Interview with director Peter Schønau Fog
Child molestation is at the heart of Peter Schønau Fog’s alarming first film "The Art of Crying", which dares to use humour to tell a serious story.
By Christian Monggaard
Published in FILM #50, May 2006
""The Art of Crying" is about how hard life can be when all the red lights of human interrelations are being run," the director says. Based on a tragicomic novel by the Danish author Erling Jepsen, the film describes the frankly bizarre family circumstances of 11-year-old Allan (Jannik Lorenzen).
Allan’s unstable father (Jesper Asholt) is wont to threaten suicide and lie on the living-room couch and cry when things don’t go his way. Often, they don’t. And when that happens, only Allan’s 14-year-old sister, Sanne (Julie Kolbech), can comfort their father by getting down next to him on the couch. Allan’s older brother (Thomas Knuth-Winterfeldt) has left home to study in another town and their mother (Hanne Hedelund) turns a blind eye to what is going on.
Then comes the day when Sanne refuses to comfort her father any longer and responsibility for the old man’s wellbeing falls to Allan, the film’s narrator. Allan tries to do right by everyone in his family, but that becomes increasingly hard as his uncertainty grows about who is right. One thing he does know is that his father has a special gift for making people cry when he gives his trademark eulogies at funerals. It’s the only thing that cheers him up, and the boy vows to make sure his father will always have enough funerals to speak at.
FROM A CHILD’S PERSPECTIVE
"I think it’s a very important story," Peter Schønau Fog says. "It’s essential to share with the world the physical and mental abuse these children are subjected to. The shifting of responsibility from parents to children that we witness in this family is in many ways a deeply taboo subject."
In "The Art of Crying", Schønau Fog sets out to raise a lot of questions that are not otherwise asked because people are afraid of the answers. "The film is told from inside the family, from the perspective of the children," he says.
"Jumping off from there, the film looks at what goes on in a family to make it dysfunctional. What psychological mechanisms are put into motion? How do these children end up like that? How do the father and mother end up the way they do? How do the rest of the family and society at large deal with it? How can things go that wrong?"
Part of the answer lies in the fact that incest is still such a big taboo, Schønau Fog contends. Because we are afraid to discuss the subject, it doesn’t matter that we all agree that we deplore it. We think of parents who molest their children as inhuman, monsters – and that prevents us from understanding how incest happens.
"Describing someone as a monster is no way to find out how it happens," the director says. "What is it inside a person that takes them there? If something offers no glimmer of human recognition, it becomes too easy to dismiss. And too easy to turn a blind eye to when it happens in your own life."
SINCERITY AND HUMOUR
Schønau Fog’s film sustains the cheerful-mournful tone of Jepsen’s novel. In fact, that tone was what novel and thought about turning it into a movie. "There is a twist to the story that makes it possible to tell in a way that doesn’t blare everything out as loudly as you otherwise might have liked, considering how much is behind it," Schønau Fog says.
"The Art of Crying" is actually a very funny movie. "So it speaks to people," the director says. "But it’s not about ridiculing the film’s subject. It’s about telling the story with a smile – smiling through tears, as they say. I like to think I’m not doing it in that nineties, ironic way. The film is more funny than ironic, really, and the mix of sincerity and humour was challenging in terms of setting a tone for the film. I didn’t want it to be ironic or dumbed down or haha-funny or superficial or ludicrous."
"At one point when I made "Lille mænsk", my graduate film at the National Film School, I had a script that was actually very funny. But people shot it down, because they thought it was bad taste to let the protagonist, who is personally responsible for the death of another person, keep his humorous attitude to life. Jepsen’s book deals with some of the worst family horrors imaginable, using humour. I hope this doesn’t sound cold-hearted, but in that sense "The Art of Crying" is a shot at something I didn’t pull off in my graduate film."
CLOSING ONE EYE
It’s been seven years since the 35-year-old director graduated from Denmark’s National Film School (incidentally, he was in the same graduating class as two other first-time filmmakers in 2006: Pernille Fischer Christensen, who won a Silver Bear in Berlin in February for "A Soap", and Kenneth Kainz, whose "Pure Hearts" opens soon).
There are several reasons why it took Schønau Fog so long to arrive at his directorial debut. First, he found himself somewhat paralyzed by the amount of attraction his student film generated both in Denmark and abroad. Then, it took him a long time to adapt "The Art of Crying". He knocked around the screenplay for a year and a half with Gert Duve Skovlund before hooking up with Bo hr. Hansen, who wrote the final script.
"I had no ambition simply to illustrate Erling Jepsen’s book," Schønau Fog says. He first read "The Art of Crying" four years ago. "I was strongly affected by, and wanted to sustain, Jepsen’s message and the unique voice he uses to tell his story. The book is about a lot of other things other than what I picked out for the film, but when you adapt a book you have to close one eye and stick a finger in one ear in order to retell it your way. You have to make the material your own. You then hope people who know the book don’t find your version of it too deaf and blind."
In the middle of the nineties, before he got into the National Film School of Denmark, Schønau Fog attended film school in the Czech Republic. When people asked him back then why he wanted to make movies, he would joke and say it was his "perversion." He now says, "I made pictures out of a desire to make pictures. Sometimes that was the only reason for making a picture a certain way – or telling a story a certain way, for that matter. Because I wanted to. Exposing others to your desires is basically perverse, isn’t it?"
All that changed when the Czech film school exposed him to a series of films that had been unavailable since the sixties because of communist censorship. "We were 10 students and an interpreter in the room and she cried through every single film – it was that powerful to her."
The students had the pleasure of watching Milos Forman’s A Blond in Love (1965) and other films that looked at the world from the perspective of their characters. "It made me aware of how amazing it can be to see people without blue smoke and long tracking shots and what the hell ever else was going on at the time in French postmodern films," Schønau Fog says.
"I realized that these films spoke to me much more. The human richness in ‘God, life is like that, too!’ I like science fiction, and I love Blade Runner, but what really hits me are films that open my human rather than my thrill-seeking universe. Those Czech films did that, and the interpreter crying probably didn’t hurt, either. So the human content becomes very important to me and that prolongs my process," the director says.
"The challenge in "The Art of Crying" was to maintain the story’s message without forcing it down people’s throats," Schønau Fog says. "If you want to make a movie with a message, the easiest thing to do is write the message on a sign and put it in front of the camera. But it’s a long way from that to a film narrative that is experienced through the people in the story."
compassion, grace and wit. Jonathan Holland, Variety
Emotionally devastating and astonishingly mature, this is a unique feature debut. Steve Gravestock, Toronto International Filmfestival
A young Scandinavian genius tackles Bergmanesque themes of family taboos and relationships with pathos, humor, and a loving eye. Chiseko Tanaka, Tokyo International Film Festival
Friday, September 01, 2006
Interview with director Peter Schønau Fog