LIFF: ‘Paradise is Burning’ director Mika Gustafson discusses her award-winning first feature along with co-creator Alex Öhrstrand

In a recent interview Nordic Watchlist spoke to the creators of Paradise is Burning, Mika Gustafson and Alexander Öhrstrand, who shared their journey of bringing this unique project to life.

The story of Paradise is Burning began with the discovery of three talented yet novice young actresses – Bianca Delbravo, Dilvin Assad, and Safara Mossberg.

Co-writer Alexander Öhrstrand recalled the moment when he first discovered the lead star (and recently Sky Showtime nominated actress), Bianca Delbravo.

I had stepped out to the supermarket to grab some breakfast. I think I had thrown on some leopard skin leggings and I had this moustache for a film I was shooting at the time. I was outside the shop when I just heard this voice,” Alex explains.

He then mimics Bianca’s voice, “She was a teenage girl with a voice that had a unique blend of masculinity and femininity, and this uniqueness instantly caught my attention.”

Well aware of his questionable ‘look’ that he was fashioning in that moment, he called Mika saying that he had found the perfect potential girl for the role of Laura. There was one small problem – Mika wasn’t available.

So I approached this 14-year-old girl myself to ask for her number and invite her to a casting and I think I was so nervous I wrote the number down wrong!

It was a whole year later when, this time, Mika heard that same distinctive voice and this time they managed to finally get hold of her – it was clearly destined to be.

Bianca plays the eldest sister, the leader of her sisterly pack. She is resourceful and protective but equally has her moments of immaturity and teases her sisters. It comes as no surprise to us that her performance as Laura has been singled out in the recent Sky Showtime nominations.

With the other two girls onboard, the creators not only assessed the girls’ acting potential – as none of them had actually acted before – but also their willingness to learn and their dedication to the roles.

Mika and Alex share their creative process, which heavily emphasizes world-building. They are more focused on the world and its intricate details, aiming to capture the nuances of life, from tastes and smells to memorable moments. This approach allows them to create a rich tapestry within their stories, giving audiences a tangible sense of their characters’ lives.

From the moment the film opens, you feel you are part of this sisterly tribe. Thrown straight into their dynamic without much of a clue of what got them here and why, that doesn’t matter, because the minute you are introduced to the trio you are totally thrown into the present.

Mika and Alex worked tirelessly to define the cinematic space that the kids would be living in, ensuring it is was well planned before they even set foot on the film set. This comprehensive preparation enabled them to be spontaneous during production while staying true to the story’s heartbeat.

In doing so the pair succeeded in creating a captivating universe filled with memorable moments and a strong sense of authenticity. The film’s unique charm lies in the dedication to crafting a world and characters that feel real and relatable.

What makes the film feel so different to others you might have seen from Sweden, was this very different environment. The three sisters are living in what feels like a Swedish version of a council estate, the locals drink at the bar and the kids fight and drink any alcohol they can get their hands on – enjoying rituals and celebrations of girlhood.

The brains behind Paradise is Burning – Mika Gustafson and co-creator Alex Öhrstrand

There are no sharply dressed characters, the city as a backdrop, or a particular colour palette of dark greys and rainy days. This world we are introduced to is one that feels tough, even of despair, yet is vibrant and colourful and loud. It is a breath and fresh air and energy that is a sheer joy to be immersed in.

Mika adds; “We wanted to share this almost poetic and punk environment – it felt really important to create something a little different and playful.”

Imagine your standard British kitchen sink drama – sombre with perhaps hints of humours in some moments but generally speaking some of these movies are hardly cheerful. Mika flips the lid here, yes an abandoned bunch of children trying to fend for themselves should be a serious a matter but there a is a playfulness thrown into this mix.

What about the adults? You barely get to meet any except the sisters’ neighbour who helps them out, begrudgingly, in any emergencies. Then there is the introduction of Ida Engholl’s (Love & Anarchy) character whose path crosses with Laura and a new dynamic is introduced between the pair that is a joy to watch.

The other beauty of the film is not really knowing where the film is set. Mika explained that they were inspired by small city suburbs, a less common backdrop in Swedish cinema. They wanted to tell a story that could take place in any of these smaller cities without identifying a specific one. Alex also emphasizes the importance of finding locations that would not reveal recognizable landmarks, contributing to the film’s sense of universality.

What makes this film so wonderful is that in a way we’ve barely scratched the surface of the other elements that come into play; the music, the symbolism, and the relationship dynamic that breaks out between each of the sisters.

This is why Paradise is Burning is proving to be such a big hit, from the casting of these incredibly talented actresses to the story that is brought to our eyes. This film is clearly destined to go far!

Paradise is Burning scoops BFI London Film Festival award

The 67th BFI London Film Festival announced the winners of this year’s LFF Awards, a competition that celebrates the most exciting, innovative new films and cinematic storytelling.

There were four winning films in different categories, chosen by four esteemed LFF Juries. Paradise is Burning won the Sutherland Award in the First Feature Competition.

The First Feature Jury said: “We would like to give the Sutherland Prize to Mika Gustafson’s masterful debut, Paradise is Burning. What a journey. Not only was this a remarkable first feature, but a film that in its own right has such clarity of cinematic language and vision. It’s compelling universe was so complete and effortlessly executed. Nothing has been left untended to in this film, we were THERE, not like a fly on the wall or an intruder; it held us in its arms and it didn’t let us go.” 

Mika Gustafson, said: “It is a great honour to receive the Sutherland Trophy for Best First Feature at BFI London Film Festival. Previously awarded to such greats as Julia Ducournau and Andrea Arnold. This gives me a lot of energy and courage to keep working and on my next project!” 

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