By Amir Ganjavie.
Filmmaker Sanna Lenken’s debut feature, My Skinny Sister, concentrates on the societal problem of the eating disorder anorexia by investigating the love-hate relationship between two sisters. The winner of the Crystal Bear at Berlinale as well as an audience award at the Goteborg Film Festival, My Skinny Sister is a genuine drama blessed with immensely charming, freakishly magnetic performances by Rebecka Josephson (granddaughter of famous Bergman actor Erland Josephson) and Amy Deasismont (a pop singer and television presenter in her native Sweden). After a very successful appearance in Berlin, the movie was recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I had an opportunity to talk with the director.
What was your inspiration for this movie? I heard it was sort of of autobiographical.
Yes, but it’s not totally autobiographical. When I started to think about the film it was because of a scholarship that I got. Then I just started the project and this was so immediate to me, of course, because of it was autobiographical. It was so important for me because I know so many women – friends and colleagues – who were sick because of eating disorders that it seemed to be everywhere. It’s not only my personal experience but also a lot of women’s and some men’s experiences. For me, it’s not only a disease; it’s telling something about society. It’s not like someone has a disease and it doesn’t say much more than physical things. In the case of eating disorders it also says something about how it is to be a woman and how to be a human being without being a woman all the time, you know? If you understand what I mean – the picture of a woman. I felt this very strongly and you also have to work for such a long time on the script and funding and everything. I actually felt like I could go on forever with this because it’s so interesting. I read too many books about it and did too much research because it was so fun. But then I had to write, which was a bit difficult.
You talk about the fact that you consider this a kind of disease, a social disease, but the movie discusses very little about the social aspect of disease. For example, it is unclear why, for example, the sister wants to be skinny. Can you elaborate on how you try to make the connection between your social concerns and the fact that this girl wants to be skinny?
I discussed it through all the small things. For example, while the students talk about the queen in the school, or when that Stella is being reminded that she looks like a man, or when her sister, Katja, tells her that she has a mustache. I also discussed it through the way Stella falls in love with this older guy and how she tries to change herself and also that she wants to be like her skinny sister, Katja. The little sister could get sick because she has this big sister who everyone loves, but Katja herself is actually sick. They love a sick person, if you know what I mean; not the normal picture. For me, I tell this through both sisters and that was very important – to have this child who shouldn’t be facing this. She should be playing with her friends, not thinking about this kind of stuff. This is how I felt like I could do it. There are so many other ways that I discussed it. I played with irony; they look at the TV show which is very famous in Sweden with a lot of big-breasted women who are sexualized while they themselves eat crisps.
I like Stella’s performance a lot and the way that she acted in this movie is very natural and very real. I understand that she is a granddaughter of Erland Josephson, a regular in Bergman’s films. Can you tell more about how you found her for this performance? How was the experience of working with her? I think it was her first experience, yes?
Yes, when she was younger she had done some small things in television but she’s not known. Finding her was really like finding a needle in a haystack. It was so difficult to find a good child actor who could do everything that I wanted so we tried several kids – I mean hundreds of them. We only found Stella one and a half months before shooting began and I didn’t know she was Erland Josephson’s grandchild.
Josephson is in almost every film with Ingrid Bergman but I didn’t know this and then I had to persuade Stella’s parents to let her play. They didn’t say yes or no immediately but just waited a bit. Normally, some parents say “yes, my child has got a leading part in a film” but they didn’t fancy our film that much. It took a while to persuade them to let me have her in the film.
She’s just great. Of course, it’s hard to work with a child. I think you have to be playful and find different solutions to make them do things. Maybe not the normal things you could do with adults. I bought her presents to be close to her. I had to tell her, “If you do this scene then you can get this in the end.” She was tired sometimes, like all kids. She was only eleven years old when she did this but she was great. It was hard work both for me and for her but she was sometimes like an adult. She had these scenes where she’s crying. She played a character, she wasn’t herself. She was always very mature in that sense, like “Now I cry as my character?” It was very sweet.
