As an ongoing globalisation continues to open up for new cultural aspects and social patterns, how can art be used to evolve yourself and your environment – and to achieve positive change? We asked five directors during the Stockholm Film Festival, who all has chose to set their stories in a strong sociological and political context, each one originating from the respective film maker’s own home country.
Joachim Trier returns with ”Thelma”, a multi-layered supernatural thriller about suppression and liberation. Thelma, a girl or a young woman, from a small town at the Norwegian west coast, is exposed to a whole new world when relocating to Oslo for her university studies. As she there encounters love for the first time in her life, Thelma also painfully realises that she is in the possession of unknown powers, which are as frightening to her as they also are inexplicable. “Until now, I have been focusing on character-driven dramas and thereby emphasised the people in the film rather than the actual story. With ’Thelma’ however, I wanted to concentrate more on the plot – although still with a strong principal as foundation” says Trier.
“I never know from the start where I want to go with a film. In the beginning I always kind of fumble in the dark”, Trier explains. Regarding ’Thelma’, the work originated from the director’s own fear of losing control, which in the film is manifested by mysterious epileptic seizures, that the main character is hiding away from her family. Another thing that Thelma is forced to conceal is her lesbian relationship with one of the co-students, which would be unthinkable for her strictly religious parents to accept. As the story continues, these two secrets together start creating a dark space somewhere deep inside her. An undefinable matter, that eventually begins pushing to emerge from where it is trapped.
“I believe that there is a need to expose yourself to boredom”, Trier says. In the creative process, he and his co-writer for the past 20 years, Eskil Vogt, spend a lot of time on discussing different ideas and concepts. While they sometimes have the feeling of wasting time, the two long-time friends have come to the conclusion that they need this procedure to be able to feel what is right for each film. And eventually, from the many ideas, it starts to develop a character, a situation or an image that they can base their story on. “When you begin to see the shapes of the main character, then you know that things are starting to come together”, says Trier. “The initial work, our long discussions and conversations, is almost therapeutic. And there is also a strong element of trust, which I like to bring to the film team, at the recordings”, Trier continues. To him, the work with a movie is always an ongoing process, where it is “okay to make mistakes, as you do not always know from the beginning what you are heading for”.
”Thelma” is a multi-layered feature. It is indeed a thriller with supernatural elements, but also a kind of bildungsroman, including a love story, elements of loneliness, suppression and liberation, as well as a story about breaking free from the family. Defined by its characters, the film displays a young woman growing up in a society of different cultures, where it is increasingly hard to fit in, in many ways. At home she is restricted by her conservative and somewhat prejudiced family, as loving as they might be. In her social and university life, among other, she faces the challenging and sometimes cruel landscape of social media, with all the insecurities and questions that it brings on a daily basis.
“Thelma is a modern superhero, but at the same time a bit of a freak, who has not quite found her place in the community yet. I believe that her issues are things that the audience can relate to”, Trier says and explains that part of the objective for him when creating film is to raise important questions and join societal debates. In this case concerning topics like religion, sexuality, mental health and shame. By using a supernatural thriller to embody the realistic and complex, social context of the story, he hopes to attract a broad audience and achieve the right combination of excitement and seriousness – but also of fantasy and truth.
”Falling” – a fragile love story about two young people looking for their place in today’s post-revolutionary Ukraine. ”The core topic is actually found in the title of the film – the acceptance of falling. In one way falling means falling in love but it also refers to falling down – going down to zero and then start over again. In Ukraine there was a time, before and around the revolution in 2014, where the whole country reached a zero point, from where we wanted to build a new society again. We still have to see how that works out in the end but at least the mentality of the people has changed, and we now have a more engaged community, which in turn puts positive pressure on the authorities.”, director Stepanska says.
The starting point of”Falling” is Stepanska’s life and the life of her friends. ”In Ukraine there is a trend to only display ’big stories’ and ’big heroes’ in media, but those characters are not real people. And it was ordinary people, just like you and me, that made the changes happen during the revolution. Hence their lives deserve to be showcased too, to a bigger audience. For me it is important that the audience are able to identify themselves with the personalities and the atmosphere of the film. And these are the kind of characters that many Ukrainians can relate to.”, Stepanska says.
At the moment, the art in Ukraine is very much influenced of social and political topics, Stepanska explains. ”People are starting to get quite tired of this kind of stories. Initially, I did not want to set my film in such a serious context. However, as I started working on the script I realised that I had to. You cannot get away from your environment anyway, just as I could not get away from it when creating the film. One day all you care about is your loved ones and your future. The next day you may be called up for military service, for instance, and there is no way to get around it. Besides, a serious, or tough story may help us to grow stronger. Or, to use the words of Aristotle: ’tragedy purifies us’.”
”The Workshop” – a writing workshop for young people in southern France takes a new turn where one of the participants come up with a scaringly detailed text about a fictive terror attack. ”The Workshop is a portrait of young people today, who are facing a world that is becoming increasingly complex to understand. It is difficult to find a place, the adults do not recognise or accept them, and many adolescents feel alienated and live without much perspective in life. I find it very important for us to look at the way we look at them. In the film, I use the plot to embody the bigger sociological background, and with the workshop format, I had the opportunity to make the participants and teacher speak to and confront each other. During the workshop sessions, one student writes a story about terror and violence – and the film, The Workshop, then adopts the ambiance of his story.”, director Laurent Cantet says.
