Danish filmmaker Ada Bligaard Søby, has traveled the world, turning stories about individual lives, art, and music into catalysts for discussion about the universal bonds between humans, and the ills and triumphs of society. For example, her 2006 documentary Complaints Choir starts as a film about a performance art project, but turns into a examination of the cultural relativism of complaining between Western cultures, where freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are givens, and Singapore where those rights are restricted.
In her latest film, Petey & Ginger - A Testament to the Awesomeness of Mankind, Søby explores the lives of two of her friends, Petey Dammit, bassist for the currently-on-hiatus San Francisco lo-fi psych/garage rockers Thee Oh Sees, and Brookyn-based fortune teller Ginger Partington. Petey and Ginger have never met, but share commonalities such as leaving behind the dysfunctional surroundings of their childhoods for city life, experiences working in the sex industry (Petey, in a distribution center, packing boxes of porn and sex toys for customers all over the world, and Ginger, previously a high-class escort), and an intelligent, outsider perspective on societal “norms.” Through their discussions, pitted against a backdrop of economic collapse, Søby shows a duality to the American landscape; one, a place for adventure, spontenaity, and friendship, the other bleak, imperfect, and self-destructive. Despite any impressions to the contrary, it seems that those who come out on top are those who never fit into mainstream constructs in the first place. At least that’s true for Petey and Ginger.
Petey & Ginger will be available on Amazon Instant Movies, YouTube Movies, Xbox, and several other platforms beginning April 29. We spoke with Søby to learn more about her artistic vision, the complexities of making movies about your friends, and of course, how music factors into everything.
Watch the film and read an interview with Ada below...
Noisey: What was the original inspiration that brought you to create Petey & Ginger? Why not, for example, a documentary focusing on Thee Oh Sees as a band or on Ginger alone?
Ada Bligaard Søby: I lived in America in my early-mid twenties and met tons of great people. There is a certain chaos present there that I love and that inspires me, coming from the very organized government, sorted-out, socialist reality of Scandinavia.
I’m always interested in personal perspective on life rather than the factual, and I really wanted to tell stories, so I began to make films about my American friends and Petey & Ginger is the third in a row (American Losers, 2005 and Black Heart, 2008).
I decided to make a film about these two because first and foremost, I love spending time with them, and second, I find that they have a similar life approach and experience in the way they relate to the world and how they handle themselves. They both come from not-so-much, but they try to make the best of it and with great insight and understanding of the world’s absurdity.
I find that inspiring and I think paralleling their lives, although they are separated and never meet, is a fight against universal loneliness. We are all battling the same feelings, so we are never alone, but I think most of us feel alone.
I’ve never intended to make a band film and I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because I always was a backstage Betty myself. That world is attractive, but not so mysterious to me. I absolutely love Thee Oh Sees and all they stand for, but when I started this project there were so many themes and things that were great, and things just kind of happened the way they did. I let the movie lead me, not the other way around
At what point did the film turn from the personal stories of your friends to include a parallel between their lives and the American economy? It is striking that Ginger and Petey speak of financial struggles over the course of their lives, but take the position of observer when it comes to the economy as a whole. What stands out to you most about their points of view on the subject?
They were talking about the same things on each coast of America, but as an observer of their own country and I thought that was mad cool. They both have a quiet message that if everybody took a chill pill and weren’t so greedy and busy accumulation stuff, then we would not have a financial crisis. They are NOT affected by the financial crisis because they never participated in the consumer dream. So in that aspect they are heroes, because they see the big picture. They laugh at it and they are like, “This bullshit is not for me, but I’ll deal with it the best I can."
I remember walking down the street in San Francisco with Petey and we passed one of those one dollar shops and there was a poster thing in the window of Obama sitting in some grass with some people smiling silly. Petey was like, “Who would want to buy a picture of Obama getting wasted at a picnic?” It just summed up what I was there to catch on film pretty much: intelligent friends commenting on a world gone wrong and existing in their own version of it.
Work in the sex industry is certainly a commonality for strangers on opposite sites of the country, but it seems to be cut and dry for Petey (a means to a paycheck with a flexible work environment that’s hardly risque in open-minded San Francisco), and a chapter from another part of Ginger’s life. I’m curious about your exploration of this theme, especially with America as your backdrop as a European director looking in.
