Film

Interview: Director Fanny Ovesen On Exploring The Female Gaze In ‘She-Pack’

Fanny Ovesen is a Swedish writer and director who takes on issues of social norms, structural power and privilege in her work. In her latest short film, She-Pack, Fanny uses a young girl’s pool party to explore the female gaze and challenge gender bias.


Q: I understand ‘She-Pack’ is the story of a young girl’s pool party that descends into anarchy. Can you tell us more about it? What did you want to explore?

A: The idea was born when the all-female crew discussed our experiences of being raised as “good girls”, always behaving, being responsible, preferably cute, and expected to take care of everyone including ourselves. However, we also had some intense memories of pushing the limits of our strength and capacity, and when doing this we often ended up hitting too hard since we weren’t as used to these kinds of games as our male friends who were always playing around measuring their strength.

We felt eager to explore how an audience would react to small girls who, for once in a while, don’t behave innocently and pleasingly – but who act immorally and take up space in the world.

Q: There is an interesting moment in the trailer where the camera moves through the girls as they stand still. Given you worked with an all female crew, were you very conscious of exploring the difference between the male and female gaze?

A: We discussed the female gaze all the time, especially since it’s a bit difficult to know what it actually could (or should) mean. If the male gaze is typically objectifying women, what should the female gaze do? Objectifying men? I don’t think so.

Jill Soloway had a fantastic masterclass at TIFF in 2016 which I was really inspired by, where she defined the female gaze as an empathetic gaze which feels rather than observes, and which strives to understand the characters as subjects in all their complexity. That really talked to me. I love the thought that more women behind the cameras and scripts will lead to a complete new way of making films and looking at characters.

We also realised that stories about young girls in this arena – a public bath – often have centred on sexuality and the transition to adolescence, and liked the idea that the audience might interpret this as “one of those stories” at first, and then slowly realise that it’s about girls in a role we rarely see them. The use of a female gaze – the look on the girls as subjects, who discover that they are more than they’ve been told – definitely plays a role here.

I’d also like to point out that the female gaze doesn’t only have to apply to cinematography – I encouraged all the core crew to explore it. We worked a lot with it in both sound design and music, for example. I defined the story to fundamentally be about small girls discovering a power within themselves, and the sound designer put a lot of effort into finding the sound of the girl power.

The music is also important – since the girls can’t really control the power yet, they “hit too hard” and eventually lose control, and I wanted the music to have an ambiguity between feminine power and destructive deformity that I think composer Juno Jensen captured really well.

Even Ruben, our visual effects supervisor (the core crew was female, but we had a few amazing men in the crew as well), was encouraged to try to explore the female gaze. I strongly believe that it could be regarded as a concept that also men should be able to work with, just like women can be unintentionally affected by the male gaze since it’s been used as a convention in the cinematic language for ages!

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Q: From watching the trailer, I have been particularly struck by your use of colour and lighting. I am especially thinking of the image where one of the girls plunges into the pool and is surrounded by what looks like blood. It creates a compelling contrast between the blue (socially associated with boys) water and the reddish/pinkish bloodlike colour. How did you want to use colour to underline what you were exploring in ‘She-Pack’?

A: Artistically I wanted to explore subjective realism, applied through the child’s gaze – our protagonist Ronja. The story is experienced through her, and while we begin with not so much at stake in the realistic world (a boring birthday party that she was invited to where she doesn’t really have any friends), as Ronja and the girls start challenging each other and pushing their limits, her thirst for power grows.

The rooms and lighting at the pool party increasingly mirror her inner mood, from light and pinkish (typically associated with the innocence of girls) to dark and red (more associated with danger and violence, but also with seduction – and there is definitely something seducing in this type of game for Ronja). We wanted to use the colours to explore a girl’s inner urge to push limits, explore, try out her strength and eventually her rage – these are character traits associated with boys but that we mean that girls possess too to various degrees, only we aren’t expected to act them out.

The image you mention in your question is definitely an anticipation of all this, but I give all the cred to my gaffer Isabell Dahlén – we we’re shooting it, and spontaneously she tried putting one of the pink lights above the surface and it created the bloodlike effect. Lucky us!

Q: How did you approach the responsibility of working with these young actresses? Any fun/interesting stories from working with them?

A: I was definitely a bit anxious about how to take care of the girls while also making them do a lot of harsh, immoral actions, both towards each other and towards harmless people in the story. They were between 9-12 years old and were also going to be on camera in swimming suits on a short film that was going to screen on TV, so I had to be sensitive with them.

Firstly, I spent a lot of time with them before the shooting, both just hanging out and getting to know each other, but also improvising scenes with the same emotional content as the ones in the script, so that they got used to working together as actors. We also talked a lot about the characters on an emotional level – why they do what they do – and there are reasons for everything, they all try to impress one another, to become the leader of the pack, to find their place in the group – and that was understandable for them.

And I’m pretty sure I didn’t raise a group of gangsters – the only time we had someone crying on set was when the alpha girl in the group was supposed to bully the protagonist, and she thought her character was useless doing such a horrible thing and started crying due to bad conscience.

