“It’s so important to be ‘seen'” — Special interview with ‘Phoenix’ film director Camilla Stroem Henriksen

Camilla Stroem Henriksen’s directorial feature debut, Phoenix, will be released in cinemas around the UK this Friday 13th September 2019. It is a spellbindingly brilliant depiction of a young girl attempting to hold hers and her brother’s life together as mum’s and dad’s demons tear her world, and sense of reality, apart.

Phoenix is set in Henriksen’s native Norway, and begins by depicting the rocky but ultimately affectionate relationship between Jill (aged 13) and her mum, Astrid. It’s going to be Jill’s birthday soon. Astrid has serious drinking problem and is losing her grip on mental health, too—at a crossroads working out whether she will accept a new job that she’s been presented, or whether to continue falling into the abyss. All the Astrid is guided and cared for—in a reverse parent-child dynamic—by young Jill. She is a young carer, too, for her young brother, Bo.

When events take a terrible turn for Jill, she tries to keep things secret from her brother and the outside world. Her absent, and idealised, father, Nils, swoops in—he loves the children and ushers them a world of luxury and elegance. Things, though, are not all as they seems for Nils either. Jill’s sense of reality become more and more stretched as she tries to keep things hidden from the outside world. Can she, phoenix-like, rise from the ashes at rock bottom?

Henriksen sat down with Nacoa’s own Piers Henriques to discuss the film’s broader themes and messages, and how they relate with her own experiences. This truly magnificent film was a project over a decade in the making, and in our conversation Henriksen explains exactly why she couldn’t let go of making this story for and about children affected by their parent’s drinking.

 


 

This is a strikingly original film. What brought you to make a movie centred around a young person living in the shadow of their parent’s problems?

It took 13 years from when I got the idea for the film from when I got it made. It wasn’t an easy film to get off the ground. The reason that I held on to it was because I felt it was an important story to tell. It is inspired from my own experiences. Even though my mother wasn’t an artist and my father wasn’t a musician, I’d say their roles in the family are very similar to my own experiences.

I really felt it was important for me to tell a story for my own sake but also because I felt that through my therapeutic work on my own and working through my own childhood trauma I gained some [insights] that I felt it was worthwhile sharing with other people.

 

The film echoes many traits of children affected by their parent’s drink problems: taking care of the household chores, pouring alcohol down the sink, covering up the truth from the outside world, and not knowing what to expect what when you turn a corner in your own home. What are the difficulties you see for children of alcohol-dependent parents day-to-day?

I think the unpredictability, the instability, and all the hopes you invest as a child in your parents if they have a problem with drinking. When you start to realise it’s a problem for them, you really invest in their own problem solving. You become part of their problem helping team. You invest every time they try to stop or make amends. And that hope and then the disappointment Is very hard.

The film starts by depicting a loving but dysfunctional relationship between Jill and her mum, Astrid. Many stories about problem drinkers tend to centre around fathers. Do you think there is something important about telling a mother/daughter story? 

Yes I do think it’s important to tell the mother daughter story in that sense, because it’s a very different relationship. There comes in this question of identification and competition. Identification from both sides and competition very often from the mother’s side. I think that makes it, I wouldn’t say harder, but different: a different experience.

Having a mother like Astrid who is mentally unstable and has a drinking problem—she doesn’t take responsibility for her children, not for her own actions either and she doesn’t have a sense of boundaries. Because she’s a girl, she is a part of Astrid, for Astrid. I think that Astrid, although she loves her daughter, I think she is threatened by her. She is threatened by her youth and her beauty, and her possibilities, that she feels herself is closing down for her.

I think that is very much part of Astrid and Jill’s relationship, even though it’s not spelled out in the film. I think that is the emotional basis and the psychological basis for this relationship.

And her father, Nils, comes along and seems like something from a dream—Jill clearly idealises him. Everything is not exactly as it seems with him, though, either. Who really is Nils and how does he differ from Astrid?

First of all, when one of the parents is absent in the everyday life, it’s easier to idealise them. So in a way, the father has an easier job to be an idealised figure in Jill’s life. So that’s one part of it. I think also, one other reason why she idealises him so much is because, in reality, she senses that he’s not really the ideal that she [projects on him]. She puts him on a pedestal, and she knows that, deep down, he’s not as picture perfect as she wants him to be. But that’s very often the case: when you don’t want to deal with the reality, you idealise. But if the reality is good enough, you don’t have to idealise.

