Stories We Tell: An Interview with Sophie Vuković

Born to Croatian parents in Yugoslavia, but raised in Australia, China and Sweden, Sophie Vuković’s identity is a complex one that is worth exploring. She aimed at showing her journey to her inner self in Shapeshifters, a film that resonates with many. We asked Sophie about various aspects of her first feature-length documentary and the challenges of working in the Swedish film industry.

Let’s start with the idea! When did you decide to capture it on screen?

– I don’t think there was one moment or even a decision. You live with some questions and ideas for a long time, and the questions of the film had been in my subconscious for a while: What is a home? How is belonging constructed? How do we reimagine the notions of home in a way that reflects our society today? These questions have been fundamental to me personally, and around three years ago I started filming and writing the film. Maybe because I felt a need to see more stories around the issues of migration and identity in Sweden. It started out with me filming conversations with my parents, almost like research or a film diary.

What were your parents’ initial thoughts when you told them you were going to make a film about your life?

– I think they were pretty suspicious. My parents are very down to earth, and the idea of making a film dealing with existential aspects of migration and belonging was maybe a little difficult for them to grasp in the beginning. I’m not sure they thought it would ever result in a feature-length film. But they still were happy to be interviewed and filmed. They wanted to support me. I feel this is why they let their guard down in the filmed conversations. If they had thought that this film would be shown in cinemas they might have been a little more reserved or self-conscious.

What did you want to capture during the conversation with them?

– It was important for me to show the relationship between generations in the film. As first-generation immigrant parents, they have their story and struggle of what they dreamed of building in a new country and wanting to give their children opportunities they didn’t have. My generation, the children of immigrants, have a different experience. I think the search for belonging or dealing with dual or multiple identities are things I have felt a little bit guilty talking about with my parents since they worked so hard for me to have the privileged life I have. I wanted to capture that dynamic and allow my parents to offer a different perspective than my own as the narrator of the film. I feel it’s important that they challenge me in the film. It’s a breath of fresh air, and it creates an interesting tension that you otherwise don’t get in personal essay films where the author has control over the narrative.

Your father honestly talks about the standard of living in Croatia. He also says that you’re lucky that you haven’t been brought up or live there. Coming originally from Hungary, I can completely understand what he means by this. Life is tougher in Central and Eastern Europe than in Scandinavia. However, it’s understandable that you’re looking for your roots. I’m wondering what your feelings were/are towards Croatia and whether you experienced a kind of aspiration to move there.

– I’ve always had kind of a romantic idea about Croatia, or maybe more accurately Yugoslavia since this is the country my parents have told me stories about. Croatia became an independent country after my parents moved away, and the country they came from no longer exists. Therefore, both my parents and I have very little knowledge of what it actually means to live in Croatia today. The narrative of Yugoslavia is no longer powerful in Croatia today, it’s rather the opposite.

I’ve often fantasised about moving to Croatia, but I think it has a lot more to do with not feeling that I belong in Sweden. You always imagine that life could be better somewhere else. It really is just a fantasy, and not based on real experience. I do think at some point in your life it’s important to get in touch with your roots, especially if you grow up with an immigrant background. But, of course, it’s not possible to feel you belong fully in your parents home country either if you were raised elsewhere. You’re kind of doomed to always be in this double identity, feeling a little on the outside wherever you are. I wanted to show that aspect in the film as well. For my parents, it’s a strange thing to see their children dreaming about going back to a place that they struggled to get away from, and that holds painful memories for them.

The question of home is one of the main themes in the film, and it pops up indirectly several times when you mention the years in Croatia (former Yugoslavia), Australia, China and Sweden. What does home mean to you and what do you consider home?

