Sex, Drugs & Bicycles: Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Jonathan Blank
“Sex, Drugs & Bicycles” is a new award-winning documentary that highlights life in the Netherlands: paid vacations, universal healthcare, bicycles, and windmills abound in this film which will be released on February 26th via PBS’ Link Voices series.
The Netherlands is known for windmills and tulips (and marijuana “coffeeshops”). It is also a country that is at the forefront of LGBTQI equality, free speech laws, and animal rights. The Dutch economy is one of the strongest in the world and the nation rates within the top 5 of almost every “quality of life” index. The nation even ensures that its citizens have excellent health insurance and no fears of becoming homeless.
Director Jonathan Blank recently discussed this film via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get interested in filmmaking and what drew you to documentaries?
Jonathan Blank (JB): When I was a kid, my mom (who is a child psychologist) asked me to make videos for her work and my dad gave me his old movie camera which I used to shoot little movies around the neighborhood. So that got me interested in visual storytelling. I got into documentaries because someone told me it was the best way to make a lot of money. Did I mention I’m gullible? Anyway … I love documentaries. It’s a great way to show people different viewpoints, alternative realities and really interesting people they might not ordinarily get to hear form.
MM: How did you break into the industry and establish yourself?
JB: I went out and bought a video camera and started shooting industrial films for companies and then I used that equipment to start making documentaries.
MM: Why did you decide to make The Netherlands a focus of a documentary?
JB: I always had a wooden shoe fetish. But seriously, The Netherlands has a unique combination of a capitalist culture (they don’t call it “going Dutch” for nothing) combined with an equally strong culture of social welfare that has led to the implementation of excellent healthcare, education and other social policies. They are, arguably, the most “liberal” country in the world when you consider a wide variety of factors. But they are also one of the most capitalist countries in the world.
MM: I love the artistry of the animated segments in this film, how did you think to include them?
JB: Thank you! I actually started off creating some very “normal” looking animations — the kind you see in a lot of documentaries. But they were boring. So, then I started thinking of alternatives and about how absurd our politics had become and when I think of absurdist takes on society, I think of Monty Python. So that’s where the inspiration came to make the animations Pythonesque. Terry Gilliam, who created the Python animations, is also one of my filmmaking heroes, so it’s a bit of an homage to him as well.
MM: What are some of the most fascinating aspects of this culture that you discovered while exploring and researching it?
JB: One of the things that really stuck out is how many issues we argue about in the US that are just accepted facts in The Netherlands. For instance, healthcare — everyone agrees that everyone should have healthcare — even people who can’t afford it. They have right-wing parties in Holland, but they all accept that universal healthcare is a part of the social contract. You cannot run for office on a platform that calls for taking away people’s healthcare. Same thing with science. It is accepted across the political spectrum that science and data and facts should be used to make decisions — and not conspiracy theories. So, it was really refreshing to see a society where some of the key fundamentals are universally accepted and they don’t need to waste time arguing about them.
MM: Why do you think the Dutch have such liberal values and why do you think that helps their society function effectively, not chaotically?
JB: I’m pretty sure it’s the weed. Ok, don’t let any of your Dutch readers see that. It’s just a joke. When people ask me, what’s the feeling you have in Holland, the word that always comes to mind is “civilized.” It’s just an extremely civilized place. It’s clean, everything from the internet to public transportation runs extremely well, there is no homelessness, etc. So, it just feels incredibly civilized by American standards. And that represents the population’s desire to maintain a basic level of competence and cooperation which creates the groundwork for a well-run society. As for why they’re liberal, there are a number of historical factors. One is how they’ve built their country out of a swamp. 26% of the country is below sea level and 17% of the land is reclaimed from the sea. If your land floods, you need your neighbor’s help. There just isn’t time to argue over religious or political differences when you’re underwater. They also had a number of wars in the 15th — 17th centuries that involved religion (Protestant vs. Catholic), and at a certain point they decided it was better to just get along, so Holland became a place where religious freedom was tolerated and that led to a broader value of tolerance. Another key factor comes from how their society was built by businessmen, and when your primary motive is making money, trying to regulate what other people think and do is far less important.
MM: How did you find all the people that you interviewed?
JB: Craigslist Casual Encounters. Actually, no. No one I wanted to interview was on Craigslist. Probably because they don’t have Craigslist in Holland. I’m obviously joking, but the reality is that the Internet has made finding and communicating with people so much easier. So, before I went Holland to start filming, I reached out to people and lined up interviews and made some great contacts. Then once I got there, I would spend some time each day emailing and calling people to arrange more interviews. It was a process. Fortunately, Dutch people are very nice and accommodating.
MM: From start to finish, how long did this film take to complete?
JB: Two human years, or fourteen dog years.
MM: What do you wish the United States might consider borrowing from The Netherlands, policy-wise?
JB: There are a lot of things, but I think the single biggest thing we could adopt — and which would have the biggest immediate effect on many people’s lives — would be universal healthcare. The US is the only developed nation that does not have universal healthcare and we spend almost twice as much per person as the average for the rest of the developed world. It’s a terrible system designed for profit and not health, and it’s a big drag on our economy that really stresses people out. Interestingly, the Dutch use a system that is similar to Obamacare, but with more price controls and government intervention in order to reach 100% coverage at an affordable price.
MM: What other documentaries have you made and what are they about?
JB: In the 1990s I made a documentary about Holland called “Sex, Drugs & Democracy.” It was a very successful indie film that played theatrically across the North America and grossed over a million dollars. At the time, Holland was even more liberal than it is now. I would do Q&A at screenings and people would ask me questions like, “Is this real?” You can find that doc on Amazon and YouTube. I also made another documentary about baseball memorabilia collecting as a window into US culture called “Collecting America.” It’s about baseball cards that sell for a million dollars — and about a culture where the value of everything is often reduced to its monetary value. That film is also available on Amazon and YouTube.
MM: What has been the highlight of your career as a filmmaker so far?
JB: I’d have to say when Timothy Leary threw a party for me at his house when my film “Sex, Drugs & Democracy” opened theatrically in Los Angeles.
MM: Are you currently working on any new films and what subjects might you like to tackle in future documentaries?
JB: I’m working on a documentary TV series based on “Sex, Drugs & Bicycles” called “How’s Your Democracy?” and another documentary about animals called “Talking to Animals.” I’m still trying to figure out the best way to interview the animals.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for your career and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
JB: Yogi Berra used to say, “The future ain’t what it used to be” and I have to agree. I’d really like to learn how to fly like Superman. But at this point in my life, I’m starting to see that dream fade away. So instead, I plan to keep working on films and projects that I believe in and I hope that satisfies me.
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