Who We Were: An interview with the director, Sine Skibsholt

Kristian and Mette Line met 12 years ago. They fell in love, travelled, and focused on their careers. Later ”you and me” became a family when they had their children, Celeste and Cyron. Two years ago they bought their dream house outside Copenhagen where they were supposed to live out their many dreams and ideas about life. But one day, 39-year-old Kristian collapses from a blood clot that destroys one-third of his brain. The damage is irreversible, and life as they know it comes to an abrupt end.

Kristian spends the first year in intense rehabilitation so he can move back home. Mette Line supports him, remodels the house to accommodate Kristian’s new needs, takes care of the children and goes to work. At the same time, she struggles to recognise the man she married because the brain damage has changed Kristian. And who are “we” when one of us is no longer there?

Who We Were follows the young family during the first year after the fateful accident and is a portrait of love in the face of catastrophe.

We spoke to the documentary’s director, Sine Skibsholt, about Who We Were, which won the First Appearance Prize at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam in 2016.

Can love survive in the face of tragedy? What happens to the love between two people when brain damage suddenly kicks in and turns your world upside down? How legit is it to leave your husband because his personality has changed completely? And what are the consequences of taking such action?

Thorough, intimate and brutally honest, director Sine Skibsholt’s deeply affecting debut Who We Were tackles these questions and much more. The engaging documentary raises universal ethical questions rarely up for debate, let alone, engaging open discussion.

The Danish director embarks on the remarkable journey and follows the young married couple, Kristian and Mette Line Boserup, who are struggling to adapt to life after Kristian has suffered major damage to a third of his brain.

Safe in the knowledge she wanted to show a different side to living with brain damage in her film, instead of picking the conventional perspective of purely seeing things from the person who is ill, she chose to focus on how it also affects the partner on a big scale.

We follow the established, comfortably well-off married couple’s daily lives after the tragic medical emergency during which Kristian suffers a blot clot in his throat. Subsequently the vein bursts, instantly preventing the supply of blood to his brain, causing irreversible damage.

Kristian’s personality is forever changed and the couple finds themselves having to get to know each other again in a situation that also forces them to make major changes to their daily lives. His wife starts to rearrange the layout and design of their house to accommodate her husband’s new needs.

Before the accident Kristian was an ambitious professional, working for an advertising agency, but he now struggles to put his jacket on or even set the table, forcing his wife to step in and take over all housework and look after their two children. Once arriving back home from the hospital, he spends most of the time in the house, unable to work and requires help with daily hygiene, getting dressed and struggles with planning and coordination.

To say it is a brave film is an understatement, it is thought-provoking and raises important questions about what can be considered the right or wrong human behaviour in society. Skibsholt forces her viewers to consider what they would do if ever placed in similar circumstances or identify with decisions or actions taken in the film and the reasoning behind them, should they already have been in a similar situation.

If you wonder what makes a young director put such heavy emphasis on the brain and how damage may affect it, it comes down to genuine interest and a lengthy research process meant that she had a very good idea of what she was letting herself into and what twists and turns the story could take.

Sine Skibsholt: I knew wanted to spend time with the couple until they had both moved on, whether this would mean staying together or by separating. Based on my research lasting nearly a year I knew that for younger couples with children there tends to be approximately 50 percent probability that they might decide to go their separate ways. It is simply too much to deal with.

For many young people, this is followed by a sense and knowledge of having a large part of their lives left and a determination to not let such a heavy situation take that away from them.

The full extent of Kristian’s personality change is clear and Mette Line’s feelings change. From conversations with friends, we learn of those feelings and she discusses what action is appropriate to take.

Mette Line admits that things might have been different had this happened later in life, after their children had perhaps left home, then she would maybe have considered dedicating the rest of her life to supporting Kristian’s needs.

Sine Skibsholt: I have previously witnessed elderly married couples in rehabilitation sessions during which one of them has cried and felt completely overwhelmed because their disabled partner is about to return home. It is a huge responsibility to take on. Here is a person you love and care about but the disability has made that same person unrecognisable.

To suddenly be expected to step in and fully support a loved one can be overwhelming and highly challenging. The Danish healthcare system tends to let the partner look after all aspects of the care and only offer support to a disabled person who lives alone.

The director wanted to give a different perspective as she feels there is a tendency to focus on the person who is unwell, and forgetting to acknowledge that both partners may experience deep unhappiness, and perhaps, even go as far as to say that the partner who is well, might have even more reason to be unhappy, but is expected to stay strong for the other and keep things together.

As preparation for the film, and as part of her research, Skibsholt was acutely aware of the specific nature of her topic, but she also saw its potential to be a topical film, engaging audiences and opening debate.

It is remarkable to see just how close she gets to the couple and the level of access and intimacy that brings to the film, so it is not hard to understand why she might occasionally have felt the need to question her own motivation for pursuing a film project of such intense complexity and ambition.

Sine Skibsholt: It is so precious to be present during such a vulnerable time in someone’s life as a film-maker. On the one hand, it is a bit like ‘what I am trying to achieve by doing this’, and then there are times where you also begin to question your entitlement to be present during what might be the worst time of their lives and consider if that makes you a voyeur.

Her style of documentary making is individual, founded in classic fly-on-the-wall-tradition but seen through a fine poetic filter. It makes for a beautiful eclecticism suitable for the type of story she is telling.

The genre lets the stark realism unfold gradually along with the story lines with all its twists and turns, and the poetic filter allows the theme of love to shine through, but not in the sense we are so accustomed to seeing, and the unpredictability adds a further sense of authenticity.

What initially appears to be a slow-paced film is by no means slow in a traditional sense, and there is, of course, a purpose to that anyway. The viewer gets an in-depth understanding of the couple’s new existence and this intimacy makes us feel part of the story and we get to know them properly as people.

There is a real sense of watching scenes of dramatic intensity and there is a temptation to consider if those scenes were created for the camera to go with scripted dialogues, but no, that is definitely not the case.

Sine Skibsholt: They are such strong characters and I had a solid format to work with, which probably makes it far easier to think that some scenes were created. I had so much material, so I could tell the story visually but I can assure you that none of the scenes were scripted or set up beforehand.

It is far more gripping than most fiction when the climax is reached when they have had enough of each other, they change and move in different directions, Kristian regains some of his dignity and becomes more independent towards the ending, and Mette Line makes her big decision before taking action.

Sine Skibsholt: To have witnessed some of the dramatic scenes in the film is totally incredible but that is precisely why I make documentaries, it is just so fascinating when reality completely overthrows imagination or fiction and you get the sense that what you are seeing would be unrealistic if the same thing happened in fictional drama because they would seem too far-fetched.

Off-screen Mette Line and Kristian are living apart now, they have commenced a new chapter in their lives and are both coping well.

The process of being part of this film is very important to them. Kristian has found a suitable job and Mette Line has also returned to the working world as a teacher.

Sine Skibsholt: Being featured in the film means a lot to them and they both see it a bit like therapy. It means that they have seen a lot of each other and been forced to talk about the film in various interviews and with that comes forgiveness. They are doing really well and that is so great to see, they are able to look at things at a distance and better understand what they have gone through.

One thing is very certain, it is well worth keeping an eye on Skibsholt’s future documentaries to see what key topics she is will be covering next as they are bound to be of great importance and relevance.

Susan Hansen

Susan Hansen is a Danish writer and qualified journalist. She is a regular contributor to national and international magazines and websites. Originally born in South Korea, she has previously lived in Glasgow and Copenhagen. She works for the BBC, in Radio and Music, where she has gained experience in production of television, digital and multi-platform media and has helped cover several large events for the organisation.

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