Meet the First-Time Director Of a New Award-Winning Film About Eating Disorders

'My Skinny Sister' explores what happens to a family when one member develops a devastating eating disorder.

Michael Pattison

Rebecka Josephson as Stella in My Skinny Sister

My Skinny Sister, the debut feature by Swedish filmmaker Sanna Lenken, won the Audience Award when it premiered at the Gothenburg Film Festival in January. Soon after, it had picked up a much-coveted Crystal Bear, the Berlinale's prize dedicated to films for younger audiences.

Starring newcomer Rebecka Josephson – granddaughter of the late and frequent Ingmar Bergman muse, Erland Josephson – Lenken's film is a coming-of-age-tale and offers a fine depiction of sisterhood between twelve-year-old Stella (Josephson) and her teenage sibling Katja (Amy Deasismont). Stella idolises Katja so much that she's willing to keep the latter's eating disorder a secret from their parents. But when the effects of the disease worsen, the younger child finds her sisterly loyalties torn apart.

Earlier this year, we spoke with Lenken at a European Film Festival in Lecce, southern Italy, where her film was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize by a jury of international critics. Here, she talks about some of the autobiographical and practical contexts behind the film, and how the research she carried out for it – as well as her own pregnancy – led to the production of another, shorter work on similar themes.

VICE: What made you centre so much of the story around an eating disorder?
Sanna Lenken: The story was there kind of naturally. I had anorexia myself in my teenage years. I thought it wasn't a story that had been told much through fiction, but it's very similar to other diseases like alcoholism or drugs addiction – it's not only affecting the sick person. It affects a whole family. I also think it has a lot to do with becoming a woman. The ideal picture of a woman is very limited, in the way we are supposed to both look and act. A lot of girls don't feel happy with themselves. They feel angst, and to control their food is one way to control their angst. I really wish girls had more freedom to be and look like whoever they want to be.

How much research, and what kinds of research, did you carry out?
I did a lot of research. I met with families and with girls who had been sick. They really helped me with the script, which is a mixture between my own experiences and my research – and a bit of fantasy too. I also went to eating disorder clinics to talk to therapists and doctors.

Do you think these issues are addressed adequately in Sweden? What kinds of support systems are in place?
I read a big article about how more people are getting sick and how they don't get help in time. They don't have enough space in clinics, which means that parents have to be nurses. I think the discussion about how to help is important, but it also misses a bigger discussion, about why so many girls – still mostly girls – get sick in the first place, and how hard it can be when you grow up. What kind of ideal are we aiming for, and if this ideal actually makes people seriously sick, what can we do to change it?

Three years ago, you made a short film about eating disorders called Eating Lunch. How do you get from that film to My Skinny Sister?
I got pregnant in 2012 and I thought "Okay, I'm pregnant, I won't be able to make the feature now." I said to Annika [Rogell, My Skinny Sister's producer]: "Let's make a short film," because I had done so much research for My Skinny Sister. Annika was doing Black Power Mixtape, so I was very much on my own. Even though she helped some days, I did it – very pregnant. I don't think everyone had trust in the subject, but I had this gut feeling that it would be good for us, that we can screen it, and people will see this subject, and me, and maybe give us further funding for the feature—which happened. Then I had a daughter, and then six weeks after I began to direct the feature.

That's very quick.
I don't want to do it again!

How stressful was it to juggle these responsibilities?
My boyfriend always says, "This is your job? You come home and you're always worried, stressed." But I love my work. I love it when I'm in it. When I come home and start to think about it, it can be extremely stressful. I had this feeling all the time: "We're going to make this film." Of course, sometimes it was like, "Maybe it's not going to happen." But I tried to keep in mind that I'm going to do whatever it takes to make the film. I will beg, I will go to people who have a lot of money. Benny Andersson, the guy from ABBA, he has started to fund films. I will go to Benny Andersson and ask him for money – just one million! But the worst thing during the whole period was when we had everything except a distributor. We had been to people who didn't believe in its commercial potential, didn't believe that anyone would watch it.

How did you cast Erland Josephson's granddaughter in the part of Stella?
We had been casting for a year. I was so angry with The Selfish Giant, the British film. I read something about how [the director] Clio Barnard cast the guys for it: "I was so lucky, I went into a classroom and there he was, the first day of casting." I was like, "I've been doing this for a year. This is crazy." We had met hundreds of girls. We put an advertisement in the paper, we Facebooked, we were calling different people who had worked on short films with kids.

Then one day my casting director [Catrin Wideryd] was very tired, in the street, very stressed as well, and she saw a friend and thought, "Fuck, I don't want to talk to anyone." And he was like, "Hi Catrin! How are you?" She said, "Honestly, I'm devastated. I really need to find a 12-year-old girl and I haven't found her, and shooting is in two months." And he said, "I know a girl." He was a documentary filmmaker for children's television. "I found this girl, Rebecka Josephson. Call her." So she called her. I was in Gothenburg, and she sent me the tapes with Rebecka. I was immediately, completely fascinated by her face.

At what point did you discover the family connection?
We were like, "This is Stella. It has to be her." We were so happy, celebrating and drinking beer. Catrin was going to call her the next day because it was late. I went back to Gothenburg and they didn't call me, and that's when I started to think: "Catrin, has she anything to do with [Erland Josephson]?" Because most parents are like, "Oh, my daughter's going to be in a film, it's cool, amazing." But when a person says maybe or doesn't get excited? I just had this feeling that it might be the granddaughter, because the name is not so common with this spelling.

Then we Googled the father and realised he was the son of Erland Josephson. It could have been cool – now I think it's cool, it's a nice thing, it's something to say – but back then I didn't like it. I thought, "They know how it is to film, and they know what it is to be in a film." The mother was like, "I'm not sure. This is not like a Pippi Longstocking film. It's not a cheerful story. It's more like a depressing story. It's so dark for her." I didn't want to persuade her or call her or anything. I didn't feel like I could do that. I just had to keep on waiting. And one month and two weeks before the shooting they said yes.

'My Skinny Sister' is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival tonight at Vue Cinema Islington, and 17th October at Picturehouse Central.


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