Premiering at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Norwegian filmmaker Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s sophomore feature “Disco” is a striking examination of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery within a cult-like Christian environment. Playing the lead role of Mirjam is Josefine Frida in a feature film debut which duly earned her recognition as part of the TIFF Rising Stars program. During the festival, I caught up with Syversen and Frida for a discussion on the film’s themes and the sensitivity of depicting religion on screen. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Shane Slater: This film touches on sensitive issues surrounding Christianity and religion. What inspired you to explore this topic?
Jorunn Myklebust Syversen: In all my work I’ve been interested in power imbalances and how this can arise in different ways. We seek connections with other people and meaning in our lives. I think it’s easy for us to fear the meaningless and we have this need to find our own truth and convince people of our beliefs. This is a dangerous mechanism that can lead to imbalance between people and I felt that religion and the structures around religion and faith is a strong example of how imbalances can arise. I wanted to look into that. I was really fascinated by these charismatic Pentecostal churches. There are different interpretations in Norway and I didn’t know about that before. I only knew about the really charismatic churches which collect donations to give healing and there has been a lot of cases of this in Norway. And I also read a book about a guy who went out of the church and he described the physical and mental abuse within these churches, through exorcism for example. So that was the start.
SS: Were you hesitant about making a film that could be considered critical of Christianity?
JSM: Yes. I spoke to people who escaped these environments and I didn’t want to make caricature. For me, it’s not about beliefs. I don’t criticize anyone who has a personal belief. It’s more about the structures around it and trying to look into the mechanisms that are suppressing people, instead of giving them room. Of course I was afraid. This is the most essential thing for a lot of people. But I think we as a society need to look into these structures.
SS: How did Josefine become involved with this project for her film debut?
JSM: I got a tip that Josefine had done disco freestyle dance when she was younger. And I really loved her performance in “Skam.” So when I heard about this, I just had to meet her. Immediately I found that we had this instant chemistry, which was so important for me to write and develop the film. I felt I could see what Josefine could bring to the character, she is so authentic and a good listener. She could be so present with the other actors and the camera in every situation.
SS: Did you have any pre-existing notions about this world that may have changed while making the film?
Josefine Frida: I knew about disco dance but I had never thought about the costumes and the idea of children walking around practically naked and flirting with the judges. I never thought about that before, so it was very interesting. And the religious part, I didn’t know about the cult-like churches. I didn’t know it existed in Norway and still exists now. But I was familiar with the pop culture around the churches and how it attracts young people because they are very open and use pop music and dance. It gives you a sense of belonging. I understand how that is attractive, especially when you are young and trying to figure out who you are. So I’ve been attracted to that kind of thing, but I haven’t chosen one thing to believe in.
SS: While I was watching the film, I was expecting Mirjam to be confronted with more secular temptations. What was the thinking behind keeping her so deeply entrenched in this Christian mindset?
JSM: I really wanted to portray a character that is not proactive. This is a character who loses her voice, because the other voices are so loud. She has only known one thing her whole life. I think this is often a big dilemma for children growing up in environments where you don’t get any other solutions to your reality. If you’ve never been allowed to search for other ways of seeing things, like for Mirjam, then God is the only truth. So she has to search deeper before she can go out into the world.
SS: This role is so emotionally and physically demanding. What was the hardest part of the film for you?
JF: The dancing was very fun. I got the chance to get fit and healthy again. It was just so much fun. My trainer was a world champion in disco. I knew right away when I read the script that it would be a challenge, but a very good one. Of course, it’s tough and tiring to go to such a dark place almost every day. But I love doing that and going to those places. I loved the story and giving Mirjam a voice. All of the crew was amazing, so I always felt comfortable. I learned so much about myself.
SS: How was the experience of being selected for the TIFF Rising Stars program?
JF: It’s been great. The other rising stars are very nice and we’re all very excited. We’ve been to a lot of meetings and red carpets and parties. It’s been a great learning experience. We had some workshops with an acting coach and we’ve been getting tips.
SS: Your character deals with pressure of expectations. Have you experienced that pressure yourself and what are your own aspirations for your career?
JF: I’ve felt very comfortable. I’m still very early in my career. I’ve been busy since the time I realized I could be an actor. After the TV show “Skam” became so huge, I decided to go into theater so I could practice and learn more about the craft without having it published for the whole world to see. So I did that and I’ve felt very comfortable. I have an amazing team and I just try to be with people with good intentions. Like Mirjam in the film, I’m part of this generation that likes the “perfect” image of Instagram. Now I want to do good things. Pressure can be good, but also very destructive.
SS: Are there any other specific themes you are interested in exploring throughout your career?
JSM: Yes, this fear of meaninglessness in our lives and how easily we enter into destructive relationships in our family and environments. This is something I come to again and again. In my next film, I want to portray a person who is wrongly diagnosed in the psychiatric system and loses herself in the system. I want to show all the shadowy sides of society. I’ve always been really engaged with how people deal with hard situations in their environment. I feel humans are afraid to meet people in difficult situations, so we give them diagnoses and stigmatize them.