Cantet doesn’t intend to bring a message with a film. ”Instead, I raise a question: how can we live together; how can young people grow up today; and how can we be an active part of society, rather than just going with the flow? In the film, there is the relationship between Olivia, the teacher, and the young students, which is one of attraction and repulse, as they try to understand each other. Another example, from real life, is after the terror attacks in Paris and Nice, how there was a kind of desire in the community of being together. At the same time, I felt that this desire was in fact merely a reflection of our inability of connecting, and of how isolated many people, especially creatives, are feeling in today’s societal atmosphere.”, Catent says.
To have personal conversations with the crew is essential for Catent while recording. ”During the rehearsals we used to talk a lot, the whole crew together, and at the end of the recordings one actor came up to me and thanked me. He said that this was the first time he really had been talking to someone about existential things; like who we are and what we want. And perhaps that kind of actions is a good way to understand that the people around you may bring something that you can learn and grow from. One important aspect of ‘The Workshop’ is extremism and how it attracts young people that have not yet found their place in society. Even though you may not share their believes, extremist movements tend to offer answers and a community that you are perhaps lacking in your current social environment. It can be virtually any kind of extremism; the crucial thing is the seduction they use to gain followers.”
Gustavo Róndon Córdova
”La Familia” – a father and his 12-year-old son are forced to leave their home in Venezuelan Caracas, after the latter has injured a boy in the neighbourhood with a knife. ”To me this is an exploration of what we are doing in our closest environment. In Venezuela, violence is very spread throughout society, and the general tendency is always to blame someone else for the issues that are going on around us. I wanted to explore whether we are all responsible somehow, because of the way we act in our homes. There are two main characters in the story, the smallest kind of family. Not the family you would wish for, but on the other hand better than no family at all. At the same time, the family, as well as the plot, is also strongly marked by the absence of one character.”, director Gustavo Róndon Córdova says.
Róndon Córdova wants to raise questions with his films, rather than giving the answers. ”With ‘La Familia’, I raise the question about violence and responsibility, which I mentioned above. I do not think that the world can be changed with a film only, that would be giving it too much of responsibility. But perhaps a film can make people stop and reflect on the society we live in and how we treat each other. And that may at least lead to small changes in our behaviours. The situation in Venezuela is very difficult at the moment, just like in the film, but I still wanted to give the audience a bit of light at the far side of the tunnel. Hence the story has a kind of open ending, and it is up to the spectator to decide whether it is a ruin or something to build on.”, Róndon Córdova says.
In Venezuela, people don’t want to see films showcasing social and political issues, as they are so strongly surrounded by them in their everyday lives, Córdova explains. ”That is why I tried to present the story in a kind of playful way, with a lot of energy in the beginning, and give my personal perspective on the violence and how it has become part of our culture. While the plot may seem quite local, I believe that the aspect of family and bonds is something that everyone can relate to. Another interesting point is that in the film, the two main characters are exposed to a variety of environments at different social levels. And still, everyone they encounter kind of behave in the same bad way. That is something I would love the audience to pick up, and ask themselves: is there another possibility – how can we act differently, to make the world a better and more welcoming place to live in?”
Son of Sofia – a film about 11-year-old Misha, who is thrown into an alternative reality as he is forced to leave Russia for his mother’s new home in Athens, where at the same time the Summer Olympic Games of 2004 are taking place. ”I wanted to make a story about childhood and what it means to be a child, which also took me back down the memory lane to my own childhood. There is so much happening during these years: the whole identity formation takes place, including sexual identity, national, linguistic and politic, which is all strongly influenced by the way you are treated by your environment. And I see a strong parallel between how parents grow up their children and how a society form and educate its citizens.”, director Elina Psykou says.
”As a mother, I often ask myself what to respond to my son’s questions. And to me, the only way for a parent to find answers is to go back to their own childhood. Then, I always like to set my films to a strong social and political background. The Olympic Games in 2004 were very important to Greece, as we did not get the 100 years jubilee games back in 1996. Everyone were really proud and happy but at the same time it was like a bubble. A lot of money were spent on the stadium for instance, and in the end the bubble was deflated. It was all an illusion – just like the illusion of innocence and childhood. After the games, the innocence disappeared in Greece – the same way it does at the end of one’s childhood”, Psykou says.
Psykou says she makes film to communicate. ”What I hope with Son of Sofia is that at least someone from the audience takes the image that I have created and reflects on it. In Greece, there is a social and political crisis going on that existed long before the financial one, which has a lot to do with how the citizens are treated by the authorities and what they feel for their country. And there is still a problem in how Greek people treat each other in our everyday life. I would like the spectators to start being more conscious about the choices they make, and how they act against other people. Movies are like peaceful weapons that way, and can be used for positive change.”
#1 Thelma (2017), Joakim Trier
#2 Falling (2017), Marina Stepanska
#3 The Workshop (2017), Laurent Cantet
#4 La Familia (2017), Gustavo Róndon Córdova
#5/6 Son of Sonia (2017), Elina Psykou