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Switzerland’s Cognito Films has re-teamed with German shingle Elemag Pictures on a documentary about a group of pit workers coming to terms with the closure of Germany’s last coal mine.

“Once We Were Pitmen” accompanies five miners on a bittersweet journey against the backdrop of climate change, Germany’s energy transition away from fossil fuels and even gender identity. The film focuses on a motley crew that includes proud old-school miners, a Sri Lankan immigrant, an eternal bachelor who lives with his mother, and a transwoman who finds the ideal opportunity to embrace the life she has long sought.

The protagonists’ stories present universal topics, the sense of belonging, loss and the search for identity, said Cognito Films partner and producer Rajko Jazbec.

The project has reunited Cognito Films with Swiss filmmaker Christian Johannes Koch, who is co-directing the pic with German helmer Jonas Matauschek. The company produced Koch’s upcoming drama “Spagat,” which premieres this month in San Sebastian.

The film also follows Cognito Films and Elemag Pictures’ first co-production, Noel Dernesch and Olli Waldhauer’s documentary “Another Reality,” which premiered last year in Locarno’s Semaine de la Critique sidebar.

“They are a perfect fit for this project and co-production,” said Cognito Films partner and producer Rajko Jazbec, noting that Elemag Pictures producer Tanja Georgieva-Waldbauer was working on the financing and execution of the project as the German partner. Jazbec is also serving as producer via Berlin-based Serienwerk, where he is a managing partner.

Cognito Films is eager to maintain close links with its collaborators, Jazbec added. “One important part was the director, Christian Johannes Koch, and our general aim to build supporting and trustful relationships with the people we work with.”

After conducting initial research on the project, Koch suggested making the film with Matauschek, a documentary filmmaker.

“We saw it as an interesting enrichment to the film because Christian’s work was mostly fiction and their vision complemented each other very well,” Jazbec said, adding that the stories “all touched us in their own way.”

He added: “It’s the end of an era that has shaped their lives for decades and also the lives of their ancestors. They are forced to deal with their identities and their roles, both privately and professionally.”

The visual grandeur of the coal mines and their closures and dismantling “offer incredible potential for a cinematic realization and as a symbolic image through the film,” Jazbec added.

The project, which was presented at the Venice Gap-Financing Market, is already largely financed thanks to support from the Germany’s Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM) and the Swiss Federal Office of Culture (BAK) as well as regional funding from eastern Germany’s Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung (MDM) and the Swiss canton of Lucerne. Swiss public broadcaster SRF has also boarded the project as a co-producer.

“Once We Were Pitmen” is shooting on location in Germany, including the former coal mining site in Ibbenbüren as well as in Fulda and the Ruhr region. It may also shoot in Sri Lanka following one of the main protagonists back to his homeland, but it depends on the COVID situation, Jazbec noted.

“We have already filmed over the last three years during research and development to secure material that cannot be shot anymore – mainly for the first third of the film,” Jazbec said. “The mine in Ibbenbüren has been officially closed since the end of 2019.”

The project has yet to sign a sales company but it has secured Berlin-based distrib Port au Prince Film as a German distributor. The producers are hoping to find post production partners as well as bring a German broadcaster on board.

“We’re also open for partners from other countries with interest in co-producing and of course for pre-sales,” Jazbec said. “Getting in touch with possible partners for international distribution and festivals is another goal.”

(Pictured from left: Christian Johannes Koch, Rajko Jazbec, Jonas Matauschek, Fabian Schneider, Sebastian Klatt)