Last month at the Sundance film festival in Park City, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Amanda Kernell to talk about her beautifully haunting film “Charter”. Chatting with her over coffee (for me) and tea (for her), I loved how we got into the complexities of what it is to be a parent, being a child of divorced parents, and the strain and anxiety of parenthood. I am not a parent, or a child of divorced parents, but what Amanda does through her films is bring a deep connection, a commonality to these anxieties. After seeing this film and her previous feature “Sami Blood”, we had a lot to talk about. I encourage everyone to watch “Sami Blood”, which is now streaming, and be on the look out for “Charter” which is currently in the festival circuit.
REBECCA MARTIN: What led you to “Charter”?
AMANDA KERNELL: It’s a personal story. All of the films that I’ve made since I was nineteen have been personal. I come from a family with generations of divorced parents. I grew up having to deal with the responsibility of these circumstances as a child of divorce. I think I make films based on my worst nightmares and about women making radical decisions. One of them is that you can have children and lose them, in different ways. You can lose them and not see them. You can lose them and they might not want you. I had to deal with those questions anyways, in many ways. And I see it all around me. So I had to be in that discussion anyways, how far should you go and fight for your children? Is there a point where you should let go and are they ever okay to stop the fight as a woman and as a mother. Isn’t that a betrayal to your children? Will they understand it, if you do? How do you accept the situation? Is it a part of being a mother that you should always sacrifice yourself?
MARTIN: I think it’s interesting this idea of motherhood. This seems to be a theme I’ve seen in a lot of female directed films I’ve seen recently. What you’ve shown here is an aspect of motherhood I haven’t seen explored as much. Can you share more about what you were trying to bring to the screen? How did you go about building the main character Alice?
KERNELL: I wanted to explore that radical look at choice, the choice to abduct your children. I know some people who’ve been in that situation. In the process I interviewed lawyers, psychotherapists, and social workers, but primarily a lot of parents, whether their children were abducted or are dealing with a difficult custody case. Then I met with some women who went to prison for abducting their children.
In both of my films, women make radical decisions that I am impressed by. Because I guess I could do the same thing if I was in their position, and I wonder if you could be forgiven for these things. They make different choices, both the big ones and the small ones. Also, they are both really outsiders. It’s a little bit like collecting memories.
I don’t have a sense that I just make things up, but certain situations interest me because of their complexity, because I don’t know what’s wrong or right here. The story is made in that way that I wanted the audience to be in the same uncomfortable and unsafe situation. Because anyone in a really bad custody battle feels as though they are not safe, they’re not sure what the next step is going to be. Every little thing that you do could be a tipping point, and could be used against you by your children, if they tell someone. All parents feel they can be judged, especially mothers. Speaking for myself, I definitely judged my mother.
MARTIN: So do you relate to the daughter in the film?
KERNELL: Of course. I think as a mother, especially if you are divorced, you get judged all the time, by yourself, by your children, and everyone else. When you are working a custody case everything can be used as proof. So in the film I think you are hyper sensitive to every little thing that she does. Is she the better parent now? It’s really difficult to be a good parent for everyone, especially if you are under pressure. If people are scrutinized all the time, like you are in that kind of process, who would pass as the perfect parent? I don’t know.
MARTIN: I think it’s so interesting looking back on how I felt as a child, which of my parents I favored, what did I judge them for, and now I have more empathy for them. Although I’m not a parent, I have experienced similar challenges as an adult.
KERNELL: It’s such a thin line. And when you are judged for your actions, it can actually change your future on whether you can keep your kids or not. It’s these little things, how you’re seen and the choices you make. And children can choose not to be with you. So if you’re the popular parent, that’s not always a good thing.
MARTIN: And she was trying to be the popular one. Taking them on vacation and karaoke . . . Talk to me about your cinematographer.
KERNELL: Sophia Olsson, she was my cinematographer for “Charter” and “Sami Blood”. We both went to the Danish film school, and she’s also a Swedish girl. She finished when I started the four year Directing program, she did the Cinematography program. She’s so good, she’s been doing a lot of Icelandic films. We were joking around that she’s always shooting mountains.
MARTIN: There’s such a beauty to her shots, in “Sami Blood” and “Charter.”
KERNELL: Also with “Charter,” it’s shot on anamorphic lenses, which adds a tiny bit of surrealism to it, to the colors, and it’s kind of like a nightmare. We shot it at the end of January, exactly one year ago in Sweden, and the sun doesn’t really come up, so you are in this twilight all the time. You’re in this complete darkness, which makes you feel like you are never fully awake, and it’s hard to gasp for air. You’re under this pressure. It’s kind of a pressure-cooker, even though the landscape is open–it’s like this western landscape somehow. You can see between the houses, and it’s like a desert of snow. It’s big and beautiful and very claustrophobic. You never see the sun and no one’s outside on the streets, everyone is inside.
MARTIN: Is that common in Sweden?
KERNELL: If you’re up there, that far up north, it actually doesn’t come up above the horizon. We shot it north of the polar circle. I think you can have a few, maybe an hour or two, but usually it’s just a thick layer of clouds.
MARTIN: That’s so sad!
