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In Order to Be Brave, You Have to Be Afraid: An interview with Aslaug Holm, director of Brothers

Ten years ago Aslaug Holm made a decision that had a significant impact on certain people’s life. Being inspired  by  directors  such  as  Terrence  Malick  and  Andrei  Tarkovsky,  she  decided  on  shooting  a documentary  film  on  her  two  sons,  Markus  and  Lukas.  She  wanted  to  capture  those  precious  moments that  usually  fade  away  so  soon  and  so  unnoticeable.  Childhood  is  definitely  a  milestone –  in  both  the children’s and their parents’ life. This is the time when kids experience the world, learn about the human life, and gain knowledge of everything possible. Their parents are their guides, however, they step alone on to the path they  want to follow: Whether they  want to dye their hair black and  have an  earring fixed such Markus, or want to skip school and all the football trainings like Lukas because he is so bored. Adventures,  happiness,  stubbornness,  fear,  guts  and  willingness –  without  inhibitions,  of  course.  These nouns  represent  some  of  the  most  common  phenomena  that  constantly and  harmoniously  shape  each child’s mentality. No escape is possible! One of the most well-said sentence in the film belongs to Lukas, the  youngest  son. “In  order  to  be  brave,  you  have  to  be  afraid”,  he  says.  And  how  true  is  that!  Human beings  tend  to  be  praised  for  their  bravery.  Plenty  of  examples  (e.g.  war  heroes,  warlords,  military strategists, martyrs, and conquistadors [sic]) are mentioned in history books. But  what  about the children?  Holm  not  only  documents  (the  childhood of)  her  sons,  but also  children’s bravery. Ten years mean hundreds of brave moments to be filmed and presented. It might be a jump into the  ocean  or  simply  saying  no  to  a  question.  Year  by  year,  the  playful  childish  inhibition  disappears, though,  and  the  feeling  of  constraint  starts  to  prevail,  leaving  no  room  for  the  free  spirit.  Markus  and Lukas forget about the fun they used to have while being filmed, they become teenagers, and they begin to question more often why their mum needs to have a video camera in her hands all the time. “Why can’t she be just mum”, they might wonder.

The  film Brothers  is  as  much  about  the  mum  as  her  sons.  It’s  the  manifestation  of  her  talent  as  a  film-maker and the desire to reminisce about her past, nourish the present, and create a keepsake for the future. Holm,  who  is  turning  50  when  finishing  the  film,  rarely  appears  in front  of  the  camera  but  her  voice  is often heard. She converses with her sons to make it possible for the audience to really get to know them. Private discussions are on display, however, the director aims at maintaining the intimacy in all situations. Having  said  that,  she  doesn’t  always  manage  to  do  that  well,  so  sometimes  the  boys  feel  slightly embarrassed. The audience, voyeurs in other words, continuously follow them, don’t let them be alone. The journey the boys and their parents  embarked on fascinates  many – but for different reasons. One might be interested in this close friendship the brothers have, others might share admiration for the scenes shot in nature, near the ocean or the music added to the film. Brothers, produced by Fenris Film, is truly a remarkable piece of art, which is supported by the fact that it has  won  several  awards.  It  visited  many  festivals  such  as  Titanic  International  Film  Festival  (Budapest, Hungary) and the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

We also sat down with Aslaug Holm to ask her about the project. We were interested in her opinion on privacy, the challenges she had to face, and her way of balancing between being a mum and a director at the same time.

Cinema Scandinavia: Since your film is about your sons, your family’s life, I’m wondering how you describe privacy, which soon will be (or has already been) treated very preciously due to the existence of the Internet.

Aslaug Holm: In my film there are scenes that are personal and quite private, but at the same time those are also universal because people can recognize their own life in them. As a documentary film-maker I think it’s important to understand the difference between moments that are solely private and moments that are both personal and universal. It was important for me as both a director and mother to make a film that everyone can relate to. When Markus, the oldest brother, saw the film together with a big audience for the first time, he was really nervous. However, once the film started, he forgot the film was about him because he was so in to the story. That’s good because it means the film works, and it’s not embarrassing for the boys to see it. They can enjoy it without thinking it’s private and not relevant for other people.

CS: Did you have a discussion with your sons before starting to shoot?

