Isabella Eklöf

Originally from Sweden and currently based in Denmark, Isabella Eklöf graduated in Film Directing from the University of Gothenburg in 2007. In 2011, she also graduated from the Danish Film School’s Directing Program in Copenhagen, Denmark. Having started out in the independent theater scene in Stockholm, Sweden, Isabella also works in editing and screenwriting and translates to and from Swedish, English and Danish. She has published translations and a short story in Swedish. Isabella has directed eleven short films, several of which have been screened on the international film festival circuit. In 2012, she received the Bisballeprisen, a prestigious Danish art prize, for the work on her graduation film “Notes From Underground”. Isabella’s feature debut, “Holiday”, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2018 and has since been selected for festivals like the Gothenburg Film Festival, the Moscow International Film Festival, the BAFICI, the Jeonju International Film Festival, the Istanbul International Film Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival and BFI London among others.

Ahead of the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Voices of Women in Film”, Tara Karajica talks to Isabella Eklöf about women and film and her debut feature, an unforgettable, finely detailed and at times extremely disturbing study of a young woman who overcomes her passivity in an explosive way, that also is screening at the festival.



How did Holiday come about? What drew you to this particularly tough subject?

Isabella Eklöf: It started with a book I was given by a producer that is written by my co-writer, Johanne Algren, and it’s about a girl in a similar situation. Using the book, we started working together to develop something that is more cinematic than the book and maybe more unique.

What is Holiday according to you?

I.E.: Well, it’s a lot of things. I think, to me, it’s very much a metaphor for capitalism and the moral compromises that everybody does. It’s also trying to put the spotlight on how submissive women are or are expected to be and behave even if they are so-called strong or independent women.

Holiday can be viewed as a study of male violence, a thematic that is very much discussed in the film industry today…

I.E.: I don’t agree, because I don’t think there’s so much violence in the film. She gets three slaps and the guy is kicked down the stairs and, of course, there’s murder, but that’s on a different level. I don’t really think the film is very violent and I don’t think that’s the subject. I haven’t consciously put violence in the film, for example. I think it’s more about psychological domination than physical domination.

Going back to the submissive nature of certain women, this is also very much talked about now in the film industry, and your film is, therefore, very timely. Can you comment on that?

I.E.: I think it’s amazing what women go through. We haven’t been talking about what women are going through. I, myself, and I think everyone I know who has been subjected to horrible treatment from both men and women and who were supposed to put up with it and just think it’s funny or part of a game or of life, it’s really important we speak about it very clearly. That’s why the whole #metoo thing was such a revolution because it got us speaking about things that used to be forbidden to talk about. Generally, I think it’s extremely dangerous when something is forbidden to talk about, because that’s when really bad things start happening underneath the surface.

You opt for a cold, detached, clinical approach in terms of aesthetic to tell your story. Why?

I.E.: That’s always been the way I make films. I am a cold and detached person. My approach to filmmaking is in the Brechtian tradition where you try to stimulate the audience to think instead of feeling, but, of course, they also have to feel. So you’re balancing between telling a story that’s engaging, but trying to sort of lure them over to an intellectual state of mind. And one way to do that is to have these long shots that go on for a long time because that encourages the audience to start activating their brain and start looking around and choosing what they want to focus on. And also, I think for me, filmmaking is a study; I’m understanding stuff as I’m doing it. I wouldn’t want to do a film where I already sort of know the answers. And so, it’s kind of a clinical thing for me, sort of pseudo-scientific and something that helps me try and investigate human relationships and human behavior. But in this film not so much, it’s more what goes on between people.

So what did you learn while you were filming this film?  What did this film and its filmmaking process teach you?

I.E.:  I don’t think I can put that into words, because then I would write a book. I think that’s the reason why you make a film, instead of writing book; it’s a whole universe, a whole concept, a whole intuitive package that you can’t necessarily quite formulate and that’s why I’m not writing a thesis. I’m looking at these people and these sort of staged realities. 

It’s an interesting thing we’re seeing now that as  women filmmakers we’re really in demand; everybody wants to have the approval stamp by working with a woman, but at the same time some things are not really changing.

It would be easy to view Sacha as a damsel in distress or someone who is toying with alpha-male over another, but instead you offer a more nuanced look at her ambiguous allegiances, someone without agency, perversely drawn to the lack of adult responsibility that comes with an absence of power. Can you comment on that and describe Sacha in your own words?

I.E.: Well, I haven’t actually met a person who toys with men. I think that’s a weird sort of outside perspective. I’m not sure this person exists and if they do exist, they’re probably people you want to stay away from because it’s a weird way to approach the world. So I wouldn’t like the person who did that so I wouldn’t make a film about a person who did that. Sacha is inside a world where she has to think about her appearance all the time because she is supposed to act a certain part. And they’re all supposed to act certain parts, like the Joker is supposed to be joking and the aggressive guy is supposed to be aggressive and if they don’t fulfill their parts, everybody’s lost. It’s how humans work. I don’t see that as vain or something to be condemned, but, of course, I see it as problematic that so many of us have to try and conform to a role that has nothing to do with who we are. But what clothes we put on and what make-up we wear, whether we pluck our eye-brows in that shape or that shape, all these things it’s natural that they’re important because we are social animals and the world makes us work harder and harder for something that we can never really achieve. It’s a destructive look and they’re all in that destructive look, not just Sacha. 

