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In Conversation with Jimmy Olsson, director of Alive

Released at the beginning of 2020, Jimmy Olsson’s short film Alive is an emotive display of the social prejudices faced by disabled people in modern society. After witnessing an encounter between her carer Ida (Madeleine Martin) and her boyfriend, Viktoria (Eva Johansson), who suffers from aphasia as a result of an earlier accident, expresses her desire for an intimate relationship with another person. At first encouraging, Ida creates her a Tinder account, but soon begins to worry about Viktoria’s vulnerability. By centralising intimacy, loneliness and care, Alive poignantly reflects the growing isolation felt by minority groups as a result of prejudices which both proceed and continue through the pandemic. Alive vocalises the necessity for society to see disabled people as ordinary members of our communities with the same needs and desires.

Why is it important for you to treat social issues through film? Do you believe that cinema has a social duty to do so?

Yes definitely, I think social issues are a part of the art form that film is and how we as consumers watch film: it’s necessary that we talk about and portray them. A lot of people talk about escaping reality by going to the cinema and that’s okay sometimes, but we also need to be able to see through film and television what is going on in our society and the topics we should be talking about.

Would you say that there is a specific message you wish Alive to convey to its audience?

I want to convey a subject that we need to talk about much more, which is how we feel about disabled people. I had some prejudice myself initially, not knowing what they are going through. I had an image that we as able-bodied people perhaps see disabled people as a burden, people we have a duty to keep alive. I hope after watching Alive some of us can stop and think that disabled people are the same as us on the inside, but simply have trouble expressing themselves sometimes.

Why did you choose to cast Eva Johansson, an able-bodied actress, to play a disabled role?

When I started the casting process, I searched for professional, disabled actors in Stockholm. However, in the end I decided to go with an able-bodied actress as Viktoria isn’t born with a disability, she has an accident. I thought that finding an able-bodied actress who could research and mimic the character’s disability, aphasia (brain damage), would be better for the film rather than having to rewrite a character to fit the disabled actor. That was my reasoning behind the decision. I know it is a bit controversial, but I stand by it.

What was the process behind this choice? What research went into the role?

Eva and I talked a lot about the character of Viktoria and the backstory behind her disability. We watched a lot of videos and read a lot of stories about people with a similar disability. This included how to talk and move, as well as life stories and blogs. We did that for about five or six weeks.

Why did you choose to shed light on aphasia specifically?

I wanted to depict the character as trapped in her own body. We talked back and forth, and it was actually Eva’s suggestion, as she had read about aphasia. In the script, it says Viktoria is a disabled woman – I didn’t really write what kind of disability it was.

The centralising of intimacy in its different forms is compelling in Alive, have your approaches to intimacy as a theme within filmmaking changed as a result of the current pandemic?

Yes, a topic like loneliness I think is more important to talk about now because of the pandemic. We should talk about homeless people, we should talk about drug addicts, we should talk about every minority group more. We should shed light on them to understand what they’re going through. I am sitting inside my own apartment, I am not freezing, I am not hungry, I am white, I have a family, I am blessed, I am privileged. I think it is therefore our responsibility to spread solidarity and shed light on those who do not have a proper voice.

How do you feel Alive as a film sits in this increasingly isolated way of living? Do you think audience responses have changed for example?

Yes, I think so. Due to the pandemic, viewers interpret Alive a bit differently, which adds another facet to the film. When I read the comments and emails I receive, I get the impression that the film now sits amongst its audience in a way that is different to the way it was produced to be. But I think this makes it stronger as a film.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your creative process? What was your inspiration for Alive?

I’ve made quite a few short films now but Alive is probably the last one I will make for a while as I am working with longer formats now. My inspiration for Alive was a podcast I was listening to in Sweden in June 2019. It was a similar story to Alive, and I thought about it for a couple of weeks whilst I was in Italy. On my way back to Sweden, I just wrote my first draft in about 90 minutes at the airport. It was only 15 pages, and when I finished, I wasn’t sure if it was good or not. So, I then tried the text on Eva and Madeleine to see how they understood the script and how they could portray it. That’s when I felt that Alive could be good. I felt more confident after that. We made some revisions together before starting pre-production, which involved Eva, Madeleine and myself. We talked a lot about the characters, we did a lot of research. Then we shot the film in October 2019 in two days with very little money, as we received the film grants only after we had finished filming. The editing process then lasted only about a week because we had only filmed what we had felt we needed so there weren’t really many ways it could have been edited. My film prior to this one called 2nd Class was filmed in a similar way: we took only twenty four shots. It was a bit of an experiment but I think we pulled it off. I often like to limit myself and trust the text and trust the actors. So overall the process behind Alive was really quick: it was the smoothest film I have ever made.

Apart from the opening scenes, Alive is set in interior and enclosed spaces. Why did you choose to do so?

For me, a short film needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It doesn’t work if it’s just a situation. We need to build up characters and a storyline. The first scene at the pool is important because we need to understand the relationship between the characters and the difficulties Viktoria encounters every day and her consequent embarrassment. The second scene in the park is the trigger for the emotions building inside of her. I wanted to start the film in two public places as these are the places Viktoria doesn’t feel safe – she is only safe at home as no one sees her there. It was important to have Viktoria inside during the majority of the film to isolate her character so that we really feel for her. She is alone. Although she is taken care of, this care is not on a personal level, it is almost clinical. I didn’t write any other locations for her because I didn’t feel we needed them to develop Viktoria’s character. I wanted to show Viktoria’s decreased mobility and chances as a result of her accident.

Why did you choose to use Tinder, a modern dating app, to connect Viktoria with the mysterious man rather than through mutual friends or a society, for example?

I have never used Tinder myself, but it is a well-known app and a lot of different people use it. When Ida suggests Tinder, in her mind it is something to mess around with without necessarily meeting anyone in person. To an extent, her character too is also prejudiced and therefore in a way, Ida represents the audience. She wants to do Viktoria a favour and Tinder is the first thing that pops into her head. A mutual friend for example takes a lot more engagement and interest and Viktoria as a character isn’t there yet.

Lastly, Viktoria states she feels alive after her encounter with her Tinder match. What does it mean to you to be alive?

Filmmaking and telling stories is my life. It’s almost everything I think of when I am awake and when I dream. It is a passion that almost possesses me. I am made to do it because if I am not creating I don’t feel alive. I love to take situations and relationships that are interesting to me and help others see them in the same way. It is very therapeutic to gather stories and make them whole. So I feel whole when I am making films and that is what makes me feel alive.

Edited by Juliette Howard, Film Editor


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