Reflections on Childhood Trauma, Creativity and Mental Well-Being

Podcast with Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri

‘The most beautiful boy in the world’ film is released on DVD & Blu-ray / digital platforms on 11th October.
In this podcast, Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri (Swedish film makers) reflect on their documentary film ‘The most beautiful boy in the world’ (2021) and their professional relationship with the film’s protagonist, Björn Andrésen. Björn came to international fame at the age of 15 when Italian director Luchino Visconti cast him as Tadzio, the young boy in his film ‘Death in Venice’ (1971). Kristina and Kristian comment on the long-term impact of childhood trauma on the mental well-being of Swedish artists such as Björn Andrésen and Astrid Lindgren. They comment on the need for clear rules of engagement and professional boundaries between artists and executive managers to avoid physical and psychological exploitation of those artists.

Transcript

KHALID ALI: Hello and welcome to this podcast edition of the Medical Humanities Online Blogs podcast series. This is Khalid Ali, the film and media correspondent at Medical Humanities. And it’s a great pleasure and honor to have here today two eminent Swedish filmmakers, Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri. Kristina is a director, writer, and producer, and Kristian is a writer, director, producer, and a book author as well. It’s great to have you here today following the recent critical acclaim of your documentary film together, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World. I would like you just straight ahead, tell us about the attraction of you to tell the story of Björn Andrésen and give us a bit of background about him, about the film, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World. Kristina and then Kristian, please.

KRISTINA LINDSTRÖM: The story, I mean, the, what you say? I lost the words, actually. First I did! [laughs] Everyone in our generation in Sweden has a idea of this, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World. He was like in cut-out, you know, cut out in the magazines when we were teenagers. And in a way, that was the story that we wanted to tell and are telling. But when we decided to do this film, it was more like the most important things were, I guess, the story of his life: What was behind this? Who was this boy?

ALI: Kristian, do you mind telling us a bit more—thanks, Kristina—about Björn Andrésen, the 15-year-old first-time child actor who appeared in Death in Venice, Luchino Visconti’s film? Tell us a bit about the background and why Björn Andrésen. Why did you and Kristina want to tell his story?

PETRI: Well, as Kristina said, it’s very much a part of our generation, so it’s also a story about our life. He’s been there all the time. And sometimes you’re blind for what’s just right in front of you. And then when I was in, well, like 20 years ago, I made a children’s documentary, no sorry, a children’s TV series.

LINDSTRÖM: Yeah.

PETRI: I was working as a director. And Björn was in that show, and he was the bad guy scaring all the children. And we got to know each other, and we talked a lot. But I soon realized that the topic of Death in Venice was not something he was particularly fond about talking.

ALI: No.

PETRI: He didn’t wanna talk about that. So, we will skip that, so. And but he was a very fun person to be around with, and he had lots of humor. But as the years went by, I kept in contact with him. And I was going out for a dinner with him and Kristina, who was, we worked together on the show.

LINDSTRÖM: Joined. [chuckles]

PETRI: Joined. And then she started asking all those questions that you shouldn’t ask. [chuckles]

ALI: Right.

PETRI: Somehow, she did.

LINDSTRÖM: Well, the questions that you thought that you should not ask. [laughs]

ALI: Was it the probing into the filmmaking? Or we come to know through your film about the trauma that Björn had during and after making Death in Venice with Luchino Visconti. So, what was the motivation behind your probing questions, Kristina?

LINDSTRÖM and PETRI: [reviewing the question in Swedish]

LINDSTRÖM: I think it was, it was such a, when we started to talk about why did you live with your grandmother, what happened to your mother, who was your father, and all this, the story about it was more a universal story about a child, a person that has lost his, has lost so much. And he’s, in a way, he’s lived in a mystery, I think. And that was very, very intriguing and an interesting one. And also, in the way that he, I mean, Visconti saw him. When he saw, Visconti saw Björn at the audition, I’m sure that he saw this vulnerability in this young boy, and that’s a part of why he choose him.

ALI: Was it your intention then when you started asking those questions, Kristina, was it your intention to make the documentary, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, your film? Or was it curiosity that led you to ask the questions? Or both?

LINDSTRÖM: It’s curiosity. No, it’s curiosity. I’m a journalist, and I’m constantly curious about things and want to know how things is behind the scenes, so to say. And I am very interested in family stories because I have a family story like everyone else.

ALI: Of course.

