Jennifer Petterson / Podcast & documentary maker
“What is your story really about?”
After traveling the world chasing love and new experiences, documentary maker Jennifer Pettersson set down her roots in Amsterdam twenty years ago. Noticing the pressures her two young daughters faced at daycare and primary school, she questioned whether her family might be better off moving to Sweden. The experience led her to create the award-winning podcast series ‘Opgejaagd’, in which she dives deep into the Dutch and Swedish school systems and explores whether she should uproot her family to find a better future: “I learned that you need to find the compromise that you are most comfortable with.”
Interview & translation Inge Oosterhoff
Photography Jerome de Lint
You’re a documentary maker. Was that always your dream? I remember when I was little, I used to tell people that I wanted to become an artist and a journalist. We didn’t own a television when I was younger so I had actually never seen a documentary as a kid. But even though I studied art, I tended to make rather documentary and socially critical work. My teachers would often say, “I’m not sure that it’s art, but I like looking at it!”
Where did your interest in film come from? I got introduced to filmmaking at art school. I initially had no interest in film at all, but I ended up buying a video camera and took it everywhere with me. I was endlessly curious about other people’s lives and the camera gave me an excuse to observe shamelessly without having to take part. It became like a passport, that allowed me access anywhere.
You were born in Sweden. What made you move to The Netherlands? I didn’t necessarily plan on it. I wanted to study art but didn’t get into any art academies in Sweden. I then applied to art schools in Ireland, England and the Netherlands and got accepted to all of them. I Initially wanted to go to an English-speaking country, but I met a Dutch boy, and I decided to go the Rietveld Academy instead.
How did you experience moving to another country by yourself? I was 23 when I moved here and had been living on my own for years, so it didn’t daunt me. I’ve never gotten homesick for Sweden, but I do get homesick for being in nature. There is nature in the Netherlands, but it’s difficult to find real peace and quiet. I remember going to this beautiful nature reserve by the sea and hearing a strange noise, which turned out to be a racing course right next to the beach! I do feel at home in the Netherlands. And if I’d move back to Sweden now, I’d still be a bit of an outsider. I may be fluent in the language, but I know much more about recent developments in Dutch society than about what’s happening in Sweden. Here, people forgive me when I’m not entirely fluent or up-to-date. There, it might be considered a bit weird.
What’s the most important thing you learned at the Rietveld Academy? That you need to experiment. I had done a year of basic art training in Sweden and knew how to do anything from carving wood to screen printing, so I thought I had a head start. But knowing so much meant I didn’t experiment, which my teachers did not appreciate at all. I was pushed to step out of my comfort zone, and began experimenting at the audio-visual department. I had been completely intimidated by technology before, but I turned out to be pretty good at it. I ended up majoring in Audio-Visual Studies.
You graduated in 2002 with a film installation. Yet you didn’t continue along that path. Why was that? I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to make a living doing that. People don’t buy video installations, and the chances of becoming famous enough for the Stedelijk Museum to buy your work are very slim. I did get some attention from the art world but knew that I wanted to reach a bigger audience. I started making video documentaries and later switched to radio, although I like to believe that I still add an artistic touch to my work.
How did those first few years after graduation look like? I started freelancing but it was difficult to get assignments. To make a living, I had to take on other jobs. As a foreigner who did not speak Dutch very well, I only had access to the lowest jobs available. I waitressed at a restaurant and worked at Pathé cinema, cleaning up through-up and chasing little boys out of the theatre who tried to sneak in. I also had a job smelling things in a lab that tested odor nuisance. I’d have to smell different scents from factories to see when it became unbearable, or we’d go on field trips to meat factories. I barely had any time left to work on what I wanted to do.
That sounds awful. How long did it take you to get your feet on the ground? I’m not entirely sure, but it felt like an eternity. I was eventually commissioned to make a documentary about the Dutch tulip fields. I only got 5,000 euros for it and it took me a year, but I got free reign and I finally got to be creative again.
Around that time you also decided to leave The Netherlands. Why? I was living in a tiny apartment with a neighbor with Gilles the la Tourette on one side, a guy who would come home at three in the morning and play techno music living above me, and an oversensitive guy who would complain every time I typed on my computer in the apartment underneath me. I’d met an Israeli guy at the art academy who I’d started dating and decided that I could work from Israel as well.
A big move, again. How did you fare there? I traveled back and forth for a while and moved to Jerusalem in 2003. My relationship ended shortly after that as we had very different views of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I was very activist and would go to protests, which he did not appreciate. I eventually moved back to The Netherlands after 2,5 years.
How did your journey evolve? Back in The Netherlands I met my now husband, Jair, at a party and he asked if I would make a one-minute audio story for a radio program he was working on. I was giving one-minute video workshops for the Sandberg Institute at the time, so that seemed like a fun new thing to do.
I soon realized that radio was the perfect medium for a story about my experiences in Israel. It fascinated me how a complicated political conflict could affect an intimate relationship like that. But as a filmmaker, I struggled with the question of how to visualize my own side of the story. In audio I could use my own voice and diary entries. It became my first full length radio documentary, ‘A UFO in Israel’, about the different strategies people employ to live a semi-normal life within a war zone.
