When Swedish filmmaker Engeli Broberg (left) met an 8-year old Gabi, she reminded her of herself. Broberg spent a lot of time with Gabi and she became the fascinating subject of her first feature-length documentary, which has been touring the world film festivals and now has its Swedish premiere at Gothenburg film festival this week.
We have seen this intimate portrayal of a young girl exploring her thoughts and feelings around gender identity, sexuality, and growing up – and the interactions she has with family and friends while going through this. It’s something Broberg experienced herself, as many of us do, questioning social ‘labels’ and ‘boxes’, and discovering your own individuality and identity.
We spoke with Broberg to hear her perspective on the making of ‘Gabi, Between Ages 8 and 13‘.
Nordic Watchlist: How did your cross paths with Gabi and the family, and what was it that made you want to film their story?
Engeli Broberg: I first met Gabi through a friend, Gabi was an extra in a commercial that my friend was working on. I decided to have a coffee with Gabi and her mom.
As soon as we started talking, I got thrown back to when I was her age, because the questions and thoughts that Gabi had were the same I had her age: ” What is a boy, what is a girl and do I really have to fit in to these boxes?”.
But what really fascinated me about Gabi was that she was able to express her thoughts and feelings in a way that I couldn’t at her age. Gabi is able to talk about gender and injustice without all the unnecessary layers that we add as adults. She thinks about it in a very pure and logical way that I found interesting and refreshing in the conversation. So after that coffee, I just continued to hang out with Gabi and the family for the next years.
“I really wanted to just follow Gabi on her journey and her explorations without judging or trying to find an answer. Because that is how life is, we explore, we try different things”
I think that it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to figure out what Gabi ”is” when working on a film like this. But for me, it was important to not label Gabi or put her in a box. I really wanted to just follow Gabi on her journey and her explorations without judging or trying to find an answer. Because that is how life is, we explore, we try different things, we might find a label for our self that we might change in the future, or we might find that the labels are too constricting and choose to not label our self at all.
So for me it was important to leave space for Gabi to be able to continue to evolve and explore after the film was finished.
NW: How did you earn Gabi’s trust and be there for some of the very personal, reflective moments?
EB: It was important for me to create a space for Gabi, where we could meet as two people without unnecessary labels. With adults, that is not possible, but children don’t put unnecessary labels on you in the same way.
I wanted to create a space where we could talk about anything we felt like and most importantly not feeling any pressure to talk about certain things if we didn’t feel like it. I didn’t want Gabi to feel like she had to mold what she said or did to something that she thought I wanted hear.
I think it could easily become that with a child, that they want to give you the things that they think you want. And I didn’t want to narrow our conversations in that way.
So one of the things I did was that I spent a lot of time with Gabi and the family and in school, without filming. I also decided to not come out as a lesbian to her as the first thing I did. Which might sound weird, when you’re making a film on this theme.
“I wanted to create a space where we could talk about anything we felt like and most importantly not feeling any pressure to talk about certain things if we didn’t feel like it.”
But I knew that there was a risk that it would affect the things we would talk about and make it too focused on feeling different, or on gender identity. I wanted to be able to create a space where Gabi didn’t feel like she had to talk about that just because I was there.
I obviously came out to Gabi later, and it was shortly before the age when every one in your class starts to fall in love with each other, so that helped us talking about love in other ways than what she saw in her class.
Another thing that was really important in terms of trust, was the team. It was crucial that we were working with a small team made up of people people that Gabi liked and felt connected to. I really found that in my DoP Tommy Olsson, because I know nothing about TV-games or football, so Gabi could have these interactions with him, and the other stuff, she could talk to me about.
NW: The music composition in the film is beautifully done – tell us how you discovered the composers and the direction you gave them?
EB: I worked with a Swedish composer Sofia Hallgren, we have worked before and she is really good at understanding my vision and my way of talking about music, she had also made the music for our pitch trailer and we had kind of found our sound there.
Everything was composed via zoom conversations where she would play me snippets live and we could develop it together. Weirdly enough, looking back on it, it felt like we were in the same room.
One of the most important things for me was that the music reflected Gabi’s point of view; it is so easy to fall into creating something that reflects what we as adults feel when we see a certain situation, and I didn’t want that. I wanted the viewer to stay in Gabi’s world and follow along Gabi’s journey.
“One of the most important things for me was that the music reflected Gabi’s point of view”
It was also important for me to find a way to make the music feel playful, without feeling childish. I also worked with Norwegian composer Kjetil Schjander Luhr and I think that the blend of their music works perfectly.
NW: You have been on the road for the best part of the year with the film at a number of film festivals, what other films have you managed to catch on your journey which you have enjoyed personally?
EB: My absolute favourite is Flee, that film just blew my mind. It touched me so deeply. But also Children of the Enemy, Skál, Life of Ivana and Hello World.
NW: What is coming up next for you – might we see a return to Gabi in the future?
EB: I’m not filming Gabi currently, but we both enjoyed making the film and we still keep in touch. So we will see in the future.
Right now I have a couple of different ideas floating around and I’m doing a lot of research. It is really nice to be in this developing phase and play after working on the same project for such a long time.
NW: Do you think the UK and further international releases will come for the film?
EB: Yes, there are still a lot of new realeses coming up, and I’m really hoping that UK will be one of them.
Gabi Between Ages 8 and 13 is having it’s Swedish premiere at Gothenburg Film Festival this week
Interview by Alex Minnis