Danish filmmaker Ada Bligaard Søby makes beautiful, oblique, rock’n’roll Super 8 documentaries that look at big issues in Western society from an individual perspective. In the brilliant Petey and Ginger, she examined the economic crisis from the viewpoint of two of her American friends, San Francisco-based Petey, former bassist of Thee Oh Sees, and New York fortune-teller Ginger, both of whom have worked in the sex industry.
Virginie Sé;lavy talked to the director about suicidal Santas, losers and winners, and the magic of Super 8.
Virginie Sé;lavy: Petey and Ginger is part of a trilogy, is that right?
Ada Bligaard Søby: Yes, it’s part of a trilogy with Black Hearts and American Losers, about my friends in America. American Losers is about two people who are really amazing but haven’t done well in life. The movie reflects on what a loser is and what a winner is. I come from a very academic background, my parents are very educated, but I’m not very academic, so I felt like a loser. And I’m always attracted to the people who are not doing so well, because they take more risks and it’s more fun. So I made that film because American society is so bent on making money. Black Hearts is about some friends of mine who got married when I was living in New York. I filmed their wedding in Super 8 and gave it to them as a wedding present. And 10 years later they got divorced, so it’s their divorce story – why do people get divorced, why does love fail. I’m using 9/11 as a background for the story as I was in New York then, because 9/11 was also the American dream that crumbled. All those immigrants going to America to do things in a new way, because they’re not welcome where they come from, so they want to start a new world and a new society. That’s the same when you get married: you feel like you’re going to conquer the world your way, and then it collapses, and whose fault is it?
The film is explicitly about the economic crisis, but it seems that it’s just as much about America.
It’s about America, but it’s also about the Western world and how we are fucking ourselves up. We’re going to be finished soon, I think. Petey and Ginger don’t know each other, but what they had in common was a certain chaos in their lives and the fact that they were not part of the rat race, they were tagging along, struggling along. They didn’t own anything so they didn’t lose anything in the financial crisis. But it trickled down and touched them in very strange ways, and I found that very inspiring.
You use Super 8 as well as still photographs, which makes everything look very melancholy and beautiful, including dereliction and poverty. It seems like you find a beauty in America, but you also feel a little sad and distant from it.
Yes, definitely, I couldn’t have said it better. The slums are beautiful. They’ve got soul. But it’s also super sad. If I could I’d look at everything through Super 8. Because it lifts up the ordinary to another level. But that’s impossible.
You film America from an outsider’s perspective. What is the thing that fascinates you the most about the place?
Because I come from a Scandinavian place, I meet these people and they seem a lot like me, but the platform on which we have to build our lives is very different. Here it’s very safe and secure and stable. If you have a baby it doesn’t cost you anything. If you’re unemployed they help you. Over there, circumstances are very different and that makes people feistier. Those extreme conditions bring out some things in people that are very creative and beautiful and vibrant that you don’t find here, because things can’t go that bad, so people don’t make that much of an effort. I’m fascinated by that effort that Americans have to make to help other people, because they might need that help back to develop their talent.
For you, what were the most interesting things that Petey and Ginger said about the financial crisis?
I found it interesting that when she was working as an escort, Ginger could feel within her clients that something was wrong, because she’s so intuitively intelligent. She could pick up that something was not right. These people think they’re partying, but they’re not partying. And with Petey I think it’s hilarious that he’s selling dildos and shipping fantasies to the world, and meanwhile the world economy is a fantasy, and money is a fantasy – money doesn’t really exist.
That’s another thing they have in common: they both work or have worked in the sex industry, in more or less unusual ways. Was that also something that you were interested in exploring?
It’s connected to the fact that when you’re in America you have to work with what you’ve got. And sometimes you might end up in something that is considered dirty, but that’s what you can get at that point in time. In San Francisco there’s no film industry because it’s in Los Angeles, but there’s a huge porn industry. So many people work in porn, and there are also many people who deal weed because there are a lot of weed farms. And that might be illegal, but that’s what’s going on. I like that casual approach to things that people may look down on. I have seen that a lot in America. People have to trudge in the dirt, or the reality of things. And the reality of things is that a lot of people want escort girls and a lot of people order porn.
Ginger became a fortune teller after working briefly as an escort girl (which she did for unusual and fascinating reasons). Were the people you filmed real clients?
They were friends. We gave them a free reading and asked if we could film them. We made sure they were all dudes because we thought it was interesting that she used to provide one kind of service, and now she’s providing another kind of service. It’s all about feeling good, it’s all about solutions to your problems.
With Petey, you could have made a documentary about him and Thee Oh Sees.
I wasn’t interested in making a band film. I would have liked to make more of the complexities of being in a band, but it was very hard because there are so many layers to everything and so many things to talk about. You have to keep a focus when you’re doing a film like this. And also because they’re like a family – they were a family, they’re not together anymore, Petey has left the band – it was a hard environment to break into. They let me in but they were very aware of the camera and what that means. When you enter a family like that there are many things that are going on that they might not want revealed to the outside world. I was a big fan of their music and of all of them, they’re all my friends. But there would have been too many angles if I’d done a band film.
The music is obviously really important in the film and you’ve got a great soundtrack.
When I worked in San Francisco I became friends with all these bands. There’s a big music scene that is really amazing. I bought a lot of records while I was there and then I asked if I could use the songs. For New York, the bands I wanted I couldn’t afford, because New York is always so hip.
Do you still have the same relationship with your friends?
Yes, I have an even better relationship with them. They really trusted me and they were very brave. But being there with a camera sucks. When you’re making a film, you’re the observer, you’re trying to make your friends talk about things, you’re manipulating them. But I think I’m so bad at manipulating people that they just look at me and go, OK we’re going to have to help her.
What did they think of your films?
I think they liked them. American Losers was tough because I used the word ‘loser’ without knowing how hard it was. Kevin, one of the characters, said to me, ‘you’ve got it so wrong that you got it right’. It was really tough to call someone a loser in America. But I had to have that title to have an effect. Maybe my friends were a little sad about that but I think they understood that I didn’t mean to harm them. When you make art you’re not supposed to please, you’re supposed to push, otherwise why do it?
One of the most memorable images in Petey and Ginger is that of Santa Claus about to commit suicide from a rooftop. How did you get that?
On one of my research trips to San Francisco I went to Petey’s house, and I found this picture in his old photos of Santa Claus trying to commit suicide. He told me the story of how he was walking in the Mission in San Francisco and he saw that situation, and I thought it was the perfect image for that film. So I recreated it. I got someone to wear a Santa Claus outfit on a roof.
Why did you think it was perfect for the film?
Because Santa Claus is this guy who doesn’t have any problems, he has presents coming out of his arse, there are no limits to his goodness or his willingness to share what he has. And there’s nobody asking where he gets the presents from, so it’s the perfect picture for the financial crisis and people’s relationship to money, to the environment, to everything. There are no limits – I want more, more, more, and I’m not going to think about the consequences.
The film is subtitled ‘A testament to the awesomeness of mankind’.
My friend Brian came up with this phrase and I thought it was perfect. It’s a celebration of people – some people doing the right thing. I feel that Petey and Ginger have figured it out from the beginning: there’s no free lunch, there’s no Santa Claus, there’s no gold coming out of the river, you have to work for things, and you have to be honest, and you have to try and understand things. They’re smarter than everybody else.
It feels like it could be the subtitle to all of your films. Does that define your approach to filmmaking?
I don’t know. I’ve stopped making films because I was so worn out. I think my old approach is not going to work anymore, I have that feeling that something else is going to have to enter the scene. I will do something in a new way.
Interview by Virginie Sé;lavy
Watch the trailer for Petey and Ginger: