By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.

Both my characters in Dear Kid and Knocking are disturbers. Even if people think there are odd, they have that inner strength to interrupt when they feel something is wrong.”

Frida Kempff’s Knocking follows Molly (Cecilia Milocco), a woman who has just been released from a mental health care facility after experiencing an extreme, life-altering trauma. Allocated functional but sparse accommodation in a large, gloomy apartment block, it is here where she faces the daunting challenge of trying to rebuild her life, one very different from that of her past which still returns to her in flashback. But, admirably, she makes an effort: she buys a plant, and does her best. But between the suffocating heat the particular summer in which the film is set brings and a constant, unexplained knocking in her ceiling – from which, of course, the film gets its title – with a lack of sleep and an inability to solve the mystery of the overhead noise, Molly’s ability to cope begins to wane. Investigating the disturbing sound, she finds her neighbors initially indifferent, and soon actively hostile. Is Molly imagining it all, or is there something more sinister going on?

Swedish filmmaker Kempff studied at the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts, and before Knocking she made a number of fictional and documentary shorts including Wolf (2017), Dear Kid (2016), Circles (2015), Winter Buoy (2015), While You Were Gone (2012), and Bathing Micky (2010). With Knocking now available to view on VOD, Kempff kindly took the time to speak to Film International about her riveting feature debut.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas: Representations of people living with mental health issues have not exactly been an across-the-board sensitively approached area when it comes to screen culture. Did you set any rules or boundaries or parameters for yourself when you approached the film?

Frida Kempff: I totally agree with you. I think it helps a lot that I have my own experience in mental illness to tell this story. I didn´t want to make it stereotyped, there are so many shades and shapes of what mental illness can look like.

During a whole summer I talked with Cecilia about the character of Molly and we shared experiences. After a lot of research, we came to the conclusion that Molly wasn’t crazy. In fact, she was the opposite of that. There is something healthy when your mind reacts to the crazy society we live in today and it isn’t craziness that your mind reacts when you have gone through a tough period in life. It’s how people treat you that makes you ill. You mirror yourself in others.

It was important for me that everything that Molly saw, heard and felt must feel real and by doing that hopefully you as an audience can take her seriously, listen to hear and respect her.

The question of representations of people living with mental health issues is one thing, but a whole new layer of quite icky history enters the equation when it comes to women. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, especially in terms of how the project worked as a collaboration between yourself, Emma Broström and Cecilia Milocco?

We all loved Molly from the start – I think there are a lot of things that we as women can identify ourselves in. Not being listened to, labeled as crazy hysteric women. Your truth is not worth anything, your voice is silent. We wanted to make a film that gave Molly her space and time – a real character study. It’s a person who seldom gives attention in today’s society and I wanted to give her just that.

Emma Broström and I have experienced mental illness ourselves and when I started to work with Cecilia Milocco and the character, we added all Molly’s senses that is really crucial in this film. So, we all three build and formed our Molly through respect and love for her.

I understand that you also collaborated with Milocco on the short Dear Kid in 2016, which although a different project indeed, also holds at its heart questions around gender, belief and power. Can you tell me about how you see your past work leading into Knocking, if indeed you consider that it does at all?

Social issues have always driven me and especially the underdog perspective. My previous documentaries and shorts are a lot about people who don’t get their voice heard. I think I got that interest from my mother who worked as a school counsellor when I was young and almost every evening the phone rang in our house and there was always a young teenage girl who needed help and comfort. My mother was the person that listened to these girls, they had no other. 

Both my characters in Dear Kid and Knocking are disturbers. Even if people think there are odd, they have that inner strength to interrupt when they feel something is wrong. We need those people in our society. I want to encourage women to listen to their truth even if it’s hard sometimes.

I am fascinated to hear your thoughts on the process of adaptation, both in specific regard to Knocking and Johan Thorin’s original novel, but also more generally as a filmmaker. When reimagining an already-established work, where and how do you find your own creative voice and vision? How did you discover the novel?

By a coincidence, I came across the novel. Even though it is a literary piece it felt very cinematic, I could really see the film in front of me when I read it.

I was pretty free from the novel, thanks to the author, so I could really put my own perspectives into this story. I had worked with the scriptwriter Emma Broström before, and I knew that she would like the story. We are passionate about same themes, and we worked really closely together during the script process. We both fell in love with the antihero Molly and found her emotional journey really intriguing. Even if the story has a simple plot, it has so many layers.

As a filmmaker I was also excited to take on the great challenge to work in limited spaces – with not much dialogue and where a lot of things are told in sound and in the minds of the characters. A more internal story than external. I do like to challenge myself.

