The Hottest Property Out Of Sweden
Involuntary director Ruben Östlund was born in 1974 on Styrsö, a small island off the west coast of Sweden. A keen skier, he made the films Free radicals 1-3 between 1995 and 1998. These represented a totally new method of filming winter sports. In 1998, he entered the school of film and photography of the University of Göteborg. In 2004, Ruben finished his first fiction feature film The Guitar Mongoloid, which was awarded the Fipresci prize in Moscow in 2005. In 2006, he directed the short film Autobiographical Scene Number: 6882, which won the UIP Award in Edinburgh, and a nomination for the ”Guldbagge” for the best short film of the year. Ruben is cofounder of Plattform Produktion with Erik Hemmendorff. He is currently filming his second feature Play for Platfform due for release in 2011.
You came to film making in a rather original way…
That’s true. Before going to film school, before even thinking of it, I was obsessed with downhill skiing. Between 1995 and 1998 I travelled across Europe and the United States going from one ski resort to another. It seems like I spent the second half of the 90s in Chamonix. I became interested in cinema because back then I made films about skiing, a mixture of images and music destined for very specific audiences. In the films I make today I make systematic use of long takes. This originates from my skiing films.
When you film someone skiing there is one rule, the longer you can keep filming without a cut the better the exploit. For as soon as a cut can be seen the audience could take it as a sign of covering up a fault made by the skier.
Contemporary Swedish cinema is little known in France, but it seems that something is happening just now. Do you feel that you belong to a cresting wave?
Yes indeed, particularly in my home town of Göteborg. The film school of Göteborg University was created just 10 years ago and it is currently reaching its peak. It may sound idiotic to say so but a good school changes many things. All the students live in residence and work together on each other’s projects. We call it the «Göteborg bubble». Right now that’s where the most interesting things are going on.
What was the genesis of Involuntary ?
In my first feature film, The Guitar Mongoloid I addressed the theme of individual people seeking their place in society. Characters who never took into account what their entourage might think of them. At the same time I witnessed totally opposite situations, people who would do anything not to lose face in front of other people The Guitar Mongoloid examined those people who don’t give a damn what others think of them. Involuntary looks at those who attribute too much importance to the opinions of others and are terrorised by the idea of losing face. In Sweden, everybody knows the story of Engineer Andrea, who attempted to reach the North Pole by hot-air balloon, an attempt which resulted in the deaths of the whole crew. In his diary it is evident that he himself didn’t believe in the viability of the project, he was convinced he was going to die. But the event had taken on such huge proportions – it seemed that all of Sweden participated in one way or another – so he couln’t pull out without losing face. And that led to disaster.
The influence of a group on one individual is extremely and fundamentally powerful. While I was working on The Guitar Mongoloid we started making a short film called Autobiographical Scene Number 6882 which is set on a bridge and studies group behaviour. Initially this short film was to have made up one of the parts of Involuntary but it was selected in so many festivals that it was no longer possible to include it.
In one of key scenes of Involuntary a schoolgirl must decide which is the longest of two lines drawn on a sheet of paper. Twice the other members of her class say she has chosen wrongly. The third time, against all visual evidence, she opts for the shorter line. This scene could resume all the others.
It is undoubtedly the scene which expresses the general theme of the film in the clearest manner. That’s why it is placed in the middle. Put at the beginning or the end it would have made the film both too simple and too mechanical. It encapsulates the notion that a group can exercise irresistible power over a single individual forced to adapt so as to be integrated. Originally it was an experiment that my mother, a teacher herself, conducted with her Grade 3 pupils. I must have been 14 or 15 years old when she told us about it on her return home from school. I was shocked at the time that such a thing should be inflicted on children. But obviously when making the film, we did exactly the same: the little girl in the film had not read the script and the experiment was repeated on her. A small detail: it was written in the script «the third time around she points to the shorter of the two lines». We shot the scene a number of times with different young girls, six out of ten opted for the shorter of the two lines at the third try.
Is her action really involuntary? For each of the five situations which crisscross throughout the film the title could include a question mark.
Being under the influence of a group can deprive us of free will, but does that also free us of individual responsibility? In each story, the characters have the impression that they have no choice, but that is not the case: they simply don’t take the opportunity given to them. In the best of possible worlds, no one would let the opportunity of reacting in the best possible way pass by. But things are very different in reality. I am well aware that it is provoking to say that it is ‘involuntary’ but it is an ongoing repetitive phenomenon. Let’s take the case of the damaged curtains in the toilets of the bus. The driver refuses to continue the journey until the guilty person owns up. There is a very brief moment here when it would be easy to say “yes it was me, I’m sorry” without any consequences. But when that moment has passed it becomes increasingly difficult to admit guilt because that now involves admitting to a lie.
It’s not so much the group that influences the individual, as the indivual him/herself, in his/her relationship with the group, who feels obliged to react in one way or another.
It all comes from the image a person has of self within the group. The dynamics of a situation come from the fact of feeling obliged to react in a certain way so as to fit into the image one has of oneself inside the group. Each individual has his/her own share of responsibility in the way they are led by the group.
In each story we find a ‘victim’ of this phenomenon, but the reaction of those who are ‘guilty’ is also a direct consequence.
That’s very true. The story about the gang of pals in their thirties came from something that happened amongst my skiing friends. I am well acquainted with the man who was ‘forced’ into homosexual practices as well as those who forced him. It was therefore very important for me to use due caution. No question of designating ‘guilt’ but of putting both sides of the question: ‘how could such a thing take place and why did the victim let it happen?’ A group is an entity which functions as if of its own free will. Inside a group all the individuals commit ‘involuntary’ acts.
The fragmented structure of your film with different slices of life presented in mosaical form brings to mind the work of Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl or Roy Anderson.
Their films have greatly influenced me. If, when watching a film, I am too aware of following a narrative I start to get bored. To maintain audience concentration on the familiar situations from daily life depicted in my film then spectators must be disoriented, not made aware of the narrative, they must not see where I am leading. Disorientation leads the viewer to seek clarity and thus encourages concentration.
Similarly the different scenes are filmed from a radical point of view deliberately parcelled up: either too close, or from too far away, making it impossible to understand the whole context of a situation at a single glance.
As a spectator I like to be active, I like the director to leave some of the work for me to do myself. As a film maker that is also what I want to give the audience. It was a keyword during the shoot: keep the viewer busy, Find a visual language that makes the spectator ask all the time ‘where am I?’ ‘what’s that?’ ‘what’s going on?’. I like a voyeuristic style: you watch something happening in front of you and it’s up to you to interpret the scene using your own moral values. As a director I like to keep my distance, putting my own values aside – although of course they are expressed throughout the whole film – to enable the audience to test their own values themselves.
Involuntary is out in cinemas on 29th Oct.