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Life As a Grown-Up: An Interview with Anders Gustafsson

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Directed by Anders Gustafsson / Produced by Helle Faber for Made in Copenhagen / Country: Danish / Language: Danish

CPH:DOX

Director Anders Gustafsson has been following Xenia for over a decade. In his first film, Little Miss Grown Up, he tells fourteen-year-old Xenia’s story: she’s living in one of Copenhagen’s suburbs in a relatively poor family and is having to raise her three younger siblings. Now, she is twenty-three years old and expecting her first child with boyfriend Mathias. Gustafsson once again explores Xenia’s life, and the documentary Life as a Grown-up follows the struggle of young motherhood. Keen to break away from her difficult upbringing, Xenia struggles not only with the pains of being a mother at a young age, but also with the bureaucracy associated with having a child when you come from a rough upbringing. Xenia wants nothing more than to study, find a stable job and bring her son up in a healthy environment, but it seems the system is against her. With the authorities breathing down her neck on the one hand, and her common dysfunctional upbringing making itself felt on the other, even tasks like doing simple chores and going shopping become a challenge. But behind these struggles, we see two confident young people with real dreams and a stubbornness to make sure they happen. Gustafsson is a caring and observant director, and Life as a Grown-up is an excellent representation of the social reality associated with young parents.

We spoke to Anders Gustafsson about making Life as a Grown-up.

Anders Gustafsson

How did you meet Xenia and her family?

I met Xenia for the first time in 2006 when she was 13 years old. It happened after a long casting process when I and my co-director Patrik Book visited schools and youth clubs in Copenhagen’s suburban areas in order to find a young person who had grown up in a relatively poor family to make a film about her/his life. During 2007 Patrik and I followed Xenia as well as her mother and siblings, which became the film Little Miss Grown Up (Lille voksen in Danish) that premiered in 2008. The film was about Xenia’s life as a 14-year-old in Ishøj, which is one of Copenhagen’s suburbs. We focused on her liberation process from her complicated relationship with her mother and three younger siblings for whom she had taken huge responsibility. That film also talked about ‘the social legacy’, but, first and foremost, about how it was growing up with an excessive responsibility usually adults have.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how many young families live in Denmark or Sweden, so I’d like to hear why you wanted to make a film on this topic. Why did you choose Xenia as your main character again?

I’ve been always very interested in how much impact our upbringing has on us as adults; how difficult it can be for someone to break the cycle, to be able to live a better life than their parents had, and to be able to socially and economically move between social classes. Even if both Denmark and Sweden is a relatively well-functioning and egalitarian welfare society, one can find a lower class that has difficulties to move upward and forward. And the lower class is usually depicted in a condescending and prejudicial – or overly romanticised – way…

During the years I talked to Xenia now and then, but in 2015, when I came to know that she was expecting her first child, I contacted her again and asked her whether she would be interested in making another film about her life again. I saw this as an opportunity to also say something important about ‘the social legacy’ by following her and her newborn baby. Fundamentally, I was very curious about how a girl like Xenia with the background she had would manage to become a mother, and how she managed life as an adult in general. I wanted to portray Xenia and her boyfriend Mathias in an honest and fair way without any prejudices.

One can say that the film is very personal, it’s like Xenia’s journal, only on screen. I’m wondering how you worked with the characters. How did you build trust with them?

Xenia knew me well because of the first film, so when we started to talk about the second film project she’d already trusted me a lot – both as a person and as a director. She liked the first film, and she thought it showed her life in a fair and honest way, which helped me build trust between us again. I didn’t know Mathias before, but Xenia wanted to make another film, so she convinced him that I was okay. When I work on documentaries my aim is to create a kind of friendship with my main characters. I talk a lot about my own life and myself. I’m not afraid of speaking about my own deficits, shortcomings and problems. It creates a sort of safe place, which makes them want and dare to open up to me and consequently to the camera. I speak a lot about the film I want to make, and it’s important to me to be loyal to my main characters, in this case to Xenia, who is also an unusually fearless person. She knows a film must show the reality as it is, even if it might hurt. She isn’t afraid of showing her bad or less sympathetic sides. She wasn’t afraid either to show that she and Mathias didn’t manage so well – to have an order and to keep their home tidy. With time Mathias’ approach to the film and the project became similar to Xenia’s. In other words, I had an incredibly huge access to both Xenia and Mathias. And that fact that the film is like Xenia’s journal is a storytelling technique I consciously chose. I wanted the film to be understood as Xenia’s own story, told by herself, with her own words. Xenia also has an ability to use the language in a greatly rich, nuanced, drastic and amusing way when she speaks, which was a real gift to the film.