Holiday tacitly invites us to ponder on whether Sacha is purely a victim or masochistically complicit in her own debasement. Which one is it? How much does the film want or expect us to empathize with her?

I.E.: I don’t think I can answer the last part of the question because I tend not to speculate about how the audience feel. I have no idea of knowing what the audience think or feel, but I can only take into account what I feel and I’m very sympathetic to Sacha; very empathetic to her because she is in a very difficult position, having to balance all these things. I think all of us are victims and perpetrators; that’s part of the old concept of original sin. You simply cannot be alive without hurting somebody and you’re also destined to be hurt. So I don’t find it very meaningful to split people into victims and perpetrators because everybody does it. 

Speaking of the audience again, would it be fair to say that you are daring us to grow numb?

I.E.: Well, I’m simply not so sensitive and I want to talk about things that happen, but I completely respect people who are sensitive and I’m not hurt if somebody walks out of the cinema, which happens all the time, or if they don’t like it. I have no argument with people who don’t like it because everybody’s different. And some women love the film because they feel mirrored, they feel I’m talking about them in a way nobody’s talked before because they had to put themselves in that situation. And some women hate it either because they haven’t been there and they absolutely don’t want to go there, or they have been there and they really don’t want to talk about it. Same with the guys; some people know that this kind of thing happens, but they really, really don’t want to know too much and I respect that. We all have different issues to tackle and I’m just happy that some people felt seen. That’s the most important thing to me – that some people who have maybe felt judged or dirty or responsible for their own pain, that these people are mirrored and it’s OK. And other people maybe don’t like it because everybody’s different and everybody has different experiences.

What is your opinion of the situation of women in today’s film industry?

 I.E.: It’s so different depending on places and environments. It’s an interesting thing we’re seeing now that as  women filmmakers we’re really in demand; everybody wants to have the approval stamp by working with a woman, but at the same time some things are not really changing. For instance, at the Cannes Film Festival where I just was, there was nothing different from last year. It’s a paradigm shift that’s been happening differently in different places. Denmark hasn’t been very good with #metoo but things are always very slow, adapting to modernity. Sweden is in the frontline, as they always are. It’s not always positive everywhere. I don’t like, for example, how Louis C.K. has been treated. Sometimes, it’s problematic and also some of the women who get to make films now are not really necessarily that talented – especially in Sweden, there’s a lot of people who get to make films just because they’re women, but I think it’s worth it. Establishing new structures and throwing old structures out always has a cost and it’s a confusing time when you need to redefine reality and how things are supposed to be. I have a friend who is a scientist who says that with these quotas, some of the women that get in, are not very good, but they are actually replacing men that were also not very good. He says it’s usually the worst guys that get replaced, so it’s worth it.

How do you think the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Voices of Women in Film” will impact your career, your visibility and the promotion of European female film talent in Australia?

I.E.: I don’t know! Well, I hope! It’s a very cool festival and if there is enough PR about it, I’m sure it will have a good impact, but it all depends on the film, on how the audience respond to the film. So, you never know!

Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And your favorite film by a female filmmaker?

I.E.: It’s funny, because I like Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat very much; they’re inspirations to me, but I only like one of their films. So I think my favorite film is Beau travail, but I also like Chocolat. I also like Fat Girl by Catherine Breillat. So these are definitely at the top of my list of inspirational film directors because they are so visual, and especially those films. They also talk about forbidden things.

What are your next projects?             

I.E.: I’m writing a TV series for Ali Abbasi who I wrote Border with. And I’m developing a sort of psychological drama in Stockholm with Kristina Aberg of Atmo who made The Nile Hilton Incident and I’m also writing this crazy A.I. thing that I really don’t what I’m doing with it. But I got the money, so I’ve got to write something! Hopefully, it will be interesting! And I’m doing something in the UK. too.


This interview was conducted in partnership with: 

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

Previous Story

Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Next Story

Nanouk Leopold

Latest from FADE TO...

Sandra Hüller

In a bustling year of diverse projects and incessant travel, Oscar nominee and award-winning actress Sandra

Emita Frigato

Emita Frigato ha iniziato la sua carriera come assistente scenografa al fianco di Giuseppe Mangano nel

Kaouther Ben Hania

For Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania, the journey into filmmaking began with a fascination with storytelling

Mia Hansen-Løve

French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve has made eight feature films, rising to international prominence in 2014 with

Sahar Mossayebi

Sahar Mossayebi was born in Tehran. She graduated in Theater with a BA from The Azad