LINDSTRÖM: I think both of us have stories. And when we think about it, we have, both Kristian and me, stories about with our mothers, with mental illness. And so, I think in the curiosity is also an investigation of family drama.

PETRI: Yeah, that’s true. No, because that’s true that we, actually, both Kristina and me have a lot in common with Björn. I mean, not like identically or so, but we have a lot in common when it comes to our mothers.

ALI: Yes. So, there was like a bonding or initial connection between the two of you and some of the details of Björn’s story.

I would like now to explore your views on the link between childhood trauma, mental illness, and creativity, as portrayed in two of your films, specifically the recent one, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, and Astrid Lindgren. My question is to be a great creative artist, does one have to endure such serious trauma?

LINDSTRÖM: Oh, I don’t think so. But I think a serious trauma, I mean, a trauma could be, it’s not for the others to decide, because small things can be traumas for a person. I think to be a creative person, you have to have depth in you. It doesn’t have to be a wound, but I think you have to have—

ALI: A lived experience.

LINDSTRÖM: Yes. And a depth of it.

ALI: Kristian?

PETRI: No, I think it’s very interesting. I come to think about Ingmar Bergman and his, because he has himself spoke about his childhood trauma. But when after you realize that part of his trauma was actually not his own, but his brother’s. So, he borrowed the trauma from his brother and made it his own because it suited him. But he was a truly creative person. [laughs]

ALI: Yeah.

PETRI: I think you can deal with your childhood experiences in very many different way. So, if you’re a creative person—

ALI: Indeed.

PETRI: —sometimes, of course, it can destroy you. It doesn’t have to be creative at all.

ALI: And we’ve seen that in Björn Andrésen’s post-Death in Venice film, the period of going between Japan, back to Sweden, traveling around the world. But throughout this period, he was…he experienced significant baggage, psychological trauma and baggage, which continued for quite some time.

I think with a lot of your films, I see your filmography almost as a documentation of the Swedish cultural icons, either in the creative industry or in the political world in Sweden. But a lot of your chosen protagonists or characters in your film—Ester Henning, the sculptor, Björn Andrésen in The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, Per Jonsson, Olof Palme—so, you focus on those public figures from the Swedish history, past history and more contemporary recent history. But the characters you present, they’ve all undergone a period of trauma, and through the film, you introduce those characters to the audience. In my mind, there is a therapeutical healing process in the storytelling approach you’ve adopted. Is that an intentional decision on your behalf?

LINDSTRÖM: Hmm.

PETRI: Well, if we are to speak about The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, I think that it’s definitely the filmmaking, the making of this film, took five years to shoot, one year to edit. And of course, things happened in that process, both with Björn and with us and the—

LINDSTRÖM: And the interaction.

PETRI: And the interaction between us. So, yeah, in many different ways.

ALI: Yes. So, I’m intrigued by the fact that it was a five-year relationship with Björn during which you made the film together. I’m interested in the relationship that you built. Did you set out to be friends, counselors, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, biographers, or neutral storytellers? I want you to just give us a bit more narrative about how you built that relationship and how did you set out to shape that relationship with Björn.

LINDSTRÖM: I think we can answer both of us, but I think it has changed over time.

ALI: Sure.

LINDSTRÖM: And things happen. And you, in some aspects, you always have to be a professional. You have to keep your head calm or cool, but in certain periods, of course, you get very engaged. And so, I think it’s going like a wave.

PETRI: I think it’s different at different moments.

LINDSTRÖM: Yeah.

PETRI: Sometimes you’re friends. Sometimes I’m the film director, and he’s, you know, and I’m shooting film about him. And sometimes it’s, also, it’s a documentary film, so there are quite few people. So, it’s very intimate, also. I mean, there’s not very many people involved in this, so. And the way we wanted to make this film, we didn’t want to make the film with talking heads, with content experts, people talking about him. We wanted him to be involved, and we wanted to tell that Björn would want, like Björn’s film, to hear his voice, his story.

LINDSTRÖM: Mm.

PETRI: And that, the other way, when we do this in that way, in that fashion, it also means that we are with him. We enter the rooms. We enter the scenes. We meet other people together with him.

ALI: Yeah.

PETRI: So, it’s not…. Yeah.

ALI: Were there boundaries that— I read one of your interviews that you wanted to be the exact opposite of the relationship between Björn and Luchino Visconti. You set out to engage with Björn, obviously in a different relationship, in a different context. But were there any boundaries that either you set or Björn has set in terms of some private aspects of his life?

