“You Can’t Be Sad When You Do Your Job”

An Interview with Norwegian Director Gry Elisabeth Mortensen

After the Nordisk Panorama screening of the Norwegian documentary Sealers – One Last Hunt, we had the chance to sit down with one of its directors. We have to tell you we have never really seen such a passionate film-maker as Gry Elisabeth Mortensen, so it was an absolute delight to talk to her. Cinema Scandinavia asked her about the journey she and Trude Berge Ottersen, the other director of the film, embarked on to make this incredibly honest film happen.

Let’s start at the very beginning! How did you find your story?
My colleague, Trude, who is a vegetarian, got the idea for the film. She spent the last two weeks of the hunt on the ship the year before. It was basically a research trip. After that, we kept doing research, and we eventually decided to make a film about seal hunting. There is a probability that this was the last hunt, actually.

Was it easy to convince the sealers/hunters about the importance of making this film?
Not really, even though Trude had to talk to the skipper (a person who has command of a vessel) several times before her research tip. Luckily, he realised it was really an opportunity for them to show the entire process of seal hunting and reflect their own life. Also, there hasn’t been made a film on it for such a long time, not an international one at least.

Were they all open to be in the film?
Espen, the first mate, had no interest in becoming a character in a film, hence a known person. He always says no to interviews, too. When we were doing the promotion in Norway, he was unwilling to come with us to TV interviews. He just wants to do his job as a seal hunter.

Why was it important for you to show the people how the job is done?

Gry Elisabeth Mortensen

Generally speaking, there are so many misunderstanding about the seal hunters around the world. Lots of myths and vague ideas are circulating in society, but ordinary people did – or still do – not know what happens during seal hunting. For example, when we were screening the film in cinemas around Norway, members of the older generations approached us and told us that they had no idea about how it was done, even if they often had family members, who were out in the sea every year. It was too abstract for them, but now they can get the bigger picture. Bjørne, the skipper, has been fighting for doing this profession for many years, starting during in the 80s and 90s, when it was Norway against the world in a sense. So he has been in a battle for decades, and now he finally got a chance to get his story to be told, too.

When watching the film, viewers can follow more characters. Who is the main one?
Both Espen and Bjørne would be the main characters. At the beginning of the filming, we were also following Håkon, the rookie (beginner), but he was fired. We didn’t see it coming, so we were quite surprised. That made a bit difficult for us to edit the film. When we attended the editing workshop at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, we already had the rough cut. We showed it to different people, and they were thinking the film was over with him being fired. So we had to edit the film to avoid being too emotionally attached to Håkon, but in way that we would still care about him. Therefore, we decided to start and end all scenes with Espen and Bjørne, and not with the rookie as we had it at the beginning of the editing process.

Is there an example you can give us?
For instance, when Håkon comes with his small suitcase to the ship. This scene originally started with him packing his stuff together with his mum before leaving for Alta. But later we made changes and started the scene on the ship where Bjørne and Espen doing something and looking at him in a strange way because of his suitcase. The scene ends with them as well.

To be honest, I was also bit a surprised when Bjørne fired Håkon, but for the reason that it seemed that was something not very Norwegian – if I can say that. How usual is that someone is confronted this way and then fired in Norway?

Trude Berge Ottersen

We actually tried to convince Bjørne to keep Håkon, and give him a chance, but then we got afraid of being fired too, so we stopped talking to him about this. It’s not a typical Norwegian behaviour. Not at all… telling everyone else, but not the actual person that he or she is fired. He was a bit coward in this particular situation. I also think that there was a clash between generations. The rookie, just like any other young people, is used to asking questions being a good thing. It shows that you are interested. But for the older guys, it’s just annoying, because they are used to a learning culture in which you’re standing on the deck and learning by looking at other people how they do, and then you try to imitate that.

I’m wondering if the composition of the crew is always like this, namely that only a few women are on board.
I’d say it was quite a standard crew, mainly men and a few women; sometimes the veterinary inspector is a woman, sometimes the chef, sometimes a few of the hunters. Helga, the Icelandic hunter, told us her story after the trip actually. She got this job by chance. She and her boyfriend were travelling around Norway, going from place to place to earn money. When they arrived in Alta, they were asking people in the streets how to get a job there, and someone suggested them to call Bjørne. They didn’t know anything about him, but were invited to his boat where they needed to do a bit of work, after which he asked them if they wanted to go seal hunting with him.

Helga freaked out at the beginning, because she thought she would not able to do this. But then she went anyway. It’s always difficult to get things done right first, but with time you become better and better. After some time she noticed she could do it even better than the guys. After experiencing this and coming out for two seasons, she felt she was like a new person. She had a very low self-esteem and was a bit shy. But after this experience she got more confident and started believing in herself.

So this is really a life-changing experience… In the film we can also see that there was a huge storm out there. You show some few funny scenes, for instance when the chef is trying to tidy up the kitchen. Weren’t you scared, though?
Both Trude and I loved it. But it might be hard to believe it, because that’s when we really got to work hard as film-makers. When the storm was happening, the engine stopped and we almost got stuck in the ice, but got out just in time. So you just didn’t have the time to feel seasick, or scared or nothing like this. Actually, when the weather was the worst, the spirit was the highest among the crew… like playing good music and cards, telling jokes, if it was possible, trying to keep a good atmosphere. Nonetheless, Bjørne and Espen needed to keep poker face, and not to show even a little sign of being scared. That’s what Bjørne also says in the film: “It’s like there is a claw around his heart but he can’t show it.”

