In February this year, Sandra Wollner’s contentious film, The Trouble with Being Born (2020) debuted at Berlinale, earning a Special Jury prize. In August, the film was due to have its Australian premiere as part of the 68 ½ Melbourne International Film Festival, run exclusively online. In an about-turn, however, management withdrew Wollner’s film just a week before the festival commenced, citing concerns over “the safety and wellbeing of the MIFF community and broader Australian public.”
Controversy abounds, and not unexpectedly; the film opens with what appears to be a father/daughter relationship, only to gradually reveal that the pre-teen Elli is an android designed to cater to a middle-aged man’s paedophilic desires. Later, however, Elli will be repurposed to mollify the grief of an elderly woman whose brother perished in childhood.
Approaching this difficult content with an ethereal detachment, The Trouble with Being Born is a deeply nuanced and unsettling film. That the most virulent rejections continue to come from those who have not seen it, is perhaps indicative of the peculiar moment in which we find ourselves; like the characters within the film that exploit an intelligent, blank object, the vitriol waged by those who refuse to engage reflects a culture that commodifies its neuroses only to violently repudiate those desires when they look back at us.
In the following interview, conducted in October 2020, Sandra Wollner discusses her vision, her process, and the trouble with giving birth to her latest impossible picture.
If you’re comfortable discussing it, I’m interested in the events with the Melbourne International Film Festival, when The Trouble with Being Born was programmed and then pulled. This is highly unusual and disappointing. I was wondering if you could speak about how this unfolded?
The Melbourne Film Festival chose the film, and they assured me that it was an incredible discovery and one of the best films they saw at the Berlinale, and that they liked the subtle exploration of grief, identity and memory. So they already printed their program, included a trigger warning and everything seemed fine. Then I had an interview with The Age Melbourne; even though the journalist talking to me was very interested in the film I already had the feeling that it might end up being reduced to a clickbait story. Then two forensic psychologists, one of whom did not see the film at all and one of whom saw half of it, basically said that this film is a danger to the Australian public. And then the festival pulled the film, because a film they admired in the beginning suddenly was a danger to the public. Not watching the whole film and judging it, I think that is in itself problematic, but I can accept that a psychologist might think differently about this film. And even that the festival got scared and pulled it because it was to be an online-only event – while this was definitely not a display of artistic integrity or backbone – even that I can accept in a way. What I found quite problematic though is the fact that the Festival in their public statement just accepted the position of these psychologists, suddenly stating that this film is dangerous, without expressing any kind of regret or even trying to frame the whole thing in a more thoughtful manner which I would consider appropriate for a cultural institution. Whatever the reasons behind it, they essentially bowed to what they perceived was public pressure, which seems to me a regular occurrence of our times. Being scared of a mob that was not even there yet. A ghost mob.
Obviously, The Trouble with Being Born is a divisive film due to the nature of the Papa / Elli relationship, but it seems to me to have been most upsetting to those who have not seen it, or refuse to see it.
Yes, and the voice of those who haven’t even seen the film are encouraged in their opinion that this film is endorsing paedophilia because the Melbourne Film Festival pulled it. I don’t even know how one would think that, nobody with a half-working brain who has seen the film would say that.
The film is structurally interesting in that the Elli / Papa storyline pivots into something else entirely. Personally, I found the second half of the film in which the elderly woman fashions the android to substitute for her deceased brother far more unsettling. I think because it’s a more socially acceptable and therefore insidious kind of exploitation. Can you tell me about the decision to structure the story in this way?
To pivot the story into a completely different one was necessary to really show that this android is an object, an object that does not care to what end it is being used. It does not care whether it is used for a forbidden, problematic act of sexuality or to take care of something or just stand in the corner of the room for eternity. Which I find really unsettling and interesting. For me this film was more about identity, memory and loss than about an actual artificial intelligence from the very beginning.
In that sense it is a continuation of my last film The Impossible Picture (2016), where I tried to visually explore the way we create and absorb memory. This film, then, is an exploration of what it means to be programmed with memories.
The film was co-written with Roderick Warich, I’m wondering if you could tell me about this collaboration. How did you go about the writing process?
To make a film about this android child was initially Roderick’s idea. I immediately jumped on that because I was looking for a non-human perspective. And this android seemed of course the ideal vessel for what I was looking for – it is human in a way because it is programmed to do so, but is also not because it doesn’t care about all those things that constitute human existence – things like emotion, attachment, sense of self, or identity.
