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THOUGHTS

Håkan Carlbrand

Working process

Many years ago, when I attended college for photography, I was solely interested in documentary photography. There, I could dedicate time to deepen my own photography and my admiration for a French photographer named Henri Cartier-Bresson. I didn't know much about him, but his images appealed to and influenced me, both in content and form. I couldn't comprehend how he could capture images that felt so spontaneous yet almost planned; every detail in the images had its place, everything worked in a fraction of a second. The decisive moment.

This was in the 80s in Sweden, and there was very little information about him, almost no written texts. Eventually, I came across a book translated from French to English, where I could grasp some of his thinking. Essentially, it boiled down to letting go of everything, all preconceptions, all musts, and just trusting one's own intuition. To become one with one's tool (the camera for me), so that technology wouldn't pose any obstacles to the "decisive moment" when the picture is taken.

I practiced this, and in doing so, I trained myself to trust my own intuition for various things. Gradually, I transitioned more and more to the moving medium, and the still image photography decreased, but the trust in my intuition remains there, more or less.

Fragments of the process

Håkan Carlbrand and Peter Ojstersek's documentary film Staircase to Dollhouse, 2023. 

The beginning

Receiving a death notice and knowing that the future is limited in time, what can it do to the mental state?

 

Håkan Carlbrand and Peter Ojstersek wanted to make a film addressing the question of appreciating life anew and gaining insight into what is important in life. Love, friends, what feelings are the strongest when you examine yourself?

Brief description of the film 

A film about life.

What happens in a person's head when the doctor gives the message that there is only a limited time left to live? This is exactly what happens to Martin, which the film is about. He contracted hepatitis C at a young age, lived with the virus for a long time and has now developed an incurable cancer. He has between six months and maybe a couple of years left to live.

 

The film addresses his perspective on life, his questions about life and the value of living. His thoughts about friends, family, about what he will leave behind.

 

Martin has a passion for music and plays several instruments. He has a venue in central Hisingen that he rents out to music enthusiasts who don't have money or are otherwise a bit outside society. There is a large circle of friends here that means a lot to him.

 

Another passion he has acquired recently is a dollhouse that he built as a parallel world of his life. In the doll's cabinet, he has single-handedly built an interior in the form of a mirror image of his own home and the music venue. A mirror image of his own life.

 

The film is supposed to move between Martin's physical world and his dollhouse world where he reflects on central values ​​in his life and how his outlook on life has changed due to the disease.

The film maker's letter to Martin

Dear Martin,

I have repeatedly sat down to write to you, and time and time again, I have stopped myself. I wanted to tell you in what way your fate has affected me and how our shared destinies have woven around each other. I wanted to tell you how your fate gradually intertwined with mine, and I wanted to know in what way my fate penetrated yours. Now that time has passed, my questions and your answers echo emptily.

Slowly but surely, you drew me into your life; your words, when I spoke with you, landed in my heart in a way that I did not realise at the time. When we started filming, I was most interested in how you had changed your outlook on life after receiving the news that you had limited time left to live. I was filled with thoughts I had gathered from articles and other films where people live out their last moments and do all the things they haven't had the chance to do. Maybe that's how it works for some, perhaps a break to avoid thinking, somewhat like living throughout life, constantly occupied with other things. Maybe it's a dream of eternal life, that life we don't really want. I wanted to know if there was something in us that created a sense of preparation for death.

When I posed these questions to you, I didn't get the answers I wanted. Instead, you started talking about life – what is important to you, your loved ones, Maia, your children, your friends, and what is present in the moment.

Perhaps it is that one should not expect answers to questions that have no answers.

Håkan Carlbrand , Göteborg, February 2024 

John Carberry talks to Håkan Carlberg and Peter Ojstersek about their film Staircase to Dollhouse.

John Carberry in conversation with Håkan Carlberg and Peter Ojstersek
00:00 / 28:56

Talking about the process

The conversation was held as a Zoom meeting on February 12th 2024. Following transcription has been slightly edited for readability.

 

John Carberry (JC):

So, you guys worked together on your film about your friend Martin. I'll just get you guys to talk about that a little, maybe.

 

Håkan Carlberg (HC):

I actually wrote a little text because I have a very big problem expressing myself in English. So, it's about four minutes. Peter doesn't know this, but I hope he agrees with me, and then we can talk later. And if it doesn't work, you can just skip it or something.

 

Peter Ojstersek (PO):

That's not a problem, Håkan, because even if we are working on the film together, I'm quite sure that we have different experiences about what it is, what we are doing, and how we are doing it. So, I think it's really nice that you have written a text, and we are really coming from two different angles. Martin is my childhood friend. I've known him since he was nine years old, and we have a history, just like you and I have a history working together on different projects I have invited you to. I think we have different perspectives on this.

