The climate of today’s cultural conversations is measured by tweets per second and a barometer for whip-smart, red-hot political correctness. React fast, and type faster. The Trouble with Being Born which premiered at this year’s Berlinale, has been caught in the eye of one of these online storms. In the film, a father builds an android modelled after his young daughter who disappeared years ago. Their relationship is murky and suggestively pedophilic, but it is one element of the film. After several psychologists made public comments to The Age in August, it was removed from this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) program due to concerns over its depictions of pedophilia and child sexualisation. None of the people that had made public comments or contacted the film’s Austrian director and writer, Sandra Wollner, with their concerns (and threats), had seen the film.
Michelle Wang spoke with Wollner ahead of its release in Australian cinemas, uncovering the depths of this thought-provoking film as a timely, intersectional exploration of identity, relationships, sexuality, and technology.
What further emerged was a discussion around how rapid-fire public responses to films can be reflective of the dilemmas of our time — problems that art and culture are now grappling with. Namely that the context in which these discussions, and cinema are taking place is no longer only within a physical room but also a twenty-four hour internet tab. It’s not as though one space should substitute the other, but how do we adapt and move through them? How do we value them? How do we engage with what happens in online rooms and real rooms with an awareness, both of ourselves and others? Instead of wrestling to keep up and responding by the second, we can start by slowing down — watch the whole film, read the whole piece, deliberate and listen to other voices, then begin to form judgements.
Michelle Wang: I am intrigued by the complex dynamic between the father, Papa, and the android child, Elli. Although it is meant to parallel a human parent/child relationship, it is much more murky and conflates boundaries of appropriateness since he is also her master, and her purpose is to serve his needs. Why did you choose to portray the android as a child, as well as belonging to this parent/child relationship?
Sandra Wollner: From the very beginning, I was interested in this ‘anti-pinocchio’ story. Usually we have to show a narrative where the AI wants to conquer the world or become human, as we see for example in Spielberg’s A.I. (2001). I was much more interested in the perspective where the android, or the object, does not want anything except for what it is programmed to want. I felt that we as an audience can only truly experience that if we anthropomorphise this object and deconstruct it later. I felt that with a child we feel instant empathy, so it was clear to me from the beginning that we had to tell this story with an android that looks like a child.
I further found the ambiguity of the different dynamics interesting to explore — on the one hand an understandable loss of a child, and on the other, the unbearable dynamic of the sexual interest in the child. We see that this object, the android, does not care about our moral standards which makes it painful to watch. But I felt it was necessary to bring out these ambiguities and to really inquire into how humanlike something has to look to properly apply the same moral standards? And how are we going to deal with that in the near future?
MW: Did you consider how the loss of a child means that they’re frozen in time, and how this affects the android’s identity, as well as the way they are constructed by humans?
SW: The android is a good metaphor for how the loss of a person freezes them in time because it does not change and looks the same all the time. It doesn’t decay, it doesn’t grow older. It always stays in this one frozen moment, like a picture. The identity we give to this android, who is a vessel, is only filled with a small part of its owner’s memories and imagination. So it’s not a very wide identity, it only shows what the owner wants to see.
MW: That’s interesting because she’s then more of a projection than anything real.
SW: Yes, she’s basically a mirror of her owners. So herein is a question about the virtuality of our own reality — how often do we really talk to someone else and how often are we just talking to the persona? It’s human, you know. How can we really step outside our perception. I had the idea that creating this android that only resembles some of our memories basically shows this monologue. There’s never a dialogue. The human is talking to themselves in this mirror image. It only mirrors their loss and their perverted memories.
MW: I thought the use of the voiceover was an interesting technique to express how Elli’s identity is being constructed through these memories. Can you tell me a bit more about the decision to use that technique?
SW: The idea of the voiceover was there from the beginning, but it really came together in the editing room. I always imagined this film as an android’s dream, or from the perspective of this machine. In the writing process, I had the feeling that this whole story would come out of the perspective of this android and I talked a lot with my partner, Timm Kröeger, who is also my DOP, about how we could achieve that level of perception. I figured that it cannot be told only through the camera but that I can show it in the way the narration unfolds. The narration is like an infinite loop, somewhat non-linear and, in some moments, more based on a dream logic.
You can see this in the second half of the film — which was influenced by the first half — as you see Elli repeating the same memories to her new owner. Everything she is saying comes from an eternal time — like this timeframe where everything has already happened or everything has not happened yet. Does it really make a difference if it’s already happened, if she is only a virtualised idea of all the things that have and have not happened yet in the owner’s life?