– I’m still not sure I know what it means. With Shapeshifters I wanted to try and look at the ways we construct home as a fiction, as stories we tell ourselves to try and make ourselves feel less alone. I suppose a nation is one of those stories. But there can be many, and we also have the power to decide which stories we want to tell ourselves about who we are as a collective. We can change the way we think about who is allowed to be part of our collective story in society. This is something we have to address in Sweden today: who is included in our idea of the collective? We need to expand these notions, and it’s great that this is happening on many levels such as in art, music, and social debates. It’s very important to feel included in the larger narratives in society.

On a personal level, my sense of home is rooted in my relationships with people whom I consider to be my home. My friends and loved ones. That’s why the whole film is rooted in the relationship with my friend from childhood. I think it’s through friendships and alliances that we get to redefine who we are, and choose new identities and definitions of home that are more progressive and open than traditional notions.

Your story is definitely not unique if we look at the contemporary Swedish society that is very diverse and multicultural. What message did you want to share with those who have similar experiences?

– I’m not sure I had a message in that sense. I’m more interested in questions than messages. I think film and all art has the ability to help people connect with their inner life, their emotions and experiences. I wanted this film to, if possible, provide those who share my experiences with a space to breathe with those experiences. We read articles about these kinds of issues, but we also need spaces to look at emotions that are complex and even contradictory. The film just invites you to be in the space of not knowing, in a space that allows you to be an open and undefined thing. That it’s okay not to choose one identity or another, and the question of where you come from may never really be answered in a simple way.

What did you learn about yourself?

– I’m still not sure, but it has had an affect on me for sure. All my films are very personal to me, otherwise I wouldn’t feel the need to make them. But I am not interested in making films as a kind of therapy, where I would learn things about myself in the end. I’ve tried to use the material of my own life to tell a story that can deal with these experiences of being in-between that a lot of us feel. What has been amazing is people’s response to the film, the fact that so many have been moved by it. That my own experiences can resonate with so many other people is really powerful, and I guess that’s the magic of film; that so many individual’s story can be shared through one film.

Films and film-makers definitely have power. Beyond that the perspective is mentioned a lot, and there have been several discussions on women’s opportunities in the film industry, for example. Do you think it is really a worldwide problem or Sweden has actually managed to address it and improved the conditions for women?

– To my knowledge, Sweden is definitely ahead of many other countries in terms of policies, like film funds are distributed equally between women and men. However, patriarchy and gender inequality are very deep-rooted structures in our society, there are still many factors working against women in the film industry. You can see it in the attitudes of male colleagues towards a female director on set, to how much confidence a financier will have in a female director to carry out their vision. There is definitely resistance on micro-levels. But I think the fact that the Swedish Film Institute has openly and publicly had gender equality as its goal and that this has been a subject of so much discussion has made a really positive change. There are a lot of really interesting female film-makers in Sweden today, so I guess we’re on the right path.

Did you encounter any hindrance during any phase of the production or distribution just because you’re a female film-maker?

– I’ve encountered more difficulty due to the fact that some financiers have seen this film as having a ‘narrow’ audience group because of the kinds of experiences it talks about. Over one fourth of the population in Sweden has experiences of migration or has parents from a different cultural background than Swedish, and there are many more who can relate to a feeling of in-betweenness for different reasons. Still, this is not seen as being a mainstream issue and the audience is expected to be small. This says quite a lot about the Swedish film industry, which is very homogeneous and where there isn’t a lot of diversity. So even though Shapeshifters has very universal themes such as friendship, coming of age, searching for your roots, searching for a home, it will always be categorized as a film on migration and diversity. This sometimes gives some people an excuse to put it in a box and not include it in what they would define as a more mainstream category of cinema. I think it can be hard for people in the industry to see past a perceived ‘difference’.

The film premieres in the autumn. What are your expectations?

– I’m looking forward to it. There is a lot of interest in organising events and screenings with discussions or debates around issues of identity in Sweden today. We’re going to have a number of screenings for teens and young people, especially those living in the outer suburbs and smaller towns in Sweden, who otherwise may not visit art-house cinemas in city centres.

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.