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DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Johanna St. Michaels – ‘Penthouse North’

DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Johanna St. Michaels - 'Penthouse North'

Johanna St. Michaels’ first documentary Best Wishes
was awarded the Swedish national film award “Dokumentärfilmspremien” in 2003.
Her second work, Snap Shots from Reality,
was nominated for Best International Short at the Bird Eye’s View festival at
London’s ICA, as well as receiving a special mention at Nordic Panorama. St. Michaels was granted the Gothenburg culture prize in 2011 for her art film The Island Amid The Worlds.

Educated as
an actress and photographer, St. Michaels studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre &
Film Institute and the School of Visual Art in New York City and has a master’s
degree in fine art photography from the University of Gothenburg. Her latest documentary, Penthouse North, follows a former beauty queen, Agneta Eckemyr, living in the shadow of her glorious past and struggling with the challenges of aging and surviving in a city with no mercy. (Saint Michaels

Penthouse North will play at DOC NYC on November 16.

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

JSM: It’s
a slice of real life, where a woman experiences the American Dream backwards.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

first it was Agneta and her story: that she had written a script about herself
when she was a young actress/model, her struggles with aging and the flipside
of the fashion/film industry. Then it became apparent to me that the film was
about her struggle to keep her home, like many other Americans at that time.

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

make sure that we made a sensitive and respectful portrait of Agneta in a very
difficult situation. We had three different test audiences to try to ensure
this during the editing process.

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

would like them to think of women in their lives, maybe especially their
daughters. That beauty is not everything. To give women equal rights so they
don’t have to depend on men. That we stop treating female beauty as a commodity.
And finally, to not get too attached to material things that in the end suffocate
you. Letting go is part of life.

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

JSM: Keep
at it. Take risks, and do the films you want to do.

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

Sweden, I’ve heard over the years from male colleagues that I had it so easy since
I’m a woman and financiers had to give money to me because of that, due to our
laws for equal rights. They have often told me it’s a disgrace when there are
so many good male directors out there.

The truth is that in documentary filmmaking
in Sweden, there is pretty much equality between the sexes. And the reason that
I make a lot of productions is that I work very hard, and a lot of times I make
films even if there is no money. To me, it is important to get a message across
even if it is to a small independent audience.

W&H: How did you get your film funded?

JSM: This
film took four years to make. We started with developing money from the Swedish
Film Institute and Swedish national television. I also participated in Eurodoc, the
international workshop in producing. But the film has mainly Swedish

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

JSM: Orlando by Sally Potter, based on
Virginia Woolf’s book. I think this is a great, complex story that is well made.
And I love the play with gender roles. 
documentary, my favorite is Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA because of its political message.

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