LINDSTRÖM: Yes, of course. We have constantly discussed from the start of this process what we’re doing. What can we tell? What do you want to tell? And it has been like, it has been that we have known all, we have known the story, in a way, I mean, his life story, even though it has been many surprises during—

ALI: The way you filmed.

LINDSTRÖM: —the way. But we also wanted to be that he is the one that decides when and if he wants to open different doors in his life story.

PETRI: But also, even if he opens up the door and let us in, we have to be responsible anyway to have this sort of because we are doing the film, and we are, what we show and what we don’t show. And so, we have a huge responsibility, of course, in this. And that’s what I think different, I mean, apart from what we are very, Kristina and me, are very different from Luchino Visconti. We are not Italian kings.

ALI and LINDSTRÖM: [laugh]

PETRI: Or have servants and palaces, so.

ALI: An entourage behind you. But you manage to make a very powerful yet poignant and poetic film at the same time. And I’m just reflecting on your note that Björn was letting you into his world, but actually, you embraced those around him, the stories of those around him: his girlfriend, those artists in Japan, those whose work informed their creative work, his daughter. So, you embraced other family members and other creative artists who were around him throughout his life.

LINDSTRÖM: Yeah, yes. I mean, he was, for example, he was the one telling us one day, “I want you to meet my daughter. A film about me, I think you have to meet my daughter.” So, that was his decision.

ALI: Decision, yeah.

LINDSTRÖM: And of course, going to Japan was, I mean, it was not Björn that found all these paths from his past. I mean, it was we with researching and finding all these people that made, photographers and producers and composers and everyone that he actually met then. But he was, I mean, he was with us in that—

ALI: Process.

PETRI: The energy came from him. So, he really wanted to do this, and he wanted to meet these people.

LINDSTRÖM: Yeah.

PETRI: So, that was, but we organized it for him. We made it happen, so to say.

ALI: So, it was a collaborative process where he opened the doors for you, and you took it further to probe deeper into his life. And your film, is there a cautionary note? Are there lessons or agendas or messages that we could learn from in terms of the filmmaker or the creative artist and the subject of their work, the relationship between those two for our times? We hear about exploitation, in the international scene of specifically actors by the industry or by specifically the producers or directors or so. Is there a cautionary note for all of us to reflect on Björn’s story?

LINDSTRÖM: Definitely, definitely. And that’s the ground. I mean, that’s why we started in the first phase, this story. That’s why we were interested in the first phase of the story. And I think it’s a very, very strong and powerful story that it’s really—

ALI: It’s a cry, against, I feel that there is a cry against the predatory approach of obviously some filmmakers and the film industry machine that exploits the creative artists, yeah?

PETRI: Absolutely, and I mean, this is not only the film industry.

ALI: Indeed.

PETRI: I mean the entertainment industry as a whole, the music industry, and more modeling world especially maybe. Or it’s a very, you know, very young girls especially there, maybe poets as well. Probably. So, it’s everywhere where there are children involved and—

ALI: Indeed, indeed.

LINDSTRÖM: And—

ALI: Sorry. Carry on, Kristina.

LINDSTRÖM: I mean, the path that we follow is who was this boy? And we want people, the audience, to see the boy because it’s a child. It’s a boy. And it’s true, the film is a boy that this is all about. So, care for these children.

ALI: Indeed. And I’d like now to, this is your second collaboration together. You made the, you co-directed the film together The Silence about the Silence Records industry. So, tell us a bit about The Silence and the difference in your approach to making The Silence and making The Most Beautiful Boy in the World. Kristina or Kristian.

LINDSTRÖM: Yeah. Actually, we’ve done more than that.

ALI: Oh, I’m sorry.

LINDSTRÖM: Yeah! [laughs] But I mean, it’s totally different because Silence is, it’s a story about news. It’s more feeling to be in music, to be a part, to enter an era of music and the ideas that flowed in the time I mean, around ‘60 in the ‘60s, ‘70s. So, that was totally different. We are not getting into some special persons in their life.

ALI: Story. True, yeah.

PETRI: And that film also start, it always starts with something.

LINDSTRÖM: Mmhmm.

PETRI: And that film started with where we were sitting in a small film festival in Arvika where Kristina had showed her Astrid film.

ALI: Astrid.

PETRI: Yeah. And we talked to some people. There was a sort of like a huge dinner afterwards. And there were some people sitting there, and they said they founded a service that was a legendary music studio, The Silence. And they had this Super 8 material who nobody have ever seen. And they shot Super 8 through the whole period, and they wonder if we wanted to have a look at it. And we said, “Sure. Show it to us. Send it to us.” And we looked at this and said, this is amazing. I mean, this is, you know, this footage, it’s so emotional and so beautiful. So, that’s how it started. We wanted to do something with those images.

