An interview with the Swedish team, Sarah Assbring and Alexandra Dahlström
By Caitlin Quinlan
For musician Sarah Assbring, otherwise known as El Perro del Mar, and filmmaker Alexandra Dahlström, the Nordic Trips proposal proved to be a revelatory and cathartic exploration of selfhood. Here they talk to Caitlin Quinlan about life as a woman in Sweden and the bravery it takes to stay on your own path in the creative industries.
From left to right: Alexandra Dahlström and Sarah Assbring
How did you begin to approach the Nordic Trips proposal?
Alexandra Dahlström: I was really excited because it was something that suggested it would be a mix of music video, fiction and documentary. I’m a big mythology nerd and when I met Sarah she said she studied languages, so it was easy to talk about different references and the first initial meetings were very exciting.
Were you familiar with each other’s work before being paired?
Alexandra: Yes, but not as much as I am now. I didn’t know that it was so extensive, I knew that my friend had toured with her, and I knew that she had some great songs and I’d seen her live a couple of times. I thought she was brilliant. But I didn’t know the scope and the body of her work, and it wasn’t until I started really listening and doing some research and reading up on Sarah that I realised who I was about to work with, and I was really impressed by that.
Sarah Assbring: I was familiar with Alexandra’s work as an actor mostly and really admired her before, but the whole idea with Nordic Trips, in the way that it wasn’t supposed to be just a simple documentary but a kind of fictitious piece, made me interested. I would not be interested in just being portrayed in a documentary.
Documentary is an interesting way of thinking about the project, as a way to reinvent the Nordic regions but also to present a true personal experience of your country?
Sarah: I love documentaries, but when it comes to making documentaries about musicians and artists, they usually tend to have a narrative that’s really difficult to make work. There are a few documentaries that have been made that really work and are able to make an interesting portrait of a person, of a musician. I guess for me and Alexandra when we started talking about doing this together, or if I was going to be a part of it, it was really important to find a different approach to tell my story, and also to tell her story as well which was actually what we wanted to do.
How do we combine our different personalities and our different works into something else?
How did you incorporate the exploration of your country at the same time as focusing on your experiences as women?
Alexandra: I don’t identify as a very typical Swedish person but I gave it my best. I tried to connect for example to the artist John Bauer, who created work that was mythological in some ways, with elves and other creatures. One of his paintings of Princess Tuvstarr was something that I used early on, and I think that the forest is very typical place for Swedish mythology. His painting is an interpretation of Narcissus so maybe the connection isn’t super Swedish but it was as Swedish as I could make it.
Sarah: What I feel that we really had in common when we started talking was this kind of womanhood, and I think that in Sweden actually the Me Too movement was so heavy around the time that we started talking, we realised that both of us had so many of those questions and issues in common. At the same time as we were drawing up the idea of what the film would be like, we realised that it had to be about being a woman in culture. It is very much about being a woman in Sweden working in art. We also realised pretty quickly that all the people in the movie, be it costume people or other actors, across all ages, all had something in common - being women in the cultural business. In that sense
I think it really tells a story about the current state of being a woman in Sweden today.
Did you find the collaborative process cathartic, or did you find the answers to some of your questions working alongside women in the arts industries?
Sarah: Definitely, I think it was an organic way that we realised it was about the community of women. Even though we maybe didn’t understand it in the beginning, we both understood this is what it led to. We have to help each other, we have to stick up for one another. At the end of shooting, everyone was just standing by the lake we filmed at and weeping together because of the beauty of it. I don’t think we even understood the strength of that. It was very tangible, everybody could feel it.
Alexandra: Yes, for me this was very cathartic and I felt really thankful to be able to get to know an artist who is as interesting as Sarah is.
It really became a great inspiration for me to be able to work with someone who is so courageous and who actually has figured these things out in a way that I didn’t think was possible, because after a while in this business it’s difficult not to become a cynic.
We spoke about motherhood together and when I started researching and talking to Sarah about what it was like to be a mother I started admitting to myself for the first time that I really wanted to become a parent. It seems like such a sacrifice, to miss out on a lot of things and to be treated differently, and physically your body will change, and Sarah made it seem like it was just a really, really cool thing.
I think you just need role models who don’t accept becoming pushed aside as an artist
And that was very impressive about Sarah. A lot of the work with this film has been very intuitive and organic, and it’s taken so much time to do it, we’ve had long pauses, we’ve had time to figure these things out and they’ve come to us more symbolically instead of sitting down and writing a script out of logic.
Sarah: It’s quite amazing when you think back on it because it’s been a part of our lives and all the people involved in it for such a long time that it’s started to live its own life. Also in the end Alexandra became pregnant, so it’s very much about womanhood and parenthood which has been a very major part of my artistic life and continues to be. I think that one of the biggest things is that we teach other and we have each other’s backs as women and artists and mothers. That for me is the biggest and most important thing, to gain knowledge from other parents while at the same time being artists and making it work. That’s something I felt before, it’s a well-kept secret like many other things about being a woman or being a mother. We tend as women to keep it to ourselves and we wanted to explore and talk about that, and then eventually the movie in itself told that story without us even being aware of it.
Alexandra: What I had felt from listening to Sarah’s music was the euphoria and the wisdom and the purity from the beginning. You have all these things and it’s a very beautiful sadness because it’s not wallowing in itself, it’s just very brave. And when you actually look your fear in the eye, and actually decide that you will meet it head on, very interesting things come from that.
From an early stage, we said we were going to allow each other to be as pretentious as we wanted to, there are no apologies for trying to say something too serious.
What are you excited to see in the final Nordic Trips anthology?
Alexandra: I’m really curious about the other short films for the anthology. I’m looking forward to seeing what the sum of all these parts will be and I’m really happy to have done this. We have a lot of material, and I know that we are closing in on a 10 minute version but I’m trying to figure out how to use this rich material. There might be three 10 minute films, or a director’s cut, we’ll see!
Sarah: Me too, I’m very excited to see the whole film. I know very little of the others so for me I’m just extremely excited to see it, and to see the different interpretations of the idea.
For us it’s been very important to speak about young women today and not taking shit, and to just let yourself be. Let yourself age and become who you are in this country and in the world as a woman artist. That’s been the absolute most important thing about this film, to grasp the reason why you want to make something and not to fall into the traps of everything else that seems to be important today.