A conversation with Lena Koppel, Swedish filmmaker

22 September 2017 - interviews

The Importance of Tying Your Own Shoes (2011) is a Swedish film that was part of this year’s MINDS Film Festival, an annual event that aims to spread awareness about mental illness.

Directed by Lena Koppel and starring members of the Glada Hudik Theatre, a Swedish theatre ensemble that includes adults with mental illness, the film was a hit in Sweden and international shores. The comedy-drama offers a glimpse into the lives of people with mental disabilities through the eyes of Alex, an unemployed actor who reluctantly takes on a job at a group living facility for people with intellectual disabilities.

Alex’s inexperience and initial ignorance about mental disabilities—while the cause of various troubles—is paradoxically what allows him to see the people living in the facility as people. The group quickly takes a liking to him, and the bond that is gradually forged between them is especially poignant.

Being able to tie one’s own shoes is a tangible and metaphorical symbol of independence, and something most of us take for granted. In the group facility, an entire class is dedicated to tying shoelaces, something the group finds incredibly challenging. A particularly significant moment in the film is when Alex suggests that the group uses Velcro shoes instead—much to the chagrin of the other teacher, who insists that being able to tie shoelaces is the only way to independence and normalcy.

In equal turns funny and moving, the heart of the film rests upon these questions: Are we open to different ways of seeing and living? Are there spaces for people with mental disabilities in the ‘normal’ world?

The strength of this film lies in its ability to blur the lines between the behaviours of people with mental disabilities and those without. But more than that, the film is an important reminder that persons with mental disabilities are first and foremost, people—with the same hopes, fears and need for connection as you and me.

We sat down with Lena to chat about the lessons she learned while making this film and her advice for budding filmmakers.

The Mindful Company (TMC): What did you want to be when you were a child?

Lena Koppel (LK): A singer.

TMC: What gives you energy?

LK: Good people.

TMC: What do you do in your free time?

LK: I do a lot of dancing and reading. I wanted to be a singer, dancer and performing artist before I was a director.

TMC: What trait do you most value in others?

LK: Empathy.

TMC: What does success mean to you?

LK: Success is giving something and getting a lot back. Not media attention or anything like that. For me it’s important to make a story about a very tough subject and show it to a big audience. When the audience [shows up, that’s when] I feel that I’m successful.

TMC: How do you overcome self-doubt?

LK: I don’t. I don’t know how really but I think it’s just a matter of getting up and doing it again.

TMC: What would you tell your 20-year-old self that you wish you knew then?

LK: If you want to be a director, don’t ever give up. A ‘no’ is never just a ‘no’. A ‘no’ can become a ‘yes’. I’ve experienced that. It’s about persistence and being able to listen to your co-workers while keeping your vision. Be very focused—know what story you’re going to tell and be certain of it. Write [your story in] two sentences and keep it beside your computer at all times so you don’t get lost as there are so many [other] things to tell.

TMC: At what point in your life did you learn about film directing? What called you to it?

LK: I was studying film literature and after looking at so many films, I just decided this is what I want to do. I met [director] Ingmar Bergman through one of his co-workers and saw the way he directed and the response he got. He was my first inspiration.

I think I went into directing because I wanted to make [films] my way. But it was very difficult when I first started because I’m a woman. [Female directors were] very uncommon so it was very difficult for me to get funding. I cried a lot, I was mad a lot—nothing worked. So I realised that you need to keep on working, keep on applying, and keep trying to understand how the system works. And try to be more convincing each time. Know your subject, know your focus. Don’t focus on too many things.

TMC: What’s one stigma about mental illness that you’d like everyone to know about?

LK: Don’t be afraid of someone looking and talking differently. A lot of [people with mental disabilities] have the same minds as we do. Don’t be afraid of approaching or helping them. Don’t be afraid of integration. Be patient because we develop with a different pace. And we’re all needed, in one place or another.

TMC: What’s the biggest lesson you learned making this film?

LK: Patience and adaptability. Rushing is not going to help. I’ve also learned not to be afraid of disabled people—they are just like any other person, really.

TMC: If you could describe the film in a word, what would it be?

LK: Love

TMC: What advice would you give to budding film directors?

LK: Know what you want to tell. Understand why you want to get into this business—it can be unnerving, so be persuasive. Try not to be a bully because it’s not going to help you. Try to be yourself, be honest to your subject and know your subject. The more you know your subject, the better the film will be.

The MINDS Film Festival is an annual event in Singapore jointly held by the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) and the Singapore Film Society to promote social inclusion and advocate for the advancement of PWID’s (Persons with Intellectual Disabilities) contributions to society.

MINDS is an NGO that aims to develop and maximise the wellbeing of persons with intellectual disability.

Follow the Singapore Film Society’s Facebook page for updates about next year’s MINDS Film Festival.

Photo credit to Rozbet Ganjali and Nordic Women in Film.