I first wrote about Johan Liedgren in November of last year. If you have not read that post, check it out here.
His most recent film continues to gain momentum and with recent shifts in the United States — it has gained even more importance. I’m quite literally pasting an interview Kate Shifman conducted with Mr. Liedgren last year. I do so with Ms. Shifman’s permission.
Johan Liedgren’s most recent feature film displays something very rare: a strong female protagonist who finds a very big voice in sexual controversy and moral complexity.
A witty, intense and unpredictable tale fusing rapid-ﬁre chamber-drama with fearless acting and relentless cinematic appeal, “The Very Private Work of Sister K” starts with the story of a young nun accused of grave transgressions, who rises to battle the oldest of beliefs as the true nature of sexuality is put on trial. Award-winning director Johan Liedgren teams up with director of photography Zia Mohajerjasbi and actress Liza Curtiss as Sister K in “…a modern bar-fighting lovechild of Eyes Wide Shut and 12 Angry Men.”
I called Mr. Liedgren at his house in Seattle on a Wednesday afternoon in early December, curios about a male artist’s relationship to what Hollywood has been struggling with for such a long time: strong and complex female characters.
Kate Shifman: There is a scene where the female protagonist Sister K keeps telling the older male priests the sexual relationship she had was “…not just sex.”
Johan Liedgren: Sex is never just about sex.
KS: They say that it was simple. She says… it was complicated.
JL: She says it was complex. Human sexuality is complex. Not necessarily complicated. We all know how babies are made. Good sex is something very different.
KS: Complicated and complex – what is the difference?
JL: I feel like I am getting set-up to mansplain. (laughter)
KS: What’s the difference to you?
JL: One has many moving parts. The other can be simple but still mean many things on many levels. I should really look that up…
KS: It is rare to see truly strong female characters. Especially from a male director. Is this a feminist film?
JL: I don’t know how much it matters that I am male. But yes, she is very strong. But for me it was never because she repeats some political line that fits an established feminist abstract narrative. Her strength is interesting because she finds her moral high ground in a very specific experience. And to make things more interesting, it’s fueled with religious context and a suitcase full of sexual taboos.
KS: But it’s different than “Spotlight” in many ways.
JL: The obvious ways, sure. And it’s more fun to watch. But even more so because it serves as allegory rather than dramatized documentary.
KS: What you describe could have happened.
JL: It did happen… I can’t find the details but I think a similar case 20 years ago in Denmark. A civil case of a nun who thought her patient needed sexual attention on a regular basis. And just as I was editing the Sister K, New York Times did an article on Anna Stubbenfelt – the therapist who fell in love with and slept with a much younger severely autistic boy. Fascinating. And complex.
“Kicking in already open doors. All film makers should stay away from that and aim higher. “
KS: Could this film have been done with a male nurse?
JL: Sure. But you would have to play against the cliche’s or you would be re-making Spotlight. And that’s not me. Too easy. It can’t be predictable.
KS: Could it be about something other than sex?
JL: Of course. But not for me, and not for this story. Sexuality has a absolutely singular place in our lives. It’s an everyday need and deeply mysterious at the same time. It’s giving and taking. It’s familiar and yet always new somehow. Unmatched complexity. That’s why sexuality will always resonate with divinity for me. Those hips don’t lie. (laugh) But hey, don’t forget what Sister K did to her patient.
KS: And still we root for Sister K.
JL: I agree, most people do. But you have to work for it, and you are constantly challenged in that position as the story twists and turns. And I think that is why the film turned out so well. It was not an easy project.
KS: Too controversial?
KS: Are you actively staying away from politics?
JL: Sexual politics is often part of my projects. But traditional politics – yes, anything with dull and predictable categories… we are living in a world stuck in lazy narratives, selling something predictable to the already converted. Kicking in already open doors. All film makers should stay away from that and aim higher.
KS: More complexity.
JL: Exactly! The Hollywood machine requires simplicity and predictability. Known categories they can market too. Stories that everyone likes. It is up to independent films to dramatize more complex issues. To take real risks. Commercial and artistic. Even smaller independent film seem more concerned with making something that Hollywood likes than taking risks and breaking new ground.
KS: You don’t see much feminist film come out of Hollywood.
JL: That’s an understatement.
KS: Did you set out to make a feminist film.
JL: No. But I did set out to make a film about a woman who finds a deep female power outside the obvious, and she does so without being perfect. Clearly.
“All of my work hints at a bigger and more interesting world luring in the shadows of everyday life.”
KS: You are an accidental feminist.
JL: Love that! (laughter) – Johan Liedgren… accidental feminist. In some ways I think we can describe Sister K just the same.
KS: What would you like people to take away from the film?
JL: I would love to see someone stand up for real sexuality the way Sister K does. Bring the message home – when sex is talked about at that dinner party, as “simple”, there will be those women around the world who will push their plate to the side, empty their glass of wine, stand up and deliver the same speech Sister K did. And end it with a passionate “…Good sex, that’s where God goes to church!” Bam! Mic-drop…
KS: I can see that happening at a stale dinner somewhere.
JL: But also… I think the film – and certainly actress Liza Curtiss – does a brilliant job of having us drift deep into the complexity of what is going on long before we know we are in it. She uses all our pre-conceived notions of gender and sex to take us somewhere very different. She’s that good. You are laughing, but then suddenly realizing you are caught rooting for some very questionable behavior. Good story is a beautiful trickster – leading us to places we otherwise would not see. Film can and should do the same. I think all of my work hints at a bigger and more interesting world luring in the shadows of everyday life.
KS: Your film starts out with a funny, almost childlike story within the story – a rabbit who decides to stop eating his vegetables.
JL: Right. It’s a good example of how story can be a trickster – it’s not long before we fully embrace the rabbit as a brutal nocturnal carnivore.
KS: Accidental Carnivore?
JL: Nice. (laughter). But yes, Sister K in similar fashion seems harmless and benign in the beginning only to reveal incredible potency. No one sees her coming.
KS: Is she deceiving them all from the very beginning?
JL: Well, if she is, it’s not to save herself. It’s to make sure the story that survives is told right.
KS: Several times she talks about what happened to her as a story, a story to be told – told over and over again. The film eludes to the work of Eve, and the story of Eden.
JL: The value and currency of her actions is the story that will be told about her. And that is also how the rabbit story ends, with that story living on, retold over and over again, from generation to generation. I love story. The rabbit story even survives one of my films and appears in the next. Lives on… and if you end the interview now, the story of the film through this interview will live on – and it would provide for almost perfect symmetry. (laughter)
KS: What a director! (laughter). Thank you, Johan – a wonderful film and a surprising and incredibly potent female protagonist where we least expect it.
JL: It was all my pleasure.
Kate Shifman is a NYC freelance writer, consultant and photographer traveling the world, currently based in Portugal. Johan Liedgren is an award-winning film-director, writer and story consultant. His work with large brands, design, media and technology companies is extending narrative thinking and storytelling to products and disciplines far outside traditional application. Johan lives a relatively balanced life with his two sons in Seattle. More info here
The Very Private Work of Sister K can be rented/purchased here
I highly recommend it.
Matty Stanfield, 1.29.2017