Isabella Carbonell is a director and screenwriter rising talent from Stockholm who has made many short films, such as Boys (2015) which screened in Cannes, SXSW, and won the Grand Jury Award at AFI FEST, and Brother (2019).
Dogborn is her first feature film which has already received award nominations and captured our eye for its social-political commentary, tense storyline, and powerful performances.
The film follows desperate homeless brother and sister twins as they look for work and a place to stay. They turn to criminality for the prospect of a better life, but their job opportunity turns out to be sex trafficking and the siblings grapple with moral dilemmas and their conscience – how far are they willing to go for survival?
Fresh from its premiere at Venice Film Festival, Isabella talks to Nordic Watchlist about the film, her incredible cast, and her inspiration for sharing this story.
Nordic Watchlist: Dogborn has finally had its premiere at Venice Film Festival, to really positive reviews, how does it feel to finally get your debut out there?
Isabella Carbonell: It’s a great sense of relief and joy. Sharing a story like Dogborn on such a huge, global stage is literally a dream come true.
It offers a platform where the film’s themes can reach people that otherwise might never have heard of it. All in all, I’m on cloud nine and so happy that our hard work along with these characters are making an impression.
Nordic Watchlist: How would you best describe the film and the themes it covers?
Isabella Carbonell: It’s a drama with marginalized characters in its centre, carrying a strong undertone of a suspenseful thriller. Our protagonists, if that’s the right term, are the twins. Living in the streets, they lack a societal sense of identity.
As replaceable parts of a cogwheel made up of buyers, sellers and products – the only available options are to sell or be sold. And this dilemma is the main core of the film. How far are you willing to go in the name of survival? For yourself and the ones you love?
Nordic Watchlist: Where did the concept for the story come from?
Isabella Carbonell: It was the case of separate entities merging. My never-ending anger in relation to the exploitation of vulnerable adults and children, and my never ending passion for filmmaking.
Somewhere in there these individuals stepped out of the dark and demanded to have their story told. This was years and years ago, but I remember clearly how the music of Bon Iver and Little Dragon played a big role in the character and story development.
My never-ending anger in relation to the exploitation of vulnerable adults and children, and my never ending passion for filmmaking.
As I got older it also became a priority to explore genre fluidity and multi facetted female characters that we don’t see enough of in film. And of course, avoiding that common filmmaker trap when social injustice is a main theme; further exploiting, sexualizing or simplifying the people you try to empower.
Nordic Watchlist: Your cast put in fantastic performances, in particular its leads Philip Oros and Silvan Imam. What was it like working with them and discovering Silvan’s talent in front of the camera?
Isabella Carbonell: I guess every director praises their cast, so this isn’t exactly original, but my god this cast…I never could have imagined that we would get so lucky. Our amazing casting director Elin Ström managed to find the majority of our actors like Emma Lu and Mia Liu, who play the east Asian sisters, and thanks to that I got to witness the birth of not just one, but several stars!
It was a life changing directing experience to work with Silvana and Philip, to watch their relationship grow from being complete strangers to one another, to developing a genuine, sibling-like bond. This bond is the heart of Dogborn and the fact that it was rooted in something real certainly helped all of us in the team.
It was a life changing directing experience to work with Silvana and Philip, to watch their relationship grow
I already knew that Silvana was great in front of the camera, but honestly it wasn’t until her first day on set that she revealed just how much of a natural she is. I had no idea she would be the most technically skilled actor I’ve ever worked with.
Communicating with her was so satisfying, we found our own language that helped us creatively but also saved time which was a gift as we rarely had much of it.
Nordic Watchlist: The film is a dark ride in terms of its story yet the cinematography is lit with neon colours throughout – how important did you feel it was to capture this tone in the film?
Isabella Carbonell: Very important. People often say you shouldn’t talk about what you don’t want, but rather what you want. I’m not sure I agree. Sometimes you have to be very straight forward from the get go when underlining what you want to avoid in order to save time and avoid confusion.
Especially when there already is such strong imagery associated with this kind of story. In my early communication with cinematographer Maja Dennhag and production designer Elle Furudahl, we established right away that I didn’t want this to be a visually bleak and depressing film. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favourite films, like Lilja 4-ever by Lukas Moodyson, is definitely bleak in its visuals.
Our goal was to focus on baby blue, light pink and purple hues, almost an infantile colour spectrum. I associate this with innocent childhood playfulness. Something many of the characters have been robbed of.
But I wanted to explore something where the visual landscapes contradicted the heaviness and brutality of the universe we’re entering. Our goal was to focus on baby blue, light pink and purple hues, almost an infantile colour spectrum. I associate this with innocent childhood playfulness. Something many of the characters have been robbed of. This contrast was a guiding star for us when planning the look of the film.
Nordic Watchlist: Did you get to catch any other films at the festival?
Isabella Carbonell: Unfortunately no, I was just too busy and overwhelmed. I wouldn’t have been able to fully take in a new film. But I’m looking forward to seeing Saint Omer by Alice Diop, Tár by Todd Field, Ordinary Failures by Christina Grosan and of course All the beauty and the bloodshed by Laura Poitras!
Dogborn will continue on the festival circuit – watch this space for further news of an international release.
Interview by Alex Minnis