Director Jorunn Mykelbust Syversen and actress Josefine Frida on Disco, a dark drama about the dangers of fanatical religion. Discover more TIFF acquisition titles here.
Two of the most high profile Norwegian films of recent years, Joachim Trier’s Thelma and Jorunn Mkylebust Syversen’s Disco, share a striking similarity: they’re both about the corrosive effect of fanatical religion on young people. “I’ve always been interested in how an imbalance of power can occur in closed environments,” said Syversen, whose film follows a girl whose religious community has almost completely shut her off from outside influences. Thelma uses a similar conceit: Thelma’s repressive religious parents, who think they’re saving her from herself, pull her away from the independence she’s found at university. But Trier’s film offers some hope for Thelma, as she finds the strength to pull away from her parents’ psychological grasp to find her own path.
Disco is a far darker tale: champion dancer and local celebrity Mirjam (Skam’s Josefine Frida) is so sheltered that she cannot imagine another life for herself outside of her deeply religious community. When she does go looking for an escape, she simply finds another, more traditional and sedate but perhaps even more insidious, form of fanaticism. At the beginning of the film, the sweet and innocent Mirjam is a member of a brash, showy religious community, where sermons are more like pop concerts designed to draw young people to the church. Mirjam’s athletic success makes her a popular member of the church, who is often invited to perform as a dancer or singer at the sermons. But underneath her star persona, there’s a deep unhappiness: at one point, we cut directly from her on-stage performance to her suicide attempt.
Syversen’s cold, detached camerawork juxtaposes the garishness of Mirjam’s and her community’s performances. When Mirjam is dancing or at a sermon, we’re assaulted with bright colours and whirling movements on stage, as well as gratingly loud music. But the film has no score — it’s otherwise notably quiet, often silent; Mirjam’s life is empty of joy. Things that bring her joy — she sometimes indulges in cheesy reality TV — are shot down by her elders. Her stepfather, a minister at the church, chastises and demeans her when he catches her watching trash TV. Syversen shoots the whole scene in a static wide shot, where Mirjam’s whole body is contained within the frame and she’s positioned behind her stepfather, as if she’s caged in. Frida uses her physicality to show how uncomfortable Mirjam feels, shifting her limbs and holding herself awkwardly. You can tell she’d do anything to get away from here, but she doesn’t know how or what ‘away’ even means.
At TIFF, I talked to Syversen and what drew her to exploring the effects of religion on young people, and I asked Frida about playing Mirjam and how this compared to her more world-wise Noora in the Norwegian television series Skam.
Seventh Row (7R): Jorunn, what was the genesis of the film Disco? What made you want to explore the effect of religious fanaticism on young people?
Jorunn Myklebust Syversen: I wanted to show how we relate to religion in our society today. I was really interested in how people, especially children and people in horrible situations, are being met by religious environments. I’ve always been interested in closed environments and close relations, and how an imbalance of power can occur in close environments.
We, as humans, have this need to feel coherence in our lives and find meaning, because we fear the meaninglessness of life. It’s this human need in us that makes us want to believe in something so strong that we have to convince others about our own truth. That is a really strong image of how we can come to suppress one another in those kinds of environments.
7R: Josefine, what research did you do to play Mirjam?
Josefine Frida: Jorunn had made a lot of research for both the disco dance environment and also the religion part. I had many conversations with Jorunn to learn about things I didn’t know, but also to be sure that I could understand the vision and message of the film she wanted to make.
I had to train for the dancing. I went to competitions to watch the girls, and I was in their locker rooms. I sat and listened a bit, and I talked to them. There’s a little culture there, as there is everywhere: in different jobs and hobbies, there are different norms and social rules.
Then, I went to churches, and I got to have conversations with priests or preachers. I also read a book, watched documentaries that Jorunn wanted me to see, and I got to talk to people that left their religious environments.
I’m so glad that I got to do that. I really just wanted to learn more. It’s so interesting for an actor to get material that you have to deep dive into to understand the character.
7R: Jorunn, after you looked into these religious communities, why did you choose to focus on these particular types of religious groups in Disco?
