Swedish artist Anna Odell’s début feature is causing quite a stir. When one starts watching The Reunion (Återträffen), particularly when it’s part of the international competition at CPH:DOX, a festival that’s renowned for presenting work in the genre-free zone, one at first takes it in for the “re-enacted documentary” it’s meant to be. But then things start to get a bit complicated.
The opening scene is a high school reunion, where classmates who graduated together 20 years ago have gathered. But there is a guest among them who has something to say to all of them – something they really don’t want to hear, especially at a celebration. Shot like a feature film with three-camera coverage and superb acting, the first part of the film is a passion play of a “what if?” situation when someone confronts her childhood bullies head-on. The second half of the film was meant to be the individual meetings the director requests from her classmates to show them this short film of their reunion, get their reactions and have further dialogue. But this goal is thwarted and so Odell continues the reenactment, this time based on actual conversations she had (or might have had) with her former schoolmates.
Subtly raising many questions on the theme of bullying and group hierarchies – something the artist is intent on exploring in all of her work – the film becomes a terrific medium in which to provoke a larger discussion on the ethics involved in dealing with real people and events. It offers a complex construction, based in fact, but completely fictionalized within the context of a narrative film –emotionally engaging, thought provoking and thoroughly entertaining.
The Reunion was awarded the FIPRESCI prize for best début feature in the Orrizonti and International Critics' Week sections at the 70th Venice Film Festival. Last November, I sat with Odell in Copenhagen to talk about her process of making the film.
(Part of this transcript appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of DOX Magazine. I am re-publishing it here following the news that The Reunion has been nominated for the Doc Alliance Award 2014; the winner will be announced at Cannes.)
Still in Motion (SIM): The Reunion is quite moving in a very surprising way. Even though you're constantly shifting and changing your narrative tone, it’s cohesive. The emotional through-line never wavers.
Anna Odell (AO): In the way I can work as an artist or a director, I can realize those things to which I have only had a long internal process of thinking and feeling, to see what would happen if it got played out. In my work, I am very interested in this topic of bullying and in using my own experience. I started to write the speech I deliver in the beginning scene at the reunion, because it had been 20 years since this class of mine had left school. I wanted to go to this reunion and deliver it to them like I do in the film. But I got a message on Facebook from a girlfriend that it had already happened. Everyone had been invited but me. At first I was really disappointed because I wanted to start this art project at the reunion.
AO: Yes, I wanted in some way to document it. If I couldn’t somehow film anything, I would record it. For me, it’s really important that I don’t expose people who don’t want to be exposed, but I also want to be able to use any material I gather as I want. After getting this message, I had to start re-thinking things, to find answers as to what they were afraid of by encountering me again, and what could happen if they had invited me. But ultimately, it turns out, that it was even better that I wasn’t invited because otherwise this film wouldn’t have happened.
However, it was still important for me to meet my old classmates because as an artist, I want to use a real experience from which to launch my work. I really don’t want to talk about my feelings. I want to examine relationships. So this is how I decided to do this first part of the movie. Then, the process of contacting my classmates began. The meetings you see in the film are re-enactments of these meetings, not with the real people, but with actors. But not the same ones as in the first part.
SIM: It’s a fairly high level of difficulty to work both behind and in front of the camera. The film language you use is very sophisticated, even for an experienced director.
AO: Yes, it was all a new experience [laughs]. I wanted to make it work as a film. But probably the process was really different from the way most would make a movie. In Sweden, we can apply for funding from the Swedish Film Institute and from the television station. Usually, you have to have a very tight script, completely finished. But I just had this idea and a vague script of the first part of the film at the reunion. The idea was how it might be worked out in the second part but with nothing really developed. But they believed in the project and gave us some money for research and so I began to figure out the different ways to approach it, working with actors and shaping the narrative. We started a casting process where we would ask the men and women to tell us their own experiences from school. The actors, for the most part, have similar experiences in terms of where they fall in this hierarchy as they do in the film. So I gave them my idea of how they were as kids and then, together with their real-life experiences, we created the characters.
In the first part of the movie, we figured out the dramatic arc and what we were going to speak about by letting them use their own words. It was really important to me that it had this kind of authenticity. It was, therefore, risky for them, too. To create a safer environment, we rehearsed together a lot, but never the scenes from the movie. We were always our characters and got to know one another as the characters that we had created together. I think all this work is evident when you watch the film.
SIM: It’s evident mostly because you let things take a hugely dramatic, pretty violent course of action. We go from a somewhat subdued situation to something quite intense and extreme in an eyeblink. It's shocking. But you also really believe these people have known one another for decades.
AO: They needed to treat me as if I was a freak so that they felt fine bullying me. But then I’m also the director. To ease this process, we went back to school and acted together as if we were all 15 years old again. They could experience me not as someone they had to listen to, but be able to express this power they felt they had over me. Sometimes, it would just be me and one other person, or a small group of us, some all together, so the relationships could be built.
SIM: What does this one man who is always by your side in the second half – who plays one of your worst antagonists in the first half – represent? He becomes your ally or even, I could say, your intermediary, your collaborator, in the dealings with your former classmates.
AO: There’s almost too much to say about this because the process was so big and so intricate, and there are so many things we ultimately cut away from the film, a lot of really good stuff. But, somehow, it didn’t fit in to the main story. This is the case with Rikard [Svensson], the man you’re talking about. He’s the guy on the roof with me at the end. But my editor, Kristin Grundström, thought we looked like overgrown teenagers who were in love with each other and that was wrong. I wasn’t in love with him but something happens when we are together. But for the overall film, it just didn’t work.
