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SXSW Women Directors: Meet Lina Mannheimer – ‘The Ceremony’

SXSW Women Directors: Meet Lina Mannheimer - 'The Ceremony'

After obtaining a degree in film and art history from the University of Nebrija in Madrid, Lina Mannheimer embarked on a Master’s of Science program at the Stockholm School of Economics. She also holds a Master’s Degree from the Gothenburg Film School.

Following internships in New York and London (at Salty Features and The Weinstein Company), she met French director Gilles Bourdos (“Afterwards,” “Renoir”) and worked as his assistant for a year. In 2009, Mannheimer began working on “The Ceremony,” a documentary film featuring French author Catherine Robbe-Grillet and her inner circle. “The Contract,” her debut film, constitutes the first part of “The Ceremony.” (Press materials)

“The Ceremony” will premiere at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival on March 14. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

LM: “The Ceremony,” a film about love and friendship, depicts cross-border relationships in which dominance and submission are central. We meet the fascinating and unusual writer Catherine Robbe-Grillet and those closest to her. Characters share their views on art, norms, identity, aging, loneliness, friendship, and love. The audience is invited into a fascinating, evocative, and private world depicting staged and stylized sadomasochistic ceremonies based on Catherine’s universe.

Robbe-Grillet, a sharp intellectual born in 1930, published her first book (“L’image”) in 1956. It was banned and publicly burned in Paris. After more than 50 years of exploring eroticism and sadomasochism, Robbe-Grillet is today widely considered France’s most famous dominatrix.

“The Ceremony” takes us far beyond the prejudiced, simplistic and cliché-ridden perceptions of sadomasochism. S/M may be a central theme of the film, but not merely as an exotic phenomenon. The issues raised here take us far beyond sexual orientation. “The Ceremony” delves into what motivates our decisions, not only those concerning desire and sexuality, but our behavior in general. Sadomasochistic practices and codes serve simply as a magnifying glass through which we examine the driving forces that make us who we are.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

LM: On November 14, 2007, a studio program called ”Taboos Around Female Pleasure” was broadcast in France.

In a silky, soft voice, one of the guests told a story about whipping a young, black, half-naked man who is chained by the quay on the river Seine. The scene is lit by the riverboats that pass regularly.

The woman is author Catherine Robbe-Grillet, and she is depicting a personal erotic experience from her new book, “Le petit carnet perdu” or “The Lost Little Notebook.” Robbe-Grillet is 77 years old at the time. She is wearing a simple black suit, a white shirt, and has her hair tied in a knot at the neck. She is razor-sharp, eloquent, and very elegant. The discussion continues, and after a while she reveals that she has a contract with a young woman where she has been given the right to decide everything in that woman’s life. The woman is, as Robbe-Grillet puts it, her ”slave”.

I could not stop thinking about Robbe-Grillet. The contrast between her sweet-looking persona and the stories she told was so intriguing. One of the main questions the encounter raised was why anyone would give up their freedom to another person, and why one should accept it. I brought home a few of Robbe-Grillet’s books and discovered a fascinating and alien world. Two years later, I was still thinking about her and decided to write her a letter asking for a meeting. That became the beginning of this six-year-long journey that has resulted in the short film “The Contract” (SXSW in 2010), as well as the feature “The Ceremony,” screening at this year’s edition of the festival.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

LM: I presented this project in 2011 at a film-financing forum in Denmark. After my pitch, a panel was supposed to give feedback on the project. The first decision-maker told me the following: “I have never seen a perverted woman over 70 years before. I think it is awful what you are showing, and I truly hope your film will never get made!” The next person in line was Cecilia Lidin at the Swedish Film Institute, who were already on board. She said that she felt deeply provoked by some of the issues raised in the film, and that was exactly why she had decided to back the film.

This film stirs up a lot of emotion. Female sexuality is still highly provocative in our society, especially in older women. In this case, the main characters are older women who engage in roleplay where power and submission are at the center. I have found that when you move away from the idea of women as a nurturing and cohesive societal force, it quickly becomes very provocative for many people.

Catherine Robbe-Grillet challenges these boundaries, to say the least. I have had the great opportunity to meet courageous financiers whom I am pretty sure have felt outside their comfort zone at times during this process, but they continued backing me.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

LM: About their lives, choices, and opportunities!

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

LM: “The Ceremony” is my first feature, so I don’t know if I should give advice to anyone! That said, I do think we live in a very interesting time because of the fantastic opportunities that have come with the digital revolution.

I don’t come from a film background. I studied business and economics, and when I started making this film, I was obviously far from any financing. For a long time, I worked by myself, having other jobs on the side. I borrowed some money to buy a camera, basic sound equipment, and a small bag so that I could travel alone and work independently. I made many mistakes on the way, but the learning-by-doing approach has the advantage of always moving forward and getting things done.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

LM: For this film, it is probably that many people expect it to be pornographic or trashy.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

LM: My film was financed in Sweden. It was funded by the Swedish Film Institute (SFI), Swedish National Television (SvT), and a regional fund called Film i Väst (FiV).

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

LM: Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” It’s haunting and poetic in its approach to both erotic and artistic desire, and such an interesting exploration of human communication. The power dynamics are depicted with sensitivity and performed fantastically by the actors. It’s a grand, powerful, extraordinarily beautiful film. 

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