Xenia talks a lot about her upbringing, but mostly about her mother who isn’t provided with so much screen time to tell her own (side of the) story. However, it is enough to understand the story, and how the past affects the present and future. I think the film is also quite objective meanwhile it shows a world full of sorrow and hopes. What was your strategy when you were shooting and later editing the film in order to avoid being biased?

Xenia and her mother have a great amount of unsolved conflicts due to various events happened during Xenia’s childhood and teenage years. The plan was to follow Xenia, Mathias and their soon-to-born child from a few months before the birth to its first birthday. I was quite sure that during the long shooting process Xenia would contact her mother again, especially because she was to become a mother herself, and therefore she would need to find peace with her own mother.

Either they would reconcile or their conflict would worsen, I thought, but either way, the mother would definitely be in the film. However, as time went by it became obvious that Xenia and her mother would not meet or get in touch again. Then I understood I was the one who should meet and do an interview with the mother. Since Xenia was so angry with and critical of her mother, it was extremely important to me to let the mother talk as well. I wanted her to be seen as a person, not as an evil and bad mother because that was far away from the truth. She did the best she could, but her broken childhood could hardly allow her to do more. This is not an excuse, of course, but an explanation.

During the editing, the aim was to find a balance about what footage to keep: What could Xenia say about her mother and her mother about Xenia? It was quite a difficult job. My conclusion was that both of them in fact missed each other and wished not to have this conflict between them.

Some scenes are really difficult to watch. Was it tough to film the scene with the crying baby, for instance, without doing anything?

Of course, it was difficult to watch when Xenia or Mathias did wrong, but no parents are flawless. I have three children, so I know how hard it can be when one is tired and under pressure. I have never doubted that Xenia and Mathias loved their son, but they are young parents, and sometimes they do wrong. In addition to that, I never found myself in a situation during the shooting when I was forced to leave my role as documentarist/director. If a difficult or heavy situation occurred, we talked about it afterwards. I could be honest and frank with them, and sometimes I could also give advice to them.

Sometimes documentaries contain planned scenes for various reasons. Would you say your film is a real documentary, or are some scenes staged?

A documentary can be a lot of things, and it can be made in many ways. But, yes, it is a real documentary. The only planned scene was when Xenia and Mathias were reading the letter they had received from the hospital (neonatal ward), the one that informed them that a report was sent to the social services. They had received this letter a few days before the shooting, but their reaction to its content was natural and spontaneous at the time of the filming.

Making a film always entails a lot of work, energy and devotion. Sometimes it means lots of obstacles. Please, tell us about the challenges you need to overcome during filming.

The most difficult part of the job was to find the right balance: How to depict these people and this environment? How to avoid being speculative? How much responsibility does one have as a documentarist to the people one portrays? Beyond these questions, it was also a great challenge to get permission to film the meetings Xenia and Mathias had with the representatives of the social services. Even if Xenia and Mathias wanted me to film the meetings, this meeting, those, which were important from the film’s point of view, were nearly impossible to film.

Xenia reflects upon herself a lot in the film, and tends to draw parallels with her and her mother’s behaviour. Did Xenia and the others saw the film? What did they think about it and their life afterwards?

Xenia, Mathias and her mum saw it – both at the end of the editing process and at the film premiere. Xenia and Mathias think that the film gives a true picture of their life at the time when the film was shot. It was difficult for them to see themselves, but they also think it is a great and important film. •

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.