May el-Toukhy

May el-Toukhy graduated from the Danish National School of Performing Arts in 2002 and as a director from the National Film School of Denmark in 2009. She has directed a number of radio and television shows. She made her feature debut with the romantic comedy “Long Story Short” in 2015, an ensemble drama with Mille Lehfeldt, Trine Dyrholm, Jens Albinus and Danica Čurčić. The film won a Bodil for Best Script and Best Actress as well as a Robert Award for Best Supporting Actress. She directed several episodes of the first season of “Rides Upon the Storm.”

Within the framework of the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Voices of Women in Film,” Tara Karajica talks to May el-Toukhy about women in film and her second film, “Queen of Hearts,” that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition as well as the main prize at the Göteborg Film Festival for Best Nordic Film, the Best Actress and the Audience Awards.





How did you get into filmmaking?

May el-Toukhy: I have always gravitated towards the arts and graduated from theatre school before I went on to film school. Making films soothes my urge to understand human behavior and to explore the human condition.

How did Queen of Hearts come about?

M.E.T.: I wanted to do a film about the making of a family secret and to explore what the needed components are, in order for a family secret, to flourish. At the same time, I was very interested in telling a tale about the power, responsibilities, and sometimes entitlement, that come with being in a powerful position.

Can you talk about the title?

M.E.T.: “Queen of Hearts” is the name of a character in Alice in Wonderland, a book that plays a part in the film. The Queen of Hearts can both be good and bad. Responsible and irresponsible. Also, I was inspired by the Wonderland in the creation of the visual identity for the film. Alice falls down a rabbit hole and the whole world is spinning. In the same sense, the characters in this film, have their world turned upside down and the rules are ever-changing. They all fall into a rabbit hole and we as the audience fall with them.

Seeing older women seducing underage men may be considered a cinematic anomaly. Why do you think that is?

M.E.T.: There have been quite a few films that revolve around a woman seducing an underage man, but often the relationship is romanticized. With this film, we wanted to tell it like it is. That not all of these relationships end up in tragedy in real life – but some of them do. And I think it was about time to tell a story about that.

In that sense, the age difference always leads to conversations about how in an era of political correctness after the #MeToo movement there’s a need to see sexual predators punished. Can you elaborate on that?

M.E.T.: I think the dynamics of predatory behavior are the same regardless of gender. And that is what I wanted to depict: the psychical power is not necessarily at the center of the seduction. The relation between the characters in Queen of Hearts is orchestrated by the power of the characters’ minds. In regard to her getting away with it, I think the interpretation of the ending is individual. True, she is not punished in a courtroom, but what happens to her is up to the audience to decide.

You cast no judgment for either character and you refuse to punish your heroine, a woman who knows she has made a mistake, but does what she has to do in order to salvage her family instead of doing the right thing. In that, she also causes irremediable harm and pain to the peripheral characters in the aftermath of her actions. Can you comment on that?

M.E.T.: I wanted to create a dialogue with the audience, to inspire the audience to think about and meditate on their own beliefs and behaviors. Of course, I know what I think personally about what takes place between stepmother and stepson, but at the same time I do not think it is my place as a storyteller to give answers and actively judge. I see it as my task to force questions and spark debate and discussion.

In that regard, you don’t take us down a path of redemption for her. Why?

M.E.T.: She might redeem herself when the film is over, but that is for each individual audience member to choose. Personally, I believe that what she has done, cannot be undone. It is fatal. And she has to suffer the consequences.

Would you agree with the assumption that Queen of Hearts is an intricate configuration of behaviors, actions and desires that are far from being black and white?


And that it also gives more importance to the human effect as opposed to the weight of taboo subject matters?

M.E.T.: I think all storytellers should strive towards telling stories that are nuanced and complex whether they are dealing with taboo or not taboo subject matters. As long as one does that, stories about almost everything and everyone, have a place in the world. Of course, there are stories that I would not personally engage myself in, out of political or personal beliefs, because I believe that those who tell the stories rule the world, meaning: there comes a responsibility with telling stories. But at the same time, I believe in the free expression of any art form.

Moreover, apart from seeming heartless and treasonable, Anne also indisputably sees herself as morally and ethically superior to others – members of her own family included – and yet is very hypocritical. Why was it important to make her like this? How do you see her?

M.E.T.: I see Anne as a broken soul and a monster. Hurt people hurt others. I see her as a predator and a victim herself. I do not want to excuse her behavior. She is a grown up and Gustav is a grown child in my eyes, but I believe very much that we all are a product of what we come from. And we therefore have to take responsibility and clean up our inner mess in order not to repeat the same pattern towards others.

You also touch upon the “prescribed” role of women that cannot be conciliated with other various sides of their personality and the fact that Anne cannot properly be there as a mother to her twins if she works too much or brings her work home. Can you elaborate on that?

M.E.T.: I have noted this tendency that when we talk about a woman who works a lot, we think about her as a bad mother. But when a man works a lot, he is a real man. I do not like that notion and I do not find it true either. A woman can be a great mother and work a lot. And she can be a bad mother and not work at all. In Queen of Hearts, the main character’s husband thinks she works a lot, but on an everyday basis I see Anne as a great mother. Until she screws the whole family up. She is driven and her job means a lot to her and it is not always easy for a partner to be around that kind of devotion.

With Queen of Hearts, you deliver your take on the human condition in a very conventional, civilized and appealing surrounding. Can you comment on that?

 M.E.T.: I wanted the brutality of the story to be contrasted by the beauty of the setting. I like to work with opposites like that because I think it adds extra depth to the story. Also, the main character, Anne, is someone who climbed the class stairway. She has ended up somewhere completely different than where she herself grew up. And she wants to hold on to that status, whatever it takes.

Would it be fair to say that Trine Dyrholm is your actress extraordinaire, a very important part of your films?

M.E.T.: I believe strongly that she is one of the great actresses of her time. And I cannot imagine having done this specific film without her.

What was the best advice you were given?

M.E.T.: The advice was: Maybe the solution to the problem is the opposite of what you think, meaning that sometimes it can be helpful to move in the direct opposite direction than the one you are inclined to.

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

M.E.T.: I am so delighted and proud to be part of a celebration of female filmmakers’ works. There is a new awareness now on the importance of representation that I hope will influence the industry for generations to come. We have to celebrate ourselves and each other!

There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in Film for the past year and a half. What is your opinion on the matter? How is it in Denmark?

M.E.T.: I think that the more we promote female filmmakers and their work, the more young girls will dare to pursue a carrier in the film industry. And in Denmark the film industry is doing a lot to promote that idea. We are not there yet, but we are on the royal road.

Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?

M.E.T.: I am a feminist, yes. I cannot see how one cannot be a feminist if one believes in equal opportunities for both girls and boys, women and men. As a feminist, I believe that it is also my responsibly to dare to tell stories about complex female characters. I have no interest in doing stories about only the good wife, the caring mother, the woman torn between her work life and family life. That does not apply to my life. As a cineaste, I want to see and have the opportunity to identify with all kinds of nuanced characters, regardless of gender. And I try to make movies that enable an audience to do just that.

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

M.E.T.: I do not have one favorite filmmaker. But I have many favorite films by female filmmakers: The Piano by Jane Champion, Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow, Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola, Ratcatcher by Lynne Ramsay and Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold.

What are your next projects?

M.E.T.: I am working on several new projects, some for TV and some for Cinema. Time will show which project will be financed first.




This interview was conducted in partnership with: 


Photo credits: © Søren Rønholt

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.

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