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Mika Gustafson / PHOTO: Lilja Fredrikson

Paradise is Burning’s Mika Gustafson on creating a poetic, playful and punk movie

The rising Swedish talent spoke to us ahead of the world screening of her debut feature September 7 at Venice’s Orizzonti competition programme.

A graduate from Gothenburg’s Valand Academy, Mika Gustafson had her industry breakthrough at Copenhagen’s Nordic Talents 2016 as co-winner of the Special Mention Prize.

Two years later she won a Guldbagge for best documentary with the music doc Silvana about Swedish rapper Silvana Imam.

Her feature debut Paradise is Burning (Paradiset brinner), written with actor Alexander Öhrstrand, is an empowering story of sisterhood, survival and love, a story “about the transience of time and life” said the director.

We follow three sisters: Laura (16), Mira (12) and Steffi (7) from a working-class suburb, who have to fend for themselves, as their mother just isn’t around. It’s summertime, and the girls live a wild and carefree lifestyle. But when the social services get in touch, Laura is obliged to find someone to impersonate their mom, otherwise the sisters will be placed in foster care and separated.

In the title roles as the three sisters are non-professionals Bianca Delbravo, Dilvin Asaad, Safira Mossberg, playing alongside seasoned actress Ida Engvoll (Love & Anarchy).

The film was produced by Nima Yousefi for auteur-driven Hobab, in co-production with Finland’s Tuffi Films, Denmark’s Toolbox Film, Italy’s Intramovies, with support among others from Nordisk Film & TV Fond. The Swedish release via TriArt is scheduled for October 27. Italy’s Intramovies handles sales.


Paradise is Burning’s Mika Gustafson on creating a poetic, playful and punk movie

Paradise Is Burning / PHOTO: Nadja Hallstrom 1

How do you feel about attending Venice’s Orizzonti?
Mika Gustafson:
It’s huge! I’m super excited. I’m also very happy for the young non-professional actresses playing the three sisters.

I’m curious about the title - why did you change it from ‘Sisters’ to ‘Paradise is Burning’?
MG: We knew from the beginning that we had to change the title. I wanted a title that had opposites in it to reflect the core of the film - freedom versus despair, humour versus seriousness, loneliness versus closeness.

I believe the story is loosely based on your own experience of growing up. How did you collaborate with Alexander Öhrstrand on the screenplay to create fictional characters that would stand on their own?
The story is totally fictional. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write something from the kids’ perspective, building from my experience of working with non-professional kids’ actors. I wanted to portray youngsters with an inner life, dealing with existential questioning.

I also had the feeling that the people you grow up with in your teens are incredibly close, to the point that you feel you share a secret together, almost from another life. I wanted to catch that feeling - much more than my experience - and make sure that this feeling is reflected in the tone of the film.

Also, growing up as siblings is shaping each other, having the same but also different memories. It felt important to have three sisters with three different stories, and catch their closeness but also loneliness. This was my goal.

Then when I started to write with Alexander, we developed a method, using physical places, memories to create a world that would co-exist in both our minds. That was all part of shaping the film’s cinematic universe. We went to Linköping where I’m from, then to Malmö where Alexander is from; we discussed with people who grew up with us and created that story. We realised that one person’s memories were also in the other person’s imagination. Alexander being an actor as well, it was hugely beneficiary. It was such a playful way to work!
When we decided to shoot the film in Stockholm, the film had a life of its own.

It’s hard not to think of Astrid Lindgren’s free spirited, feminist and non-conformist Pippi Longstocking who also lives by herself in a big house. Was she an inspiration?
When we were writing, I created a type of manifest - We should not feel sorry for the characters, but feel instead their joy and freedom. I wanted the kids to be altogether kind, reckless and fearless. So yes, I do see your comparison. It’s a kind of modern Pippi Longstocking story.

Ultimately what is the film about for you?
MG: The transience of time and life. About memories and reconciliation. I want to show what it’s like to be a human being in those moments when euphoric freedom lies cheek to cheek with total despair.

How did you find the three child actresses?
: It took a while. Elin Ström my casting agent was looking everywhere, at schools, in the streets-all the time. Then Alex found Bianca Delbravo - who plays Laura - in a supermarket. He just heard her deep voice, as she was screaming in her phone, and he felt-that’s her! We lost her, but a year later, we bumped into her again and then we asked her to attend a casting session.

Safira Mossberg who plays Steffi was found in the subway, and Dilvin Asaad who plays Mira, was found at her school. She came to me and said-I am Mira!

What is your actor’s method and how was the collaboration with Ida Engvoll?
Directing for me is to create life in the moments and making it so there are conditions that enable me to help the actors, help each other. Professionals and debutants alike. Ida Engvoll is a friend and artist that was incredibly important for that process. Together with Alex, who is also an actor, we then trained the non-professionals for almost a year before shooting.

I can work on small things, like cutting my hair in the same weird haircut as the youngest sister, to show her that there is nothing I will ask of her, that I won’t do myself.

Filmmaking is about creating a zone where actors feel safe, because this is where true magic can happen. My first priority is always the people in front of the camera!

Could you discuss your visual style-the fast editing, framing that you’ve used to create the sense of fleeting moment, magic realism?
I had quite a clear vision. I collect a lot of material while working on the casting, and with the style, I wanted it to be poetic, playful and punk at the same time. It took a while to find the right cinematographer, and when I found Sine Vadstrup Brooker [The Chestnut Man, Cry Wolf], I felt totally engaged in her style. She did a brilliant job.

This is your feature debut. What filmmaking technique or approach stems from your training at Valand Academy and tutorial from Ruben Östlund?
MG: I would say that Valand Academy is a combination of philosophy and elite sport. It’s a unique and fascinating combination. We are asked to analyse the role and influence of moving images on society, and also train in sports analogy: If your right hand is strongest, then don’t waste time practicing your left. In other words, focus on your strengths, practice your unique tone, and always have the courage to aim high and create something truly unique, that challenges the perception of what moving images can be.

What was the most challenging with this film?
It was quite a complicated script, with three different stories, a lot of kids, animals etc. I knew it would be challenging, but I was fully prepared. I get more inspired when it’s challenging. It was totally worth it!

What’s next? I’m writing another feature with Alexander. It’s early days.


Paradise is Burning’s Mika Gustafson on creating a poetic, playful and punk movie

Paradise Is Burning / PHOTO: HOBAB, Intramovies, Tuffi Films, Toolbox, 2