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HOT DOCS 2020

Stefanía Thors • Director of The School of Housewives

“We don’t give ourselves time to just do things any more”

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- We talked to Reykjavik-born director Stefanía Thors about The School of Housewives, the titular old educational institution and how it aroused her curiosity

Stefanía Thors  • Director of The School of Housewives

In her feature-length documentary debut, world-premiering at the Hot Docs Film Festival, Stefanía Thors finally makes it through the doors of The School of Housewives [+see also:
interview: Stefanía Thors
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, established all the way back in 1942. For times may have changed, but some still want to learn how to mend their clothes or prepare meals, especially as sustainability becomes an increasing concern.

Cineuropa: “There were no anecdotes born in The School of Housewives,” says one of its former students. Why did you decide to show this place, even though it’s no Studio 54?
Stefanía Thors: I used to live on the same street. I was curious what was hiding inside that building; I wanted to see what they were doing in there. When my friend told me about the school, at first, my approach towards it was very negative. I thought it wasn’t the right time to have something like that now. Why do women still need to learn how to cook and clean?! But that changed once I started to make this film.

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How to Be a Good Wife [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
, with Juliette Binoche, is set in a similar institution, but it focuses more on its oppressive aspects, while you prove that these “chores” can also bring satisfaction.
I really fell in love with this school. Just being there felt like meditation, of sorts: time just stopped. It’s in the centre of Reykjavik, and it’s noisy there, with all the traffic and just normal life going on. But once you step inside, it’s like entering another dimension. There is so much that these students do over the course of just one semester. After a while, I wanted to enrol myself!

It used to be called The School of Housewives before, but in the 1990s, they changed it to “home economics”. I brought the old name back, also to get people’s attention – Home Economics School wouldn’t have been the catchiest of titles. These girls are very happy to live there. They become such close friends and keep on nurturing these friendships later on. To me, it’s very beautiful. Many come because their mothers or grandmothers were in the school before them. Now, they want to experience it, too.

Its classes bring back a certain “retro” lifestyle, which actually feels very on point right now – like the insistence on avoiding food waste.
I wasn’t aware of this [eco-friendly] aspect until we started editing – we certainly weren’t aiming for that at the beginning. Everything has remained pretty much the same since the school opened, except for some small alterations: they do not use moss when dyeing their clothes any more, for example. They are just going back to basics, learning how to be self-sufficient – also when it comes to food waste or being able to fix clothes instead of running to the store to buy new ones. For me, this school is teaching exactly what we should all know right now.

One hears warnings that, among other things, the lockdown is putting women back in the house. Do you think that entertaining this nostalgia for a “simpler time” could be dangerous? As back then, it wasn’t exactly a choice.
When I was a little girl, my grandmother said to me: “Women lost all their power when they decided to go out and work.” Because they already had all the power controlling the house! I feel there is some truth to that. But, as you said, some didn’t have a choice: they were expected to stay at home. Now, during this lockdown, it has all brought us back to this place; we are taking care of the children. Still, I have been at home for two months now, and it might be the first time when we didn’t have any food waste. You plan things ahead. Before, I was just out, busy working.

There are also some men thriving in this environment. Was it easy convincing them to talk about their time spent there?
They were very keen on doing these interviews. Also, I was surprised by how many men went to the school in the first place! I guess that ultimately, it’s useful for everybody, regardless of whether it’s a woman or a man. Being able to knit a sweater or socks, or knowing how to iron – personally, I don’t have a clue! I was a bit annoyed about not being able to do all these things that they were doing when I was filming, actually.

Did it encourage you to try some of it at home? Even that pesky ironing?
In a way. I used to make leaf bread with my family, just like they do in the film. It was our Christmas tradition: my mother and my grandmother would fry it. It was something that we used to do, and we just don’t any more. The world is changing. Everyone lives at a faster pace, so that’s what I learnt about myself: just to slow down a bit. We are working so much, also in this industry, and instead, maybe we can be at home making food or being creative, and just relax sometimes. We don’t give ourselves time to just do things any more.

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