Aerobics: A Love Story: Presenting Mental Illness in Cinema

Anders Rune is known for making controversial commercials and music videos the last 20 years in his native Sweden, working for high-end brands as Volkswagen, Ikea, Adidas, Fila to name a few. His quirky and odd “Swedish kitchen-sink” style turned to the big screen with his debut Aerobics A Love Story in 2014. The award winning director is now working on his Hollywood-debut.

Emma: So, how is Aerobics: A Love Story going?

Anders Rune: The film is going okay. I have sent it to twenty festivals, and it keeps getting submitted and receives some nice reviews. I think people like it. That’s not what I expected.

Have you got any screenings coming up?

There is a screening in Stockholm for a select audience of handicapped people.

What inspired you to make a film about people with handicaps?

It has been a long challenge. I have actually made quite a few projects along the same lines [as Aerobics: A Love Story]: people in the margins of society and who has the right to love something. I’ve incorporated that into music videos and commercials before, and it’s been a really nice contrast to see a handicapped person in a beauty video or prostitutes as fashion models. I’ve used drug addicts in love stories. I want to try and challenge how we as people see other people in the margins of society.

How do you think Sweden, and Scandinavia in general, treat people with differences?

It’s probably the same all over the globe, that we see them as second rated humans, almost. It’s not that we are prejudiced; it’s just that we see that they are weaker than us and that they need help from someone. We see them as less than us. Which is horrible.

There have been a number of Scandinavian films over the past decade that have touched on similar issues. The first one that I’ll bring up is The Idiots by Lars von Trier. That film received a lot of criticism because it portrayed handicapped people in a negative way by depicting characters who pretended to be disabled. When approaching a potentially controversial subject, how do you make sure you treat the subject well?

There was a lot of choices in the film [Aerobics]. For example, I couldn’t let Janne be normal. I had to make him this oaf (as you guys describe it): a quirky, crazy person. If he had been a normal person then it would’ve been almost like a rape situation, or questions of taking advantage of Maria in the film. So, there’s a lot of balance. Some people actually think that I overstepped the boundaries a little. I have been critiqued, mostly by other directors. I don’t know. And of course I don’t care, either.

What do they say?

They say that it feels like I am taking advantage of them [those with handicaps]. As a group. But that’s also good, because I told Marina and Victor (the lead actors) that I wanted the audience to first look down on them, feel pity on them, and then to feel ashamed of those emotions towards the end of the film. So that was pre-planned, in that respect. But it’s a fine line, of course. The most important thing is the question the audience has to answer: Who has the right to love?

And another film that I know of is a Norwegian film called Elling. And it too deals with mental disability. It has the protagonists conforming to society and that film is regarded as one of the best Norwegian films of the last decade which leads to the question – do Scandinavians want people to fit in, or be a little bit different. InAerobics they stay different and everyone is happy with that, and in that sense it is a good thing. That’s why the film is so successful. Do you think these people should conform and fit in?

I completely understand. Actually, in the Swedish theatre, which is an art-form which you guys unfortunately can’t see as much, there is less conformity being demanded by the people in the margins. I think that Elling is one example, it is not something telling about the Scandinavian film world, so to speak. It is just one film. Actually it has layers of romantic comedy and pure comedy. So, it has to do about leaving the place they were living in, this mental institution, and to conform to living in society, not just being a normal person. I hear what you are saying, but there is not a lot of examples ofElling films. In theatre, it’s actually the other way around. Our biggest and most famous screenplay writer Lars Norén. He’s very big here. He’s touched these issues perhaps in the same way I did. Just portrayal of people in the margins.

Are there any Scandinavian filmmakers that you took influence from, or any particular films that you watched?

