Our Interview with Itonje Søimer Guttormsen, Director of GRITT

During the Pro Days of the 50th edition of International Film Festival Rotterdam, we were so lucky to see very beautiful, eye opening films and Gritt, the first feature by Itonje Søimer Guttormsen was definitely one of them, gracing us with a new way of looking at this old world. As Dial M for Movie, we were even luckier to get the opportunity to interview Ms. Itonje Søimer Guttormsen via Zoom. What you will read below is the result of a very significant 30 minutes for Dial M for Movie, we feel truly blessed. Ms. Guttormsen kindly answered all our questions and apart from Gritt, we also talked about Lilith, witchcraft, ritualistic performances and much more. We will hopefully talk to her again through her upcoming projects in the future. We also want to thank International Film Festival Rotterdam for this opportunity and of course Ms. Brigitta Portier from Alibi Communications for making this interview possible.

Ms. Itonje Søimer Guttormsen, thank you so much for accepting to do this interview, I would like to begin with the concept of lilithism that is very dominant in your artistic creations. Lilithism is new to us the spectators but not at all new for you of course, can you please explain this concept a little bit?

Of course, I heard about Lilith when I was 27, at this point I was at Film School in Lillehammer, Norway. And Lillehammer’s geography is very sloping, as if you’re stuck between two mountains and at the time I found the film school also very rigid, difficult to navigate your ideas, it was really close to the classical film production conception, military-like, even. “You should not do art now, you can do that later” kind of approach. It was crazy. And they had this model of “holy trinity” : producer, scriptwriter, director. And in that order, I would say. And for me, I would always write, produce myself since my early films, even before the film school, that’s why it was very unnatural and not possible to make what I want to make. So I became very suppressed and full of power to breakthrough, I felt like I can move on top of a mountain, I can walk to Copenhagen to have Lars von Trier be my mentor, so I had all this intense energy at the time and that’s also the period when I heard of Lilith. And interestingly enough, Lilith is not known in Scandinavia. In Hebrew culture she’s demonized, in terms of American feminism she’s like a hero or in other concepts she’s even like a sex goddess, but in Norwegian society, she’s never heard of. So for me, it was such a revelation: of course we’re not from Adam’s rib, of course there was someone before and of course she would leave that safe space.

Definitely! The difference was important for me too, between Lilith and Eve, I mean. Because Adam and Eve are cast away from the Garden of Eden, but Lilith just said: “I’m off”, so it’s her own decision, which is very important. Like you said, when I think about Lilith’s cultural representations, “Warrior Lilith” from comic books etc. come to mind, surely it’s not just this way that she should be seen.

Yes, to me Lilith has a very curious, adventurous character. She just needs to go out there and see the unknown for herself. So that’s the energy I’m really tapping on her. And then it became a whole concept. Because I kind of “used” her personally for a while, and one time I did a confirmation in land art performance. I confirmed myself in her in 2011, then again in 2015, I gathered a group of ten friends who have found lilithistic method very different, so we were a diverse group; there was a photographer, a dancer, a teacher, an architect and so on. I kind of constructed this place I called “Eden Oslo”, and I even got money from the Culture Fund and finally we all did this confirmation. We kind of raised a new Eden in this place full of old, abandoned factories. We had nine months of preparation: We met every one Sunday a month, we camped and did our throat exercises, read a lot of Hildegard of Bingen, stretched up and made a lot of brew (laughs). And then we were ready and we did this ceremony where guests would come as guests and we did this very strange and long performance, we had an Oratorio made for us by a choir, etc. So that was pretty amazing. And it all began as an artistic idea, a way for me to comprehend, to manifest something, but it became very important for all of us, so we just continued to meet and to do ceremonies in a more activist ground. Last year we had an exhibition where we wanted to heal or reunite with Adam, look at the man after MeToo, thinking how can we listen to him again, wondering what he have to say. But it was also funny because we realized there was no chemistry between the two of them (laughs). So this is what we do generally but for me, I also used Lilith a lot, I wrote a master thesis in Valand Academy (Akademin Valand) on her. So this was my way back to film after many years just doing mostly performance related things. Then I kind of “invented” the lilithistic method for filmmaking. The motto I use is “neuroses as compass”. I use them as my compasses instead of like, if you’re trying to fit in something. This is the bottom of my production method.

And the project before Gritt, which is called “Retract” (Retrett, 2016) with Brigitte Larsen and Marte Wexelsen Goksøyr, has a very similar subject matter with Gritt. So between these two projects, Retrett and Gritt, for nearly four years, you did the necessary preparations for the feature film or it all developed differently?

