Mia Engberg discusses her latest film, Belleville Baby, and trusting the filmmaking process.
Swedish filmmaker Mia Engberg’s elegiac and mystical film, Belleville Baby explores themes of personal memory and time as she recounts a passionate love story of her youth with a young French criminal. Using the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a launching point, she tells the story of the man she lost to the underworld, realizing when he calls eight years later that he has been in prison all this time. Using only voices and ambient sounds, a Super 8 camera and a mobile phone, Engberg refracts a re-telling of their encounter through the prism of the woman she is now. Like Pietro Marcello’s La bocca del lupo and Chris Marker’s classic Sans Soleil, Engberg creates a bespoke world of sound and vision from her fertile imagination, a cinematic evocation of a mythical archetype, and an excavation of memory from sources both real and imagined.
Engberg spoke to me from her home in Stockholm where she lives with her husband and two children and teaches and mentors graduate documentary film students at the Swedish Film Academy. Belleville Baby, her twelfth film, will have its cinema premiere in Sweden at the end of this summer in the midst of a robust international festival tour including the Viennale and CPH:DOX in the autumn. It will have its Balkan regional premiere in Kosovo at Dokufest this summer, as well as exhibition dates in the US at Seattle International Film Festival and Rooftop Films in New York.
Pamela Cohn I am madly in love with your film. (laughter) I also view it as yet another example of how narrative in filmmaking is changing. Nonfiction, especially, seems to be undergoing significant sea changes. The intimate, personal stories are the ones that seem to be resonating the most, not just for festival programmers, but for audiences as well. Films that deal with memory and re-vitalizing the past through a cinematic tale.
Mia Engberg I’ve been teaching documentary for almost 15 years, as well as making documentary films for that amount of time. More and more, we see new people coming into the business, which creates more points of view than ever before. When I started, I got the impression that it was only middle-aged, white, heterosexual men who made documentaries on things like war and history and economy. (laughter) There was a classical tradition of storytelling. Now you have all of these communities—gay, feminist, young people, people from the suburbs. There are so many new voices telling their stories.
PC In this film, you turn to elements of voice and imagery, disconnecting both from any kind of literal meaning into something more diffuse, more abstract. Can you talk about your process a bit?
ME From the beginning, I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do a film about this. For me, it was more like a text. I was thinking of maybe writing a book. I’ve worked in the direct cinema tradition for a long time. My films are very realistic, if you know what I mean—filming other people, using them to tell my own story. There’s always a bit of exploitation, of voyeurism in the way a documentary filmmaker looks at the world. In this film, I didn’t want to look at something from the outside; I wanted to look from the inside and figure out how to express that in some way, to get rid of all the clichés of documentary filmmaking.
I’ve also been meeting so many people over the years that have given me their life stories. I thought that it was time for me to share something from me. I mean I’m not going to be comfortable having a cameraman follow me to Paris or whatever. I wasn’t interested in that kind of storytelling. So all of this started with a text, really, with short stories that I could remember from my past. There was a real phone call from this man that used to be my lover, my boyfriend. He didn’t want to take part in a film and I didn’t want to make a traditional documentary film about him, so I wrote these dialogues from memory and recorded them with an actor. They’re fictionalized even though they’re based on reality.
In the beginning, I only had a timeline with voices, no images. Slowly, I started to make the images with a Super 8 camera, laying them over this text I had written. I was very much inspired by the films Marguerite Duras created in the ’60s, done with only her voice and images.
PC In one of your dialogues with Vincent, you talk about your work as a documentarian. He questions—or you have him questioning—your motivations for telling other people’s stories. I felt that you were in a similar place in your life as I am, a place where I’m trying to step back enough to try and re-evaluate everything. You provide the viewer with an opportunity to simultaneously think of his or her own story while listening to yours.
ME (laughter) That’s exactly what I’m doing. I was reading a lot about myths and archetypes. There are stereotypes now that have been created through traditional documentary filmmaking and I wanted to get rid of all that and move into archetypes so that anyone can see their own story—everyone’s lost someone or remembers this big passion from their youth or something they can relate to in my story. I chose to work with this Orpheus myth and that’s why I worked with this very old film camera. I wanted the images to be without a date, timeless in a way. We don’t know when the footage was filmed, then or now, or whether the images are just from my imagination. But I have to say, it took me some time to get the story together. I edited for almost two years.
