Ruben Östlund • Director
"We humans are so afraid of questioning the rules"
by Jorn Rossing Jensen
- Selected once again at Cannes with Play, the Swedish director explains why he took an interest in a highly polemical news story involving delinquency and racism.
Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s Play [+see also:
interview: Ruben Östlund
interview: Ruben Ostlund
film profile] – which won the Coup de Coeur award in Directors’ Fortnight at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival – is one of the three nominees for the Prix Lux, the European Parliament’s annual film prize, which backs the winner’s distribution in 23 countries.
Still renowned for his films on skiing made during the 1990s, Östlund, whose two previous features, The Guitar Mongoloid (2005) and Involuntary [+see also:
interview: Erik Hemmendorff
interview: Ruben Östlund
film profile] (2008) – selected for Un Certain Regard in Cannes – were both awarded on the international festival circuit. His short, Incident by a Bank, won the Golden Bear in Berlin 2010.
A study of human behaviour inspired by newspaper articles of young boys robbing other children in Göteborg, Pla was produced by Östlund and Erik Hemmendorff’s Plattform Produktion, to be domestically released by Svensk Filmindustri. International sales are handled by the Paris-based Coproduction Office.
Cineuropa: You have set up your own production company - why?
Ruben Östlund: We don't have to ask somebody’s permission to put our ideas into practice – we have the power to decide if a film should be made or not. Producer Erik Hemmendorff and I had seen film-makers work for years on their first features which eventually ended up in nothing. We did not want to look back at wasted efforts, so we started Plattform Produktion in 2002.
What did you find in the articles about the robberies that the ordinary reader missed?
It was interesting that the robbers used an advanced rhetorical trap, a kind of role-playing, assuming the characters of ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’, to get what they wanted. They also exploited the fact that they where black to create an unspoken threat to scare the victims. Even though they where so young, the robbers knew how to benefit from prejudices in society. In a way, the idea of five black boys robbing three white boys provoked a problem – my own reaction. Why did I find it so controversial? This problem was my starting point for the film project.
What was it in their behaviour you wanted to explore?
One detail I found very interesting is that all the victims, from the very beginning, knew they were going to be robbed. Still, they followed the robbers from crowded places to an empty back street. Only twice the victims called for help, and on both occasions the robbery stopped immediately. It made me think of an incident during Holocaust when one Nazi soldier, with one gun, forced a whole group of Jews on a 15-minute walk to their own execution. They knew what awaited them, but still they did not resist. Apparently, we humans are so afraid of questioning the rules that we try to push conflict – chaos - in front of us as long as possible. There was also the aspect of prejudice. People tend to read individual actions (if the individual belongs to an different group) as representative for the whole group. So if a Danish hooligan tries to beat up the referee in a soccer game, it will influence Swedes’ view of all Danes.
How did it take you to develop the script?
It took a long period of research, reading reports from robbery cases, interviewing victims, perpetrators, the police and psychologists involved. A lot of the dialogue was written after improvisations that we made during the casting. The robbery that inspired me provided many details for the film, for instance the ending where the robbers bring the victims out into a wood and make them compete for their belongings.
Where did the boy actors come from, and did they immediately understand what you wanted?
It took the casting director nine months in Stockholm, Malmö and Göteborg to get them – she did a great job. I am not sure that they all understood my deepest intentions, and to set them up for an eight-minute choreographed shot is probably my hardest effort so far. It is difficult enough with adult actors.
Any groups ready for your next project?
Yes – the film is called Tourist, and it will include the most extraordinary avalanche scene in film history.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.