Jorunn Myklebust Syversen: I did know about the charismatic churches and how they connect donations to healing, and how they do exorcisms, so that was a clear interest.
But then I found other churches that surprised me, where it’s like coming to a pop concert. They attract young people with pop culture references.
With the last one, I wanted to show how you can lose your voice in those kinds of environments. If you grow up not learning that you can question your reality, it’s so easy to get even more isolated. I wanted to show the journey of how it’s possible to become radical. What’s that like? Therefore, I needed to show an even purer direction.
7R: Much of the film is made up of static, extended shots. There’s a lot of interesting framing, such as the scene where Mirjam is being told off by her stepfather for watching reality TV: she’s trapped in the back corner of the frame, behind him. You can see her whole body and how uncomfortable she is. Jorunn, how did you use framing to get into Mirjam’s headspace?
Jorunn Myklebust Syversen: With the cinematographer, [Marius Christiansen Thom Hell,] we talked a lot about making art pieces within the work that can stand for themselves. We were also sure to us those art pieces to push the story forward, with symbols.
Every image has the possibility of being its own artwork but also has something about the story. I looked for these things in every scene: her mental state should come through in the pictures, if it’s in colours or just in shadows or composition.
7R: Josefine, your two most well-known characters, Noora in Skam and Mirjam in Disco, are almost complete opposites. Noora is so independent, and she knows a lot about the world, whereas Mirjam is sheltered and totally dependent on other people. How did your use of physicality and voice differ between these two starkly different roles?
Josefine Frida: In Skam, Julie [Andem], the director and scriptwriter, gave me more rules. I was asked to have another physicality than I usually have. I’m usually very bubbly, and I have a lot of body language. I laugh, and I smile very much. But I got asked to be stiff and stand straight. Noora was hiding a lot of feelings. She was going through a depression period in Season Two.
How she [Noora] is hiding her feelings is very different from how Mirjam is hiding her depression, because they have different physicalities. In Disco, I wasn’t asked to change. It was also because the characters in Skam are more like… not caricatures, but they’re kind of like types — very specific types, representations of different types of girls.
In Disco, it’s not me, but it felt more vulnerable for me. It was important for me that I really felt scared and sad, so I tried to get those feelings out of the rooms that we were in, in the timeframe we had. That’s what I used. Instead of always trying to pretend things. I think it’s just different ways of hiding feelings.
7R: This is your first film role. How did you find the difference between TV acting and film acting?
Josefine Frida: I felt like I got to have so many experiences with the character of Mirjam. It’s weird because n Skam, we shot episode by episode in chronological order. I got to start out one way, and every day at work, I’d follow her journey as it progressed.
But here, we shot and one day, it was one scene, and I was very happy, and then the next day, I was super depressed. The first day, you’re not that familiar with the character, as opposed to the last day of filming. I was a bit afraid that they weren’t going to fit when they started cutting.
At the same time, I felt really secure that I knew Mirjam because of all the research. I tried to live as her while training. It helped me a lot that my coach in the film was also my trainer in real life. I kind of used him to find Mirjam. Also, I wrote a diary as Mirjam for a long time and also while filming, to try to figure out how to jump in time.
7R: The ending is quite bleak. Why do you think that was necessary in the telling of this story?
Jorunn Myklebust Syversen: I really wanted to show a character who loses her voice and make the audience feel why. I wanted to portray a person who is not proactive, and you really can feel that this person has no choice. Instead of victimising the person, I wanted to understand her journey.
At the end, for me, if she jumps into the water, or if she’s just so mentally brainwashed that she will never get out of this, it’s the same. She’s either mentally or physically dead. I wanted to show that this is something that she was a victim of, but I don’t want to stigmatise victims.
Josefine Frida: I love that everyone has different thoughts about the ending. What you feel in the moment says so much about your own life situation. We’re all different people. People see different things, depending on the day, or how you feel when you see the film. I really like that.
Jorunn Myklebust Syversen: It’s also important to me to not give too many answers. I really want to raise some questions about specific things, but I don’t want to tell. I think too many films underestimate the audience. It’s amazing, with the audio-visual medium, that you can come in with your own experience.