KERNELL: It’s like two months when you don’t see the sun. That’s why it also feels strange and surreal, though it is enhanced a bit by the anamorphic lenses. But the acting is really natural, it’s not surreal in that way.
I just want to jump back to one of your earlier questions, speaking about how the script was written and the main character. Two things: first of all, it is written and edited like I want to bring you into this uncomfortable, unsafe space, so it is very suspenseful. You’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. You’re not sure of how dangerous it is, if the father of the children is coming after you, and what the main character is capable of doing. Like how far will she go? And what’s the right thing to do here? Should you protect your children? Where are the limits? It is so hard to tell because you are in this desperate situation and it’s your last shot maybe. If the kids aren’t with you now, they will never hear your side of the story, and maybe never even choose to be with you when they are old enough to choose. You might have to really lose them.
MARTIN: I do love the guessing game with that, because I was just like, “Did they abuse the kids?”
KERNELL: I think it’s good that you guess so that you feel this insecurity. How do you know how your kids are doing? You don’t, you can never be completely sure. The question is kind of answered by the kids, but then again, they’re also loyal, and it’s hard to know if they are also loyal to her.
MARTIN: I appreciate that you don’t spell it out for everyone.
KERNELL: And once is bad enough. Let’s say nothing severe happened, but is it still a good idea to live with him? I think most people are in this grey area in-between. You feel that the kids would be better off with you, or if the younger kid calls you and doesn’t want to be with his dad, it’s so hard to know.
It’s such a thin line to walk. I had to write a love letter to divorced parents and their struggles, because it’s so hard. In the end I think it’s a love story between the mother and the daughter.
MARTIN: I loved that dynamic between the mother and the daughter. I know that feeling where you feel so disconnected as a teenager, yet you have this overwhelming love that binds you. And the way you ended the film was perfect. That’s the great thing about filmmakers like yourself, you bring us into a place where we form a deep connection. You make it real onscreen. That’s how I felt with “Sami Blood” as well. And it’s a film that has stayed with me, really has made me think more about it.
KERNELL: A lot of people from the film industry were at the screening, and it was funny the conversations I heard around the screening, people speaking about their parents, and their families. There were so many things to think about. I love that part of filmmaking. To share what I’m thinking about in the world, things that are hard to put into words.
MARTIN: You’re taking really harsh realities, difficult things, and bringing beauty to it onscreen.
KERNELL: It’s a very beautiful film, it’s like painting.
MARTIN: Going back to the relationship with the daughter. There’s one scene that stayed with me, or I recognized it as a tonal shift. It’s when the daughter runs away, and Alice becomes terrified, takes her son and they go looking for her into the night. Can you share more about that scene, and the intentions you had with the flow of the film?
KERNELL: The film plays a lot with who do I root for and a parent’s anxiety, and your own anxiety towards the circumstance. The lead actress is called Ane Dahl Torp, she’s Norweigan, she’s so good. I was looking for someone with two main qualities. One was that she could be very charismatic and entertaining. And second someone a teenage daughter can look up to. She is funny, and a storyteller, and has all of these qualities, and she is fighting for her kids. She’s a person that makes radical decisions, so she doesn’t just lay down or give up.
MARTIN: No, she doesn’t.
KERNELL: She has this quality, where she’s very alive in every second, like there’s something vibrating over her. You’re not sure about what’s going to happen next, or what’s she’s capable of. She has that quality.
MARTIN: I like how she doesn’t go with the safe choice in the end. She is determined to move on. And it seemed like an interesting choice to be made.
KERNELL: I love that about filmmaking, you can bring a discussion to the screen, and you don’t have to put them into words. You can look at your own secrets, and your shames. But should you sacrifice yourself, and be a destructive relationship for your kids, or what if it is just loveless? Is that enough? I can’t stay in it, I have to leave. How do you measure that, like how much should she sacrifice as a parent to be with them? On the other hand, won’t they [the children] notice? Is that the best thing for the kid, if you can’t be a good role model in life?
MARTIN: That’s the conversation, a lot of discussion could go with this film.
KERNELL: Well “motherhood” and “sacrifice” are very much connected. And there are some fathers that have to sacrifice, but at least in Sweden it’s mostly the mother.
MARTIN: That seems weird to me. I mean it’s probably the same here in the US, but you think they would side mostly with the mother.
KERNELL: Oh no, I don’t know who the courts would usually side with. I feel it’s very cumbersome, but the systems are different. What I’m getting at is that there is a stigma that if the mother doesn’t have the kids then there is something wrong with the mother, because that’s the natural thing. She’s either been someone who chose not to have her kids, or she’s not healthy, there’s something wrong with her. There’s stigma with both positions, but it definitely doesn’t have to be the truth. Just those thoughts are a part of the film, because you see a mother in the beginning, and you go-
MARTIN: What’s wrong with her?
KERNELL: Yeah. You have a lot of evidence of real obstacles if you’re in that situation.
MARTIN: What do you want the audience to take the most out of this film?
KERNELL: Of course it’s conversations, but it’s more about being with these people in their secrets, in these moments, and it’s about how it unites us. We all have that, those insecurities, and hoping this film may help people feel less alone.