SIM: It works on maybe some subtler level because you are so alone, so isolated with no one by your side and then in the second half – when you are taking control – he’s always there with you.
AO: Yes, it shows that I’m not alone anymore and that it’s not just me searching for revenge. It’s me, as a mature adult, who wants to examine these relationships.
SIM: Your presence, even though you are reliving a tortuous experience, is very light and most of the time very funny. There’s something so delightful in this little, delicate person with big eyes obstinately standing there and not going away until she gets answers.
AO: I think the answer lies in the fact that I am free from my history. Now, I’m interested in how it all works, this hierarchical structure that put me at the bottom. The first part of the film was very stressful because I’m dealing with a lot of people and three cameras. It needed to be very strategic, organized, meticulously choreographed. The other stress was the question: Can I really meet my classmates? How could I act to make it possible for them to talk to me and not feel like I wanted them to feel guilty and view me as still coming from that low place? How do we speak about that history together? It was really problematic. I didn’t necessarily want this confrontation where I would corner them and say, “You are a bully!” I really wanted to know how they saw it.
Almost everyone would answer when I called the first time. When I tried to then coordinate meeting with them, they didn’t answer. We have this famous investigative journalist in Sweden called Janne Josefsson. My editor told me, “Anna, you have to be like Janne Josefsson.” [laughter] But, interestingly, their reactions were reminiscent of how they would avoid me when I would ask to play with them at school. Now I was calling and calling and calling because I wanted something from them. It wasn’t for my own feelings this time, but for the film. But I think for them it was really much the same as the other and they just wanted to avoid me and came up with every excuse not to meet with me. All of a sudden, they had a new number or they lost their phone or had no time for the next three years [laughter].
SIM: I want to ask you about one of the last scenes, another point at which you shift things again to talk about this idea of representation and recreation. One of your subjects approaches the actor who plays him in the film, and they proceed to have this discussion about what it’s like to have yourself fictionally portrayed. It becomes a very funny and surreal discussion, and in the same light-handed way, you broach a topic that is rampantly – and quite seriously – discussed in documentary circles. Why did you include this in your script?
AO: In some ways, I wanted to tell the audience I was aware of what I’m doing in this film or in the way I chose to make it. And that it’s highly problematic. Maybe I did hurt some people along the way in the way I portrayed them and that they feel like I’m using them. I wanted to express that I’m aware of all that. But I hope it’s not too much. I’m also very interested in these layers of fiction and reality. My favorite lines are when the real guy – who is an actor – says to the actor who portrays him that it’s not every day you meet the guy who plays you in a film. And the actor says, well, it’s not every day you meet the character you’re portraying in a film. The scene didn’t happen, but it could happen. Maybe it will happen. [laughter]
SIM: How was the medium of film essential in the way you constructed this project? Why didn't you stage it as an installation piece or something along those lines?
AO: I chose this way because I thought it was the best way to explore this theme. At the beginning, I really did think I could make the second part possible, but then I did realize that it was going to be really hard, or impossible, to get to talk to them. And then it all had to be a re-construction. I had a really strong idea but so many different angles I could have explored and there were many alternatives I had to put away.
This was a really, really good experience and fun to do this movie. I would love to do it again. But, for me, the most important thing is the theme, to keep exploring this interest of mine. There might be another film but there might also be another way to keep exploring it. I am very influenced by how people react to power, the role of the victim and the role of the person who has the power and how that relationship happens. My last project turned out to have so many different outcomes, some of which really surprised me. [Odell created and performed a highly controversial and divisive art installation called Unknown, woman 2009-349701, where she enacted a psychotic episode on a bridge in Stockholm. She was later fined for violent resistance and fraudulent practice.]
SIM: Yes, but here we can then talk about the hierarchy of art and film criticism, which is something that fascinates me personally. In reading about your other project and the various reactions to it – both as an art installation and as this irresponsible stunt done by this woman calling herself an artist – you see the ways in which this power is wielded. Most of it, not surprisingly, is quite chauvinistic in nature, including the criticisms The Reunion has received.
AO: Yes, you can see in the ways that certain people react to the movie, what kind of person it is. I read the review in the Hollywood Reporter. The guy that wrote the review said that this was the work of a narcissistic artist who wanted to put herself front and center and that really, I am not interested in analysis at all. He writes a bit about my earlier art piece and seemed to take his information from the people in the media who didn’t like it and called it a suicide attempt. This is not the truth. I never pretended as if I was going to take my own life. In fact, no one who was there thought I was going to take my life. They called the police because I was underdressed for the cold and displaying this behavior that made them feel as if they just couldn’t leave me there. Those who also said I was violent and hitting people at the hospital were lying. I did no such thing and it was proved that no such thing happened by the eyewitnesses who were there. But once this information is out there, then people cannot change their minds about what they “heard” had happened. It’s too late to re-think things. Many people in Sweden still believe this version reported by the media.
I mean, I’m not saying that people can’t have a negative reaction to what I do or think this film is a bad piece of work. As the artist making the work, I find all this really, really interesting because all of this happened not because of me as a person – no one really cared about that or even knew who I was – but that it had been staged as an art project. This was where the real controversy was. So I saw this misuse of power first-hand from the media and from the courts and also how people perceived art and what art is. I got so much out of it! I expect the same from reactions to this film.