MW: I notice that your previous film, The Impossible Picture (2016), also utilises the perspective of a child. Why do you think you are drawn to using that perspective and why did you decide to use it again for The Trouble With Being Born?
SW: Here it was much more the perspective of a man, rather than a child. And his memories of a child. And then of an old lady’s memories of a child [in the second half of the film, where Elli is re-fashioned as Emil, an old lady’s long lost brother]. But I still think of course you’re right in a way. I don’t know exactly. Maybe it’s a curiosity. A child has a naïve, non-judgmental view of the world and therefore in some ways is more understanding of the ambivalent and ambiguous circumstances of life.
MW: I wanted to ask you about the ‘cigarettes and sunscreen’ anecdote that Elli uses both to describe a memory of how the father smelt to her, as well as her second owner, the old lady, when she is later re-fashioned as Emil. It is a very sensory memory that both the father and old lady seem to respond to emotionally. It made me reflect on the supposedly idiosyncratic and unique memories which we think make us human, which are actually not so, but are far more common and transferable.
SW: I always had this feeling it was more of a confusion the older lady had when Emil said that. She’s thinking about when did that happen? or did that happen or am I believing that this happened? She is also losing some of her memories in that dynamic as an older person with a long lost child brother.
But what you were saying is quite interesting because we as humans believe our memories are so idiosyncratic and unique, but we have to realise that, in a way, they are not. Our sensory perception — noises, temperatures, smells — is something that we all very much relate to in constructing memories. It seems to be the most obvious way to ‘program’ our memories, especially via the sense of smell. And they are things that are not even that unique, it’s only unique for us.
MW: Evidently the relationship between Papa and Elli has been quite controversial, since it is quite suggestive and sexualised. It made me think about how we as humans learn about sexuality and its boundaries, and how the society and community around us are very much a formative part of this learning and knowing. Why did you choose to represent their relationship like this?
SW: Sexuality and what is considered appropriate is constructed and based on what we learn from the world around us. What we understand as sexuality and sexual behaviour, such as promiscuous behaviour, is very dependent on culture and upbringing. When I made this film, the father does not have to hide his interest in Elli and adhere to morality, because he lives there in the forest. He can do whatever he wants. We suspect that he once did have to hide it, to play games, and maybe even to coax his real daughter into sexual acts, which is of course a terrifying, unbearable subtext of this whole thing.
But what is interesting to me is that still these roles remain clearly divided between him as papa, and her as his daughter. She always walks around on a sunny day when he’s reading a book and she’s scared of thunderstorms in the night in the most clichéd way so he can be a parent, and she has these notions that he thinks she must have heard about their relationship. For example, when she says “Mum would never have allowed it” — I always understood that as something that he would have said first. Like he would have told her about something that happened in the past and at some point in the story says “…Mum would never have allowed it”. It becomes part of how he recalls this idea of his relationship with his daughter: somewhat forbidden and secretive. There is a darker morality that is perhaps necessary for his sexuality.
MW: It’s like as soon as society isn’t around them — because Papa and Elli are in the house with the forest around them, as you say — it’s easy to tap into those dark things, because the rest of the world is not watching.
SW: Exactly. In my research, I found these dolls that look so naturally like children. You can buy them online and they are billed as these dolls for people who are lonely or just want a plaything or friend, but you can change their vagina and other body parts. They are obviously there for one reason. It made me think: if you have this in your house hidden in the forest and you can do with it whatever you like, what does it do to you? What does it bring out?
Further, our world is becoming more and more virtual. The borders of our inner and outer world are getting closer, and this also shows how the darker side is brought out as well. Like if you can do everything in a virtual room, and one day we can experience anything that we think of, then maybe in a further future — we also bring parts of the abyss a little more into our real world. And that is interesting and important to think about that.
MW: You have touched on the setting of the forest and how it isolates Papa and Elli — what other significance is there to Elli often wandering through the forest?
SW: This is really one of the first images I had in my head: this little robot girl wandering in the woods. It was something I wanted to see but I also had the feeling that this wandering in the forest was some sort of transition zone. It’s a bit like in a fairytale. The forest is always the place where we either find ghosts, find ourselves, or find the abyss.
