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TIFF ‘09 | Margreth Olin: “By being subjective, you manage to tell something universal”

TIFF ‘09 | Margreth Olin: "By being subjective, you manage to tell something universal"

“Norwegian director Margreth Olin makes her fiction-feature debut with ‘The Angel,’ a searing, atmospheric study of abuse and addiction that began as a documentary project based on the life of the film’s protagonist, Lea. It opens with the death of Lea’s father, whose passing disrupts her idyllic rural existence as a young girl. (In the early scenes, the flowers and woods surrounding their cabin are almost as significant as Lea and her family.) Things change when her mother, Madeline, takes up with her old boyfriend Ole, an alcoholic who turns abusive when he drinks. By the time she reaches her teenaged years, Lea is already working on similar bad habits. Once heroin enters her life, Lea’s battle with addiction threatens to become all-consuming – and her interaction with her infant daughter starts to mirror her relationship with her own mother” [Synopsis courtesy of TIFF]. We gave Olin and others a free-form style interview to gather their thoughts on their careers individual projects.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews indieWIRE will be running with the filmmakers screening in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival’s Discovery program.


When I was seven years old I decided that I would tell stories. For years, in the afternoon when my mother made dinner for the family, I climbed the kitchen counter top and told her stories that I made up. If she started to cry or laugh, or looked at me in suspicions–“How can you know such things, Margreth?”–then I felt I had seduced my audience, and I remember feeling happy.

I think that by sharing and stripping bare, by being subjective, you manage to tell something universal. If I am going to occupy some of your time, I think that I must have knowledge about what I’m telling you, I must know something about it that you don’t know, I must have an access and closeness to what I’m going to tell that not just anyone have. That’s why I started my film making career by making a film about my uncle, Uncle Reidar, who is the best uncle in the world. But people meet him first and foremost as a man with Down’s syndrome.

The family secret: my grandmother and mother didn’t believe that it could be any good. I didn’t dare to say it, I believed that they had to see it first. The film premiered at Filmens Hus in Oslo. The cinema was full of film industry people. I had invited my mother, uncle Reidar and my grandmother. I thought that if they saw the film for the first time with all the others, they would get pats on their backs and think that they had taken part in something good and important. That’s why I hadn’t shown them any of the film beforehand.

The day of the premiere, Mummy and Reidar arrivee from western Norway. Grandmother calls to say she’s got the flu. She doesn’t sound ill on the phone. OK. We sit down in the cinema, my producer, uncle Reidar, mummy, and I. We’re sitting in the middle of the cinema, the film starts, it’s completely quiet. Very soon mummy and Reidar look at me. They now understand that what follows isn’t the happy version of having a mentally handicapped person in the family. It’s the secret of how their habitat inflicted shame on them, how Reidar was sent to an institution. And it’s the story of him always refusing to go back there, to Solbakken, after his holidays. Early on Mummy starts crying, sometimes she puts her hands in front of her eyes, a tear twinkles in Reidar’s eyes. I’m sick. I feel that I’ve misjudged the situation. The scene where my mother fills the whole screen is soon coming. She had never been filmed before or been to a premiere. I’m thinking that she will get up and leave. And that this moment will always be remembered.

Then the scene comes. Mummy remains seated and bent over her knees. I have never been closer to throwing up in a public context. It’s completely quiet in the cinema. People are sniffing and crying in the seats around us. That’s when my uncle leans towards mummy, puts his arm around her and says with a voice that everyone hears: “Hush, Magnhild. It’s just a film!”

Your Filmmaking Career and Process…

I started out as a documentary filmmaker making doc films for the cinema. “In the House of Angels” is a film from an old people’s home (seen by 30,000 at Norwegian cinemas), “My Body” is a film where I tell the stories about my body – to say something of how our time sees the female body (seen by 40,000 at Norwegian cinemas). I was invited by Lars von Trier in 2001 to make a DOGUMENTARY: “Raw Youth” (seen by 60,000 in Norwegian cinemas and nominated to the European film award for best doc).

When I met Pia and discovered her story it became necessary for me to go into fiction because of ethics. “The Angel” is my first full-length fiction. In the future I will do both documentary and fiction!

“The Angel”…

This film started as a documentary ten years ago: “Pia’s World.” I followed my heroin-addicted female friend with a camera for two years. On the street, in the prison, during numerous detoxification attempts, at home on Mummy’s sofa, on her senile grandfather’s guest room, with her customers. I lived with her, and it became impossible to be an observer because she was about to go to the dogs. She wanted to die. Then suddenly I was situated in front of my own camera, where I fought for her hospitalization, for her treatment. The film became secondary. To save her became primary. She was committed by force and overcame her drug abuse. She had to deal with a lot of anxiety and I started to doubt that she could endure the exposure the film would give her. This was when the Norwegian Labour Party launched the slogan, “The Norwegian House.” I believed I had a documentary that would blow out the windows of the Norwegian House. I didn’t know how much of a class society Norway is before I met heavy drug abusers. Moralism, stigmatization, condescension, encroachments in many forms.

Pia had her doubts and I chose to stop my project. The film reels were locked in a fireproof closet. But then we started talking. Pia believed there was a reason why we met, why I had seen all this. So I wrote a fictional script: “The Angel.”

Your Influences…

Henrik S. Holck’s Poem (Danish poet)

I gather a stone
And let it fall towards grey soil
I’ve changed the world

I walk on the snow
My footprints are left behind
I’ve changed the world

Because I touch you
If you move your eyes 7 millimeters in my direction
I’ve changed the world

When I was a student I saw films that inspired me to become a filmmaker: Jane Campion, Stefan Jarl, Jan Troell, Lars von Trier, Fredrick Wiseman.

The Future…

We have had a closed pre-screening of the film in Tromso for all the ministers of justice in Europe at a congress held by the Norwegian department of justice. After they had seen the film some of them said they just wanted to go home and take care of their kids, some said that this was an important film for them to see: “It is not about guilt and punishment. We should focus differently…”

I am very honored and excited to present the film to the audience at TIFF. Hopefully I will be back with a new fiction film in two or three years, also based on a true story – I will continue to make films on social and political affairs. All my films have been widely discussed and created a public debate in Norway. I hope this is just the beginning.

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