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SXSW Women Directors: Meet Anna Sofie Hartmann – ‘Limbo’

SXSW Women Directors: Meet Anna Sofie Hartmann - 'Limbo'

Anna Sofie Hartmann was born in Denmark. She studied for a year at the European Film College in Aarhus. After moving to Berlin, she worked at the Studio Olafur Eliasson. In 2008 she began studying at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB). She makes her feature debut with “Limbo.” (German Films)

“Limbo” will premiere at the 2015 SXSW Festival on March 15. 

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

ASH: “Limbo” revolves around a young teenage girl called Sara. She becomes fascinated with her female teacher Karen. The film is an observation of her, her friends, school discussion, a sugar factory and the small town where they live. It’s a film that lives in its atmosphere — and the willingness of the audience to go with that.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

ASH: Many things — thinking a lot about what it means to be a woman, both for me now and when I was a teenager. Reflections about storytelling and narrative itself, what a film is and what it can be. The place, Nakskov, where the film is shot is where I grew up. I am very familiar with it, but at the same time I haven’t lived there since my teens, so it has become a place of fiction in some ways.

I also found it interesting on a less personal level that the town reflects the socio-economic situation that many rural areas find themselves in at the moment, which connects with another interest of mine, which is how the spaces we inhabit and their atmospheres affect us. Then there is the crucial element of absence and thinking about how to make absence palpable. Sara’s fascination with Karen seemed like a way to connect all these elements, the thread that would hold it together. So there is this blanket of associations and interests in the film, a simultaneity in the narrative allowing for digressions. I wanted a certain openness, both the final film and while making it.

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

ASH: The editing. Bringing all these various elements into a rhythm to make it into one piece.

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

ASH: I hope the film allows for these various associations of thought — about youth, about being female, about presence and absence. I was at a festival, and they (very luxuriously) had a volunteer drive me to and from the cinema where the film was shown. It was an old French man, probably about 70, retired, who liked cinema and enjoyed meeting filmmakers.

On the way back, he said the film wasn’t really to his liking, a bit too slow for him, but that it had made him think of an old friend of his who had passed away, and with whom he had wanted to talk to, to sort out a small dispute. Then he was suddenly gone. And I think there is this element in the film, the very basic fragility of life and the brutality of that. So there being this seventy-year-old, cultured Frenchman, leaving the theatre with something like that from a film about a teenager girl — I find that quite amazing.

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

ASH: To speak openly about the issues facing female filmmakers — by which I mean actresses, editors, producers, cinematographers, etc. included — and the structures we live in and are governed by and to question those structures. Of course, this is not limited to the film industry, but to society at large, so much more the reason to speak up about it.

In Germany and Europe we have the public film-funding system. I’m still in the protected position of being in film school, so I haven’t had to deal with funding boards so far. In German film schools, half the directing students at the moment are female. In 2013, 56 fiction films were founded by German Film Funding (FFA), but only 7 of those were by female directors. I think it’s time to talk about this disharmonious relationship. Why are female directors not trusted with money and with positions of power?

The thing is, when you start this conversation with a 40-year-old white male producer, it’s likely that he’ll dismiss you as bitching, and then you’re just stuck there. You could laugh and turn around, but that doesn’t work, either. So I am not sure what the best reaction is — because we do need to have a conversation, we need to talk. And that talk brings out a lot of anxieties.

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

ASH: “Limbo” is seen as being very austere, so there might be a misconception that I don’t have humor. Another is that I’m very verkopft — intellectual, in an emotionless way. First of all, I’m a very emotional person, and I like to think about things — I don’t understand when intellectual became a bad thing — but my experience is that thinking and feeling live off each other and feed each other.

The things I am interested in seem hard to grasp with words, or with a clear storyline. Atmospheres are hard to describe, and films that aren’t solely character-based will probably feel different, foreign, even. My film has a slow rhythm, because I firmly believe that to have the time to look, the insistence of a gaze, changes our perception — and it’s neither a pose, nor am I trying to be pretentious.

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

ASH: “Limbo” was made in the context of my film course at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin. That meant we basically had the camera, a car, some cash to go into production, plus the entire — and excellent — post-production facilities at our hands. That is a very privileged situation to begin with, but of course films are made by people, and since we didn’t have the means to pay anyone, the film was really only possible because of the incredibly generous people who gave their time and energy to the project. The small crew consisted of friends from Berlin and young film professionals from Copenhagen, who all felt adventurous enough to spend a winter month in the outback of Lolland.

The film professionals in postproduction worked in their free time, and the locals of Nakskov helped us — the owner of an old farmhouse of an organic pig farm let us stay there for free for a whole month. We also received a small grant from the cultural office of Lolland, which helped tremendously, so the local environment really welcomed us on all levels.

The filmmaker course is very freely structured — after the introductory course of two years, we can basically do what we want. The infrastructure of the course works like a small production company, with visiting filmmakers as teachers. It then supplies insurance, equipment, and tutors when we are making films. I believe we have the most privileged post-production department of any film school in the world: incredible editing suites, a professional color-grading suite, and a studio with two mixers working full time. It was a tremendous base to have for making a film.

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

ASH: That’s hard. I’ll name three — they’re all French. Claire Denis’ “l’intrus (The Intruder),” Agnes Varda’s “La Pointe Courte,” and Catherine Breillat’s “À ma soeur (Fat Girl).” I remember being baffled by the structure of “The Intruder.” I’d already seen and loved a lot of Denis’ other films (especially “Beau Travail” and “US Go Home”), but this one went far off a traditional narrative structure; it weaves threads of stories together that at first can seem arbitrary or disconnected, but that come together and form a new kind of storytelling. You can’t summarize the story. And that is (partly) what I think makes a brilliant film. It’s not the storyline that makes sense of the film — it’s the images and sounds and the atmospheres they evoke. It’s what you feel, think, and the states of mind they put you in. How that moves you, emotionally and intellectually.

“La Pointe Courte” mixes the fictional and the documentary. It is so open in its approach, has so much humor, and Varda has such respect for the people she films. “Fat Girl” speaks about female sexuality and the awakening of lusts from a rare female perspective. Plus its rendering of reality/artificiality and fiction is a delight to watch. 

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