Lovisa Sirén is a scriptwriter, director and editor based in Stockholm. She has written and directed several shorts. Her films have been screened at, among others, the Locarno Film Festival and Sundance, and have won prestigious awards. Two of her films have been nominated for the Guldbagge.
Tara Karajica talks to Lovisa Sirén about feminism and film and her debut feature, “Maya Nilo (Laura),” a delightfully messy road movie where two sisters and a teenager daughter fight their way from Stockholm through Europe to Portugal. The film premiered at the 2022 Göteborg Film Festival and is now screening in the Europe! Voices of Women in Film program at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Lovisa Sirén: When I was around twelve years old, my friends and I used to borrow a video camera from our school. We had lots of fun with it, made sketches, music videos, and just played around making short films. Later, I wanted to work with film in some way, but wasn’t sure what role I should have; I didn’t see directing as something I could do for a living. I started with editing, then at Art School, I made a short film and felt I had to continue directing and making more films.
How did Maya Nilo (Laura) come about?
L.S.: It started with the idea to make a film with Bahar Pars and Zhala Rifat Pehrsson playing sisters. I had worked with them before, and felt they had a great chemistry and dynamic going on between them; it made me think of two charismatic sisters. I was interested in making a film with women in the absence of men, how we act in a closed space with no men around, in a family context with kids around. I thought an unintended trip would be the perfect setting for that.
The film explores female relationships, how they are with each other and with kids while, at the same time, breaking the boundary for what women can be and what they can do. Moreover, the sisters could not be more unlike and yet are “trapped” within the same family. Can you comment on that?
L.S.: I wanted to make a film with female characters I hadn’t seen on the screen before, that have a genuine complexity that I see from people in my own life, but missed seeing in films. Everyone in a family gets their role set within in the family itself, and it can be hard to break patterns and change behaviors from childhood and growth. I think a lot of times we try to free ourselves from those roles, but can easily get trapped in them. In other social contexts outside their family, the characters in the film could have been seen and behave quite differently.
It is a liberating adventure for all three of them, during which uncomfortable lies they tell themselves and truths behind the grudges they hold against each other come to the surface, all mixed with laughter and tears. Can you elaborate on that?
L.S.: I wanted the characters to have depth. Human beings are so complex; we always have contradictions in ourselves and a lot of times when push comes to shove, how we act doesn’t exactly match our self-image. I wanted to show the characters’ weaknesses and strengths and how the sisters and Laura must help each other out and liberate themselves through their differences.
Why did you opt for a road trip?
L.S.: I think it was an exciting setting for the story, how the characters are stuck in a car together. At the same time, a road trip is a feeling of freedom full of sensations and escape from everyday life. Something that I would like to see in a film.
Can you talk about Maya, Nilo and Laura? How do you see them?
L.S.: I have a lot of sympathy and love for all three of them. I see Maya as restless and free-spirited, warm and loving, but irresponsible. Nilo is a high achiever, hiding her anxiety by always trying to be strong and perfect. Laura feels she doesn’t fit in. They’re all struggling and trying their best, but are far from being perfect, and the story puts them on the edge. I recognize myself in all of them.
Can you talk about the casting and shooting processes?
L.S.: Early in the process, when I had a first draft of the script, I had a first rehearsal with Bahar and Zhala. It was the first time acting for Zhala and she was amazing, as was Bahar too. I did interviews with them as their characters and let them improvise. We worked and evolved some of the scenes together. For Laura, we had a traditional casting and tried out many young girls. We finally found Nadja who was one of a kind, and she was perfect for the part. One year before the shoot, we made a pilot where we shot some scenes that were not supposed to be in the final film that took place eight months before the story starts. So, the actors knew their characters’ backgrounds a long before the shoot. I think it helped us to get a deeper understanding for them and the story, how the film would be. We shot the film for two months, in Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Portugal. We tried to shoot it as chronologically as possible, but had to make changes because of the Covid traveling restrictions.
And, about look of the film – deeply saturated, 35mm, reminiscent of Almodóvar’s aesthetic?
L.S.: 35 mm film creates a look that I love, that to me can’t be captured digitally. Visually, I’m more influenced by films from ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s than newer films, that are more common to be shot digitally. As I worked with DOP Lisabi Fridell and Conceptual Production Designer Eva Torsvall, we wanted to create a universe for the film with a lot of color, but that was always dirty, messy, raw and imperfect in some way. We wanted something organic full of life and movement.
What were the challenges when making this particular film?
L.S.: It wasn’t easy to finance this film as for some of us it was our first feature film, and the shoot taking place in many countries in Europe would be complicated. When we finally had a green light, the pandemic broke out two months before the planned start of the shoot. We didn’t know when we could start shooting and it was a risk as the restrictions changed a lot. We took the chance to shoot as soon as the traveling restrictions were okay, and Covid cases were going down. During the shoot, Covid cases went up and new restrictions were set, so we had to change our plans several times. It was also challenging with all the different locations and distances, old cars that broke down, and shooting on 35mm film that we had to spare.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does this inform your filmmaking?
L.S.: Yes, I’m a feminist. I try to hire women and like to inspire other women filmmakers to make films the way they want to. I also like to make and watch films with female characters in the main roles. There are still statistically more male protagonists in films.
What subjects interest you and that you would like to tackle in your work? What would you like audiences to come away with after watching your films?
L.S.: What I would like for the audience to take away from watching my films is different for every film I make. With this film in particular, I want the audience to leave the film with a liberating feeling, and hopefully get some new perspectives through the characters. I like to have a comic take on tragic circumstances, and I’m interested in contradictions in human behavior, how we act towards each other, relationships…
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
L.S.: I recently rewatched Red Road by Andrea Arnold that I was inspired by when I first saw it in my early twenties. I still think it’s a great film. I’ve also been inspired by Jane Campion. And, recently by Julia Ducournau after watching Titane. I think the film was brilliant and something new to me.
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in the film industry these past four years. What is your take on the matter? How is it in Sweden?
L.S.: We’ve had some investment programs for women filmmakers in Sweden. I think it means everything for us to get a push early on. I’m not sure I would even have seen it as a possibility that I could be a director if it weren’t for this. There seems to be a misconception that women filmmakers can’t and don’t want to make commercial films with bigger budgets; I think that’s totally wrong and think we should get the same budgets as male filmmakers.
What are you working on next?
L.S.: I’m directing a TV series and have started working with a new script about a woman, a film that takes place in Stockholm this time.
Photo credits: ©Ellinor Sirén.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: