Filmmaker-in-focus: Gunhild Enger

Filmmaking is an illness. I wish I didn’t have this condition, but I have to make these films – you can’t get away from yourself.   Gunhild Enger, Filmmaker in Focus.

Gunhild Enger has been making short films in the UK, Sweden and her native Norway for more than a decade. She brings an honesty and humour to her key recurring theme – the failure of communication – whilst her practice continues to evolve as she pushes herself to find new means of cinematic expression. GSFF17 stages a comprehensive retrospective of Gunhild’s work to date. Ahead of this year’s festival, GSFF Director Matt Lloyd spoke with the director and rather ironically they came up against some communication challenges of their own. Here’s how it went…

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It could almost be the plot of a Gunhild Enger film. Having worked out how to record our Skype interview, I unthinkingly plugged in my headphones when she complained of hearing her voice echoing back at her. After a wide-ranging two hour conversation I wished her a happy trip to Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival, signed off and sat back to review our chat… Possibly the least exciting silent feature ever. Luckily, however, I had taken copious notes. So confident in them was I that I didn’t refer to them for a fortnight before writing this. Not only are they largely illegible, but what can be read makes no sense. One sentence shines out in its clarity: 

Failure to communicate is in us all.

Failed communication runs throughout Enger’s work, from her earliest Super 8 dig at foreign language courses, Flora & Mark, to her latest cross-border mini-epic, The Committee. In Gunhild’s films people surround themselves with gadgets, with bargains, with bureaucratic language, to avoid addressing their fear of genuine human connection. And paradoxically, showing the failed communications of everyday existence is Enger’s own bid for human connection. “I am, I feel,” she states. “And I want to show people how I see my life and the life around me.”      

After studying theatre in her native Norway, Gunhild developed an obsession with film. She felt strongly that she wanted to study abroad, and was drawn to the UK in part due to a passion for costume drama. At Edinburgh College of Art, learning the language and culture became as important to her film education as the course itself. Her outsider perspective gave her student work an edge and charm that won her a BAFTA nomination and a Royal Television Society Award.

Returning to Norway she felt an outsider in her own country, alienated from the local industry and filmic sensibility. She teamed up with fellow returned-exile Marius Ektvedt to make Passionthe first of several single-shot films. In Gunhild’s hands the long static take allows for discomfort and awkwardness to be played out apparently unmediated. The constrained frame counters her natural desire to take control of her actors, whilst the characters and situations she creates generate humour and pathos concurrently.   

Gunhild’s approach to casting is key to the integrity of her work. She cannot work with high profile actors because she can only express something from her own perspective, and “my world view doesn’t include Keira Knightley”. She is not interested in the characters we aspire to be. Gunhild often chooses to work with non-actors because they only have one way of doing things, and so she allows their approach to determine how the narrative plays out. Nevertheless she pushes herself to try different ways of working, from the tightly scripted and brilliantly choreographed Premature to the free-wheeling, script-free Subtotal, which she dismisses as ‘not a proper story’.   

2016’s The Committee, co-directed with Jenni Toivoniemi, encapsulates her fascinations both in terms of its narrative and in its making. The film is a Norwegian-Swedish-Finnish co-production about a Norwegian-Swedish-Finnish co-production – the commissioning of a public artwork at the meeting point between the three countries. Was the chaos on screen ever reflected in the production? “I don’t always know what I’m doing,” is all Gunhild will admit.

This comprehensive retrospective of Gunhild’s work to date has been divided into two programmes. Programme 1: Earthly Delights is concerned with the absurdity of life under late capitalism, whilst Programme 2: Enlightenment presents the search for something better, the attempt to make a meaningful connection, and the ways in which such attempts are rebuffed. Gunhild will join after each programme for an extended conversation.