I’ve never been that interested in exploring traditional fiction storytelling. You know, people going in and out of doors and saying their lines. I will always work with reality as a base in whatever I do, I think. For the moment, I’m very interested in writing and in voices as part of nonfiction storytelling. It creates a big freedom for the filmmaker once you start working with a written text and voice. Then you’re much more free in how you can use your images. I’m very interested in experimental filmmaking and I’m moving more in that direction for the moment.
As you suggested, I’m in a very special moment of my life right now. I’m 42 years old and I think that’s kind of a point in life where you look back and you look forward. Hopefully, I’m in the middle of my life. I’m questioning a lot of what I’ve been doing up until now. But, who knows? Maybe in five years, I’ll be in a totally different phase in my creative life. I try to never do things twice.
I think “nonfiction” can be so many things, really. There are still the TV documentaries that repeat the same format over and over again—going somewhere, filming four people, presenting their stories, as they always did. But I’m very much interested in filmmaking as an art form.
Look, you always need financing to make your films. As a young, female filmmaker, I tried to do what the big boys were telling me to do to get the money for my films. Now I’m established and I will never compromise anymore. I’ve started to do more of what I want to do. In 2009, I produced a piece on feminist porn in a film called Dirty Diaries [also shot on a mobile phone]. I invited twelve female filmmakers and artists to do short films that would try and define what feminist porn is. That was also a nonfictional art project that’s been exhibited in an art setting. It’s not a TV film; it’s more like a political art project. It showed at a lot of documentary film festivals, too, and has sold a lot on DVD. It went to the cinemas, actually, in France. It was kind of fun because they marketed it as Swedish women and erotica.
PC Which I’m sure was a big seller.
ME It was a big seller. But I think the audience must have been very disappointed because it consisted, in part, of very hardcore queer feminist ideology, very provocative in unexpected ways. Many of the films are not even erotic at all. They’re more like political questioning of what is porn; what is sexuality; what is a woman? But I’m interested in nonfiction storytelling in new ways and I have been for a long time.
PC Going back to Belleville Baby, in terms of these different memories that were evoked: you’re writing text for someone you knew in a very particular circumstance at a very particular time in your life. However intimate the relationship was, it must have been quite a challenge to articulate ideas from someone “real” in an imaginary way. When you started to work with Olivier Desautel, the actor who is the voice of Vincent, how did you direct him so that you could identify with him completely as the man whose story you’re telling?
ME In the beginning, it was very tricky. I felt guilty. I felt like I was doing something forbidden. Writing this text down and doing these dialogues and having the balls to tell this story in this personal way without asking permission from anyone, it was kind of scary. When I recorded the dialogues with Olivier, though, the film was already done. In the beginning of the edit, I read the dialogue myself, both my voice and that of Vincent. I edited the film only with my voice to find the right tone and the right order of the dialogues. Then, when I started working with Olivier, it became almost immediately a professional work with a full script, recorded in a studio for two days trying to get everything right. I’m not an actor so in the beginning it was kind of awkward but then it was just the work of making a film. Now, when I see it, it’s not any more personal than any of my other films. It’s my baby, but now it has its own life.
PC You bring in your children throughout the film here and there and you end with a really beautiful and very personal story of your grandmother’s, circling back to her own secret and forbidden love story. These very personal elements bring in a kind of separate reality from this glimpse back into a different time in your life when there were no kids and your grandmother was alive.
ME I wanted this film to be very personal and wanted to tell what was in my heart with this true story. But at the same time, I wanted to keep my privacy. So, for example, in some scenes, you can see my son talking to me. These pieces were filmed when he was around two years old. If he would have been older, I don’t think I would have included him or filmed him in that way. He was a baby, just like any other baby. But my daughter is older and I didn’t want to include her in the film because it’s not her story. It’s about my ex-boyfriend. I wanted to keep her privacy. I think there’s a very strong border between being personal and being private. I didn’t want to cross that border and expose something private. I also have a very understanding husband. He’s a filmmaker, too, and he composed the music for this film. He never had any problems with me telling this story. You need this kind of support to do something like this.
PC I think there’s a lot of confusion these days in the realm between personal and private.
ME Well, look at Facebook, for example. People post photos of their children or describe what they’re eating for breakfast or whatever they’re doing every minute of their vacation. Who gives a fuck? It’s not storytelling anymore; it’s just a collection of private images that doesn’t mean anything.
PC This idea of recreating memory in cinema is so seductive. What inspired you the most to delve into this way of storytelling?
ME I take a lot of inspiration from literature. I mentioned Marguerite Duras. I also love the work of Austrian poet and writer, Ingeborg Bachmann. She didn’t write a lot but what there is of hers is really great. If you read a really good book and the author has used her own life or her own persona in the book, the story turns out to not really be about her, but about me. And that’s the difference between someone showing me his or her wedding video or photo albums, for instance. That’s boring because it’s just a story about them that doesn’t include me at all. The stories that go deeper are stories that are about me. When I read a book, I try to understand aspects of my life that I have to handle. That’s what storytelling is about and what it’s always been about. It’s like a tool for the human being to handle his or her life.
PC We need shape. We need narrative. In the kinds of narratives you’re speaking of, I think you’re drawn to these other people’s stories because they give your own life shape. My background in poetry taught me, more than anything, how necessary it is to distill. In this film, you did a really fine job of constantly distilling so that we see your heart, and all the layers that surround the core. I mean one can stay on the surface, of course, and take it simply as a remembrance of a love affair. But you supply the opportunity for someone to go deeper.
What you just said is interesting because while watching your film, I thought much more about my life and my experiences than yours. I was using your story or your storytelling as a touchstone for my own memories. Children do the same when they’re being read a story—that’s why they love it. Not so much so that they can hear the same story a million times, but so that they can imagine themselves as the central character of the tale. And it is meant to be a shared experience like that, I think.
ME I think so, too.
PC Tell me a bit about your feelings on mentoring and teaching a new generation of documentary filmmakers and storytellers these days.
ME Right now, I’m responsible for this three-year program for six graduate film students. It’s the highest education one can receive in filmmaking in Sweden. It’s very interesting. They’re doing their first year now. In the beginning, they’re very much into having a career. They want me to give them quick and easy advice on how to be famous filmmakers—how do they get into the Berlinale, how can they get money for their film projects. Okay, they have to survive. They made a choice to be filmmakers when their parents probably wanted them to be doctors or architects. Being a documentary filmmaker is hardly a secure path when it comes to money and all that. So they want me to tell them how to “make it.” But I can’t. I mean the only way to do it is to go deep into oneself, and it’s a long road to walk. I can’t give them any answers. I try to put them on a path where they can discover their own voice. It takes more than three years, but that’s where I can start. We certainly do look at the history of documentary films and watch a lot of contemporary films, but mostly their education is based on producing their own stuff. It’s not hugely theoretical. I’m helping to lead them through their own work.
I really love teaching, actually. For me, it’s always been a good way of balancing. I teach, then I do my own stuff and then teach again and both of them give me a lot of nourishment in different ways. I wouldn’t be a good teacher if I weren’t a filmmaker. My work receives inspiration from the young filmmakers. I’m also offered the opportunity to put words to what I do and what it is to make film.
PC And what’s next for you in terms of your own work?
ME Well, I always like to keep it a bit of a secret. I think of it as magic. There’s a very, very small fire. If you talk too much about it, the fire dies. So it sits inside me for a long time before I make it public. But, it involves writing and it has something to do with Belleville Baby in some ways. It’s kind of a Part 2, but very, very different. I still don’t know if it’s going to be a book, a script, a film, an exhibition. It’s just a very small baby.
PC I’m sure you know the business is totally antithetical to this way of working. It certainly doesn’t make filling out grant applications all that easy, does it?
ME I took the decision a long time ago not to be dependent financially on my film projects. As long as I can teach and earn money from that then I think of what I can do with small budgets and a lot of independence. That’s very important to me. That’s the very point of my work, that it not be compromised by dependence on money. But we have strong ways of financing film and other creative projects here in Sweden. The Swedish Film Institute is very generous with me so I’m lucky.