Nothing that really has to do with the story in my film, but I really like the film Happiness, of course. I like when you see people really naked and honest, so any film that are really honest I like. There’s a Swedish director called Roy Andersson, which of course you know, and Roy has made a lot of commercials, and in Sweden we call it the ‘Roy Andersson or the ACNE style – ACNE is a big media house that does these quirky fun commercials using the same style as my film. So it’s like a Scandinavian thread if you want to put it like that. From Roy Andersson to ACNE, and some people from ACNE became TRAKTOR, which is a successful production company collective of Swedes in Los Angeles. It’s hard to say that I have one specific reference.

marina nystrÖm

Marina Nyström is a 29 year old freelance actress living in Stockholm, Sweden, and working at the Stockholm City Theatre. In the film, she plays the protagonist Maria, who falls in love with Janne and must overcome obstacles in order to be with him.

Emma: About Aerobics, how did you become involved with the project?

Marina: Well I didn’t know Rune (director) at all, and he contacted me on Facebook and email. He had seen a You/tube clip that I had been playing in, and contacted me on Facebook and Email wanting to know if I could do a casting for the role of Maria. I came to Stockholm and did an audition, and got the role!

So for the role you had to play as someone with a mental illness. That’s such a touchy subject, and if you portray it the wrong way people can get easily offended. How did you prepare for the role? Did you do any kind of research?

I have always been very curious about people who are outside the frames of society. Ever since I was small I have been perceptive in reading body language and particular expressions from them. I based Maria on different types of people I’ve seen on the town and when working in a retirement home with handicapped people. So I’ve picked traits from here and there and put them in a small sack for Maria.

Were there any films, Scandinavian or international, that you watched to prepare for the role?

Any films? When I was small I loved Gilbert Grape, so there might be some inspiration from there. I didn’t look at the film to prepare Maria, the film was somewhere inside me.

Emma: Was there any scenes you felt odd to do, maybe a bit out of your comfort zone?

No, because I think that’s one of my strengths to be an actress, and be very brave. I love to get out of the comfort zone. I want to be an actress that can have many colours, so I won’t just receive conventional roles. I want to broaden my horizons. So I love doing these roles, and its my dream to continue to have special roles.

How do you think Scandinavians and Swedes treat people with a mental handicap, overall in society?

Pretty well, because Sweden is a very aware/cautious, so I’ve experienced. So there is a lot we’ve thought about, such as cafes which have ramps, toilets for handicaps, and we’re very conscious of them. Overall I’d say its very adapted to them.

There have been some films released in Scandinavia recently that sort of critique mental illness, such as a Norwegian film calledElling, which sort of ends with people conforming to society  and that film became very popular whereas your film shows they can be individual and different and stand out. So do you think Scandinavians try to get them to integrate into society, or do you think they should be more individuals, for the lack of a better term?

Oh god yes, what is good about Aerobics is that they are their own people, Janne and Maria. I hope that this film can reach out to a larger audience, and look to establishments where they work with handicaps for instance. The film can even be a [smaller film] so that they can make their way to schools and to establishments where one would meet handicaps. I think it’s really great Victor and myself, Victor who plays Janne, that he has the [body image] that he has, and I have the one that I have and that we’re not ideal, this I find is great and good and important in the film and that we don’t represent any type of Hollywood image and that it is outside of the box. And I hope that people who do go to see this film can see this as a portrait of themselves that they can identify with.

What do you think of the reception of Scandinavian films in other countries, for instance with the popularity of Nordic Noir and Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, what do you think of the current success of Scandinavian film?

What I think of it? I think its fantastic! I have a tremendous amount of friends who have many films…have you heard about Ronnie Sandahl in Underdog? I have worked with the director before in a smaller movie, and I know that Bianca Krönløf she went to my school, we were classmates. So I think its so fun that it’s going so well for Scandinavian films nowadays. But I haven’t been able to see so many films, so I can’t judge the films, but I hear in the media that [whoosh] it’s a huge wind of Swedish cinema that’s lauded and honoured out there, and that’s fantastic. But I’m not too attuned to Nordic films or European, but when one works mostly with theatre then one tends to be [in the box] so one doesn’t get much time to see a lot of films. But I think its just fun, so [heja heja film altså]

Any plans for the future?

I want to direct! Yes, I have done small small things, films, before. But now I work in the theatre, as I said before when you’re working in the theatre you’re inside a box and you have no time to write a script or do movies. But my future plan is to write scripts and direct it so I really hope that I can do a movie and then send it to you!

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.