I began preparing for the feature film from 2009, that’s when I got the idea for a feature film. But for a while I didn’t have any means, nor funds, or I was getting rejected all the time, because I wanted to produce it myself, etc. They didn’t think I can do that. And the project was actually a feature trilogy! That’s what came to my mind, and of course everyone found it a little too ambitious, we can see some similarities with Gritt, there (laughs). So, Retrett was just something I had to do to get in contact with the material after so long and to be able to manifest something to push me forward, to get trust to make a bigger production. So it’s a natural follow-up. I feel like Gritt is maybe a year after Retrett in cinematic time. But we have also stolen a scene from Retrett as a prologue for the feature.

So that’s why some movie stills from “Retrett” looked extremely familiar to me! And I want to point out the lovely line by Marte Wexelsen Goksøyr when she’s trying to watch a movie while Gritt is criticizing the female part in the film, she says: “It’s just a movie”. Yes it is “just” a movie but it’s also a very hard task to accomplish of course, so did you have fun writing similar lines like this one, if I may ask?

Definitely! I mean the whole film has been so much fun. Of course it’s been hard to get to the point where I was able to make the film, get the trust and do it. And I didn’t get the trust either, I just started on my own pocket, went to New York, etc. So I was quite far in the shooting when Mer Film, my production company came along and they would get the trust from the film fund to get the final show, securing the rest of the film, in a sense. But in general, we had so much fun. I navigate to lust; people I want to work with, people I want to see in my film, streets I want to see in my film, it should all come from this space of lust and I would really play, and the shooting has been amazing. Especially working with funny and intelligent people like Marte, and all those people portraying themselves, the actors of the National Theatre, they have also a very good sense of self irony, they’re capable of criticizing a little bit the community that they’re part of, which I like. But also real people like Lars Øyno of the Theatre of Cruelty, the fitness coach, the refugees, they’re all in my life and they’re great people I want to portrait. So all in all it was so much fun and meaningful.

In Gritt, while listening to Marte Wexelsen Goksøyr’s script proposition, where two different film crews, the main and the extra, try to figure out which one is the real world, I loved it so much and frankly I was afraid somebody else would steal it and make a whole film out of it, did this possibility crossed your mind?

Well, it’s her idea, it’s her film. And I thought she would probably never get the trust and make it so I thought, let’s put it in there, with her permission of course, and by doing so, it’s already a bit made, this idea of hers. Who knows, maybe someone will pick up and make that film. So this way, she’s a bit closer to make her film than telling her idea only to me. She’s brilliant, she has this amazing, very condensed, finished ideas, they just come like this, [in a package]. She’s brilliant, but she has down syndrome so no one believes that.

Brigitte Larsen, Itonje Søimer Guttormsen and the mysterious brew from Gritt.

At one point in the film, I even thought that Marte’s script idea will become real in the cinematic world of Gritt, that at the end we will see the director reveal herself and speak to the cast, but we all know it’s not what happens in the film.

This would maybe done in the next film because Marte has a lot of ideas. We had recently this premiere Zoom meeting party with the cast, the producers and the camera guys etc. and there Marte was saying “I got so inspired by this living in the woods, I think I might go and do that, than in the next film, Gritt goes further in the woods, she will meet me and I’m also a pilgrim” (laughs).

Wow, superb! I would also like to ask you about the changes taking place in the shooting technics or camera types. Because in some scenes the camera is filming Gritt behind the bushes like an act of voyeurism, in certain scenes the camera dimension is 16 mm, and in general it’s cinemascope, so what was the idea beneath these changes?

Yes, we had this concept that we followed, maybe not strictly but most of the time. In one hand, we wanted to capture the language of her nerves, in a sense, of her mental state. But we also knew of course that we have to be neutral at some points, especially when she’s in dialogue, trying to connect, we had to give her some space and not be subjective. So it’s one part this vision and one part going with the flow of the action. But we were planned on when to film with Steadicam, where to put the gimbal or the tripod, etc. It was very thought out in the overall concept. Do you know the dance forum called 5Rhythms?

I’ve heard of their name, yes.

Wonderful, so they dance for two hours for these five rhythms which are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness. And from the script on, these were my five chapters. So I used them for the camerawork, for the sound work and of course I played with them a little through the editing process also. And the 16 mm, I don’t know anyone else sees it that way but for me, it’s the gaze of Lilith. So it’s always in the woods, kind of pulling her out, over the border. And at one point it’s all 16 mm like in the winter time there, and then she is, kind of, Lilith.

Yes, because it was a specific use of that technic and even though I knew it was the director’s choice, I couldn’t quite handle its meaning the way I wanted to.

No one has yet handled it, I can tell you that (laughs). It’s all up for grabs, how that resonates. So, that’s my intention at least.