 

PO:

It's my more personal view of this. Many years ago, when I attended college for photography, I was solely interested in documentary photography. There, I could dedicate time to deepening my own photography and my admiration for a French photographer named Henri Cartier-Bresson. I didn't know much about him, but his images appealed to and influenced me, both in content and form. I couldn't comprehend how he could capture images that felt so spontaneous and almost planned. Every detail in the images has its place. Everything worked in a fraction of a second, the decisive moment. This was in the 80s in Sweden, and there was very little information about him. Almost no written texts. Eventually, I came across a book translated from French to English where I could grasp some of his thinking. Essentially, it boiled down to letting go of everything: all preconceptions, all musts, and trusting one's own intuition.

 

To become one with one's tool, which for me was a camera, so that technology would not impose any obstacles to the decisive moment when the picture is taken. I practiced this, and in doing so, I trained myself to trust my own intuition for various things. Gradually, I transitioned more and more to the moving medium, and my still image photography decreased. But the trust in my intuition remains there more or less.

 

When Peter Ojstersek presented his request to make a film about Jadmatin Jos, I initially wanted to meet Martin. I was very taken by him as a person, and when he also said that he had changed his outlook on life when he received a death sentence, I wanted to join Peter in making a film about how one views their life when they receive a death sentence. It was the beginning of a journey that lasted for a year and a half. After a while on this journey, it became apparent that Martin didn't actually have many new thoughts about his life changing. So, the film became more of a portrayal of a condition, and Martin's wife Maya became increasingly prominent in her role as a relative.

 

Starting over from scratch after working with material for more than a year is a challenge. To see the same images that are so visible, almost ingrained in the brain, and to see them with new eyes, as if I had never seen them before. For me, it meant completely changing my attitude towards the already filmed material. The film that existed in my head previously had to somehow disappear. For my part, there was only one way to solve it all, and that was to completely trust my intuition. To think away all logic and all residues of what is ingrained in the head and to think freely. In such moments, I often talk to Henri Cartier-Bresson, even though he has been dead for 20 years. I talk to him now and then. What would he have done? What is genuine? What is essential? What is important in a situation like this? What is important overall? That's my text.

 

JC:

That's good. That's a very good text. I like it. It's so hard to have to change your idea because of things changing. It's fun to look at it with new eyes and things.

 

HC:

We had almost one part, one film, we thought was finished in the autumn, and then we had to change everything. It's about that.

 

JC:

That's a big thing to do. Just knowing we have to change it. That's cool. I was already excited to see the film, but I think I'm more excited now. I was wondering, one of the things I was wondering, because you both worked on it together, what were your roles? Were you both on the camera and swapping?

 

HC:

I did the filming and also most of the editing. I'm in Spain; I'm not in Sweden. And Peter, his role has been that we have talked about it all the time, of course. But the original idea is Peter's.

 

JC:

It's more of a writer-director sort of thing.

 

HC:

No, we both directed.

 

JC:

I think you're co-directors. Yeah, I guess people who don't make films don't know that. Not everybody uses the camera and things. Some people actually do quite a lot for the film and don't even step on set or whatever. Making sure everything will work and stuff.

 

HC:

When we were filming, we also had a kind of pressure because we didn't know how long Martin would last. He had this cancer, and it can go very fast when you are closer to death, in the end of life. Sometimes I filmed myself, and sometimes Peter had a connection with Martin because Peter and Martin live in the same city, and I live in the south of Sweden. So, I'm quite far from Martin. I think the project developed when Martin asked me if I could think about making a film about him.

 

PO:

I was kind of not so keen on it because there's a big danger of it being like social pornography because of the subject. Also, we kind of grew up and became adults together, but we were not so close for a lot of years because he started a normal life on an island outside Gothenburg, working in a local bakery, married a woman, and never talked about his past. They had children. I started to study art, moved to Finland and Germany, so we drifted apart.

 

Before I asked Håkan if he wanted to join this project, Håkan and I had made several films before, but none of them were documentaries. They were always art-related. The first film was about the only Dahlia flower with a fragrance, which we showed in a museum in south Sweden. Then we made artist documentary films about public art because my other job is to work with public art as a project leader. We thought because Håkan was married to an artist and I'm an artist, we had good access to interview artists. They are not afraid; they see that we understand their work. But this thing with Martin and Maya was quite another step. How could we make it respectful and maybe also individually interesting? We understood quite soon that it was kind of dialogue-based, which was a limitation with a person as sick as Martin, who spent 99.9 percent of his life on a sofa or in bed. We didn't know if it was possible to make this work in front of the camera. Luckily, through Håkan being such a good film editor, we managed to make a two-minute and forty-second pilot. We found out it was quite nice and maybe we could manage it. That gave us the energy to decide to make this project. I think we could both see that the only way to do this film, because we didn't have a manuscript, was to do it organically, like a painting, and see what parts we could get and how we could make them function together.

