Filmmaker and producer Louisa Rechenbach on making character-driven social documentaries
Drawn to what she calls the “unpredictability” of non-fiction filmmaking, Louisa Rechenbach uses the medium to make character-driven documentaries on social issues. Since leaving UAL with a BA in film and television, Louisa has continued working with the short film format, directing an award-winning short about parents raising a gender-open child and serving as assistant director of a documentary for The New Yorker about the queue for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. Never one to miss out on training opportunities, Louisa participated in Livity’s mentorship programme In Future List and Filmonomics 7, organised by womxn and non-binary film charity Birds Eye View. Here, Louisa talks about the tight-knit nature of filmmaking teams and why it’s crucial to build a network around you in the industry.
Documentary Producer and Director
Production Intern, Iconoclast.tv (2017)
Assistant Director for Marvel Studios, BBC, Sky TV, Channel 4 and HBO productions (2021)
Place of Study
BA Film and Television, University of the Arts London (2016-2019)
The New Yorker, London Migration Film Festival, One World Media, Open City Documentary Film Festival, South London Gallery, TEDxLondon
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I am passionate about making character-driven documentaries on a range of social issues and like to tell intimate stories that apply to society in a broader sense.
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I have an interest in psychology and a curiosity about human nature. What I love most about non-fiction filmmaking is its unpredictability, and I often find that, with time, the most incredible stories unfold naturally. I like the surprises that reality presents us with – some of my favourite scenes have naturally and unexpectedly unfolded in front of my eyes while filming.
I draw inspiration from everyday life and actively engage with activities that go beyond filmmaking – whether that is running a monthly knitting group, volunteering for events such as TEDxLondon or being involved with local community groups. The latter has actually led me to a new feature documentary that I am currently working on.
I see filmmaking as an opportunity to learn about the world around me as well as myself and I want my storytelling to suggest alternative ideas and values concerning contemporary life. I find myself most drawn to telling intimate stories of people that challenge the status quo and which make us question our preconceived ideas about the world we live in.
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
Apart from [the training I received from] my university degree, I’ve often participated in training programmes, such as Livity’s In Future List, or most recently, Filmonomics 7 with [womxn and non-binary film charity] Birds Eye View.
When making your own documentaries, you are often working for yourself or in a small team, so being able to build a network around you is crucial. I’d say that being open-minded and good with people can open many doors in this industry. It’s one of the most important skills [to utilise when it comes to] getting access to contributors for documentaries and earning their trust.
“Being open-minded and good with people can open many doors. It’s an important skill for gaining access to documentary subjects and earning their trust.”
How I got here
What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year, and why?
My favourite project last year was a collaboration with street photographer Matt Stuart. My cinematographer Lewis Lehrfreund and I had previously made our short documentary What We Leave Behind in the Netherlands about Matt. When he then got commissioned to make Her Majesty’s Queue for The New Yorker, he got me on board as a cinematographer and assistant director. The film follows the queue through London in the days leading up to Queen Elizabeth’s funeral and we had a very interesting time making it. It was great to see a project published just a few days after its creation, especially when I often work on projects with extended time frames.
Can you tell us about your experience as a participant of the Livity In Future List Programme?
I came across the programme as I had been using Livity’s desk space for a couple of years. For me, it was a great way to learn more about their work and to connect with a number of people from other creative fields. Being included in the In Future List programme also allowed me to establish a connection with a mentor, film director Akinola Davies.
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
Before I even started studying at UAL, I spent a year working in film in Germany. I worked as a production assistant in commercials and then as an assistant director on two feature films.
During my time at university, I was doing internships at companies such as Iconoclast.tv and Pulse Films. I worked on projects outside of uni, which enabled me to build long-lasting relationships with people I am still working with. Whilst I was building work experience in drama, commercials and music videos, I also became more aware of social structures, and got interested in investigating them through documentaries.
“I worked on projects outside of uni, which enabled me to build long-lasting relationships with people I am still working with.”
My graduation film They (2019) had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival and was shortlisted for the Grierson Documentary Awards’ Best Student Documentary prize. Entering the industry with a piece of work that I was proud of and happy to share with the world has certainly helped and encouraged me to continue the path of creating my own work.
One of the main challenges was leaving university just before the pandemic started. I spent about two years working as an assistant director on bigger sets, before I decided to fully focus on my documentary practice in 2022.
University provided a great platform for me to explore various roles within a film crew, but discovering my love for producing and directing documentaries has helped me to follow my interests and specifically target training programmes, funding opportunities and organisations that align with my career aspirations. I have also found volunteering for film festivals such as the Sheffield Doc Fest, DOK Leipzig and IDFA an incredible way to not only make connections within the industry, but also to watch a number of films that have certainly inspired my own creative practice and enabled me to meet the filmmakers that made them.
“Discovering my love for producing and directing documentaries helped me target training programmes, funding opportunities and organisations that align with my aspirations.”
How did you go about landing your first filmmaking jobs and commissions?
I find most paid work through groups such as Girls in Film or Women in Film and TV. There are also a number of Facebook groups that are helpful for finding work, such as We Are Doc Women and GiF Exchange.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
I find that making a living as a creative in a place like London is challenging in itself. It often feels like everyone around you has financial stability, whereas you find yourself having to make more compromises. But then I get to work on certain projects that get me genuinely excited to be involved in and that remind me of why I have decided to embark on this journey.
If you could pick a few things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
A few years ago, I read It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War by photojournalist Lynsey Addario, which I loved. The book is about her experiences covering conflicts, humanitarian crises and social issues in some of the most dangerous places in the world. It offers a personal perspective on her life as a photographer and her thoughts on the role of images in telling important stories and making a difference.
I also came across the Now Then podcast by Ozzie Pullin and Craig Bingham recently. It discusses the ups and downs of commercial and creative filmmaking and has been a great source of inspiration.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
I understand that social media platforms such as Instagram provide a direct and accessible way for creatives to promote their work and reach their audience. I can’t say that I am the most consistent when it comes to sharing content, but I definitely find it useful for finding funding opportunities, jobs, or simply for seeing what other people are creating. It’s also a great way to reach out to people who are on a similar path.
That being said, I feel like it is equally important to show up to networking events, talks and screenings in person and to connect with people face to face.
“I find Instagram useful for funding opportunities, but it’s equally important to show up to networking events, talks and screenings in person and to connect with people face to face.”
Have there been any other courses, programmes, initiatives or access schemes you have found helpful or would recommend to get into your sector?
Birds Eye View’s Filmonomics, Photofusion’s Step Up Course and Livity’s In Future List – some of these [which I attended] have led to paid work. What has also been helpful for me are websites such as Screenskills, WFTV [Women in Film and TV] and local filmmaker meetups.
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
To sustain myself as a creative, I rely on various sources of income by working as a photographer for events, galleries, film festivals, or working as a production assistant on commercial projects.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
Try telling stories that feel close to your heart and that you are truly passionate about. Making documentaries can be a very long and slow process and you might find yourself working on one topic for many years. Trying to secure funding for a documentary feature is often a long and challenging process, so be persistent and resilient (something I am still working on myself).
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
I would say that building a community around yourself can really help support and improve your work as a freelancer in the documentary field. This job often requires us to work for ourselves, but by reaching out and connecting with other filmmakers who are on a similar journey and whose work you admire, you can ask questions and receive guidance.
There are also so many training programmes that can help you improve your skills, and it is important to continuously seek them out and apply.
Interview by Ashley Tan
Mention Louisa Rechenbach