This happened the first day, and already the second day we were going to shoot an unpleasant scene where they were going to brutally tear a mannequin apart. I was a bit afraid it was going to be a bit of a juicy scene to shoot already on the second day, but leaving the set I overheard one of the girls saying to another: “I can’t wait until tomorrow, I LOVE ripping things apart!” I smirked to myself and reminded myself that the whole reason why we were making the film was because we didn’t believe girls are as innocent as they are usually portrayed.

I also noticed a beautiful development in the girls. In many of the scenes they needed to be high on adrenaline, and we warmed them up before every take by boxing on a pillow. In the beginning of the shooting many of them were inhibited by not believing in their own strength, feeling self-conscious, only hitting the pillow half-heartedly – in the way many girls are (and like I was that age). At the end of our nine days together there wasn’t the slightest hint of hesitation in their eyes – they were smashing the pillow hard as they could, and my poor director’s assistant could barely keep up the resistance. It was wonderful to see!

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Q: ‘She-Pack’ is currently making waves on the film circuit. What do you hope audiences take away from the film? Have you had any interesting reactions to it so far?

A: I would love for the film to provoke discussion about what is expected of girls as opposed to boys, and what the consequences can be when we restrain girls’ urge to explore and test their limits in a way that we generally don’t do with boys.

But, there is also a big part of me that would love it if the film can resonate differently in different people, and it seems to do. One guy told me that he’d never seen anything that felt more like a dream before. Some interpret it like a modern Lord of the Flies. When we screened it in Berlin two women about 50 came to talk to me afterwards – one of them absolutely loved it and thought it was the most liberating film she’d seen all year, and the other one had to supress her anger and couldn’t understand why I’d want to portray girls in such a destructive way.

One boy around 12 asked me why I made such a pervert movie, referring to some of the girls’ mischiefs (a question I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have got if the film was about boys the same age)!

Q: In your previous short film, ‘Smil’, you worked with Liv LeMoyne, who UK audiences will fondly remember from ‘We Are The Best!’ (Vi Ar Bast!). How do you look back on that project and working with Liv?

A: I made Smil together with my director friend Brwa Vahabpour, with whom I studied at film school. We wanted to shoot a short film over summer, something practically simple but artistically and psychologically challenging – a power struggle between two characters in one room.

The film is about a young girl who is subtly harassed on an audition by an older man, and who decides to take revenge and ends up going too far. We wanted to explore if we could make the line between perpetrator and victim feel nuanced and blurry.

Liv is an incredibly intelligent actress. We lived together during the shooting and evaluated each shooting day, so I knew what she went through and how much I could dare to push her. We shot chronologically during four days and each day was super different which was also very exciting; day one they had a good, almost romantic vibe, day two he abused her psychologically, day three she had her revenge and day four we shot something which could easiest be described as an action sequence – and I learnt loads from going through all this and then processing it together with her each night. I look so much forward to working with her again.

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Q: Who – or what – has been the biggest influence on you as a filmmaker?

A: If I have to choose one thing, I’d say it has to be my feminist awakening. It began when I was 16 and started taking an interest in politics and human rights issues. I suddenly started questioning the way the world is organised.

Soon I realised how I was personally affected by the gender-power order, in which male is superior to female. I realised that I, along many other girls, always understated my own competence. That I always put everyone else’s needs in front of my own. That I put way too much energy into adapting my personality and remodelling my body in order to please the expectations of others. That I agreed to sexual activities that I didn’t feel like, not to hurt others’ feelings. That I let older men subtly harass my body in professional situations, since I didn’t want to make things awkward by asking them to stop.

My feminist awakening affects the themes I take an interest in, the characters I develop, and the way I now try to live my life as a woman. And since my personality is deeply interlaced with my profession, this is probably what has affected my artistry the most.

I wish to point out, though, that my artistic fascination isn’t limited to questions dealing with women’s experiences – but this knowledge definitely helps me understand the way structural power and privilege works, also in cases when I’m the one in a privileged position. I’m generally fascinated by norms – how they work, what they do to people, and what happens when people try to free themselves from them (which is what She-Pack is all about, really).

Q: ‘She-Pack’ is your graduation film for The Norwegian Film School. You touched on it just now, but what do you hope to do with your voice as a filmmaker in the future?

A: I went into filmmaking with the idealistic idea that film would be an artistic way to work with subjects that I’m passionate about and things in society that I find unfair. This is still true, of course, but the more I try to create interesting stories, the more I realise that a strong subject or an injustice isn’t enough.

You need complex people with complex behaviours and surprising storylines, and the subjects that I find the most interesting are often the ones that I don’t really know what I feel about or that provoke me or where there are questions left for me to try to unravel.

When I already know what I believe, trying to translate my perspectives into something artistic the result often becomes banal. Therefore, nowadays I try to strive for what is complex, without easy answers, where the audience is left with a few questions that can linger in them and perhaps grow into ideas.

But to summarise – I make films with a halfway existential, halfway political entrance – and there’s got to be a certain amount of necessity to the subject for me to feel the urge to put my energy into it.

Right now I’m working on my first feature film with the working title Laura, which I’m developing with B-Reel Films in Sweden. It’s a coming-of-age road movie about a 19-year-old girl, based on own experiences and with a complete different plot than She-Pack. It contains some of the same thematic content, though, and is definitely a way to scrutinise my own more or less destructive female behaviours and my urge to break free from them. Let’s hope it comes true.


 

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