You said after the screening that you had 300 hours of footage. So I’m wondering how you selected the scenes when editing the film. Did you have a concept before or were you kind of making the film on the editing table?
Oh my God! This was the most difficult part! We have so many situations we wanted to keep in, accidents and all kinds of dramatic things for example, but at the same time we didn’t want to show only these external things happening and ruin the film. We also wanted to give the audience an opportunity to get to know the sealers as people, to experience nature, the atmosphere. It’s a crew of 12 people, and all of them could have had their stories told, but we had to throw away those equally important things for the sake of the film. We also wanted to have these three characters, Bjørne, Espen and Håkon, to be different. So it was a bit difficult to find the right balance.

The music works really well in the film. Did you have something in mind regarding the music or did you let the composer come up with ideas?
We didn’t have any specific wishes at the beginning. First we tried orchestra music, but then we decided to keep it more on the ground, to keep it more real. Bjørne got the music style of Americana that also suits the environment, and kalimba fits well with the ice. We also had many discussions about using the fiddle when they reach Norway. We were thinking it would be a bit too much, maybe it would feel a bit more nationalistic when they are going up, taking the flag, but some said it is what you do on an expedition. We really spent lots of money on the music, but it was totally worth it.

Yes, making films is really not the cheapest thing to do. How did you secure the funding of the film?
It went quite well in Norway, we received funding from different parties; maybe because it was sort of the last chance to document this trip, and it can be regarded as a type of cultural heritage. Fritt Ord, a Norwegian private foundation, whose aim is to support freedom of expression and a free press, also gave money to us. Concerning the Norwegian Film Institute, they say it helped that we were young and our company was just launched.

We also spent lots of time on pitching: we came here to the Nordisk Panorama, the Sheffield Doc/Fest, for instance, and we had many meetings. We met international TV buyers and such. They cold also eat seal meat at the pitching table. I’d say there was a lot of enthusiasm in the air, and we thought it was a cool project and point of view. They might have thought it was another anti seal-hunting film when they saw it in the catalogue, but then they realised it was something else. However, with the exception of finding a sales agent and getting SVT (the Swedish national broadcaster) on board, I don’t think our effort resulted in very much financial support.

Don’t you think it happened because it’s such a Norwegian topic?
Maybe. I heard some of the TV buyers admitting that they were just too lazy and didn’t have the time to answer angry phone calls and e-mails. They were thinking about the people who are against seal hunting. Yes, strong emotions are connected to this issue, but this is also a bit strange. Of course, the animals are cute, but many think seal hunting is just something that should be stopped entirely, but they say it without actually knowing much about it. It makes me a bit sad that not so many TV channels picked up our project, because we really wanted to give people a chance to see what it was all about. A high number of people could have watched it on TV, those, who would not necessarily go to film festivals.

You have actions, friendships, and feelings on the boat. There were people coming to us saying they weren’t happy that feel-good music was played during when they were killing the animals. But for them, it’s a job. You can’t be sad when you do your job. They need to keep the spirit and energy level up, because it’s a hard work, you have to stand there for 10-12 hours, concentrating on tasks such as shooting the animals, jumping on the ice. But this doesn’t mean they are not doing it in a respectful way. It mush be also mentioned that they are hunting for harp seals, and there are millions of them. So it is really like hunting for deer, or other kinds of animals.

How was the film received at its premier at the Tromsø International Film Festivals in 2017?
Tromsø is an arctic town. It’s been so many seal hunters and explorers being based there. Of course, once we had the premiere, it was sold out after five minutes or something. People were so excited, everyone wanted to get a ticket. We had a week-long programme. The sealers came to Tromsø, we had championships with leg wrestling, what they also do in the film, the audience could take a selfie with the sealers, sit around a table and have a beer with them, and taste the meat. We also had concerts with the musicians from the film. I think the whole city of Tromsø was just an arctic city that week. Unfortunately, we can’t let the film screened so many times at a film festival since we don’t earn any money with it, so we only had two screenings in order not to have everybody see there. Luckily, a lot of cinema tickets were sold in the West coast of Norway, and in Norway general.

What other plans do you have regarding the footage you have?
At the moment we are working on four episodes to be screened on TV, which help us get to know more about Bjørne. He had conflicts with others, too, not just with Håkon. So it’s actually good that things such as Håkon being fired are happening; his crew does not so much about Bjørne either. Maybe it is because of the sake of working together for a few months, and it’s better not to get so personal, or maybe it’s easier to handle conflicts and such this way. I think it is just the culture that you don’t bring so much personal issues to your work. You focus on the trip and your tasks.

Your own production company, Koko Film, produced the film. Did you find it easy to produce the film without the help of an external producer?
I’m very glad that we did this film, because very often we had to decide from one day to the next whether we were going to travel to the other side of Norway to film a couple of days or not. I mean if we had had an external producer he/she would have said no due to financial issues. So this way we could control things, and we could put the money where we think it was needed. As I said before, we spent a big percentage of the budget on editing and the music. We just thought the music was important. It was an original score, and we worked on the music together with the composer for two years. I think it’s important to have the composer and the musicians on board already at the very beginning of production. We are going to this with our new project. We have already started working with the musicians and making sketches.

What is the new project about?
It’s a long-term project. We started it four years ago. It’s about five grown-up brothers, who have never moved away from their childhood home. They live with their mum and dad on a farm located on an island in the north of Norway. They have animals such as goats. So we can promote goat meat now with the 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.