Being Belfast-born, and Edinburgh-based, may not be an obvious path to making a film about Sweden, Swedish society and culture and set it in Stockholm.
But for filmmaker, critic and presenter Mark Cousins, it just makes more than perfect sense, and with his new fiction feature film Stockholm My Love, he does more than enough to do this topic justice.
Cousins’ approach to filmmaking seems fresh. Whilst maintaining a creative perspective and courage to do something different to the norm is at least partly what drives the northern Irish director, and Stockholm My Love is no exception to that way of working.
To make a film about a big city is not a new idea. To choose a city so rarely featured throughout the history of film, and taking an entirely different approach is.
Mark Cousins: My reason for wanting to make a film about Stockholm is because I know it so well. Because it has been under-represented in films, it makes sense to do so. Of course, it does provide the background in some films but seldom has it carried a film the way New York, Paris or perhaps Sydney has done.
Letting an under-exposed city carry a film is precisely what Cousins chose to do in his two most recent films. Half-fiction, half-documentary, I am Belfast from 2015, takes a look at the director’s home city.
The film helped lay some of the groundwork for Stockholm My Love. Strong working relationships were established, some of which would purposefully continue through to what was to become his second film focusing on another city Cousins had a strong connection to.
The two films are examples of work with some acclaimed names in the industry. But the style and way of directing for a documentary compared with making a fiction film does not differ much.
Mark Cousins: it did not feel all that different. I was working with a lot of the same people with cinematographer Christopher Doyle being one of them.
The film has an intimate vibe and tells an emotional story, a result of a really good working relationship between actor and director.
Mark Cousins: I was able to direct Neneh Cherry very specifically. It was a very intimate experience as of course you know when you are working with an actor, I really enjoyed it I have to say, and it was a lot of fun.
Having the freedom to make a fiction feature, you can give proper direction and instruction to the actors, whereas, when you are making a documentary film you cannot always tell people to look this way and that way in quite the same way.
Although he has northern Irish roots Mark Cousins has a clear passion for Stockholm, Sweden and a lot of things Scandinavian. It is a love, which has been part of him for a long while.
After years and many visits to the Swedish capital, he decided to make a movie filmed there and linking it to architecture.
Mark Cousins: I am definitely a creature of the north, a creature of the moon rather than the sun. I know the Mediterranean is beautiful but give me the Nordic world any day.
He sees Belfast and Stockholm as entirely different cities in terms of their vibe and the type of cultures they represent.
He talks of Belfast as being “a kind of melodrama” in comparison to Stockholm, a city of order with a clearly defined structure that has a welfare state.
Mark Cousins: we wanted to think about an idea around the Swedish model and that idea of a Nordic safety net, the fact that you are safe and you are not exposed to the extremes of capitalism.
With that idea in mind, the story could develop freely.
Mark Cousins: we wanted somebody to have undergone a bad experience, but we did not want it to be a straight bereavement, which we have all experienced. Instead, we wanted it to be something more unusual, so we started thinking what if there had been in an accident and the person died, on the lead character’s hands, but without it being her fault.
Showing the Swedish capital in its architectural, often overlooked, glory along with the culture is one thing, but an entirely fictional film about architecture and culture will not necessarily make it very far without a personal, human touch, in form of a character based story, there has to be someone we can relate to.
The story is based around female architect Alva Achebe, personified by actress and singer Neneh Cherry, who delivers a strong performance.
Achebe has been suffering from the traumatic effects of a car accident she was involved in where a man is killed. Although she drove the car, she is not responsible for the man’s death. Following the traumatic incident, she has lost interest in life and work and has been unable to laugh and enjoy things.
Casting for the lead part was an easy process, and Cousins and the producers quickly agreed on who they wanted to cast as the main character.
The basic premise also came to support the casting process and from the very start, the idea was to make a film about the city of Stockholm and about a woman.
Mark Cousins: we toured around a little, but I quickly thought of Neneh Cherry because she is Swedish. I got in touch with the producers and suggested who we should cast for this part. What about Neneh Cherry, I said? And it was yes! We did not know her at that point, we had never met her before.
She is fantastic and an inspiring person to be around. The way she is so thoughtful to other people, it is not all about her. She is hard-working, gentle and polite, she is a delight. We all of course fell in love with her immediately.
The film shows the therapeutic effects walking can have, and it follows Alva Achebe during a long walk around Stockholm as she visits some fine architectural sights she goes through the process of dealing with and recovering from the traumatic event, which took place just a year before.
Mark Cousins: when you walk around cities you often tend to think about stuff. You might be going over a row you have had the previous day. If it is something that happened ages ago and you sort of switch off as you drift through the city. An author like Virginia Woolf wrote a lot about this type of thing.
The process of walking has a positive effect on the lead character and it brings a fine harmonic closure to the story and the film.
Stockholm My Love was first screened at London Film Festival in autumn 2016
Due for screening as part of Exeter Phoenix’s upcoming film festival Scandifilm 2017 on 18th and 21st March
General UK release 16th June 2017