EDA Awards @ IDFA 2016 Filmmaker Interview: Trude Berge Ottersen and Gry Elisabeth Mortensen on SEALERS

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Due to a European ban on seal products and increasing protests against the practice, seal hunting in Norway is in decline. An old Norwegian skipper and experienced sealer named Bjørne take no notice of the change in the social environment and set out as usual in the spring to go hunting for seals in the Greenland Sea northeast of Iceland. Trude Berge Ottersen and Gry Elisabeth Mortensen follow skipper and crew during preparations and through the course of what might be their final seal hunt.

In the film, the spattered blood of hundreds of seals soaks into the white and ice-blue ice of the magnificent frozen landscape. Life at sea is hard. As the temperature plummets, the skipper steers a treacherous course through the ice, and the men have to jump from floe to floe to give the seals killed by gunshot a final blow with their hakapik, a club with a hammer head and a sharp metal hook. When the trip is over and the pelts and meat have been sold on the dock, Bjørne and his crew are sad to see the season end and say goodbye to the hunt.

Trude Berge Ottersen and  Gry Elisabeth Mortensen

Trude Berge Ottersen and Gry Elisabeth Mortensen

Based in Tromsø, Norway, filmmakers Gry Elisabeth Mortensen and Trude Berge Ottersen run the documentaries production company Koko Film AS. both filmmakers are educated to the disciplines of anthropological filmmaking, but they concentrate on endowing their verite films with heart, humor and the human spirit. For the past several years, they’ve been directing and producing together, and working as consultants and photographers on documentary films and other projects.

AWFJ: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

Trude Berge Ottersen: It started in 2010. I was then a vegetarian and got to know some young seal hunters, and through their enthusiasm for their profession and narrative capacity for the subject my fascination became aroused. I knew nothing from before, only that I was against seal hunting – I had even signed a petition. But based on what? Because of people like me they were now loosing their culture, a 300 years long tradition was coming to an end – because of an undeserved bad reputation outside of Norway. When I brought the topic to the pitch for most people, I realized that even Norwegians were not enlightened when it came to modern sealing. And then it dawned on me that meat-eaters – who gladly swallows chicken – were opposed sealing, and that EU in 2007 banned all seal-products based on the fact that seals are to cute to kill. I then realized that I had a film to make. But who should be the characters? The young sealhunters told countless stories about this characteristic figure, who clearly was the king of seal-hunting. In January 2014 I finally met captain Bjørne. His whole identity was stained and built up around sealing – who was he without it? I understood at once that this mythical man, with 45 years in the Polar Ice, was the perfect character. I came along on a reseach-trip spring 2014, and then I met Espen – a young mate and a fifth generation seal-hunter. He was so proud, and had an aura that caught my attention, a mystique which I figured was going to be challenging but interesting. The final main-character, the rookie, was chosen so the audience could get to know seal-hunting through the eyes for a newcomer.

Gry Elisabeth Mortensen: The two of us are pretty different in the sense that Trude comes from the inland and was a vegetarian, while I come from an island in Arctic Norway so living of what the sea can offer has always just been normal to me. Whale and codfish was the food that I grew up with. But still, the seal hunt is very very special, an expedition where you stay in the dangerous West Ice for two months. And the crew works tremendously hard for little money.

AWFJ: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

GEM: The shooting of this film was the two best months of my life, because we lived in the nature and had nothing else to think about. No phone line, no internet, nothing except the making of the film, the weather, the light, the ice conditions, the animals, the people. And we could go for weeks without having a shower, walking around in bloody, woollen underwear all day long. Haha, a perfect environment to keep focused.

TBO: Seal hunting is about so much more than killing animals. It’s a rich heritage with much knowledge and traditions – with many inherent values we unfortunately are on track to lose in today’s modern society. Respect for traditions, our ancestors, energy-use and most importantly, understand how it all fits together. Living in harmony with nature and a holistic worldview. Today we can buy everything in the store, but we can not buy culture and history. I see the importance of these elements for a man’s place in the world. The loss of seal hunting as an industry is loss of pride, knowledge, values, traditions and a rich cultural heritage.
I had never been out at sea before, never been to Island or Greenland or the Polar Ice, never been hunting and never eaten seal – so I was embarking on many unknown tracks, experiencing new things every day. I learned an incredible amount about nature and animals, ice conditions and weather, words used at sea, sailor knots, butchering and everything that has to do with the different seal-spieces. Contrary to what most believe, there are barely more professional or gentle way to kill animals. The seals sleep/relax on the ice when they get a shot in the head, they are not applied stress, neither in terms of fear or transportation. To ensure that everything is done correctly, all ships bring along a veterinary-inspector.

