Director Donovan Swart On Exploring Family Grief In ‘Dear Mum’

In this interview with Close-up Culture, director Donovan Swart talks about exploring family grief in Dear Mum. The 25-minute short film looks into the life of Katie (played by Sophie Tergeist) and her fractured family as they try to come to terms with the death of her troubled mother.

Q: What led you to write ‘Dear Mum’?

A: A number of reasons really. As a writer you usually have a ton of ideas and stories floating around in your head, some more formed than others, the tricky part is picking the right one to pursue. It takes a bit of time to write a story, quite a bit of investment so you want to be sure this is the one. Sometimes one just floats up, sits there fully formed screaming to be written, others need a bit of help.

Dear Mum needed a bit of a push. Originally it was meant to be a feature that I wanted to write once I had gained a bit more experience and developed my skills more. It’s dear to my heart, partly a true story, well a lot of true stories really, so considering the subject matter I wanted to tell it right and do it justice.

However, Sophie Tergeist, a friend of mine, and eventual producer and lead of Dear Mum, was telling me how frustrated she was with the lack of strong female roles out there, most were pretty awful. So I decided that I would write a shorter version of Dear Mum, I felt it needed to be told, and show Katie’s strength, all the suffering she endured yet with fewer family members and told only over one day and time period.

Q: Through writing a letter, Katie attempts to come to terms with the death of her mother. Can you tell us about the significance of the letter and having this material way of confronting the past?

A: For Katie, like her father, she has had to endure quite a bit as a result of her mother’s mental illness. She has always had to be the rock for the family, having to be a grown-up before she had any right to be. As such, there is this resentment that she could never really express or be allowed to express.

Not only is this letter therapeutic, but it is also an opportunity for her to truly be honest with herself and for the first time, with her mother. This letter served a technical purpose as well. In short films, it can be hard to convey context (exposition), so by having the letter we are able to provide that context without taking up valuable dialogue.

Photo by Ivan Troopa

Q: You give attention to the struggles of each family member and explore the nature of the different relationships within the family. Why did you want to spread out the focus rather than drilling down on one person’s emotional journey?

A: Very rarely does only one suffer in a family when it comes to mental illness and suicide. Either people are affected directly, or they knock them onto those around them. I wanted to show that, I wanted to show a family struggling, not all the same but in their own way, and I wanted to show how they support each other through these difficult moments, and how they are able to heal by coming together.

This was always going to be a family story, yes Katie is the lead, the method for which we drive the narrative but really, she is the link that pulls in all the little stories and struggles together.

Q: Katie’s dad seems to be emotionally detached and unable to communicate with those around him. Can you talk about the silence of this character and the implications it has?

A: It stems from the old mantra of; suffering in silence. Charlie (Katie’s father) for most of his life has been married to a woman that has suffered from mental illness.

Through the years that illness has got progressively worse, her bipolar swings have meant that the family, especially Charlie have had to deal with quite a bit, supporting her, dealing with her swings, being the love of her life and her worst enemy, this has taken a massive toll on him.

So now that she has died, he is a bit lost, he’s going through and fighting with a number of emotions – guilt, anger, grief, relief. He is disappearing into his shell as he spirals further into a pit of despair, he doesn’t know how to cope, doesn’t know what to do with himself. I wanted to show his post-traumatic stress and how he is unable to communicate with those around him as he loses hope and disappears inside himself.  

Q: There is a beautiful scene in ‘Dear Mum’ where Katie and George talk on the beach. It conjured memories of Michael Almereyda’s ‘Marjorie Prime’. Why did you choose this coastal setting for ‘Dear Mum’?

A: There something calming yet frighteningly unpredictable about the ocean, I wanted to show the correlation between it and mental illness, the swings of depression and helplessness of its storms. You can’t control the ocean, all you can do is learn to navigate it, very similar in that sense to Katie’s and Charlie’s relationship with Fiona.

But the ocean is also the symbol of rebirth and new beginnings, new hopes, and voyages, as seen with the scene between Katie and George. Technically, it is very cinematic, a beach in winter sets a tone of drama and isolation. So I really tried to approach it for each aspect.

Q: Oleta Haffner’s original music brings a lot to the film. Can you talk about working with Oleta and the mood you wanted to capture in this short film?

A: She is an extremely talented composer and really understood the tone that I was looking for from the first read of the script. Working in such a creative yet collaborative art you truly have to surround yourself with talented and like-minded people to achieve your vision, so after I met Oleta and listened to her scores I knew she was the right person to take the film to the next level. She asked the right questions and her analysis of the story was spot on, she just got it.

So I trusted her from day one to go away and come back with a score that not only represented, accentuated and drove the narrative forward, it also encapsulated the resolution and new beginnings. She is truly wonderful.

Sophie Tergeist on the set of ‘Dear Mum’ – Photo by Ivan Troopa

Q: How was the shoot for this film and working with this group of actors?

A: It was fantastic, they were fantastic. I loved every moment of it. They’re all such a talented bunch, for someone that has never attended film school or even set foot on a set I could not have asked for a better group of people to help me make this film with.

They were all so patient, very helpful and offered great advice. They stepped on set every day with a smile on their faces and 12 hours later left with those same smiles, albeit, a bit more exhausted than when they first arrived. I was truly humbled by the work they put in and the belief they had in the story.

Q: What are your hopes for the film on the festival circuit and beyond?

A: To start with it would be nice to get some recognition, especially for all the work that has been put into the film by all those involved. I have applied to a number of festivals, we have been accepted into a few and rejected by a few. Which is nice and disappointing at the same time.

I have received mostly positive feedback, and criticisms have been constructive, which I’m happy about. I will make it available to everyone online very soon and host it on my own personal site, YouTube, and Vimeo.

Q: What is next for you? Can we expect more stories like ‘Dear Mum’?

A: I have a number of projects in the pipeline at the moment. I’m working on a number of scripts, some are collaborative, others I’m just writing myself. I want to continue to develop my filmmaking and writing skills, with like-minded people.

I would like to direct another short next year, but then I want to move on to a feature in a few years. It’s just about finding the right story, one that gets me excited, one that I feel needs to be told. All my ideas and stories are all quite different, in a genre that is, but all are steeped in the same theme; human suffering. It’s the one thing we all have in common.

Title image by Ivan Troopa

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