fiction, Dols de Jong switched tack for her graduation piece, which started out as a documentary on modern female emancipation. Wrestling with “all these questions in my head” she asked her mother for advice – and suddenly realised here was her angle.
“I thought, I’m trying to make a film about independent women, but when it doesn’t work out, I go to my mum. What does that say about my own independence? By zooming in on that small thing – how does a daughter become independent from her mother? – I thought I could explore a bigger theme, about independent women in general.”
The film’s success came as a surprise: “It sounds a bit clichéd but I never really thought about the fact other people were going to watch it.” What was her mother’s reaction? “At first she didn’t say anything… and then a few days later, she was sitting there like this [arms folded and scowling] and said ‘It’s actually quite critical of me!’ But then we had a good chat about it all. When you’re touched by a documentary, it touches you deeper than a fictional film,” she continues. “It has a special quality, and if you know how to work with that you can achieve a lot.”
Since signing to Halal, Dols de Jong has certainly brought this emotional nous to her fledgling commercial career. Mother’s Day, an online film for C&A where she interviewed passers-by in Spain, Holland and Germany about their mums was a viral sniffle-fest, while Why Stop Setting Goals?, a sweet 30-second spot for education providers LOI, documented the responses of children aged three to sixteen, plus an adult, to the question “What would you like to become?” There are plenty of would-be pirates, astronauts, psychologists and vets – but inevitably, the grown-up is left stumped by the question.
“If they [brands] want people to cry within 30 seconds, they call me!” she laughs of the emotionally charged scripts that are constantly winging her way. However, she’s anxious not to be pigeon-holed, and particularly not as a feminist director. “Of course, it would be great to approach female products in a relatable way, but I also can’t wait to get a call to direct the most traditionally masculine commercial ever, for beer or a car. [Feminism] is not my main thing. And I would hate to be put in that box. It’s like saying a black person can only make films about racism.”
So far, Dols de Jong’s commercial work hasn’t strayed far from her documentary roots, but ultimately, she hopes to move into more visual storytelling. “Some commercial directors keep on reinventing themselves,” she muses, “and that would be my ambition. You find your niche, but you’re still brave enough to set new goals. I think that’s the only way to stay creative.”
This article was published on Shots, March 15th 2017, visible to their subscribers only.
Interview by Selena Schleh
Portrait by Elza Jo