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In Pursuit for a Better Life

I jakt på ett bättre liv is a documentary about Romanian beggars in Stockholm. It focuses on three particular Romanian women, Denisa Vasile(23), Sara Grancea (24) and Liliana Macău (49) who are just a few of the people who have come to Sweden in pursuit of a better life. We, in Sweden, see these people on the streets every single day but do we really know them? This is one of the questions that journalists/directors Caroline Kernen and Tova Kurkiala Medbo try to answer. Furthermore, we see the struggle these women go through in order to provide for their families who are still in Romania.

Caroline Kernen, director of the documentary I jakt på ett bättre liv, is a busy women. First and foremost she’s a journalist for Sveriges Radio so it took me a few tries before I had the opportunity to talk to her. Sitting in the Swedish Film Institutes cafe, I feel nervous but also excited to get the opportunity to talk to her. I sit, headphones at the ready, waiting for her call. We’d already corresponded quite a lot via text message and her pleasant tone and inclusion of a smiley face at the end of her messages makes me relax. My phone rings and I wait a few seconds so as not to seem too eager and I finally hear Caroline’s voice at the end of the phone.  We exchange a number of pleasantries, but we both have jobs to get to so we’re soon down to business.

Caroline begins by talking about where the idea for the film came from. She explains that it started roughly around 2012 as both Tova (Kurkiala Medbo) – another of Sveriges Radio journalists who shares director credit with Caroline – and herself began noticing many people begging on the streets where they lived. Over time they began to notice more and more and as journalists they were naturally inquisitive and wanted to find out more. “We wanted to know what they do and what they had left behind at home” said Caroline. The women later got a tip about a camp set up just outside Stockholm and traveled there to meet the people. Caroline told me that she was also frustrated by the images of the homeless painted by the media. It was not as simple as the media was making out and so she began, with Tova, to dig much deeper.

In 2012, Caroline wrote an article for SVT news about Romanian beggars on the streets of Stockholm and Uppsala. She noticed that begging was increasing within these areas but the view was somewhat divided. To quote the article “is it the poor, vulnerable people in desperate need of help or just cynical organized crime? Opinions differ.”  The article was entitled ‘Vi kom hit i jakt på ett bättre liv’ (We came here in pursuit of a better life) and this is where the film takes its title. I apologise to Caroline when asking her about this because in the first instance I had not noticed that she was the author of the article. I had done good research, as she stated, but obviously not well enough.

The film took a lot of researching. The three women that take the lead roles in the film were not the first family that Caroline and Tova had come across. They had spent time with a number of families and visited families in Romania too. However, there was something about the three women that they eventually decided on. For example, the women were very similar in age; two of the women were pregnant – and it was not their first child; they had several others at home in Romania. On a more personal level, the younger women were of similar ages to Caroline and Tova and so it made for an interesting reflection.  However, it wasn’t that easy to get the women to cooperate in the beginning. They were quite suspicious as Caroline and Tova were, in the beginning, journalists. The Romanian women wanted to know why they were interested in their lives and telling their story. “It was very important to build up a relationship with these women” said Caroline. This was not a short process. Caroline and Tova spent at least every week with these women over a period of one year in order to build this relationship and trust.

I note that there is no narrator in the film and I am curious as to why the women decided upon this. Caroline was sure that she wanted the film to be from the perspective of the women. “I wanted them to tell their own story.” I comment on how extraordinary the three Romanian women are, and Caroline tells me that the more they got to know the women the more their personalities came through. The women, even though they come from the same family, are not the same and Caroline wanted to show that these people cannot be put into the same homogeneous group. I believe this comes through very well in the film as it begins with showing the women as a family before moving off into their separate stories. I also ask Caroline about the reason for not interviewing the different authority figures in the film and she simply says that “it was not the film we wanted to do.” Of course they talked of these people, but Caroline and Tova felt that their film should focus on the women and not detract from them telling their stories.

At a specific point within the film, Denisa asks Caroline for money to buy a ticket home to Romania. I ask Caroline if the women at any point saw her (and Tova) as their ticket out of poverty. One several occasions, the women had asked for money from them, but Caroline explained that because they are journalists they can’t give them any money otherwise they would only be telling their story for money. “It’s a complicated relationship. It’s not like you are just friends when you make a film about someone’s life” says Caroline, and continues by saying that it was more to do with power relations.

I start to round things off by asking about the focus on women. Caroline and Tova are two women making a film about three women. At first I think my question is original and Caroline thinks it is interesting, but she soon confesses that she’s been asked this several times before. “Would people have asked if it was two men making a film about three men?” she says and I repeat myself to make sure I haven’t been misunderstood. We laugh and I completely understand where she is coming from. It should be natural that it was both by women and about women, not a surprise. Caroline also points out that there are many things that women can do that men can’t do and this was an interesting aspect to show in the film. Furthermore, I mention that this year’s Stockholm International Film Festival has more films by women directors than men – something the festival organizers were really excited about. I ask Caroline how she feels about this: “It’s unbelievable that we even have to talk about this in 2015, but we do, so I mean…Great!” she says. I then ask her if she would call herself a director, not to be offensive in anyway but it would be interesting to know. “I wouldn’t call myself a director…” she says “I’m a journalist.” – I think she’s being modest as this is her first feature film. What an achievement, I think!

My final question is why they decided to screen the film at the festival and not on television. Caroline hopes that it will be on television. She wants lots of people to be able to see it and appreciate it, even abroad.  She’s also proud to show the film in Stockholm as this is where the events happened. Unfortunately, time goes so quickly and so I thank Caroline for her time and I wish her the best of luck with her next project.

Lizzie Taylor

Lizzie Taylor is a British citizen working and studying in Sweden. She plans to complete her Master’s degree in Film Studies at the University of Stockholm in 2015.