Yes, of course. And the fact that Gritt has always in her mind theatrical projects which are far from classical is very interesting to me. She wants to take place in improvisational, experimental theatrical projects instead of a classical representation of Hamlet, let’s say. So did you have in mind to point out the fact that some theatre companies and society in general have some strong prejudices against that type of free minded performances?

Yes, definitely. I think it was right for her to have that kind of ambition. Because she’s been around for so many years, doing work in other people’s groups, picking up here and there, so when she’s finally back, she wants to manifest something, she knows that her curriculum vitae is pretty blank. And when you’re outside of the society at that level, when you’re not able to get back in, I think your ideas tend to be even more conceptual, I don’t know but it’s true for me. So Gritt has that kind of conceptual ideas, in which you should do ritualistic acts. But the paradox with her is that she wants the whole city to take part, she wants to heal by holding hands, it’s all very collective, yet she has no collective, she doesn’t have a community. Also she’s criticizing what people are quite comfortable about in the Scandinavian society. And she turns her back on Norway very early, after the drama school she left the country, so this behaviour is considered a bit arrogant by the society. I don’t think she has the best cards in her hand but I really feel that this project of hers, The White Inflammation, has also a certain radicalness to it where she’s not at the best of situations.

And the concept of “lone wolf” if I may say, is abundant through the movie, Gritt does things where a simple permission would suffice but she prefers not to take that simple step because she doesn’t want to be the in the position of a person who asks permission, that was also interesting.

Yes, but she’s kind of proud also, that’s why she would never say to her aunt -who was practically throwing her out- that she doesn’t have a place to go. She’s very proud and she wants to be a grown up and take care of herself. So saying to her aunt that she has no place to go would be humiliating to her. And she has a sense with Lars who is very generous with her, but the thing is, it’s all his project, it’s all his vision. That’s why I think she already knows that she would not have that permission. But of course she’s also very desperate at that point and I feel that she’s connecting with the refugees finding some kind of common ground, she’s also a refugee, in a sense.

A refugee to the world, maybe.

Yes, to the world and to existence. I think she would feel that. I think she justifies this very false in her head to be a good thing for them. And I think she has good intentions. Of course her own project being so under, so unfulfilled, it comes over. It’s not the best way to leave them of course, the way she does, but it can’t be helped.

And for me it was also very sad to see her trying to institutionalize herself, willingly, so she tries everything but the officials say something like “good luck in the wild world”. This part touched me, really.

Yes that’s really hard. I had a long conversation about this scene with these psychiatrists, they were real psychiatrists by the way, because I wanted of course the door to be closed to Gritt’s face but I wanted this rejection to be much more nuanced. And I think they’re saying a very wise thing, they say she can find her solution in life, that she’s better off there than being hospitalized. I think they’re right, and I think that’s also something that I want to bring to the film: There’s a huge potential within a person to heal. But you need to find that. Unfortunately, many people don’t. So I think they’re kind of right for putting her out there instead of in a hospital.

The difference between nature and culture, maybe. She’s better off in nature than she’s among the civilization. That was a good distinction, at least for me.

Indeed, and it’s funny because the reception of that last bit is so dividing people who watch the film. Some are really scared about the last part, but others are empowered and relieved, seeing where she goes. And perhaps mostly men in their sixties have been provoked or disturbed, maybe they have this image of nature being evil or inhabitable, some were like: “Why should she go out there?”. Which is also an exciting response, I find.

How medieval of them, right? In the Middle Ages also, the concept of a woman living in the woods by herself wasn’t seen as a good sign, to say the least.

Exactly! Actually in terms of witchcraft it was OK for a woman to live in the woods by herself in the Middle Ages but when came the “Enlightenment Age”, that’s when the witch burnings really started.

You are right! This was something that caught my attention when I was studying on the history of witchcraft. I still tell my students to remember that there were no witch burnings in the Middle Ages, you are so right. And you have mentioned a trilogy about Gritt, can you please talk about your future projects?

Yes, I have this notion that Gritt will continue, that I will make films about her every now and then, until she’s old, I hope so. I have another project that I have written a long time ago, which is set in Oslo, Berlin and Gran Canaria and it’s a totally different story; but when I was thinking about it a couple of weeks ago, I realized that the mother of Gritt, she lives in Gran Canaria, so Gritt might as well enter the movie for a while (laughs). So yes, at the moment I’m looking for co-producers and financing of this project of mine. And I’ve been so obsessed with horses lately, so I’m trying to ride the most I can. Riding and working on my witch skills.

Itonje Søimer Guttormsen, thank you so much for this interview, thank you also for Gritt, this wonder of a movie. It was very lovely to talk to you, best of luck for the future projects and everything.

Thank you.

Questions and interview: H. Necmi Öztürk

Our review entitled “GRITT: Lilith, Matriarchy and Freedom”.

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