What did you find in audio that you didn’t in film? I thought radio would be very easy compared to filmmaking. I figured you just record some interviews, add a little music and sound, and you’re done. But it’s much more complicated than that! In audio, you have to create scenes from nothing, through sound and music and voice-over. You not only have to be a good observer, but a good writer and composer. And you have to rely on the imagination of the listener. That can be limiting, but it also makes it a wonderfully creative challenge.
As a Dutch radio maker you’re working with a language that isn’t your own. How did you cope with that? It was quite challenging in the beginning, and I’m still very conscious of it when I interview people. When I recorded in Sweden for ‘Opgejaagd’, it was such a relief to be able to work in my own language. I didn’t have to think so hard about what to say or second guess myself. Everything just flowed. Sometimes I still make grammatical mistakes in Dutch, and you can’t edit that out. But I’ve gotten used to working in Dutch now, it’s become second nature.
Tell us about the Podcast series Opgejaagd. I was set on raising my family in the Netherlands, but the issues I came across at my daughters’ school and daycare, made me seriously question whether they would be better off going to school in Sweden. In Sweden, school is much more focused on developing through play and creativity. Reading and writing starts around six or seven. Here, we expect children to sit still, listen, and work with immense discipline from age four, while constantly testing their skills. This doesn't enhance results, but does create a lot of frustration and anxiety. In Finland for example fear of failing amongst children is almost non-existent, while in the Netherlands one in ten children have performance anxiety. We also put immense pressure on teachers, which only increases stress in the classroom. All of this made no sense to me, but it felt like I was alone in feeling that way. Even my husband thought I was overreacting. The podcast series allowed me to investigate those concerns and show that really, these are issues that are systemic and affect teachers, parents and children alike. I approached the podcast as investigative journalist, including as many viewpoints and facts as a could, but what drove me was my desire as a mother to create a better childhood for my children.
What was your own childhood like? It’s funny, because ever since ‘Opgejaagd’, people seem to think I had this idyllic Swedish childhood.
Isn’t that the case? Not at all. I grew up in one of the worst districts of Gothenburg, with addicts on the street. My parents divorced when I was a baby and my mother worked fulltime, raising me and my two sisters alone. I was on my own a lot. I’d take three trams to school by myself, and when I came home, I had to prepare my own food I wore a key to our house around my neck. In Swedish, I would have been called a dandelion child. Someone who grows up and blossoms despite beingplanted in concrete.
When I was eleven, my mother moved back to Denmark, where she is originally from. My parents battled for custody and the judge allowed me to choose who I wanted to live with. I moved in with my dad and his new wife with one of my sisters. They lived on an island, Gotland, which was very idyllic. But my parents weren’t especially good at being parents to be honest.
How did that affect you? I became independent at an early age which has made me unafraid to go new places and try new things. But being independent can be isolating, feeling like you can and should take care of everything on your own. The first time I realized that was when we had our first child. I wanted to do everything by myself and never asked my husband Jair for help, even if I got overwhelmed. It didn’t even occur to me. I had to learn to delegate and accept assistance from others later in life. I’m much better at it now!
Did you inherit any positive qualities from your parents? My mother had always wanted to become an artist, but never got the chance, so she encouraged it in me. I always got brushes and paper and paint for my birthday or Christmas.
My father is a bit of a risk taker, which think I inherited. I tend to jump into things with lots of enthusiasm, only realizing later that it’s a bit more challenging than I thought. He got offered a job as a dentist in Africa and moved us to Tanzania and Kenia when I was fifteen. We stayed there for two years. For him, it was this big childhood dream, and I immediately jumped on board. My sister only grudgingly came with us. My stepmother stayed in Sweden. She never understood why we wanted to go.
What impact did that experience have on you? I might have become an aid worker if I hadn’t lived there. I have this great sense of justice and I remember protesting for the Free Namibia Movement and boycotting Shell to end Apartheid when I was younger. But in Africa, I quickly learned that aid workers are not all saints or heroes who selflessly help the poor. Everyone who goes there has their own agenda. There are also aid workers that are racist or become rich doing what they do. My father made more money there than he ever did in Sweden, tax free. He got a jeep, we had a cook, his daughters went to an international boarding school. I later made a documentary about aid workers in Sudan nspired by that premise.
Do you feel like you can express your desire for justice in the work you do now? Sometimes I wonder if the things I do have any impact at all. I mean, I don’t even listen to the radio documentary hour on Sunday every week, why would anyone else? I would work really hard on a story that I feel needs to be heard, and not know if anyone actually listened to it.
Did that change with ‘Opgejaagd’? Yes it did. Before, I’d be happy with 6.000 downloads, but at some point, I saw that an episode from Opgejaagd had hit 60.000. I received so many e-mails from listeners that it became impossible to answer all of them. I even got a letter from the head of radio at VPRO, saying I made radio mainstream. Before, I’d maybe get one e-mail from a listener, usually to ask what music I’d used!