Ginger’s insight on her own personal struggles and how this led her to work in the sex industry, while observing what was going on around her (Wall Street men freaking out because they understood that the end was near) just blew my mind.
I’m surrounded with people who have got the “white man’s blues” and they don’t know why. People who are depressed, who see shrinks, who are medicated or medicate themselves and are puzzled as to why they are unhappy. Ginger just nailed her own shit, she understood from beginning to end why this happened and why she reacted they way she did. She is just such an unusual girl with a bright mind. She’s not your common runaway kid or sex worker, or modern day citizen for that matter.
I really wanted to show how it made sense for her to get into the sex industry, how she then managed to swirl out of it and do something else with herself. I mean, for many years she has been living in one of the most hip places in the world, Brooklyn with the raddest and most talented dude ever, her husband Bob. She could easily be in Purple Magazine or write book reviews for the New York Times. She’s one of the most intelligent women I have ever met.
In regards to Petey, I just thought it was funny that this sweet and very talented guy with a ton of ink going on was running around in a basement, shipping dildos. I remember the first time I snuck down there with my camera and filmed him and his friend Shane. I couldn’t believe the beautiful contradictions going on in that place. These dudes were shipping fantasies out to all over the world, 10 hours a day, shipping dreams and sexual perfection all these people who wants to feel something.
They were both really funny and charming. They both had a sharp skinhead thing going on look-wise, and Shane was really into astrology. I remember he did my horoscope down there on a box of cock rings. He was like, “Yeah…the moon is rising into the third house. You are going to have a great year, lady.”
I don’t what to say about the European thing, except these scenarios just don't occur where I’m from. They just don’t. The government interferes with people’s lives in a way so that things just don’t get out of hand. We have another kind of craziness but I think we need a foreigner to dwell on that, as I can’t see it. It feels really safe and also really boring here compared to how it feels to be in America.
Petey & Ginger was created in stages over the course of a couple of years. Can you provide a little more detail about the timeline? How did the original concept develop and change over the course of production?
I travelled back and forth to San Francisco and New York for about three years and would edit the film in between. I had a very small budget, so it was slumming it most of the time, sleeping on people’s floors, etc.
It was very hands-on filmmaking, you know? Not a lot of fuss or crew. For example, Petey once showed me a picture of a guy getting ready to jump off a roof in a Santa Claus outfit, wanting to commit suicide with fire trucks below trying to get him down. Petey had just passed this on the street and snapped a picture of this, and this was obviously a brilliant image to reflect the financial crisis, so I decided to stage it on film, as that moment had, of course, passed.
So I was in San Francisco alone with my camera and someone had roof access and a friend of mine said, “Oh, I’m sleeping with this guy at the moment, I’m sure he’ll play Santa in your movie.” That afternoon I was on a roof shooting a friend’s current bed mate in a rented costume pretending to be suicidal Santa. Afterwards we had a beer and the guy playing Santa was like, “Let me return the costume for you. I’ll pass the store on the way home.” It was full of that stuff, things happening with the help of friends and developing organically. I’ve got to say, people in San Francisco must be some of the nicest people in the world.
What are the unique benefits and challenges about making movies about your friends? How have your friendships grown since you first approached them? What do you think they will take away from the experience of being in your film?
It is very hard to make films about your friends. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. A friendship is a pure thing, it is a bond created on attraction, trust, secrets, and compassion. When you enter a camera and a documentary filmmaking agenda into a friendship, the relationship is all of a sudden not pure. As a filmmaker you feel dirty because you are trying to expose the intimacy. It goes against the rules of a friendship and it sucks, but at the same time you know that the result can be super honest and beautiful, and that’s why you force yourself to keep on going.
I’m sure I have stepped over people’s boundaries in the process of making films about my friends. I know I have certainly stepped over my own. At the same time, turning on a camera in a person’s face is also giving them time to be heard and seen. It is art, and art is supposed to be pushing the boundaries. It is supposed to scratch and hurt and turn things around. When a process is comfortable is it like a holiday, and that’s not when good art is made.