LINDSTRÖM: Yes, and—

PETRI: And the music, of course

LINDSTRÖM: And the music, of course, because that music is, I mean, so important. It was a forming a part of my life, at least, when I was young.

PETRI: Yeah, no. Same here. It’s a generation thing also.

LINDSTRÖM: Yeah, yeah.

ALI: Yeah. So, the way I see it is that there is a difference here, as you said, Kristina. And it’s a more intimate storytelling in Björn’ story, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, that you focused on the man himself, the child and who later became the artist. While in The Silence, you spoke about the era and the time and the music records label and its impact on the cultural identity, including your good selves. Both beautiful films that really opened my mind to a lot about the rich Swedish culture.

You just mentioned that The Most Beautiful Boy in the World took probably about six years of your life to release to the viewing audience. I hope that we don’t, won’t wait for another five or six years before we watch your next film. So, what’s in the pipeline?

PETRI: We are really talking about this a lot now in this place. So, there’s nothing fixed, but we have a lot of ideas.

LINDSTRÖM: We have a lot of ideas of films that we want to do together. Then at the moment, we have films that we are doing separate.

ALI: Yeah.

LINDSTRÖM: Like, I’m doing a documentary about Selma Lagerlöf, the Swedish author.

ALI: Yeah.

LINDSTRÖM: She was the first woman to gain the Literary Nobel Prize. And you are doing a….

PETRI: I’m working on a fiction film together with John Ajvide Lindqvist, the writer who wrote Let the Right One In.

ALI: Yeah. Yes, indeed.

LINDSTRÖM: It’s harder. [laughs]

PETRI: It’s a original script from him. So, it’s about old magicians. [chuckles]

ALI: It’s a different genre altogether. And is it, Kristian, is this your first feature or not?

PETRI: No.

ALI: No.

PETRI: I’ve done several features before. My first feature was like oh, some more than 30 years ago, and I was in Cannes Film Festival at the Directors’ Fortnight. It was called Between Summers. That was my first feature.

ALI: And what brought you, after you and Kristina made a whole filmography of documentary films focusing on Swedish icons, what takes you back to fiction?

PETRI: No, I like to go between, you know, to move between fiction and documentary. So, I like to do films, sometimes I like to do a more intimate film after doing a, because fiction films can be just like 100 people on the set. It’s so, you know, it’s so heavy to move. [laughs]

ALI: Indeed.

PETRI: It’s like having to steer this giant cruise ship. Sometimes I want to have something that seems to be more intimate, more. And then it’s great—

LINDSTRÖM: And then it was love stories. [laughs]

PETRI: —to work with— No, it wasn’t. No, but then it’s great work.

ALI: It’s a different challenge, isn’t it?

Now our podcast, this is primarily targeting Medical Humanities academics, scholars, medical students, health, and social care professionals. I watched the film. I loved it. So, if I may ask you to recommend this film for our audience to watch it, how would you sell it to them? What would you tell them?

PETRI: Ooh. [chuckles]

LINDSTRÖM: I think I would say that it’s a story about beauty and about desire and about the sacrifice that that can cause and about a boy. And that that boy is, that it’s a boy in the film. That’s the boy that is Björn, and that’s a boy that you will learn to know about during the film. So, it’s a story about—

ALI: Childhood [laughs] and beauty.

LINDSTRÖM: Childhood, yes.

ALI: Lovely.

LINDSTRÖM: And yeah. And you?

ALI: Kristian?

PETRI: I don’t know. We are so overwhelmed with the sort of the reception of it. So, I read lots of features and reviews. But one particularly was quite moving, and it said this film will…this will break your heart over and over again, but you can’t stop looking. [chuckles]

ALI: Oh, I love that. What a beautiful commentary on a beautiful, poignant film. Thank you very much, Kristina and Kristian. I do join my voice to the commentary you just said about why people should watch the film and watch the rest of your films as well. I really enjoyed them. Thank you ever so much. It’s been a pleasure to have you in our podcast for Medical Humanities. We look forward to watching your new film and your previous projects as well. So, thank you ever so much.

LINDSTRÖM: Thank you so much.

PETRI: Thank you. Thank you. It was a pleasure.

ALI: Thank you. Bye-bye.

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