By Gojko Dimic
At last nights’ IFFR world premiere of “A Perfectly Normal Family“, directed by the Danish filmmaker Malou Reymann, the entire cinema gave a standing ovation to the stunning debut feature. This fascinating story follows an 11 year old girl Emma whose entire world suddenly changes its course when her father Thomas tells her and her sister Caro that he wants to become a woman. Now, a story like that has been told many times, a struggle of a transgender person to find acceptance from their family and the world at large. Malou’s film shows us an entirely new perspective on this subject, the perspective of a young girl trying to come to terms with her father’s sex change and the past she had with him. Was it all a lie? Were there any signs? Is her father now supposed to be her mother? In the hands of a lesser director this film could have been just a melodramatic sob fest, but the tone of the film is a lighthearted one. When it stings it stings, but in Reymanns’ debut she found the perfect amount of humor in the story to make it an honest portrait of family trouble. Who better to tell this story then someone who’s been through it themselves? In the interview, I speak to the director about her feature debut, directing such a personal story and the world of political correctness.
Now that the world premiere is over, how do you feel about the audiences reception and how was watching the film on the big screen for the first time with them?
The screening last night was really amazing, it was such a beautiful experience. It was the first time I saw it with an audience, but also an international one as well. It is very different watching it with an audience because you really feel how they react. It makes oneself look at the film a different way. I could feel the people laughing and crying and it was exactly what I wanted to achieve with the film. It was also an interesting thing seeing it with an international audience because the film is located in this Danish, suburban, middle class society with very ordinary situations, for example confirmation, this family party which is very Danish in a way. I was curious how these things would translate, especially how the tonality of the film would fly, because it has this very humoristic tone and hearing people laugh was really great.
Was it always your plan to tell your life’s story in your debut film?
No. I had a feeling that I was going to work with this subject and this experience at some point but I never planned it on being my debut. I was working on another feature after film school and I got quite far with it but I had trouble connecting to it. Then the commissioner at the Danish Film Institute also said at some point that I wasn’t really getting there properly and he asked if I had another project in mind. I was a bit insecure telling him about this idea but since he asked I told him about the story and he said that was the film he wanted to watch. So I think that kind of gave me the courage to try it out and to see how it would be to start writing it. Later I told my producers about it and they also connected to the story and by that time I really felt like there I had to plunge into it and go all the way and say that this is my story and this is who I am as a filmmaker.
What was the casting process like because you were casting, among other things, someone to play yourself?
We had a lot of girls come in, somewhere around hundreds and actually Kaya Toft Loholt was in the very first round and it was quite clear to us that she was just beyond anyone we could ever imagine. We had her in for the second, and the third and maybe even the fourth casting with Mikkel, who plays the father character, so we did really try her out and in every casting she just blew us away. She is really an incredible actress. She was 10 years old when we shot the film and just understood emotions and direction in a way that is just unbelievable when you’re so young. I felt like there was no difference in how I worked with her and how I worked with Mikkel. She just connected to it so well. With the other sister it was a bit more complicated. It took more time and several rounds and in the end Rigmor, the actress who plays the older sister, came on board simply because we haven’t thought of her before. She is the daughter of two Danish actors. She kind of knew the world and therefore the casting director knew of her, and she came in and was just hilarious. She has this teenage attitude which is really priceless. To our luck, Kaya and Mikkel also look like each other, they have similar features so I think we were just extremely lucky.
So the story is about your life and the difficult relationship you had with your father at the time. Has your father seen the film and how did she react to it?
We saw it together, just the two of us, in the cinema. The first reaction was very emotional. While we were watching the film I could feel how she was responding to it. She was crying and laughing at the same time. There is something about just being together watching the film and also reliving something we’ve been through in the past. It’s hard for me to put it into words because it wasn’t really about the conversation afterwards. We barely had words for each other because it was just so emotional. One of the first things she said was how she was impressed by Mikkel’s performance because she thought it would be impossible for an actor to portray that journey, and seeing it so authentically and sensibly played blew her away.
So they never met before the shooting?
They never met. Well, they met last week because my father is doing press with me in Denmark for the release of the film there and Mikkel just came by to say hi and that is where they met for the first time.
The film is full of these quiet and subdued emotions. I noticed that the scenes where the emotion is most obvious and most tangible were done without a score or music which I appreciate. The times you do use music is when the characters in the film are listening to it. Was that a conscious choice to avoid possible manipulation or something that came organically with the story?
I wanted to make a film where the audience has its own experience with the film in a way. I didn’t want to imply emotions and I think the music really does that. It can really change a scene emotionally into something else and I just really wanted it to allow people to have their own experience with this kind of story and the characters within it. I’ve been working with a composer on my short films and we had a conversation about it quite early on in the writing process. I told him I had a feeling that it doesn’t have any composed music but it definitely has a score. So he read the script and he also said the he couldn’t hear any music put to it. SO we agreed that we had to be really precise on the music choices and where we use music but that it had to be within the film itself. Music is so powerful and very physical I think, you experience it with your entire body and that’s why you have to be careful to not go overboard. I also didn’t want it to be a sensational film. I wanted it to be a small human drama in an everyday life. Only at the end do we hear the ABBA song imposed on top of the film to give it a finishing touch.
One of the subjects of your film is transition, not from a point of view of a person who is transgender but from her daughter’s point of view. A perspective we rarely get to see on screen. How important was it for you to give the story another angle?
Obviously, because the story is based on my own experience it was important for me to portray that perspective. It also put me in a unique position where I could tell a broader story which isn’t necessarily just about transitioning but more about a family undergoing a crisis. In that way I hoped that the story could reflect on other kinds of family crisis like divorce, death or moving to a different place. Something that is a big change but not something that has to be that exact type of change and I think that taking a perspective of a child that undergoes something she can’t understand makes it possible to make a film about that subject matter but in a way that other people can really relate to.
There is also a lot of talk about trans issues in the media these days and your film takes place in a period where those kinds of stories were hidden from the public, they weren’t something that was in the minds of many people other than those who are directly affected by it. Also a lot of the films humor comes from that sort of blissful ignorance of people who are first introduced to the trans character. I don’t think that kind of story would play out the same way yours did in the time we’re living in. How important was to set the film in that time period?
Obviously, it’s amazing that we have so much focus on trans issues now. It has changed dramatically in the last five years. The way people respond to me saying that my dad is a woman has really changed from five years ago to now. Before that people still didn’t know how to react to it and they got quite embarrassed which was followed by awkward silence around it. Now people really want to talk about it and have interest in it. When I tell strangers about it, they often have their own relation to the subject which I think is great but there is also this political correctness that is a part of it. All the awareness on the subject also makes us think that we will say the wrong things that will hurt trans people and I think that fear is quite dangerous because it can really create a gap between the norm and trans people. I kind of wanted to make a film that took place in a time where we weren’t that aware of the subject yet, so that it was free of all these references we have today. That also made it possible to make it a small world, a more intimate one, because it was a time before the internet and Iphones and all these things that connected us to other people and other places that went through the same things. If you underwent something were you became different, you would be really different within your own society and you couldn’t reach out to similar people in other places. There was a certain naivety that made it important to place it back then. Also because I wanted to make this lighthearted film that has lots of color and pop music, and the nineties are the perfect period for that.