"If you are going to work freely, it is fundamental to work with actors of great courage"
by Vladan Petkovic
- Danish director Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm, who won the Dragon Award for Best Nordic Film at Göteborg, chatted to Cineuropa about his feature debut, In Your Arms
Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm was the big winner at the 38th Göteborg International Film Festival, swiping the main Dragon Award for Best Nordic Film and the FIPRESCI Prize for his first feature film, In Your Arms [+see also:
interview: Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm
film profile]. He speaks to Cineuropa about the tricky subject matter of the film, and his way of working on the script and with actors.
Cineuropa: Assisted suicide is a tricky and provocative subject matter. But you used it more to tell a story of two people – one ending his life, the other just starting over – than for the ethical issues it raises. How did the development of this idea go?
Samanou Acheche Sahlstrøm: Yes, the subject matter of assisted suicide might be regarded as provocative by some, but provocation is not my way into stories. I have to be touched; I have to be intrigued. And in this case, the question of how to deal with death was one of the starting points.
From the beginning of my writing process, I had been focused on the companion’s perspective, rather than on the one of the actual person who wants to die. I did not have much knowledge about assisted suicide when I started working on the project, and I must admit that I made the naive and simple assumption that a person wishing to die was a person that did not like life, a person that might even hate life. During my research, I came to understand that it is possible to acknowledge the beautiful things life has to offer and at the same time decide that you want to die. And this is what makes the relationship between Maria, the companion, and Niels, the patient, so interesting for me. It would be so much easier for her to accompany him if he hated life! But how do you handle someone who, on one hand, recognises beauty and, on the other, refuses it?
It is definitely not a propaganda film, but I do think it raises a lot of questions that I hope the audience will think about after watching it.
What is your method of writing a script and working with actors? Do you improvise? Is it only for this film, or do you intend to keep working the same way?
We worked very freely, but I would not call it improvisation. 95% of the dialogue in the film was in the script. For example, the “love story” (or what might feel like a love story) was not described as such in the script, but the situations and dialogues were there, and it evolved into a kind of love story. It was not improvised, but it happened.
I usually don’t direct the actors on the first couple of takes. I observe them, and after that, I react to what I see. This does not mean that I come to the set without any ideas of my own, but I am very cautious about the actors’ own sensitivity around the scene. Brian Curt Petersen (the DoP) and I usually use a handheld camera, and this gives the actors a huge amount of freedom on set.
If you are going to work so freely, it is fundamental to work with actors of great courage, who are willing to explore a lot of the aspects of the scenes, knowing full well that not everything will work.
How do you go about striking a balance between tragedy and sentimentality? It felt as if you were quite wisely playing with this thin line, which has an effect that, in the end, depends on the perception of each individual viewer.
It’s not so much a question of sentimentality than it is intimacy. I regard death as the most intimate experience that you can share with someone. I think people will have very different ways of viewing the film, and this is fine by me – it is not something I can, or want to, control. I have met people who think the film is “brutally unsentimental”, while others have experienced it as a modern melodrama. I don’t know if I have been consciously playing with the fine line between tragedy and sentimentality; I have just tried to tell a story that would move people and hopefully give them something to think about.
The first thing that I noticed when I was watching the film was the influence of Lars von Trier. But you employ these elements in a softer manner, and maybe even parody them a little.
I am very much influenced by the cinema of Lars von Trier. It is playful, dark, poetic and tragic at the same time. I try my best to use this influence while retaining my own voice as a director. There is no parody intended. I got the chance to work for Zentropa Entertainments for five years before I got into the Danish National Film School, and I have had the privilege of learning from Lars’ great generosity and creativity ever since.