Being a filmmaker is very hard work, most of which you must do inside of yourself. It can take some time to understand that. For me, it took years to understand that the film is made in me. Using a camera and an editing program and all the other tools is easy. The hard work is the idea work and that’s not something you can really teach someone.
PC Has writing always been important to you even in your direct cinema projects with more straightforward storylines?
ME When I did direct cinema films, I didn’t write that much around the film project but I’ve always been a writer, writing short stories, diaries. Writing has always been a part of my life. I keep diaries and notebooks with me so I can write things that pop up in my mind. It’s just recently that I’ve started using it in my filmmaking.
It sounds as if I regret all the films I’ve done in some way. I don’t. I love them all. It’s just that when you’re young, you’re young. When you become older, hopefully you start to evolve. If you want to tell something really deep and touch people in a real way and do something really great, there is enormous risk involved. There has to be. If you don’t risk making a big mistake, then you won’t go as deep as you can. When I was working on this film, I felt many times, “What the fuck am I doing? Is there going to be anything here? Anything at all?” (laughter) In the editing room, normally I have material that I got from outside. In this case, I had my own voice that I had to listen to over and over again until I wanted to puke. I had very few images, actually. I used almost all the Super 8 images I shot. I was putting these images and my voice together like a puzzle and really felt I was going crazy sometimes. I would constantly ask myself, “Is this really a film?” So many times, I felt that this might be a big failure. It could have been. It’s not a safe project, if you know what I mean.
PC I do.
ME In speaking of my students again: they all ask me to give them some sort of recipe on how they can be successful. To me, the only recipe is to not give a fuck about the audience, financiers or whatever. You have to go deep into yourself and do what you have to do. When I was in the editing room, I would think sometimes that I would be the only one who likes this film. At least that’s one person. I mean, when you go to pitch, for example, people want to know to what kind of audience you’re directing your film and blah, blah, blah. The only audience you can relate to is yourself. I don’t know what people are going to like and I don’t care. I have to tell the story I have to tell and then, hopefully, someone will receive it. In this case, a lot of people have.
It also hasn’t been screened a lot yet. But after the few screenings I’ve had, I received a lot of letters. This is the first time this has happened to me. People are sending me emails telling me their own stories, very personal stories about love, relationships. Everyone has his or her own story. It’s amazing really how this film connects with people. I didn’t expect that.
PC If it’s authentic to you, I think one can be pretty sure that it will be an authentic experience for others who come to it in an open way. It’s my opinion that people are really hungry for films like this right now, to hear and see something authentic, something that will resonate with their own lives.
ME When I talk about my film, almost no one is asking me what is true and what is made up in my story. The name of the cat was not Baby; my lover’s name was not Vincent. Perhaps the dialogues I wrote are not exactly what we said to one another. The story, however, is true.
PC I’ve come to think that all stories are true. Right now, the ones that interest me the most are the ones where you can see the handiwork, how the fabric was made, if that makes any sense. You can see and feel texture.
ME Yes, exactly. This idea of texture reminds me of the guy that did the post-production. He was really shocked at first to see these grainy, blurry images because the guys that do the grading and online and the preparation of the images for transfer are so much into high definition these days, all the really crystal clear images that come from using hi-def cameras. He asked me what I had been filming on and I told him a mobile phone and a Super 8 camera. He was like, “What?!”
After we finished working together, the post guys gave me a gift, a Barbie-cam. It’s a Barbie doll with a little video camera in it. You can film with your Barbie-cam and transfer the images with a USB cable to your computer. So my next film has to be done with a Barbie-cam, so there’ll be even trashier footage. (laughter)
When I first decided to do this film, I also decided that no one was going to see it. I tricked myself into thinking that this was only for myself. Ultimately, I took away about 85% of the material. So the finished film is only the core that is left from all the things I put into it. I would be so embarrassed; I would die if anyone saw a lot of the other material because it’s so private. But in the process, you have to let everything out. And then, in the end, it’s the distillation that you mentioned before. It is a painful process but not everything that comes out during the process has to be exposed to an audience. Trusting the process is key, the key to everything.
For more on Mia Engberg and Belleville Baby, check out her website.
Pamela Cohn is a New York-based independent media producer, freelance writer, programmer, and documentary consultant. She writes the blog Still in Motion.