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Peter Schønau Fog • Director

“We need to break the narrative chains and go a little bit more Godard”


- TORONTO 2017: We chatted to Peter Schønau Fog about the roots of his inspiration for his second feature, You Disappear, a Special Presentation at Toronto

Peter Schønau Fog  • Director

Danish filmmaker Peter Schønau Fog, who rose to prominence after his debut feature, The Art of Crying [+see also:
film profile
 (2006), has delivered his long-awaited sophomore effort, You Disappear [+see also:
film review
interview: Peter Schønau Fog
film profile
, an adaptation of Christian Jungersen’s novel, as a Special Presentation at the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival. We had the opportunity to talk to the director about the roots of his inspiration and his unconventional, fragmented narration, which is linked to neuroscience.

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Cineuropa: Why did you decide to adapt You Disappear?
Peter Schønau Fog:
 I lost my dad to a neurological disease, and I really wanted to know everything about what he was going through. Then Christian Jungersen’s novel came out and was about a similar topic. After reading it, I realised that it doesn’t just deal with the family’s decay and the brain disease, but also explores the scientific perception of human beings, which is completely different from what we think. Our brain works in a more fragmented and complicated way, so we don’t know how free our acts are. It is also interesting, as this perception affects everything, from the legal system to how we perceive each other. We are still in the Middle Ages regarding how our brains work; the last white spot on the world map sits just between our ears.

So do you feel that your film is about determining free will?
I started exploring neuroscience, trying to immerse myself in this material, and it took me four-and-a-half years to get there. It also took four-and-a-half years for Jungersen to get to these things. It’s not important what I feel, as I consider myself to be asking the same question, which is not easy to answer. Most people are convinced that we have free will, but when you dig into the studies, you realise that there are multiple factors that determine how a choice is made.

Your film follows a completely fragmented form of narration; is this also related to the neuroscientific perception?
Storytelling is certainly bound to the human idea of what we are and not, of course, the scientific version. So everything is written based on a specific idea of what a human being is. It was a deliberate choice to steer away from this narration; I felt it was a challenge to tell a story in a scientific way. I really tried to make every decision have a consequence on what was happening, and that included not using the normal means of eliciting empathy from the audience.

I followed the illusion that Kanizsa's Triangle creates, where you see the fragments but the brain itself is generating the invisible triangle. That became a dramatic cornerstone for me, as that is exactly the process of how our memories are stored. Hopefully, by watching a fragmented story, your brain can generate a personal one based on your own memories. Everyone experiences a different film and has a personal truth or, better, an illusion of what the film is.

And what is the film for you?
The main questions are who these people are, but eventually this turns to you yourself. So each viewer determines what the film is.

You have collaborated with an acclaimed cast; how difficult was it for them to deal with this process?
First of all, I have to express my grief at Michael Nyqvist passing away, as he was a great actor and person, and I had been looking forward to coming with him to the festival.

Regarding the process, we arranged some workshops with professionals and also with relatives of brain tumour victims and brain tumour survivors so as to adopt a realistic approach to our storytelling. Of course, in such a short amount of time, you can’t reach the very depths of things. Due to the fragmented nature, the actors could not use any of their tools, especially Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who had to reassess how to approach his character. Without any clear dramaturgical path for the characters, I also had to find a different way to inject the tension. It was really challenging, as it is not a drama that people can feel related to.

Do you think that your approach will be accepted by the audience?
I wanted the audience to be in a position of a spectator and not on an emotional rollercoaster. It’s a different type of entertainment. The rules in fiction films are so rigid; documentaries are borrowing tools from fiction, but the other way around seems forbidden. I used voice-overs full of facts in order to be both informative and to distance the story from the audience. I didn’t want to sentimentalise a brain-tumour drama; it was a deliberate choice to deliver a fiction film that is not about the emotions of the audience. It may feel unconventional, but we should throw the grenade and see what happens – otherwise, fiction will suffocate. We need to break the chains and go a little bit more Godard.

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