The Cinema Femme Phenomenal Womxn Award is given to a filmmaker who embodies the spirit of Cinema Femme, which is exemplified by womxn supporting womxn in the industry. The recipient has a positive and unique approach to filmmaking, and is also recognized for displaying a strong style and vision in her work. The award was given to Anna Fredrikke Bjerke, from Norway, who was featured in the Main Competition Short Block of our April Showcase with her film, “Other People”. The short is about a group of adolescents who experience the growing pains of coming into their own, while searching for purpose and belonging.
The prize for this award was a featured interview with Editor in Chief Rebecca Martin. In this interview, we talk to Anna about her road to filmmaking, directing her fourth short, and what she’s bringing to the screen through the female gaze.
What drew you into filmmaking?
It started with theater for me. I was always deeply fascinated by filmmaking, but I didn’t quite understand it because I was a kid and had no experience working in film. But I loved the escapism of it. You could throw yourself into all of these different universes. But at that time, what was available to me was theater. I joined a community theater group as a kid and ended up writing and directing my own plays, rather than acting. The plays weren’t really good, but it was great fun. That continued throughout my studies in England where I did an interdisciplinary Bachelor’s degree. I studied many different art forms in one degree, which I’m now really thankful for because I have this vast repertoire of inspiration through different sources I pull from.
One of my roommates in London, her mother, is a producer in New York and they offered me an internship. That was my first experience with actual filmmaking. So I moved from London to New York and I did an internship with her [Paula Weinstein] at Spring Creek Productions, which produced projects like “Grace and Frankie” and “Blood Diamond”. She is also the Executive Vice President of Tribeca Enterprises.
I was immediately bitten by that filmmaking bug, and I was also just so inspired by New York. I wanted to stay and I applied to New York University, to Gallatin [School of Individualized Study], which is where you can design your own degree. I started out focusing on filmmaking, but then I took some courses in gender studies, so it ended up being a joint degree in filmmaking and gender studies.
At the same time, I started doing productions outside of school because it wasn’t a practical film degree. All of my experiences have consisted of me doing my own projects, and the first one I did was a short documentary for UN Women’s HeforShe campaign. It was great fun and it was all through the NYU community with faculty members and students.
I ended up working with a lot of the same people on my first fiction project, which was a short we did down in Texas about gun violence. It was a magical experience, but I did it as a producer. I noticed that although I was good at producing, and I thought it was interesting, it didn’t fulfill me in the same way that I sensed directing would.
For me, the only way to direct was to write. When I started out, I didn’t think of myself as a writer. But then I got into a directing program aimed at first-time female filmmakers in Norway. It made the choice to move back an easy one and the transition more easy, because I met like-minded people through what I wanted to do. After I made that first short, “The Way Things End”, which traveled the festival circuit both in the US and Scandinavia, I felt like there was no turning back.
How did you come to “Other People”?
So “Other People” is my fourth short film as a writer and a director. I really wanted to do something with teenagers. There’s something about being that age, the tenderness of it, the sense of figuring yourself out, the themes of coming of age, trying on different identities. I think what I remember most about that time when I really looked back was how difficult I found communicating with other people. So there was something in that I wanted to tap into as well. It started with the theme of coming of age, adolescence, figuring it out who you are, or trying to at least, which I feel is an ongoing process even as I get older.
I have the distance from being that age where I felt that I could reflect back on it with a different perspective, as well as not being too far removed from it. I felt close enough, but not too close to that age. So that was what drew me in, and then I just started writing it. I very much need to process what I’m doing through writing. After many drafts, these characters found their own voices. And all of a sudden, this very fleeting narrative took shape. I very much wanted to capture those feelings of being that age, that essence. So that is what I went into with that project.
I love how you bring female sexuality and sexual awakening to the screen in a way that I’ve never seen before. Can you talk about what you were trying to bring to the screen?
I think with female sexuality, and how we in general portray women onscreen, it’s very much through the male gaze. Women are always being sexualized by the other characters in the film, by the director or whoever else is behind the camera, and obviously the audience. I didn’t really want to do that with Emma, the protagonist. I wanted it to be about her exploring her sexuality, because that is a part of being that age as well. I wanted to show that in a non-judgmental, and a non-sexualized way. I was very careful about only having myself, the DP, and Ines [Ines Høysæter Asserson], who plays Emma, in the actual room when she had to perform that scene, in order to make sure she felt comfortable. She also understood why we were doing this, that this wasn’t just a scene that didn’t really have any meaning. It wasn’t about trying to sexualize her character, this was actually a part of her journey. That was very important to me because I wanted to avoid the way it usually has been presented onscreen.
