Susanne Kovács • Director of It Takes a Family
“It takes a long time to be able to address trauma and how it influences everything”
- We sat down with Danish director Susanne Kovács to discuss her first feature-length documentary, It Takes a Family, screening at Göteborg after its premiere at DOK Leipzig
We talked to Danish filmmaker Susanne Kovács, whose first feature-length documentary, It Takes a Family [+see also:
interview: Susanne Kovács
film profile], world-premiered at DOK Leipzig and is now in the Nordic Documentary Competition at the Göteborg Film Festival.
Cineuropa: How did you start making this film, and what was the most difficult thing in this process?
Susanne Kovács: It's really been a life project, in a way. I first had this idea in 2005, and I started filming in 2013. That's when I took the camera and went to my grandmother. It was a bit stop-and-go. She was hesitant, and sometimes she would say, “Stop, I'm having nightmares; I don't want to remember and talk about this any more.” She was also thinking that she didn’t want people to know she has this story. I included this in the film, as it touched upon some painful things in her – not just about her experience of having survived Mauthausen, but other things, like her relationship with her son, which didn't have anything directly to do with her trauma.
At one point, she was very upset and angry with me, and then for a long time I wouldn't film; I'd just visit her to drink tea and talk. Then we started filming again, and actually, it also meant something to her. At the end of the film, she says that we are a family and I do belong to her, and that it's an important story for all of us. She said this two weeks before she died.
It’s not easy to confront your closest relatives about these painful issues, but you are very direct both with your grandmother and with your father. There is always some conflict there, although there is clearly love, too.
Conflict was always very present in my biography, having Jewish-Hungarian grandparents on one side, who survived labour and concentration camps, and German grandparents on the other, who were involved on the German side, my Opa having been a soldier during the Nazi regime.
I was stuck in a dilemma about how direct I could be with my grandmother. Was I allowed to ask these questions? At one point, she says, “It's not your story; it's mine.” Of course, she is right, it is her story and her destiny, and she has the right to say no, but I think I also have the right to ask. I feel that my life has been influenced by this, and that's my life.
My father has a very important role in the film, and he has the greatest character development because at the beginning, he is unforgiving about how his parents treated him. He says that there were good and bad people before the war, and maybe they were just bad people and the war had nothing to do with it. However, you cannot know for sure, and you can't claim this had nothing to do with the war. But because he is in so much pain because of what he experienced, he only sees the direct effect on him. Still, we both felt that my grandma's situation was much bigger than ours and that her story was the primary one.
It is very much a transgenerational story, in the sense that it’s about how trauma is passed down in the family, but also in the sense that different generations' perceptions of these issues can differ greatly.
There is a reason that I, as a granddaughter, am telling this story and not, for instance, my father. Today, one would probably say that my grandparents suffered from post-traumatic stress, which in those days was not a term at all. I come from a generation where we say it's good to talk; we have a well-developed field of psychology and various therapies... But we don't have the same experience they had. And then the generation in between, my parents’ generation, talked about trauma in society. My mother was politically active, and she was attracted to this man, my father, who had suffered. She felt guilty as a German born in 1949, and for her, it was also a way to make amends and show that Germans can be other things than just evil. But the problem is that they didn't talk about emotions; they talked about society. It takes a long time to get to the point where you are able to address how these traumas and the pain influence everything, and emotions are the hardest thing to talk about.
When I think of my father's fate as a child, I can't help but think about current wartime tragedies, and what the implications and consequences of today's wars are like for the children – and even what they may be for their children one day.
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