GEM:The seal hunters we made the film about are more concerned with animal welfare and the environment than most people I know. One of them usually works with dog sledding, one runs a horse farm and so on. They are very much the opposite of what many people imagine. You can see this for instance in the scene with the polar bear. The skipper can´t stand watching seals being hurt, so he goes after the polar bear to euthanize the pups that are harmed and left by the bear.

AWFJ: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

GEM: That we should be careful when it comes to listening to advice – trusting ourselves is far more important.

TBO: Making of this film has been an insightful, unforgettable and painful journey. Since it’s my first feature film, the learning outcomes is bottomless – in all stages of the process – where to start? Daily I met new challenges and realized how complex this profession is. One can not film everything and it is incredibly small amount that actually manage to fit in the finished film in the end. Importance of planning, but also be open to unexpected situations. Rely on your own choice during recording and zoom to focus on certain characters – in the end its more valuable to to have delved deeply into a man than just touched the surface of many. Dare to stand in conflicts and wandering life situations – that’s where the interesting occurs. As a photographer, I was constantly put to the test, as regards private boundaries and respect that at all times must be maintained, which is in agreement between those being filmed and the photographer.

AWFJ: What were your biggest challenges?

GEM: The weather and ice conditions were changing from minute to minute, which made the continuity in the film a huge obstacle. Being “stuck” on a small boat for two months with the characters also put a lot of pressure on both them and us. But it was mainly just a positive experience – you learn a lot about your own personality when you work in a situation like this. Also, we unexpectedly lost a character in the middle of the shooting, and had to re-think the whole story. But then again, surprises like this are the beauty of documentary filmmaking, so we can´t complain!

TBO: My personality is quite large, and in recording situations I have to work to take up less space. I have to lean back, shut up and let each threat get unfold without my involvement. Being able to capture on camera the communication that takes place without words, I must stop and dare to linger – both with myself and others. Endure the silence, wrap me into it and push myself to wait – to be open and curious of what happens then. As a photographer, I must also recognize that a good image, not necessarily the most beautiful – but it conveys the mood and that best fit into dramaturgy throughout the narrative.

AWFJ: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

TBO: Most likely it was an advantage being a woman in this film process, somehow I think I got the access precisely for this reason. I guess the captain saw me as less threatening. In the beginning I actually don’t think he believed it was going to be a film at all. At sea gender still matters a lot. It was easier being a women, there was no expectations of prior knowledge, and compared to the rookie-guys, it was set far lower requirements. It was kinda accepted to chat and ask all stupid questions, which I should have known had I been a man.

GEM: This is hard for me to judge. Unfortunately, I can´t know how I would think if I were a man.

AWFJ: What are your plans for the future?

TBO: I plan to keep on making films about people and themes that fascinates me and swallows my attention, on topics I may know nothing about. Explore the world’s cultural diversity in an unprejudiced way. To be open and curious. I long to return to sea and prefer getting cold – so hopefully up north, where I can use my knowledge about filming in the Arctic. I hope I’ll always search for the perfect moment and be able to capture on camera the communication that takes place without words. My ambition is to become a sensitive DOP with patience to let moments unfold before the camera, but at the same time be bold enough to take bouncy choices to get the best pictures.

AWFJ: Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

TBO: I never namedrop, neither specific films, photographers or directors. I get inspired – one way or the other – of everything and everyone I meet on my way. But the films that grabs me is those who are honest, who invites me within, into the private. My curiosity must be aroused and I want to get to know the characters. And it should preferably be visually appealing, like conscious camerawork and a dynamic presence of the photographer.

AWFJ: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

TBO: Believe in yourself. Welcome challenges and embrace the job opportunities that scares you. You are just as good – if not better – than man competing for the same job. Dare to take your place, be tough and do not take no for an answer. Show what you can!

GEM: I´m pretty new to this game myself, but here is what I learned so far: Work with people you look up to, and try to not take notice to what other people may think or say about you. Ask people for exactly what you want, and aim to never get offended. If people don´t like what you´re doing, they just have a different taste, it doesn´t mean anything more than that. Also – if you manage to stay pessimistic, you will only get positive surprises!

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