One thing I just adore my American friends for–the ones who have agreed to be in my films–is their willingness to expose their own failures and mistakes with humor and self-irony. I have tried to take care of this information with a celebratory approach and also exposed myself along the way. I have tried to open up about what a giant loser I sometimes feel like, and while the entire thing is founded in the fact that I love them and they have felt it, I think there has been a common understanding of what was going on. A film is ultimately about the filmmakers own pain and bullshit, not the subject, that’s another thing I think is understood between me and my characters.
I think we are definitely closer now, Petey and me, and Ginger and me, but I have no idea what they took with them after this process. I hope some fun at least. We certainly got to hang out a lot more than we would have otherwise as I live in Europe now.
In Petey & Ginger, Petey describes Thee Oh Sees’ musical development in part as a reaction to their environment. Over your career traveling the globe and connecting with artists, fans, and local culture, do you find this concept to be a universal? What similarities and differences have you discovered that you might not have found out without firsthand experience?
I’m not a very analytical person, or political, and I’m still trying to find out what art is about and how it affects the world. My understanding of things keeps getting turned around on its ass.
Last weekend I went to an opening for a show featuring American artist Wes Lang. It was his first big museum show and it was a big deal. I have known Wes for a few years, he once stayed in my flat with his girlfriend Zoé, and he is presented by V-1, a gallery in my town which is run by friends of mine.
So I go to this opening and the man has just blown up. Wes’ art is in super high-demand and there were so many people who wanted their picture taken with him and want his real, badass biker allure to rub off on them. Damien Hirst flew in from London on a private jet to be there with some super suntanned buddies wearing gold. Damien Hirst is the wealthiest artist in England and one of the biggest art stars in the world, and he is buying Wes’ art now. Damian’s own career has been fuelled by advertisement guru Charles Saatchi’s money, which he made from selling people products they don’t really need, but still really want. And Wes is just in the middle of all his beautiful drawings describing chaos, and is being celebrated and seen and heard.
Everything is connected in the strangest ways and it is all very interesting to me. I really enjoy being part of and making work in this super messy world, where things are so unclear and contradictory, and ultimately beautiful and punk. Nothing is perfect, good and evil are totally intertwined.
When I met Thee Oh Sees, I just fell in love hard with their world and way of living. They were working really hard as a band, but living quite simple lives in big airy rooms in old San Francisco squats and making food and art with their friends. Money and fame didn’t seem to be the focus, good times, funny jokes, and exploring ideas were the main things, and that was very refreshing. And I’m sure their way to go about things were a reaction to what was going on about them in America and in their city.
Beyond Petey’s narrative and the constant presence of Thee Oh Sees, music plays heavily into this film. With Petey & Ginger, how did you piece the soundtrack together to best tell the story?
I became naturally introduced to the amazing music scene in San Francisco and to Thee Oh Sees through my best friend of almost 20 years, Brian Lee Hughes, who runs Castleface records with John Dwyer from Thee Oh Sees.
So this world of great low-fi music opened up for me, and when making this film I tried to stuff it with as much good local San Francisco music as possible from that scene. I was lucky that apart from Thee Oh Sees, bands like The Mallard, The Sandwitches, and Tim Cohen made their music available for this film. Then I also was going through a massive reggae phase and managed to jam in some Lee Scratch Perry with some help from music licensing people in London and Berlin. And Daniel Higgs, who took some convincing as he doesn’t enjoy signing contracts nor does he like cinema.
Do you see the world as a struggle of “us vs. them?” Is the “testament to the awesomeness of mankind,” of the title only to be found on individual or microcosmic levels, or do you believe there is some hope for greater society?
That quote came from Brian Lee Hughes. It just sums up his attitude towards life, which I’m trying to adapt as my attitude as well and have been for years now. I see it more as a thing about “you vs. your demons” than “us vs them.” You can choose to get caught up in the greatness of things instead of diving in your own misery. That’s what both Petey and Ginger did. That’s a survival instinct and an über American thing, I believe.
Jamie Ludwig is on Twitter - @unlistenmusic