Capturing Emotional Honesty: An Interview With Magnus von Horn
default, Capturing Emotional Honesty:
An Interview With
Magnus von Horn, Magnus von Horn, photo: Rafał Guz / PAP, center, #000000, _rafal_guz_pap.jpg
‘Sweat’ is the second full-length film from director and screenwriter Magnus von Horn, born in Sweden but educated and currently living in Poland.
Had it not been for the pandemic, it would have been screened at the Cannes Film Festival – the event was cancelled, but the films selected for the programme still received the official ‘Cannes Label’ quality seal. Some of them, including von Horn’s film, were shown at the Marché du Film market (which took place online this year), where new titles are watched and selected by festival distributors as well as festival selectors from around the world.
In his previous films – The Here After (also shown at Cannes), the short film Echo and the script of Promise, directed by Anna Kazejak – von Horn was interested in the subject of evil showing up in young people and then one day erupting with full force. In his new film, he changes both the subject and the aesthetics – the greys and blues dominant in the previous films change to a sharp pink. It is the favourite colour of Sylwia – the heroine of Sweat – a fitness trainer and influencer, famous in the world of social media.
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We observe three days in the life of Sylwia – we watch as she does her workout routines with her fans, as she takes photos and creates videos, promotes products, appears on morning TV and visits her mum. We also watch her confront the dark side of fame: her stalker.
The main role is played by the wonderful Magdalena Koleśnik, in the remaining roles, we have the pleasure of seeing Aleksandra Konieczna, Julian Świeżewski, and Zbigniew Zamachowski. The cinematographer is Michał Dymek, and the producer is Mariusz Włodarski from Lava Films. In Poland, the release date of Sweat is still unknown and also depends on which international festival will show the film.
Ola Sawa (OS): How many followers do you have on Instagram?
Magnus von Horn (MvH): I have 665, but my profile is private.
OS: Not many compared to Sylwia, the heroine of your film ‘Sweat’.
MvH: Three zeros less at the end.
OS: Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be followed by more than 600,000 people?
MvH: When it comes to social media, I prefer to be the observer rather than the observed. When I was writing the script for Sweat, I was primarily wondering about the personality of people who can spontaneously share their everyday lives. I envy them a bit, because I’m not able to do it myself. They fascinate me.
OS: When did it occur to you that an influencer could actually be the heroine of your next film?
MvH: Four years ago, I saw a fitness coach on Snapchat, which is now pretty much forgotten, with the more important channel being Instagram. Really, I couldn’t understand how this was possible – I found it all rather provocative – to have so many followers and to be constantly showing them such trivial content, for example, 20 videos with your dog, all in one day. I also noticed that after a hundred of such trivial videos, something more serious would suddenly appear, an emotional confession, which would disappear just as quickly as it appeared. I wanted to know what this woman was like ‘behind the scenes’ – when she wasn’t posting anything.
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OS: Did you end up meeting that coach, or another one, to find out?
MvH: I never wanted to meet with them for longer, because I didn’t want to create a character based on a real person. What became more important for me was how I imagined these people to be, as well as the image their followers have of them in their minds. In the film Sweat, I show three days in the life of Sylwia, and I do it quite objectively. I’m not hinting to the viewers what they should think about her, but in a way – and it sounds like a contradiction – that’s exactly what I’m doing. I would like the viewers not to know what to think of the heroine. And in this way, they could see for themselves the feelings she evokes in them.
In the end, I met with a few female coaches during preparations for the film, but only to learn objective things – for example, what it’s like to work with sponsors of the products they show in their videos.
OS: For some, being present on social media is their job: they spend many hours on it every day and make a living from it. Can anyone do it?
MvH: To be good at it, as with everything else, you’ve got to have talent and a certain naturalness. From what I’ve noticed, the most successful influencers don’t think of their work as business. I have been following this phenomenon for four years, and I can see how these coaches – most of them in Poland are women – are developing. I am not referring here to Ewa Chodakowska, because she’s on a different level, but about something more modest. They really live it. I wonder what they would be doing with their lives if they didn’t have social media accounts.
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OS: Maybe films? After all, their photos and videos create a narrative.
MvH: Even though they make videos, their activity should probably more accurately be compared to a reality show. But it is actually more interesting than the one broadcast on TV, because it’s more authentic. Motivators are also really good at attracting and keeping their followers. Anyway, the whole art – including the videos – is about knowing your audience, knowing how to reach their hearts.
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Still from 'Sweat', directed by Magnus von Horn, 2020, pictured: Magdalena Koleśnik, photo: Natalia Łączyńska
OS: Did Magdalena Koleśnik, who played Sylwia, spend more time preparing for the role physically, like exercising, or on learning how to use Instagram?
MvH: Before she landed the role in Sweat, she didn’t have an Instagram account nor did she go to the gym, only yoga. She was the first actress who came to the casting about whom I immediately thought could play the role. But there is a rule, though I don’t know why, that you can’t take the first person, you have to keep looking.
Magda has depth and emotional candour, and also her appearance really fit the character; and this was the contrast I wanted – in a world full of pink clothes, shopping malls and the couches of breakfast television, I wanted to capture emotional honesty. For a year, she trained four times a week, was on a specially catered box diet, and took supplements. It required a lot of dedication from her, also because at the same time she was performing at the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw on top of other activities. She also practiced navigating the world of social media, and it took her a while to get more natural at it. I was telling her which accounts of female trainers she should follow, and we also talked about them a lot.
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OS: Did you send her to trainings with fitness coaches?
MvH: We went to some of them together. I understood why people go to these types of meetings – they give a sense of community, emotions and adrenaline. This is not limited to in-person trainings, which are really rare, because most happen on social media, for example on Instagram.
OS: Actually, why fitness? After all, you could have changed the heroine’s specialisation to anything, since you didn’t care about following a specific person. Influencers today cover every aspect of life – from food to fashion to music.
MvH: Four years ago, there weren’t that many influencers yet; the term didn’t exist at all. These girls were called ‘fitness coaches’. I was fascinated by the subject of body worship – the body becoming something like a showpiece as well as a commodity.
Although the coaches keep saying: ‘Accept yourself’, there is also a second, hidden message: ‘Look at my body, which you will never have’. Well, I mean, how are these women supposed to achieve that? Their idol works out seven days a week and does only that – while they have a job, a house, other responsibilities. Moreover, if they all started to look the same, the work of the trainer would be become obsolete.
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The world of fitness is controversial also because, on the one hand, it benefits from the demand for feminism, but still cultivates the male gaze. Women, who constitute the majority of the audience, share the slogan ‘Accept yourself, be proud of yourself’, but at the same time, they dream of a perfect figure, in order to be adored.
OS: Speaking of gazes, when the eyes of her observers stop looking at Sylwia, one can see her loneliness. She lives alone in a beautiful flat, and her only companion is a dog. In one of the first scenes of ‘Sweat’, she uploads a video to Instagram in which she tearfully admits that she would like to find love. The recording becomes a hit.
MvH: I don’t know if she would be able to live with anyone. Besides, I also wonder whether her viral posts are real or fake. She’s not acting, her emotions are real, but does she really want a boyfriend? She seems to be happy with her life. Actually, her biggest tragedy would be not having a phone and access to social media rather than not having a partner.
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Sylwia created her own online world, but it’s not really that different from her real life – she doesn’t run away from anything. Rather, she is looking for how she can reconcile these two realities – how she can be genuine online and offline.
Interview conducted in Polish by Ola Sawa, translated by Agnes Dudek, Jul 2020