AH: My sons were very young when I started shooting. Lukas was five and Markus was eight. Since I’m a cinematographer, they are used to see me filming, and therefore they didn’t think it was a big deal when I asked them if I could make a film about them growing up. Markus was a little concerned about the film process, though, he assumed it would be a lot of work. He was right.

When they became older, we had some periods when they thought it was a little annoying that their mother was filming them. Therefore, we took a break, and when I started filming again, after weeks or months, the boys thought it was exciting. So we didn’t have a big discussion before the shooting, but we talked quite a lot as they grew older.

CS: What were the greatest challenges during the project?

AH: In the beginning, I just wanted to make something poetic and beautiful, a film about the great potential in us as human beings. I wanted to capture the poetic moments with my film camera, but reality bites, of course. Later it became challenging to combine my roles as a film-maker and a mother. The most difficult part was when I was filming in their school and a conflict occurred. What should I do in cases in which my son is in trouble? As a documentary film-maker I seek conflicts and it’s necessary for the film I’m working on, but as a mother I want to protect my sons from difficult situations. I chose to include this dilemma in the film.

CS: I assume you had many hours of footage. How did you shape the narrative while editing?

I had hundreds of hours of footage recorded, and I had to find a way to choose the scenes that belonged to the story. When I selected the scenes I saw this picture in front of me, you know, the image of a raindrop containing the whole world. I used this image when I chose the scenes. Every small scene and situation had to contain something bigger. For example, when Markus challenges Lukas to jump into the cold ocean, the scene tells a bigger story. It’s about courage and fear; when you, as a young boy, stand on the edge of the world and doubt if you have what it takes to be a man.

Even if Brothers is a simple story about childhood and growing up, there are many layers in the film, and I had two find a way to structure the film. The dive that the film opens with structures the story into three main parts: the beginning, the middle and the end. I knew from the start that the film was about time passing in our lives. The theme is actually inspired by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. He once said: “An artist is like a ferryman that ties past together with the future.” In Brothers there are two timelines: the future and the past. The boys represent the future, and my family and I represent the past. I switch between these two perspectives throughout the whole film. The boat, which is passing through the ocean with my two sons in different ages, is a motif. I edited these scenes with archival footage of my fishing family residing in the western coast of Norway. Those scenes were shot by super 8mm camera.

CS: You were filming for ten years. Don’t you feel you have missed something out as a mother because of it?

AH: This project has been a part of our life for so many years. My husband, Tore, who is the producer of the film and the father of Markus and Lukas, also appears on the screen. He is the football coach. The film became our life, and, occasionally, I had an ambivalent feeling about it. What is most important: Life itself or telling stories about it? Of course, being present in our own life is the most precious gift we can have, knowing that time is passing and never coming back. But I knew I had this wonderful opportunity to explore what life is about – and I could do it together with my sons.

I also need to mention I made one important choice very early on. I decided on capturing the sound of my conversations with Markus and Lukas. I spend time talking to them before they would go to bed. We could have this calm and quiet feeling, and we could reflect upon life, etc. I continued these conversations for eight years. Now if you listen to the soundtrack, you “witness” them growing up and becoming young men. That’s touching, I guess.

CS: How did the phenomenon of brotherhood contribute to your research on life?

AH: When Lukas was five years old, he was so wise and philosophical. He asked a lot of questions. He could say: Mum, what happens to my dreams when I’m dead, are they still alive? On the contrary, Markus was so present in life, he was so brave and strong. He just loved to challenge himself and his brother. So I thought it was a wonderful idea to make a film about who we are straight from the beginning, and why we become the person we end up to be. In brotherhood you find what life is about: You find love, competition, hope. What builds you up and what destroys you. Everything starts with two persons, and every change starts in this close perspective. I wanted to tell about a beginning. When everything is new and fresh and life is waiting for you. The feeling you only have when you are young. The feeling of everything is possible.

CS: Did you expect such success you’re enjoying now?

AH: I didn’t dare to think about how life would be after the film was finished. I only focused on doing my best both as a film-maker and a mother. In the final phase I was somewhat afraid of not being able to finish the film. When I actually managed to end the project, I was so relieved and proud, that was really enough for me. I never thought the film would travel around the world and win awards. That is absolutely wonderful, and I’m so happy and humbled.

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.