But I also wanted to contrast her experience with what the character Selma was going through as well. Some of the other characters take advantage of her, or they do judge her, but I didn’t want to do that as the director. I didn’t want the audience to feel that way either. The judgment came through the characters in the film. To me, Selma is such a vulnerable person, but also a deeply insecure woman as well, which is why she does what she does, but I wanted to show the humanity in that.
I got a very “Euphoria” vibe when I watched the film. The play with color, production design and music all created this feeling that brought me back to that time of being a teenager, making me feel these strong emotions, particularly in the party scenes. Can you talk about that cinematic process?
The party scenes were very much inspired by the opening scene of “Macbeth”, directed by Justin Kurzel, when the two armies run towards each other in slow motion in a wide shot and then in real time running close together. There was something so jarring about that. I wanted to see if I could work that into a party scene. That whole party sequence is very much about them trying to hold onto that moment, trying to capture it, to have it stand still. But it keeps moving a little too fast, which is what I remember about that time. I felt things were moving so slow, and I couldn’t wait to move out of town and go somewhere else and be someone else. At the same time, it felt like it was moving forward a little too fast. When it was over, I was very sad that I had to leave. At the same time, you had to say goodbye in a way to this very particular time in your life.
That was the approach to that, and the color played a role in heightening that moment as well. That’s another thing about being this age–every single feeling is felt so deeply and magnified, and every heartbreak feels like the end of the world. I wanted those feelings to float into the production design and the color as well.
In your bio, it says “Her goal as a filmmaker is to tell boundary-pushing stories which break down the preconceived notion of the ‘likeable’ female protagonist and create a dialogue around the complexities of sexuality.” Is this something you’re trying to bring to all your films?
That is definitely what I want to achieve. With female characters in particular, there is a new wave of unlikable female protagonists, like in “Fleabag”. There is equality to that where women are allowed to be loud, to be ugly, and to be themselves in whatever way that takes shape or form. It’s allowing for more diverse perspectives and more variations of womanhood to be seen onscreen. That is something I try to break through with every project that I do.
In terms of sexuality, it’s a constant. I want to portray sexuality, sexual identity or sexual preferences in a more nuanced, more complex and authentic way, whether it’s personal or not, that breaks with this narrative that we see onscreen.
How is it for female filmmakers in Norway? Are there more opportunities and is there more equality when it comes to gender parity?
I can only really talk from my experience. But there has been this shift in this industry over here, due to #MeToo, and the #TimesUp movements, which has highlighted the issues, beginning with the lack of female filmmakers. We always knew it was there, but these movements highlighted the cause and effect of that by the types of films that were sold without having female producers, writers, or directors. Because of this, there have been a lot of new initiatives popping up everywhere that focus on mentoring and elevating female filmmakers and their projects. We also have a very different funding system over here. We have the Norwegian Film Institute as well as a bunch of regional film centers. There has to be a certain number of female filmmakers who are a part of these organizations, but I do think that’s a very recent thing.
Here in the US, they bring an awareness to the numbers, but there is less action. On some sets, they are committed to bringing a certain percentage of women behind the camera, but there is still a long way to go.
I did an internship at the Producers Guild many years ago, and Lydia Dean Pilcher did a catalogue of listing all of these numbers, like how many women directors were working in Hollywood, and how many female-led films have done well at the box office. So basically, we’re bringing an awareness to the lack of women in the industry, and match that with the economy, because at the end of the day, it is a business and an industry.
But going back to what you’re saying about that, these numbers have been out there. And this research has been done, and we know that there are not enough women behind the camera, yet people don’t take the effort to go out there and hire them.
What’s coming up for you?
I just did TorinoFilmLab for what will be my feature debut, “How We Live Now”. I’m in development with that. I’m also developing a TV series with a Norwegian production company over here. And I’ve been doing a visual album for an artist friend of mine, Mimmi, that will be a film essentially comprised of 10 music videos. I’m now taking the long-awaited jump from short format to long format.