I had in mind that maybe the biggest difference between this android and us is that we as humans need things to have fictionalised, made-up meanings. I mean this in the sense of when we’re asked what a tree looks like, you and I are thinking about a different tree. For this android, it doesn’t matter — it doesn’t need those meanings as structure, or the meaning of life. It just is. So I found that the forest was a way to communicate both these perspectives. Like, when you or I look at the leaves outside in autumn, falling and shaking continuously, at some point we get lost in the leaves, and we stop seeing the tree and the leaves, and we just watch the shapes and the motion. Elli’s also standing there in the night so we can barely see anything. It’s so dark, which is very important. Like in the night when you go out, and you only see the outlines of something, the shapes. It will really only work in the cinema.
MW: There has been a lot of online backlash or “cancelling” of controversial points of view. Your film has been subject to this with its removal from Melbourne International Film Festival after The Age wrote about it. This furore was also recently directed at Maïmouna Doucouré’s Netflix release Cuties (2020), which included a scene with hypersexualised eleven year old girls twerking. Can you give me your thoughts on these responses and the online context they are occurring in?
SW: We have been receiving threatening messages since Berlinale, since the Hollywood Reporter article came out. It definitely had a clickbait title, though the article itself wasn’t even a bad review. The title was something like “underage child sex robot” — it was reduced to clickbait which we always found was something easy to do with this film. But then suddenly we were featured on Infowars, and were like, okay what is going on now? We suddenly popped into this alt-right belt. My inbox was full with messages from people who believe that I’m actually pro-pedophilia, and who thought that this film is normalising sex with children.
I found it quite interesting because I don’t know how anyone who has seen the film can think that. Only people who did not see the film came up with those ideas, which is, in a way, a problem of our time. One has to decide very, very fast which side you’re on and make sure you’re on the right side — make sure you’re the quickest to respond on Twitter without reading the whole thing. I think that always was there, the gossip, but before Twitter it would take a while. I do see those similarities with Cuties — and I remember the main problem was the poster that Netflix chose. They also turned it into profitable clickbait.
MW: Why do you think it might be important for filmmakers to portray the sexualisation of young children?
SW: I really truly believe it is important to show every abyss of human nature. And it is important to show all the good things, because we want to see how wonderful humans are. But I really think it’s also very important to show every dark aspect. I truly believe that art has the responsibility to go where it’s painful. I really believe that. In the case of the sexualisation of young children, are there also beauty child pageants in Australia? On the other hand we have children imitating sexual acts on all these platforms like TikTok and other media too, because children imitate our behaviour.
I think that in a film, a work of fiction which you show to an audience and bring together with a panel, you can discuss difficult subjects in a good, healthy way in those 90 minutes. For example, especially with Cuties, it is also educational to talk about those things. We need to be able to discuss things that are obviously present in our society. When we block them and pretend that they are not there — that does not make any sense to me.
MW: I really agree with what you are saying and doing through your work because this whole online cancelling and backlash does not change the reality.
SW: I do understand why [MIFF] withdrew the film. I’m not even angry about that because it’s a weird year — we are in lockdown, there are completely new rules and they have to do it online for the first time. They cannot control the room. I even understand why a psychologist would say something. But to let someone who did not watch the film judge it and cancel it — that I find problematic.
What I find even more problematic is that MIFF stated that they decided to withdraw it for the security and wellbeing of their community. What they said is: this film is dangerous. That’s the only part about it that I found irritating and troubling. They could have put it in another way. I’m not personally offended by it, but it’s a question I raise as we are becoming more and more online, so it’s like we give up control of the room when it’s not in the cinema. Regardless, I don’t think this is true, because in a cinema someone can sit there and go home with those pictures in their mind and do whatever they want with those.
MW: Do you think it makes a difference for you as a filmmaker whether your films are shown at home or in the cinema ?
SW: I do say that I made this film for the cinema. Of course it will be online and it’s okay because this year is just the way it is. The main room this film is for was the cinema, because I think it’s an important room. Not only because I think the film is in a way controversial, but also because of the look, and to really get the immersive perspective. To really get those pictures in the forest, the stars, the rooms. To experience this with other people and talk about it with other people. I did it for the cinema. But I understand that we have to show it online. I don’t think one should substitute the other.
The Trouble with Being Born will be showing in Australian cinemas from December 5.
Michelle Wang writes, dreams and eats in Sydney. That’s pretty much it aside from voraciously consuming most things with subtitles or featuring Adam Driver.