And her comes a spoiler alert! In the novel, there were actually two main characters – Molly the witness and the female victim. The victim was presented early in the story, and it was more like a ticking clock, will Molly be able to save this woman before she dies? I wasn’t interested in this, and I wasn’t interested to exploit another female body. We have already seen that so much in other films and TV series. I thought it was more interesting to put the audience in Molly’s shoes and doubt together with her.

It is genuinely refreshing particularly in such a dark-themed film to see a visible escalation of queer characters, not as plot devices or ‘twists’, but as rich, fleshed-out characters. How do you conceive Molly’s sexuality in relation to the broader film?

That’s what I like personally when I watch films. A character can be gay, bisexual or whatever and that there is no comment about it. Its natural, and it was natural that Molly was in love with her woman Judith, and it was just love. There was never a question or conversation about this, not with the actors and not with the crew, and in that sense, we have come a long way. We are all the same and we can all relate to the same emotions.

Knocking is a highly sensory film to watch, the very title itself amplifying the centrality of that dreadful sound in the ceiling that torments Molly so aggressively. But I find it just as sensorial in other ways (such as, for instance, that feeling of heat that this film takes place in such hot weather really makes it all the more suffocating, both literally and figuratively). Can you tell me about your approach to the look and feel of Knocking in terms of how these elements were technically created?

I worked very intensely with all the elements in the film, almost like it was the protagonist’s own senses, and by doing that I could also create spaces. I had to work with her internal journey and her external journey at the same time and that was of course a challenge, tell but don’t tell too much, leave things out and trust the audience. It was always a balance.

In Knocking, the sound becomes a narrative itself. It has a parallel layer. The sound creates the mystery in the film, and it also creates a trap for the viewer – what’s real and what’s not? I found that as I limited the spaces in Molly’s outer world, it created more space for her inner world, and it gave the audience more room to experience what wasn’t put directly in front of their eyes. I saw it like a puzzle where sometimes the pieces didn’t come in the right order. Just like the brain works – like fragments of memories and dreams. This created a confusion for the audience, which was my intention. Can I really trust what I see?

The camera had to reflect Molly’s emotions, so DOP Hannes Kratz had to really understand Molly’s inner world.

Every department followed a color system that I made up from the start, which meant that we all followed Molly’s emotions through colors. On a scale, green was the starting point for her where dark red was in the end.

I always came back to claustrophobia. That is my biggest fear, so I let my characters suffer from that fear too. In Knocking I used architecture to describe the characters state of mind, the claustrophobia.

All those stairs and doors that Molly is trying to open to get to the truth, and when the doors finally open – no one believes her. The building is external but at the same time internal.

I was interested in the questions: what happens to you if no one believes you, and who owns the truth?”

The question of genre is a fascinating one when it comes to Knocking, and I’ve seen it described as both a thriller and a horror movie. What are your thoughts on such distinctions?

I find it difficult to label films – you put expectations to the audience by labeling a film  one thing when it could be something else.  Sometimes, I think that the drama genre could be wider. A soon as you do something with the sound it becomes thriller or horror.

I didn’t see the film as a genre movie when I made it. I was just so involved in Molly’s emotionally journey. But if you think about it, many women live with horror in their real lives. Afraid of being abused, raped and not being believed. It’s a horror itself.

I think that Knocking is a psychological film and that it uses some tools from the horror genre.

At the heart of Knocking is the issue of belief: can we trust not just Molly but our own ears (we hear the sound too!), because Molly has a demonstrable, undisguised history of living with mental health issues. If we take a step back, what do you ideally seek your audience to leave the film examining within themselves about not just mental health, but questions of believing women?

You think that everybody should listen and respect each other, but the society doesn’t look that way. We label and judge people before we even listen. The #MeToo movement affected me a lot, so many testimonies from women that finally got their voices heard, so many stories.

I saw Knocking as a metaphor for all that – the building/the society with all the men who don’t want to listen. You know your truth, but the response is closed doors. I was interested in the questions: what happens to you if no one believes you, and who owns the truth? I think that every woman has had the experience or will have the experience of how it is to not be trusted. We need and will defiantly see more of these stories.

Knocking has many layers, but my core message with the film is simple – believe women.

In this spirit, I am of course very conscious of not spoiling the ending of the film for those yet to see it, but I greatly admire the way it is so carefully constructed to largely leave the work up to us as an audience to decide how we wish to read it. How have you found viewers have responded to this? Or is it just me who reads it as ambiguous?!

It’s not only you! A lot of people have asked me that and many have different takes on how they see the ending. Some people have asked if she is saving herself?

It was really important for me to have an open ending. To let the audience think and make their own analyses of it. To leave the film and hopefully continue to think about it a while after. If you want, you can just read in the narrative, but just as the rest of the film there are deeper opportunities for you to dig deeper.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same nameFound Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists

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