In director Magnus von Horn’s Sweat (2020), fitness influencer Sylwia (Magdalena Koleśnik), has hundreds of thousands of social media followers, offers of endorsement deals, and photo spreads in magazines. When a video she posts sharing her insecurities goes viral, her sponsors become concerned. This does not convey the happiness they want their products to be associated with. The pressure of the expectation from her sponsors and her fans, in particular one obsessive male fan, puts pressure on the smiling and energetic façade that hides her deepest insecurities.
Following his debut feature The Hereafter (2015), about John, a young man who returns home after serving a prison sentence to find the community unwilling to forgive or forget his crime, von Horn’s Sweat again delves into the emotional angst of its lead character. John and Sylwia complement one another as studies of isolation and alienation through distinct experiences, shaping the authorial identity of the filmmaker.
In conversation with PopMatters, the director discussed the need to overcome the cruel pleasure we exhibit towards emotional expression on social media, and his pursuit of an intuitive, not an intellectual approach to themes and ideas.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
It’s easy to speak about moments of epiphany when you look back on your life, but there was never a moment. It was several moments dragged out over a long period of time.
From an early age I was fascinated by moving images. I remember I loved a National Geographic shark movie I had on VHS. I wanted to research sharks, to be down in the cage, until I understood I was interested more in the images than the idea of working with the sharks.
When I was 15, I went to a New York Film Academy Camp in Paris, and that’s what made me want to make films. From that moment I knew that I was going to go to film school.
What was it about these images that drew your interest?
I liked the way the lips of the shark moved up and down when they showed their teeth. I still love that today. I was young and it was never understood on an intellectual level. It was the effect of watching something up close, of the camera bringing great white sharks that were far away in South Africa, into my living room in Sweden. It’s time travelling or geographical travelling through a television screen. It’s a window to another world, and it’s emotional. There are many things you can say about it, but it’s basically the way the lips of the shark move when they show their teeth.
When we’re young, cinema is an emotional experience. With age we begin to intellectualise and the purely emotional experience becomes a struggle to hold onto. These are two distinct ways to watch films, each offering something different. What are your thoughts on how our relationship to cinema changes?
I try not to intellectualise what drives me to tell a story. I try to remain on an intuitive level because the moment I start to intellectualise certain things about the stories, or the films I want to make, I lose interest in them.
It’s a struggle to hold onto that gut feeling, especially when you promote the film and you have to speak about why you want to make films. You don’t have to, but it’s a way of having a nice conversation.
When I say the way the lips move on the shark, I thought about it just now, and it’s nothing more than that. It then means a million things that you can write a book about.
What you said about the way we watch or experience things as children, before we filter them through our brain as we get older with experience, that’s the way of life. I still prefer the films that go through my stomach first, then to my head, rather than the other way around. I’m not interested in intellectual cinema.
Sweat can be interpreted as a critique of social media, specifically of seeking self-worth and validation externally, instead of finding it within ourselves. While there are intellectual themes and ideas present in the film, if you don’t seek to intellectualise these aspects of the film, is your approach to observe the character and let the audience think for themselves?
I was never interested in making a film about social media–it was never my motivation. What interestes me is a woman influencer who is able to be more herself while in contact with people through her phone, than she’s able to be in real life. The form of having an emotional stage to express yourself is what interested me.
I make films or I write screenplays, that’s my stage… but they take four years to make. Whereas for an influencer it may take 30 seconds or a minute. Nevertheless, it’s a way to express yourself.
When I started following influencers and fitness motivators, what I found interesting was this chase for authenticity. What is authentic on social media? There are people who break down for likes and followers, and there are people who break down because they have the need to break down and share it. Some people are good at breaking down in a fake way, where the motivation might not be the pain, it might be to get more attention.
It’s difficult to sometimes say what the difference is between different posts. Like a dog, we can smell out what’s real and what’s not, and that’s what interested me at the beginning. Then it was how to develop a character in a close and respectful way, by not judging her, but treating her as a human being, which sounds stupid to say.
It’s obvious that we should treat people like human beings, but on the internet especially, we don’t. We forget that people are human beings, and it’s strange how we treat them in an overly cold or warm way.
… I was also lacking images of influencers in contemporary cinema. It’s always ridiculed, made a parody of, or used conceptually as a horror movie gimmick. Missing is a normal, realistic image of they’re just human beings, and they live amongst us. I thought that’s interesting enough, and the audience will take different meanings and thought-provoking ideas from it.
Is social media good or not? It’s all in there; I have that for free. I don’t need to comment and I’m not interested in doing so. The audience will do it.
The great thing about cinema is that it’s a mirror of yourself. What you find interesting in life you’ll bring with you, and you’ll filter the film through yourself. This is when cinema becomes interesting because then it’s a conversation.
For the audience, a film can help us to critique ourselves and our world more fully. Do you view cinema as a form of talking therapy for not only the filmmaker but the audience as well?
The weird thing when we discuss cinema is we cannot put humanity and virtues on a pedestal. We speak about the perfect human being, how people should be. These things you spoke about–of how she’s validating herself externally, or how she feels judged by other people–are very human. If we’re seeking to be the perfect human being of zen and harmony, we’ll never be that, and it might be less humane than who we are with our faults.
We have much more in common with Sylwia than we dare admit. We can speak about humanity in a disconnected way and I find it fascinating how we can talk about Sylwia as an alien, or a different species. Maybe she’s a bit more exaggerated compared to our own lives because not everyone’s an influencer. But as we get closer to her, we can feel a connection, or at least I can.
It suggests that people are emotional commodities and what’s happening is emotional transactional relationships, in which people feed off of one another to fulfil their competing emotional needs.
I can relate to what you’re saying and I can see that in many places where someone is being used to satisfy another person’s emotions, but that’s the way it is. Maybe it’s a way for people to express themselves.
Especially in interviews about Sweat, I find the journalist has an idea about the film that they’d like me to express, and they want to guide me to say what they feel about the film. I find that interesting and funny because it means they have an idea about the film, which is great. They want to express that through an article, and they want me to help them do that. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t [laughs], but maybe it’s connected to what you’re saying.
Do you think social media has taken us down a rabbit hole we may never escape, or is it an extension or evolution of what the world has always been? Could the case be made that social media is a scapegoat for social, cultural, and political frustrations?
For some people, it’s a scapegoat. But like you say, it’s a rabbit hole we can’t escape from. I wonder if we should escape from it. There’s no point in escaping what you can’t escape. You have to somehow go with the flow of the world.
When the music industry tried to stop streaming because they wanted to continue selling CDs, it was a fight they were never going to win. Go with the flow – the same goes with social media.
If you feel lost in the world, you can decide to be a cynical and negative person, or you can make a decision to open your heart, embrace what you see around you, and try to see the positivity. It’s the same with social media. You can make the choice to see it as a place where many people are able to express themselves, and because of that many things aren’t hidden under the carpet, or silenced any longer. People become creators, they gain a voice and that’s positive.
Magdalena said many times that when someone shares intimate and delicate things on social media, then the audience has a responsibility for how they react. On too many occasions we see that people have not yet learned that responsibility, and we find a cruel pleasure in disconnecting and being cold towards it.
I’m a passive observer on social media. I very rarely post, but I try to think about the responsibility I have towards the people who post a lot because that’s why I watch them.