"How can you explain the meaning of life?"
by Jorn Rossing Jensen
- It took seven years for the Danish documentary filmmaker to make Bridgend – his first fiction feature – about real-life events.
After a series of award-winning documentaries, Danish director Jeppe Rønde presented his first fiction feature earlier this year – but it was real-life events he wanted to describe in Bridgend [+see also:
film profile]: a wave of suicides among teenagers in a former mining town in South Wales in the UK. The film is now touring the international festival circuit and most recently won three awards at New York’s Tribeca: Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Narrative Editing. It will be released in Denmark by Camera Film on 25 June.
Cineuropa: How did you learn about the suicides in Bridgend, and why did you decide to explore them?
Jeppe Rønde: Having read an article about the suicides in a Danish paper in 2008, I decided to go to Bridgend and find out whether there was any truth in what it suggested – that the suicides were connected, perhaps through an internet suicide cult, because all the young people were on the web and knew each other in real life.
When I came to Bridgend the first time, I could feel there was something happening, which I recognised from when I lived in Jerusalem during the second intifada in 2002 and filmed Jerusalem My Love, about the nature of belief during war. Both war and religion override your ego – it is all about a common "we" – and that was what I came across in Bridgend.
There was a lack of egos among the young people, who more or less consciously acted as a group, driven by a shared, universal power, something enticing and alluring – something we all possess, something bigger, strange and violent, where you will probably be able to find your own identity.
The research process lasted six years, didn’t it?
It takes time to win young people's trust, and many families had had unpleasant experiences with journalists who had pretended to be salesmen or even Jehovah's Witnesses to get into their homes. I was with them for several years; we became friends, and I think that was important. One night, I am sure they tested me – at a party I had a drink with something in it that made me forget everything. The following morning, I woke up with smashed-up knees and blood all over my bed. When I asked them what had happened, they said, “Well, you got home, didn’t you?”, and they are still laughing about it.
Did you originally want to solve the mystery?
How can you explain the meaning of life? Of course, I would have preferred to find out the big “why”, and I asked everybody about it, but nobody had the answer, not in words. So this was about discovering another language, a cinematic language that can embrace both the darkness and the fascination with what young people do, the common unconsciousness within us, trying to give an artistic vision of the forces that operate. So the film is a study of the young people who committed suicide, but also of everybody else, because we all have it in us – and those who casually say it just happened in Wales haven’t understood that it can happen anywhere.
Why did you decide to make a fiction feature and not – as usual – a documentary?
To me, there is no difference between documentary and fiction – for me, it is a question of using the language that tells the story in the best way: as an artist, this is my moral responsibility. If a story is narrated by real people, by actors or by a mixture – as in Bridgend – it does not make the story any more or less true; it will still be my vision of the story, my truth and my way of telling it that counts.
Are the characters real-life people? And how did you cast them?
All of the characters in the film are built on people I met – many of them are composites of several, to avoid them being recognised; otherwise, they would be excluded from society or worse. I also promised I would not thank them in the credits.
Casting took one-and-a-half years, during which I realised that for the lead roles – who have the toughest experiences – it was essential to find very strong actors so that they would not collapse.
It was also important that their performances were not acting – we wanted them to be exactly like young people from Bridgend, so the mixture of locals with incoming actors both in front of and behind the camera made it work perfectly.
Was it difficult to shoot?
It surpassed all expectations: we filmed in the local pub, the church, the police station, the school and many private homes, including the local vicar’s. They were all very helpful in the region, which surprised me – I had thought that I would at least meet some resistance. And no, there were no suicides during the production.