Again, they are also different characters. And that is also from my own experiences. I think that, even though both of these parents—both Astrid and Nils—are letting their children down, deceiving the children, and are problematic, I think Nils has a bigger capacity of love. This is based on my own experiences. He’s completely [messed] up too, but he’s still emotionally less damaged. He has a bigger capacity of love, even though he doesn’t take the consequences of it.

For me, he is a more endearing person. I’m personally more—sympathetic is not the word—I am more forgiving to him than the mother. That might be wrong, or unfair to Astrid, but that’s how I feel anyway. That softness is a real quality.

Jill’s relationship with the truth gets more and more stretched as she tries to pretend that everything is okay to the outside world. What effect do you think this kind of quiet withdrawal has on Jill or children in similar situations? 

I think there are different aspects to this. You develop a capacity to endure, and become very strong. And that is a good quality, but it is also has a downside too, because you overstretch your strength, your limit. You suppress your feelings in order to keep up. I think that is one of the biggest consequences for children, that they suppress their own feelings really. They develop a strength and capacity of will, wanting to manage. And that has an emotional cost. I think there’s a tendency to not trust the world, in general, other people—you are so used to and become dependent on your own capacity that you shut out the world. [And when you] shut out the world—it’s hard to let other people enter.

What reaction have you had from others in making a film about this topic?

Having made it, from the audience, luckily it found it’s audience in Norway, meaning that lots of people who maybe need it, or beneficial for them to watch the film—people who have experienced situations or worked with children or people who are experiencing challenges: they say something similar to you, that the film resonates with them, and that they are happy that the film was made. I’ve got a lot of feedback from people saying that they feel they can relate, even if their outer circumstances were different.

What, or who, do you think could have helped Jill?

It’s a very complicated question. I was asked the question a lot who are working with children of alcoholics. I think it’s a very difficult to answer. First of all, every person’s experience is different, and every family situation is different, and that’s why it’s really difficult to meet people with a support system that is supposed to fit all. Because one has to remember that these children, oftentimes, they become very, very capable, and they have developed skills that need recognition and respect.

When help comes in, they have to acknowledge the fact that they have developed these skills, and they have to be shown respect. They need to come to appreciate, and value, and respect these skills themselves. These are big assets for them. They have lost out on a lot of things that children, in terms of care and support,[but] they have been given other things. They have learned to develop [coping strategies] that they need to see as a value.

This has to do with self-esteem. And very often, children of alcoholics, and children of people with mental instability, they have often low self-esteem (in terms of self-value). Oftentimes, they are confident, but not feeling themselves value and their self-esteem is often very low.

I think it is really important that they learn to appreciate themselves and their story. Even though their own story has difficulties, and is challenging—they have to find something valuable. Because without loving, or appreciating, or validating your own story, you will feel inferior. This is on a deeper level, but I think this is really important.

I don’t really know the support system in England; I don’t really know it so well in Norway either. It’s a long time since I was a child, and the system wasn’t as developed [as it is now]. But people came in when they realised my mother had committed suicide, and my father wasn’t really around. There were people coming in to check our situation. But I wasn’t interested to be in a foster home, or being parted from my brother. I did everything I could to protect our family, and to protect my father, who was at some point coming in. But he was drinking, and there were lots of problems there.

I’m not sure if it could have been better for us, I don’t know. It might have been, but I’m not sure that it would have been better that my brother and I would have been in a foster home. I experienced the suicide of my mother when I was a bit older than Jill—I was 16—so we ended up living more or less on our own. My father coming in and out every now and again. And it was quite challenging, and obviously also for my brother, because in a way I took the decision for both of us. You become, in a way, overconfident when you are a child of an alcoholic, or can be—at least I was.

I took some decisions that might not be right for my brother, but I took them. So I’m just saying that I don’t have an answer. I can only speak from my own experiences, and I don’t know what would have been the best solution. I would love to tell you, but I don’t know.

I think this though. I think that it’s really important to meet people that recognise and respect you and show that they understand and see you. And if you, as a child or a young person, meet one person like that, that will have a huge impact. And I was really lucky to have a [sympathetic] teacher when I was younger. My mother had mental problems from an early age. I had [this] school teacher for 6 years [thoughout]. She was really supportive. She didn’t interfere, but she saw me, so I felt that there was one grown up that was someone I could talk to and let the steam out. And I think that was really important.

I think in any [support] system, the system consists of people in the end, so I think the people are really important. It’s so important to be ‘seen’.

Article by Piers Henriques, director of communications for Nacoa UK and PhD candidate in English at the University of Cambridge. Find him on Twitter here: @piers_henriques.