Usually I would get up, grab a coffee and immediately start to write, listening to ambient sounds or atmospheres or William Basinki’s “Disintegration Loops.” Then Roderick and I walked for hours through the outskirts of Neukölln and talked, and then I went home again, sat down and wrote. Or he just sent me videos, or pieces of music that crossed his mind. But this film really came to life in the editing process. Hannes Bruun, my editor and I, we were working for nearly a year to get the structure and flow right – so some essential structural decisions and also the words came together much later. Additionally, of course the whole sexual aspect only came to life in post-production. The scenes we shot were, in themselves, pretty harmless if you don’t put them in context of the voice-over, for instance, which I recorded with a different actress.
It also has a distinctive visual style – Lena Watson’s performance brings a level of detachment, but so does the camera. How did you envision the look of the film, and perhaps you could speak about your collaboration with cinematographer, Timm Kröger?
Timm Kröger is also my partner, we already worked on The Impossible Picture together, so he really understands how I am thinking, what is important for me, and he understands the fact that while we’re telling a story, I’m always working on the film behind the film, as it were, which includes formal dealings with cinema itself. Why is there a camera, what does the camera actually see, who is that camera? What entity is telling the story in these films? To me, for those two films at least, these questions were essential and they’re always the starting point for any visual decision.
The first thing I had in mind was this robot girl walking through the dark forest. I always felt that behind these images lies some dark vibrant shimmer, like it was chaos itself that might lie behind the structured reality of these images and the world we’re getting immersed in. Timm, a director himself, (The Council of Birds, 2014) is an outstanding cinematographer and really understands what I am searching for. He always goes along with what the film itself needs and only works with as much equipment as is absolutely necessary. Therefore our team was really small and we were able to always run in the right direction, if, say, some early morning fog came up and we shot some scenes that may have been vaguely envisioned before, but were never planned or part of the written script.
The film is so concerned with sensory perception and the role of the senses in forming memories (Elli describes the sensations of temperature, smells, the sounds of crickets, the feeling of her fingers going wrinkly from swimming for so long etc.) This emphasis on sensory consciousness really taps into the role physicality plays in making us human. Can you talk a little bit about this?
Our sensory perception, whether it is sounds, temperature or smell seem to me to be like the most obvious programming. Especially our sense of smell is something – as all of us have probably experienced – that is able to bring back memories. We don’t choose to have this memory, but we smell something and suddenly we travel through time and find ourselves back there in this childhood summer or under the Christmas-tree or wherever else. So the little android in this film is programmed in that very human fashion to recall memories, memories that mean everything to their owners but nothing to the android. I don’t think that this version of the android is really able to smell, but the sound of the crickets, the temperature, the moist earth would be an indicator for a certain smell. I do not know how this android perceives its own physicality, and it certainly attaches no emotional meaning to that, but its “consciousness” – if there is one – is certainly constructed to resemble this very human way of assessing sensory input. In the end, the film evokes these details to what I would hope is both an uncanny and a strangely humanising effect at times – which is, somehow, even weirder than if it were just either of those two.
One of the film’s provocations is in raising ethical issues regarding AI and suffering. I’m thinking of those scenes where Elli or Emil wake up in the night crying at the thunderstorm. These moments, of course, make the android more human, but it makes me wonder about what it means to program something to experience fear or longing. At the same time, you’ve spoken about being fascinated by the status of an android as uncaring, as in, Elli is uninvested in the meaning of moving from one owner to another. Is the caring and suffering we perceive when Elli and Emil awaken upset in the night an illusion?
I wanted that scene to be ambivalent. Does the android cry because it misses its dad? Or is it just a kind of perverse programming that makes the android cry when it hears a thunderstorm? It is a repetition of the same scene with the same parameters the android already lived through. Well for the android it is the same, the same parameters, darkness, thunderstorm, lying in bed. For us it is something completely different of course. It’s for the audience to decide whether this is a real kind of pain – and what, in that sense, is a real kind of pain exactly?
Much has been made about the paedophilic relationship between Elli and Papa, but I guess the process of shooting a child actor portraying this relationship comes with its own ethical questions. I know you’ve already spoken publicly about the efforts made to conceal your performer’s identity, the use of visual effects to simulate nudity, and the importance of being transparent about the film and its intentions with her family. I’m curious as to your thoughts on the ethics of working with a child actor, though – is there a concern that those protective measures might in themselves be unsettling for a child?