What I like about Swedish movies is that they are very good at representing family relationships. Last year I watched Force Majeure and there were some very beautiful family moments there, such as the scene where the mother, father, and two children come together and sleep on the bed. Bergman also made great movies about families. There is also a very mesmerizing family scene in your work which involves the intimate relationship between these two sisters. They were very touching. Can you say how you arrived at representing such an intimate and close relationship between these two sisters?
When I started a script about the topic of eating disorders I very much wanted to make a sister film, so it was maybe actually most important from the beginning to do a film about two sisters because I think this relationship is sometimes the strongest you can have in your life. Boyfriends will come and go. Your parents might die but this person will stay with you, hopefully. Both sisters in the film are trying to find their identity. I think it’s so nice that they can mirror each other in a way. I’m happy to find this intimacy because it was really the most important thing for me to really feel truthful in that. We tried, like I said, auditioning so many girls, and when we put Amy and Rebecka together, it was very magical because they immediately hugged. In a way, you could really feel that they liked each other immediately, a little bit like being in love in the beginning. Then, of course, we had to do a lot of rehearsals because Amy is a bit famous in Sweden. It was hard to put a girl next to her. It was more like a fan next to the girl. Rebecca did not feel inferior, maybe because she’s from a family with famous people so she wasn’t impressed that Amy was famous. She was a bit scared of Amy and the mother and the father so we did a lot of rehearsals before shooting. We also cooked food together and improvised as a family with my photographer and the director of photography (DOP) also there. I tried to make an intimate connection with them not only with myself but also with the DOP so that we could all do it together because they had to have us this close all the time. It was important that we were all like a family before shooting. I think that’s my directing method – the actors and me and the DOP have to be like in a bubble and not be disturbed by any concerns around us. We were very focused during the shooting in this bubble, if you understand me. Of course, it’s those things between them. I think they really loved all the tender scenes because sometimes they were fighting for three days in a row and then it was so much love in some scenes because I think they really let it go. Since they had been fighting so much it was so nice to have these tender moments between them.
On the other side, scenes with the father and mother are not very intimate. We don’t see them being very close to their children. Did you want to suggest that this is a type of broken family? Or because you were more interested in the relationship between the sisters did you not try to say much about the father and mother’s relationship with their children?
These are two different opinions. Some think like you – that they are detached – and some people think they’re just normal parents who work a lot and then, suddenly, they discover that, “Shit, this is happening right in front of my eyes.” I didn’t have any plan to make them detached but more like they were, like in Sweden at least – and I think in many countries – parents who are working so much and can’t be present so it’s a little bit of criticism of the society where we live and we all work so much that we are never present with our children. We know that they are making a mistake but I think they’re very normal in that sense. I feel like I do now: I have a daughter and I’m away so much but it’s hard to balance this, you know? The career – in Sweden I would say that fixation on this is extreme. I think the absolute most important thing is to be present and to say, “Hello, how are you?” I did try to have the parents do that in the film but I did it in a bit of a clumsy way, at least with the father. Maybe he doesn’t understand the whole problem. Yes, I really wanted to focus on the sisters and keep a child’s perspective all the time. She doesn’t see everything. The audience doesn’t know everything. They just see it through Stella’s eyes. So there was a choice to have it from a child’s perspective.
In the story you also touch on Stella’s relationship with her sister’s teacher. How do you think of this in relation to the development of the narrative?
He’s a much older man and with the way she acts towards him it’s like she starts to pretend that she’s someone else, which I would say is a key to anorexia. She shaved at the beginning even though she doesn’t even have a mustache. And the date, it’s not a date but it goes very badly. You start to transform into something that you’re not. For me, the love affair, it’s not a love affair but the love for him tells so much about being a girl and trying to become a woman but maybe you should try to become a human being instead. The picture that you think someone likes; she tries to be this picture that she thinks he would like and then she loses herself, I would say. I’d say that my coming of age was very much like starting to be a woman. That’s so sad because being a woman was not so fun. I wasn’t free. I don’t feel like I was free enough. This makes me a bit angry.
So you have some interest in feminism?
I think I will definitely keep on telling stories with women because I’m a woman myself. It was not like, “Oh, I want to make a film.” In one way, maybe, but it wasn’t like, “I’m a feminist and I believe in equal society and stuff.” When I make this it had to come from my heart.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.