You also founded the ‘Ouders Voor Goed Onderwijs’, a group of parents fighting for better education in the Netherlands. Does that make you feel like you can make a difference? I’m not sure. I got asked to join this particular group by a listener and I did, because I felt that apart from protesting for better wages and smaller classes for our teachers, we should also fight for a better educational experience for our children. After finishing ‘Opgejaagd’, I honestly considered becoming a fulltime activist, fighting for better education. But I feel like I might be better suited making documentaries about topics I care about than out on the street protesting.
What makes you say that? I feel much happier when I can just do my thing. Also, I find it quite stressful working with so many people. I used to be able to retrieve to my office and focus on my work. That was also my personal time. Now, I keep having to offer my opinion on things all the time. My inbox has exploded. I’m sort of a front figure as an activist, while I feel much more comfortable as an observer, standing on the sidelines.
Why do you think that is? I guess I’ve always been a bit of an outsider, looking in. I had a different upbringing than most children, with a very complicated family. In Africa I was an outsider, and coming back to Sweden, I felt different than everybody else again. I moved to another city by myself during my last two years of high school and rented the basement in the house of a ridiculously rich family who had a swimming pool and lived next to a golf course. I went to quite a posh school, but I wore clothes from the Red Cross because it was all I could afford. And I was an outsider in the Netherlands and Israel as well. I’ve lived in all these different worlds, observing what they were like but never truly becoming part of them. But being a critical observer is also what makes me a good documentary maker.
Have you ever been able to feel at home anywhere? I actually have this picture that I made at art school, of my palm with a “home” button from a keyboard in it. I guess that sort of represents my sense of home. A lot of my documentaries are about displacement. Stories about refugees, ex-prisoners, aid workers. I also tend to resonate with stories about big dreams that do not match with reality. People who chase these big dreams and once they get there, they realize it’s not as they thought it would be.
Is that representative of your own experiences? Maybe it is. I’m an idealistic person with very high expectations. Not necessarily of the people close to me, but definitively of myself and of the world at large. I guess that’s what led me to make ‘Opgejaagd’. I wasn’t satisfied with how things were and set on finding something better. But I realized that chasing that dream all the way to Sweden would also require major sacrifices from myself and my family. I guess I learned that you need to find the compromise that you are most comfortable with.
What else did you take away from making your podcast series? Apart from learning a lot about the Dutch school system, I learned that I cannot do everything by myself. Before starting out, I had planned to do absolutely everything on my own. Looking back, that’s ridiculous. I had assigned myself the amount of work that usually requires an entire team. I’m actually surprised that nobody called me out on that. In the end, Jair did a lot of the montage and others helped out as well. Asking for help also forced me to be more vulnerable. Before, I had never allowed anyone to listen to my raw material. I had to learn to trust other people with my work, even before it’s finished.
You won a Prix Europe for the best European podcast series. How important was winning that prize for you? So important! I had never won a prize before and ‘Opgejaagd’ hadn’t even been nominated for any Dutch podcast or radio award. It had gotten lots of attention and great feedback, but that mainly came from the education community, not from the media world. The day before the award ceremony, I was so nervous that I pretty much spent it lying in a dark hotel room alone, sweating. I wanted to win so badly. Because of all that worry, I didn’t even prepare a speech, so I had to improvise. But it felt great to finally be recognized by my peers.
Podcasts are hot and everyone wants to make one. How do you feel about that development? It’s kind of funny, because a podcast is basically radio documentary, but when you say you make those, no one knows what you’re talking about. You see a lot of podcasts pop up now that are basically just people talking to each other for two hours, often poorly recorded. That’s not a podcast to me, and not nice to listen to either.
How did you find you own creative voice? By trying new things and by listening carefully to what other people were doing. Me and Jair would often listen to podcasts together and discuss them afterwards. What worked and what didn’t. We did that for fun, but it I learned a lot from it. Of course, it also helped that Jair had ten years of experience making radio when we met. We worked closely together on different projects and I’ve learned a lot from him too. Although it only works well if I’m the boss, or if we’re on the same level. Having to cut three minutes just because he says so, that’s not going to happen.
What podcasts are you listening to right now? At the moment, I’m listening to ‘Where Should We Begin’ by Esther Perel and ‘Heavyweight’ by Jonathan Goldstein. In ‘Where Should We Begin’ you get to listen in on the vulnerable intimacy of couples in relationship therapy, to which Perel adds really surprising and sharp analyses. You get a sense of the stories people tell themselves and get stuck in, which Perel always finds a way to break through to find new truths and narratives. I love ‘Heavyweight’ for Goldstein’s ability to turn situations on their head with his naivety, humor and self-mockery. Both podcasts offer a refreshing new look into the human mind and the role of the interviewer, which really inspires me and challenges me to go further in my own work.
What lesson would you offer to aspiring podcasters? Write a good plan before you begin. You can buy fancy equipment and have an interesting topic, but you won’t get very far without a sense of what the story is really about. I always start by asking young people I coach what they want their story to say. Why they need to tell it, and what the underlying themes are. Plus, writing a plan is my absolute favorite stage. It’s like a honeymoon with your ideas. No commitment, just daydreaming with a cup of coffee. It’s when you get funding and actually have to start making something that the real work begins.