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BERLINALE 2022 Generation

Sanna Lenken • Director of Comedy Queen

“So many children don’t know how to talk about grief”

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- BERLINALE 2022: The Swedish director follows up her Crystal Bear-winning My Skinny Sister with a drama proving that, in the end, only laughter can heal pain

Sanna Lenken  • Director of Comedy Queen
(© Ola Kjelbye)

In Comedy Queen [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Sanna Lenken
film profile
]
, Sasha (Sigrid Johnson) has lost her mum. Some would say she is acting out, shaving her head and confusing classmates with her jokes. Others would be of the opinion that she is simply pursuing her dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. They might all be right. We spoke to director Sanna Lenken about her Berlinale Generation entry.

Cineuropa: It’s such a difficult subject, this idea of a parent committing suicide and leaving a child behind.
Sanna Lenken: Comedy Queen was based on a book by Jenny Jägerfeld, and its author is also a psychologist. I immediately felt that she knew what she was talking about. I asked to meet her because I wanted to know why she wanted to write about it. She’d had some personal experiences with children who had lost their parents; we both cried, and that conversation made me want to make the film.

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When I decide to work on something, I need to feel like it’s an honest project – that it comes from somewhere real. She told me that so many children don’t know how to talk about these things, about grief. For a child, that sorrow comes and goes. It’s not constant. We talked about it with actors, but I didn’t want us to know how Sasha’s mother committed suicide in the film – the important thing was to show how this child reacts to it. She feels guilty and sad, and she misses her mother – there are all of these different emotions.

It might be because of that recent Sundance doc about Sinéad O'Connor, Nothing Compares [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
, but one can’t help but marvel at Sasha’s new look.
Sigrid knew she would have to shave her head in the film. That was the first thing we did, on the first day. In front of the camera! It changed her – she became older, tougher. It brought a lot to this character. She doesn’t want to look like her mum, who had long hair; she doesn’t want to be depressed and make everyone cry, so she goes in the complete opposite direction.

Daughters not wanting to be like their mothers – it’s quite common, even though Sasha’s motivations are obviously a little bit different. Was it hard to figure out their relationship?
That was something I was a bit worried about. In Sasha’s memories, her mother comes back almost like a ghost. I needed it to be subtle so that it wouldn’t feel like a horror movie: “Oh, the mother is there!” Sometimes, when I watch a film and people keep referring to something that happened before it started, I don’t really care – I don’t have that connection. But I feel that we managed to show who this woman was, show the loss and how hard it is for Sasha. I don’t know if “magic” is the right term here, but there is a sense of heightened reality in the film, which was completely new for me. But I liked it; I liked the challenge.

Comedians tend to be serious, complex people who are constantly battling their demons. It’s a stereotype at this point, and yet it seems to be true. Comedy can be an answer to excruciating pain.
She also wants to make her dad laugh, make him happy again. It’s hard to feel this responsibility to make everything right again – especially for a child. And that’s her main goal! When he does laugh, she can finally start to grieve. It’s also connected to her mother, who actually used to be funny. I liked that she wasn’t just this grey shadow, committing suicide.

Your actress, Sigrid, is very good at telling very bad jokes.
Just like me – I used myself as an inspiration here [laughs]. She is struggling with being funny. I also wanted to make people laugh as a child, and then felt so embarrassed when it didn’t work. Sigrid thought that was the hardest thing to do, to be witty. It was easier for her to have tears in her eyes or experience all of these strong emotions. I didn’t envy her. We had a stand-up comedian helping us, and I realised I could never do this on stage. You can immediately tell if you are losing your audience. It’s horrible!

As you mentioned before, children react differently to pain. What’s interesting is that she refuses to break – it’s her father who’s crying.
We tried lots of different emotions for that scene. At first, I asked him to cry very loudly, and it was hard to watch. I felt it was too much, and yet if he’d been a woman, I probably wouldn’t have minded. We talked about it with my editor – how do men and women cry? In my first film, I also had a dad crying. I ended up cutting it, and then felt almost ashamed. Why would I feel bad, watching a man cry? It’s something I will keep in mind next time I am directing. I felt close to this man, though – I would have acted the same way. As parents, we want our children to talk about things in order to move on: “You have to talk, see a psychiatrist; you have to do this and that.” But children are not wired like that. You have to let them joke around, and maybe the next day, they will open up.

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