Swedish artist Anna Odell’s début feature is causing quite a stir. When one starts watching The Reunion (Återträffen), particularly when it’s part of the International Competition at CPH:DOX, a festival that’s renowned for presenting work that falls outside any specific genre, one takes it for the “re-enacted documentary” it’s meant to be. But then things start to get a bit complicated.
The opening scene is a high school reunion, where classmates who graduated together 20 years ago have gathered. But there is a guest among them who has something to say to all of them – something they really don’t want to hear, especially at a celebration. Shot like a feature film with three-camera coverage and superb acting, the first part of the film is a passion play of a “what if ?” situation in which someone confronts her childhood bullies head-on. The second half of the film was meant to be the individual meetings the director requests from her classmates to show them this short film of their reunion, get their reactions and have further dialogue. But this goal is thwarted and so Odell continues the re-enactment, this time based on actual conversations she had (or might have had) with her former schoolmates.
Subtly raising many questions on the theme of bullying and group hierarchies – something the artist is intent on exploring in all of her work – the film becomes a terrific medium in which to provoke a larger discussion on the ethics involved in dealing with real people and events. It offers a complex construction, based in fact, but completely fictionalized within the context of a narrative film – emotionally engaging, thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining.
The Reunion was awarded the FIPRESCI prize for best début feature in the Orrizonti and International Critics’ Week sections at the 70th Venice Film Festival. I sat with Odell last month in Copenhagen to talk about her process of making the film:
The Reunion is quite moving in a very surprising way. And even though you are constantly shifting and changing your narrative tone in subtle ways, as untraditional as it is, it’s cohesive. The emotional through-line never wavers.
In the way I can work as an artist or a director, I can realize those things to which I have only had a long internal process of thinking and feeling, to see what would happen if it got played out. In my work, I am very interested in this topic of bullying and in using my own experience. I started to write the speech I deliver in the beginning scene at the reunion, because it had been 20 years since this class of mine had left school. I wanted to go to this reunion and deliver it to them like I do in the film. But I got a message on Facebook from a girlfriend that it had already happened. Everyone had been invited but me.
Was the plan to have someone there document what happened when you read the speech to your classmates? Would that have been possible?
Yes, I wanted in some way to document it. If I couldn’t somehow film anything, I would record it. For me, it’s really important that I don’t expose people who don’t want to be exposed, but I also want to be able to use any material I gather as I want. After getting this message, I had to start re-thinking things, to find answers as to what they were afraid of by encountering me again, and what could happen if they had invited me. But ultimately, it turns out that it was even better that I wasn’t invited because otherwise this film wouldn’t have happened.
However, it was still important for me to meet my old classmates because as an artist, I want to use a real experience from which to launch my work. I really don’t want to talk about my feelings. I want to examine relationships. So this is how I decided to do this first part of the movie. Then, the process of contacting my classmates began. The meetings you see in the film are re-enactments of these meetings, not with the real people, but with actors. But not the same ones as in the first part.
There’s a fairly high level of difficulty involved in working both behind and in front of the camera. The film language you use is very sophisticated.
Yes, it was all a new experience (laughing). I wanted to make it work as a film. But as an artist, the process was really different from the way most would make a movie. In Sweden, we can apply for funding from the Swedish Film Institute and from the television station. Usually, you have to have a very tight script, completely finished. But I just had this idea and a vague script of the first part of the film at the reunion. The idea was how it might be worked out in the second part but with nothing really developed. But they believed in the project and gave us some money for research and so I began to figure out the different ways to approach it, working with actors and shaping the narrative. We started a casting process where we would ask the men and women to tell us their own experiences from school. The actors, for the most part, have similar experiences in terms of where they fall in this hierarchy as they do in the film. So I gave them my idea of how they were as kids and then, together with their real-life experiences, we created the characters.
In the first part of the movie, we figured out the dramatic arc and what we were going to speak about by letting them use their own words. It was really important to me that it had this kind of authenticity. It was, therefore, risky for them too.
To create a safer environment, we rehearsed together a lot, but never the scenes from the movie. We were always our characters and got to know one another as the characters that we had created together. I think all this work is evident when you watch the film.
It’s evident mostly because you really let things take a hugely dramatic, quite violent, course of action, which could have so easily fallen out of the realm of believability, but somehow it never does. It goes from a somewhat subdued situation to something quite intense and extreme in a very short amount of time. You believe these people have known one another for decades.
They needed to treat me as if I was a freak so that they felt fine bullying me. But then I’m also the director. To ease this process, we went back to school and acted together as if we were all 15-years-old again. They could experience me not as someone they had to listen to, but be able to express this power they felt they had over me. Sometimes, it would just be me and one other person, or a small group of us, sometimes all of us together, so the relationships could be built.
What does this one man who’s always by your side in the second half – and who plays one of your worst antagonists in the first half – represent? He becomes your ally or even, I could say, your intermediary, your collaborator, in the dealings with your former classmates.
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