JC:

That was one of the questions I was going to ask you. As he was sick, you wouldn't have a lot of time with him. I was curious if you would have written a manuscript or something so you could go in there and be focused. But it sounds like you chose to go a more organic route.

 

PO:

We had a little bit of an advantage in that sense because my father died three years ago from the same disease, liver cancer. I never made a film about that, but I was familiar with how this would develop. As Håkan also said, in the end, it goes very quickly. It's like a double-edged sword; it put pressure on us to drive the project forward, but it also gave us less time to reflect on the content. We needed to solve several issues because we were bound to the living room. From the beginning, we saw that this dollhouse, which is a mirror of their everyday life, was the only way to get an artistic idea into the film that could separate it from other documentaries. Martin and I used some drugs when we were young, so going in and out of an imaginary world into some kind of reality was quite normal. As an artist, living in a fantasy world or something like that, we wanted to use that in the film. But we had technical difficulties because if you are filming in front of the dollhouse, the person covers everything that happens. We discussed these issues a lot. It ended up that we bought a dollhouse exactly the same as his, stripped it from the back, and found a way from fantasy into reality. Håkan bought a fantastic lens that made this possible, which was a huge investment in the film.

 

JC:

Yeah, lenses are very expensive, that's for sure.

 

HC:

One of the biggest problems we had technically was that neither Martin nor Maya were used to speaking into a microphone, and they also talked quietly. It was very difficult to edit, and the sound took more time than anything else.

 

JC:

The sound is definitely the hardest part of a documentary, that's for sure.

 

PO:

The living situation was also problematic in that sense. They're living in a small flat, and both are artistic people. All the attention was on Martin, and that was very hard for Maya, who felt that she had a strong role. She wondered why we weren't so interested in her. It was like slamming doors and talking. It was really difficult, so we needed to separate them. We interviewed Maya in her studio because they couldn't be in the same room; you would always hear the other person. So, Håkan had big issues with very simple things. Martin is a very strong storyteller, he's a very good speaker. Maya, on the other hand, is very close to her emotions and feelings and can express and reflect on them very well.

 

In the first version of the film, as Håkan said, we didn't have the right balance. It was more like a poetic portrayal of one person and his sickness. The situation, how the disease affected the family or as a couple, didn't come out. So, we continued to make the film, thinking about a prologue and an epilogue scene. That was the first time where they reached each other in the film, from my perspective. They understood each other and their situation.

 

HC:

I found that Maya was very unfamiliar with her feelings. She saw us as a mirror for her disappointment and frustration, and when we arrived, she took it out on us. She complained a lot about Martin, but she loves him. That was a problem; we were her life mirror.

 

JC:

You were the thing that she could yell at.

 

HC:

When you're a partner of someone who is dying, there's a word in English... what's the English word for "anhörig"?

 

PO:

Relative!

 

HC:

When you're a relative, it's very annoying, as Peter said before, that all the focus is on the sick person and nobody talks to the other person who is also affected.

 

JC:

Yeah, it's happening to the sick person, but it's also happening to the people who love them as well, and that can be frustrating.

 

HC:

They were very open, both of them, letting us come into their life. That's amazing. I think that's the strong point in the movie, that we are so close to them, and I think that's good.

 

JC:

It sounds like it's going to be quite a powerful experience for everyone involved in the project.

 

HC:

In all families, everywhere, people experience this or something close to this problem. So, I think it's very important for everyone who sees the film to relate to their own problems.

 

JC:

I think it's good because cancer takes a fair bit of time, so people can spend time with that person. It's not like they just have a heart attack and drop dead one day and it's a surprise. You get to spend some time with that person, which is kind of good in a way, even though it's bad that they're dying.

 

HC:

It's an experience.

 

JC:

Rather than just them being gone suddenly.

 

HC:

Twenty years ago, my wife had cancer. She has a very strong family, and the focus was completely on her. I have a weak family around me. It was one year with cancer. She survived, but during that year, nobody asked me how I felt about the situation. So, I can understand Maya's frustration.

 

PO:

I want to add one more thing. When Martin asked me if we should make a film about him, I thought a lot about why he was asking that question. I think it's because a person who knows they are going to die soon wonders if their life was worth something, if it had a point. Maybe being in this kind of process, making a film, could give their life some kind of meaning. It's a story from a normal person that is interesting and valuable to others. Håkan and I were the tools to show that.

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