A Human Position by Norwegian writer-director Anders Emblem screened at the Tromsø film festival in January 2021. A beautifully shot drama to the backdrop of the Norwegian port town of Ålesund in Norway, it centres around journalist Asta (Amalie Ibsen Jensen) who lives in an artistic apartment with her partner Live (Maria Agwumaro).
Asta is investigating a story about an asylum seeker who has been forcibly repatriated, while she contemplates and tries to find meaning in her own life.
Nordic Watchlist spoke to the director to find out more about the making of the film and its imagery of Norway:
Nordic Watchlist: ‘A Human Position‘ opens with the most beautiful shot of Ålesund, and many more throughout – was this always the location you had in mind for the film and why did you choose it?
Anders Emblem: I was looking for an overview shot of the city, and didn’t want to use the one you get when you Google Ålesund. I usually try to find beautiful images, not beautiful places – if that makes sense.
Additionally, the opening shot quickly establishes the place, and it sets the language of the film. I tend to want an opening that tells the viewer what kind of world we are in, in terms of tone, pace, style etc. This way, expectations of what to come can quickly be adjusted if needed.
NW: When did you shoot the movie and how easy was it to capture the city in those still, quiet moments?
AE: We shot in July 2020, and most of those quiet images of the city were actually shot on the last saturday night (stupidly) – I kept postponing them because I wasn’t fully sure how Asta should move through them.
But we didn’t shoot on the busiest streets, so with a little bit of patience it went alright. Also, Ålesund is a small, quiet town, and in case things got busy we could shoot all night as it never really gets dark during summer.
NW: Amalie Ibsen Jensen does an absolutely fantastic job in playing Asta, she manages to speak a thousand words in those silent moments and keep you so engaged. Where did you discover Amalie and how did her role come to be in the movie?
AE: A few years ago we made a feature called Hurry Slowly (Skynd Deg Sakte, 2018), and she sent a great simple self tape where I could just instantly imagine her for the role. In terms of acting skills I found her very competent and easy to collaborate with. But to find actors that suit a specific language and world, to work in images in the way I like to do it – it might just be a stroke of luck. She also is one of those that gets even better on screen – those rare aliens that have that unexplainable something special.
The first film went great, so we decided early on to make another one together.
In both films there’s a weight her character carries, and for this in particular it is more closed off for the viewers. And she is good at that, she has an expressive face almost open for the viewer to interpret. I can’t tell you how she does it, but it works. She is actually naturally funny and energetic, so perhaps for her to contain her composure gives the character a sense of inner turmoil vs outer calm.
When it comes to directing, she is mostly self driven. We get along and understand each other well. In general we just have to go through the logic of the film language compared to movement and behaviour, and she had to understand that it still looks natural when things go slower. Coming from theatre, it probably wasn’t natural at first, but hopefully I managed to explain that this type of film needs another way of playing to achieve realism. But when that is in place, she knows what to do. I think she works harder than it seems to me, cause for me it just clicks.
NW: We wanted to also mention the architecture and design, not only from the streets of Ålesund but also within Asta and Live’s apartment. What inspired such shots of the walls, chairs, and parts of the building?
AE: Basically I just look for things I like, and things that work well together. There’s a lot of gut feeling involved.
The apartment is mine, and my dad and I finished renovating it just a month before the shoot. So I walked around in the space and envisioned it for a long time. Part of the renovation was ripping up layers of previously renovated stuff. Like, we ripped up four old floors before getting to the original ones. Then mixing the old with some newer dry walls and trying to create a timeless feeling, with echoes of the past, but also rebuilding for the future.
The film actually had more renovation of the apartment as part of the day-to-day life, making points out of preserving, restoring and renovating. But that mostly got cut, along with a lot of the proper chair reupholstering, actually.
I can talk about chairs for days, but I knew early on that one of the main allegories would be built around chairs – sitting, renovating etc. In addition, this area of Norway is quite famous for furniture production, all the way back a hundred years. So a year before production, I started collecting used and broken chairs and furniture. This turned into an addiction after the shoot, but I think I finally have a healthy relationship with industrial design chairs now, even though my attic still has 70+ chairs…..
Finally Brynhild (Production design) came in and helped tie things together, and create a meaningful home for Asta and Live.
NW: How did you envisage them conveying parts of the story?
AE: I’m not fully sure I have an answer. I try to let the films have a sideways narrative. Sideways storytelling of sorts. There aren’t a lot of conventional plot points, action/reaction etc. But by slowly exposing the life and home of Asta; the cat, her job, the chairs, Live – the viewer will hopefully collect all these pieces of the puzzle and create/complete the stories themselves.
So the meaning of all the elements, the things, the framing, the games they play, the films they watch, the chairs. It hopefully slowly builds and helps the viewer gradually find meaning. I also aim to have things of interest and beauty in the film just in case people find it boring. Then at least it is easy on the eyes.
NW: We have to mention the cat, which has such a prominent role in the movie, what is the story there and did it cause any trouble on set?
AE: So, making a next to no budget film takes a lot of life planning. I get an overview of what and how I can use resources available, then slowly write around it based on some of the main ideas. I find that writing bigger than your resources can quickly turn disastrous, but by doing it a bit backwards, the film can still find its natural form as it was always planned like this to start with.
Anyways, the cat, Floppy. I always wanted a cat, but never had the time and space for one. So when I decided to move back to my hometown Ålesund, adopting a cat was a top priority. And again I adapted my life to the production, and planned the adoption to a month before the shoot. For the story’s sake, I wanted it to be a kitten, so with a bit of luck and timing it worked out well. She moved in when I did, and spent a month getting used to her new territory, to me, and to the cast and crew. So when we shot she was either enjoying it, or off somewhere sleeping.
Except for a few shots where we needed her to do this and that, the idea was that she was just gonna be around, and come and go into shots. She improvised well! The only trouble was when she couldn’t be in the shot, then she had to stay in another room and she made it clear that she didn’t want that… Luckily our production manager could do her work from there while also watching her/playing with her.
NW: What is next for you and the film – will we see this feature in the upcoming festivals?
AE: Well, I literally finished this one two-three weeks ago, so no specific plans for a new film yet. I’ve been joking with Amalie that we should make one more and finish the emo-Ålesund-nobudget-triolgy. There is no lack of ideas for films, but I’m also hopeful to be able to make a film with more resources so we can up the ambitions and perhaps fulfill our potential. Or at least try to.
We’ve just started the festival circuit, and since this IFFR edition hasn’t soiled the international premiere status, we’ll try our luck and see who will take us. Hopefully it will have a long and interesting festival life.
Interview by Alex Minnis