Taking an unconventional path

18 Mar 2019 By Media Super Team

Award-winning filmmaker, Ivan O’Mahoney, has been making documentaries since 1999. We found out how he started and what drives him.

Ivan took an unconventional path to becoming a filmmaker. He studied international law thinking he’d end up working for the United Nations (UN), joined a peacekeeping mission, then became a lawyer. So how did this get him to where he is today? ‘I wanted to believe in the UN system,’ he tells us. ‘Then, during my studies, the war in Yugoslavia erupted and as military service was mandatory in the Netherlands where I grew up, I enlisted. Being seconded to the UN was an extraordinary chance to see what I’d been studying in action, but I became rather disillusioned. The corruption was rife.’ Worse, because of political pressures he often wasn’t able to act on what he saw; however, he also witnessed journalists working in the region who were not bound by such restrictions. ‘In hindsight, they planted the seed that started my filmmaking journey,’ he says. 

After that experience, and four years as a corporate lawyer, he wanted a job that would satisfy his combined interests in travel, culture, justice and matters of war and conflict; not one stifled by bureaucracy or driven by agendas or financial interests. ‘It dawned on me that that meant a career in journalism, which later morphed into filmmaking,’ he tells us.

Using his skills

Ivan originally planned on being a war correspondent but tells us how his plans changed when he was handed a camera early on in his journalism degree. ‘I instantly fell in love with the filmmaking process. I could do as many interviews as any ‘on air’ reporters and I realised I preferred long-form storytelling.’

His previous training has certainly not gone to waste though, having been sent to Colombia, Iraq, The Congo, South Sudan, Azerbaijan and Angola. ‘Places where saying or doing the wrong thing could get you killed,’ he adds. ’Defusing an explosive situation is probably the most important skill I picked up in the UN Military Police’ As for law, he continues, ‘Filmmaking is riddled with legal issues like contracts, intellectual property, finance, tax, defamation, etc. There isn’t a day I don’t use that background in one way or the other.’

Any tips for aspiring filmmakers? ‘I would strongly encourage them to get their heads around the dark art of producing as much as directing. Otherwise you’ll be anything but an independent filmmaker, forever depending on lawyers, producers, accountants, etc. You don’t need to be able to do everything but you do need an understanding of legal and financing matters, enough for informed conversations with producers or advisors.’ 

Does he have a preference for writing, directing or producing? ‘They all have challenges and require different skills,’ he says. ‘I enjoy the creative side of filmmaking, but it can be just as exciting getting a show funded.’ 

Finding the ideas

Ivan says the ideas themselves often come from conversations, reading or tip-offs but adds, ‘It’s about much more than just finding a subject. How’s the film going to feel and look? Is it for television or cinema? Is it presenter-led or character-driven? Should it entertain or educate? The kernel of an idea’s easy. It’s much harder to whip it into a commissionable shape, while maintaining your integrity.’

‘Being a documentary maker is an extraordinary privilege, but it can come with serious responsibilities and consequences. I find it easier to make films about people whose opinions I despise, as the boundaries are so clear.’ Ivan explains. ‘It’s much harder making films about people you greatly respect, especially if they aren’t really “letting you in”. It’s a balancing act. If you go too hard you risk losing access or even a friendship. If you go too soft, you feel like you aren’t getting to any greater truths.’ 

As Ivan has worked in various countries, we wondered which ones he would recommend, and why. ‘For formatted and reality TV shows, the Netherlands is great,’ he tells us. ‘It’s the original home to shows like Big Brother and The Voice, and they all speak English. What I loved about the UK on the other hand is that no-one cares where you’re from; only if you can you deliver a great project. I’d encourage all young filmmakers to go there for a couple of years as the standards are high and there’s much more content created there than in Australia. America also attracts a lot of talent, but for documentary it’s harder to get a break there than in the UK or Australia. Australia’s a really good place to work but you have to be prepared to work mostly on locally-focused content.’

Some light relief

Ivan has won many industry awards for his hard-hitting docos. These include Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Awards, Walkley Awards and even Amnesty International Awards (for Hitting Home, Go Back To Where You Came From, The Boys From Baghdad High, to name a few). However, he’s also recently produced (and won more awards for) a couple of films about much lighter subject matter – musical stage shows. ‘I’ve always loved the theatre, and these projects were unlike anything else we’d made before. Such a great experience. We were making Hitting Home (about domestic violence) at the same time as Matilda & Me (on Tim Minchin and a very empowered young lady), so it was terrific to be able to move between the two projects and remind myself that despite the constant depravity we were witnessing, there’s plenty of beauty in the world.’ He sums it up by saying, ‘It’s good to balance the dark with some light.’