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Tribeca Women Directors: Meet Sofia Norlin (Broken Hill Blues)

Tribeca Women Directors: Meet Sofia Norlin (Broken Hill Blues)

Born in Njurunda in Sweden in 1974, Sofia Norlin studied film in Stockholm and Paris, where she now lives and works as a theater and film director. Her 2005 film Les Courants screened at numerous international film festivals and secured her a grant from the French Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers (SACD). The screenplay for her debut feature film, Broken Hill Blues, was developed on the Baltic island of Faro with a scholarship from the Ingmar Bergman Foundation. (Festival Scope)

Broken Hill Blues will debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 17.

Please give us your description of the film playing.

It’s the story of a town and some teenagers living in it. North of the Arctic circle, Kiruna

 is a small community built around an iron ore mine, which is both its main economic activity and its throbbing heart. It feeds the town, but also gradually destroys the ground. In the film, some young boys and girls are about to take the leap into adulthood, while the ground literally trembles under their feet. They will fight with themselves and the world around them, learning to live, love and dream, while the city, also undergoing flux, is forced to relocate due to the mining explosions underground and forced to reinvent itself as a society.

What drew you to this story?

I wanted to do a film about youth in a time when society is shaking, economically and ecologically. In Kiruna, that’s literally the situation! I have kids myself, and I often wonder about how new generations will have to deal with what we leave behind. 

Where I grew up, in the north of Sweden, there was wild nature side by side with heavy industries. And the town of Kiruna, with its science fiction-like, high-tech mining industry, is surrounded by wilderness that’s been there for a million years. So visually, the landscape reveals ecological concerns and the vulnerability of modern society. You can see how small we are in all of it.
When I read about Kiruna in the news, I immediately saw the metaphorical, poetic and political levels of the situation. I had never been to Kiruna, so I went there with my DoP Petrus Sjovik. We did a lot of filmed documentary research and found some of the film’s characters. In the film, there’s a sort of sliding between fiction and reality, sometimes with archival footage and newsreels about the situation. We searched for a poetic level of narrating reality, so the film has its own universe, which is more or less realistic.
What was the biggest challenge?
It was really to make this sliding of reality into fiction. The documentary dimension inspired and changed the story during the writing, the shooting and the editing. Sometimes I had to leave the script and just meet the world and let it take part in the work. When you have real locations and men and women playing characters that sometimes are very similar to their own lives, when you’re dealing with changing seasons and weather, you need to reinvent the balance between reality and fiction all the time. But it’s such a rich inspiration for the film, and I will use the same method for my next feature.

What advice do you have for other female directors?

Just to go for it! It seems like simple advice, but I do think it’s the most important one. If there are films that you want to see on a screen, make them! I mean, we all know that it’s difficult to make films, especially for women, so that is even more a reason why one should just focus on the films and never give up. We need more women directors. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” as Gandhi said. 

It’s also important to have a women directors’ network, close friends with whom you can discuss artistic issues, being a director, being a parent, the balance between film and family life, etc. I discuss this a lot with my male director friends, too! 

What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

I use this intuitive, very personal cinematographic language for narrating my film, building it more like poem than a novel. There are tensions between contrasts, harmony and violence for example, so the film is more like a song. It’s called Broken Hill Blues. But it’s not so strange, as narration goes!

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

Film is a collective art form — not only its production, but also when we see the final film, together in the movie theater. I really hope that we’ll find good ways to reinvent the use and importance of movie theaters. Seeing films together, on a big screen, and being able to talk about the film with others afterwards, or simply just share a moment together — that’s part of the magic of cinema!

Name your favorite women directed film and why.

I’m very impressed with Jane Campion’s work, and the first film I saw was The Piano. It still touches me a lot for its sensuality, violence, beauty, and force. In all her films there is a kind of vertigo, a whole world of mystery, sexuality or despair and violence, opening up like a steep edge just around the corner of the smallest daily things, creating a constant intensity and vulnerability. Like life itself. 

I love Andrea Arnold’s films for the rhythm, the characters and their lively force, and I love the sensibility and political dimension of Kelly Reichardt’s films. Another huge master is Claire Denis, especially with Beau Travail where she, with such a personal and experimental narration, makes one of the most beautiful and troubling films I’ve ever seen.

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