I think working with child actors is in any film something that needs protective measures. This won’t seem intuitive immediately, but if you think about a film that does not have this kind of topos, but something emotionally closer to the kid, where you still want to show “real” joy and “real” tears, because that’s what both the filmmaker and the audience want. Even experienced, talented and well-trained actors sometimes have trouble stepping out of their character. It’s paradoxical, because in a way of course you hope that they are merging with their character and breathe life into them. For some kids it can obviously be harder to distinguish between the self and the character they play, and therefore you need those protective measures every time you work with a kid. But in our case, for Lena this was actually little to no danger at all. The character she played and the character we talked about was a robot. A robot you can switch off, a robot that pretends to feel and therefore acts to feel something. She wore a silicone mask that doesn’t resemble her at all. You would never recognise her if you saw her on the street, so she really stepped into that character and as soon as the mask came off, she could be herself again. Considering the whole sexual aspect: Of course I talked to her and her parents in a child appropriate manner and explained the kind of relationship that the film is depicting. And she knew and understood that this is an unnatural, dangerous, relationship. But on set we did not shoot a scene that was in any way sexually loaded or physically too intimate. That whole aspect is something we completely created afterwards, in the editing, I dubbed her with the voice of a different actress (with whom I also worked out of the actual context) and I recorded completely new sentences, sentences she never said on set. And of course she was never naked nor did she see anyone naked on set. So I might shock my audience but I would never allow that to happen to my actors, especially not a child actor.
Elsewhere you’ve made the connection to Vertigo, in that Scottie is trying to recreate the lost object of his desire. I find this a fascinating link because in Vertigo, Madeline is like a blank slate upon which Scottie projects his own unconscious needs. In your film, I was struck by the way the android seems to reveal the insecurities and trauma of the people who exploit it. In writing the film, what tensions did you find in the relationship between technology and humanity?
The technology in this film is only a mirror. It mirrors their love or traumas, the dynamics, the good or the abyss. So as you say, also the android is a blank slate that becomes the projection of their owner’s inner thoughts/wishes/dynamics. They only feed it with those memories they have and therefore they keep talking to themselves.
It’s almost as if technology, at least current technology, in its inability to really engage with us, its inability to surprise us and to essentially “witness” us for what we are is missing this magical aspect of what constitutes a healthy relationship. For all its sense of immersion, there is just a void looking back at us and we can feel that.
On a related note, in the same way that the android in the film reflects humanity, I’m wondering if the public reaction to the film reflects something of the culture around us. What conclusions have you drawn about the ways in which various kinds of people have reacted?
We live in a time in which it seems very important to make sure you stand on the right side, which can mean something else for different people. I am not necessarily sure whether this was different any time in history, but that social mechanism has certainly gained momentum because we’re basically exposing ourselves to the whole online world with everything we do, write or say.
I mean I think people were always pretty fast to react emotionally, but in the past it might have taken a while until they reached the thing they wanted to burn down. Gossip was not that fast, it spread slowly, now it just became much faster and the digital way of communication encourages that, the logic of bringing everything down to a headline or to a 280 signs, to a like or not like. There is no time for ambiguity, especially with hot topics, because everyone is afraid to be misunderstood.
We have gotten threats and nasty messages since a Hollywood Reporter article came out during Berlinale, it had a clickbait headline and suddenly we were featured on Infowars and my inbox was full with messages from people who actually believe I am pro-paedophilia and our film was in any way endorsing or trying to normalise sex with children. Those are people who have not seen the film, but – if I may extrapolate from the things they wrote – they believe that just depicting this kind of human abyss should be forbidden in and of itself.
Well, I am sorry, but then we have to cut out the whole Old Testament, or any form of writing or art that deals with the darker aspects of human nature. I truly believe that it is important to show this abyss, just as important as it is to show the average and the best that human nature brings out. Everything else would be a sweet lie, not to mention incredibly bland and silly.
The Trouble with Being Born will now have its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival on Saturday October 17. Fantastic Film Festival Australia will also be screening the film on Friday October 23. Outside of the festival circuit, Australian viewers may have the opportunity to see Wollner’s film theatrically, given that Potential Films has acquired the rights.