A Conversation With Petter Ringbom
(recorded on 2nd of april, 2015)
We took the opportunity to speak with Petter Ringbom, an accomplished documentary filmer with such titles as Spear and Shield and The Russian Winter on his CV, while he was staying at BAC. He´s participated in the residency at the Bergman Center, where he spent time researching and writing for his new film. When asked about the upcoming film he smiles;
Petter: It´s a fiction film inspired by a real event; a real premiss. It will be the first completely fictional feature film for me, I´ve done short films, but nothing like this. It´s inspired by a real issue, the Oinarö conflict here on Gotland. The title dosn´t really relate to Oinarö – it´s coincidentally a small town in Germany – so you can´t google it yet. The film is really in the early development stages. I´m in the process of writing the script.
I was here with Gotland Filmlabb to do research because it´s inspired by this ”premiss”, something that really happened here. I´ve met with people involved in this situation. It´s quite a heated issue – there are very strong opinions on both sides. Basiclly industry and jobs versus the enviroment and I think this kind of conflic is very universal, it´s a universal story that you actualluy find happening all over the world. Especially outside big cities, in the countryside – in New York it´s about fracking. Fracking is when you drill for natural gas and this process damages the enviroment but a lot of people want this because it will make them a lot of money. Enviromentalist groups and a lot of other people, myself included, are against it. It´s quite a devestating process. The issue of Oinarö is similar but personally, I´m not taking sides. I´m from here, i grew up here, so I can understand both trying to save the jobs that exist in that industry and the will to protect the forest.
So growing up here you have seen what happened when the big industries on Gotland shut down?
P: Yeah, exactly. It´s been happening over the last 20-30 years, when Ericsson shut down, when the army dissapered and the sugarbeet factory closed. Gotland, just like the rest of the [western] world is moving from an industrial society to a information society. Some people are able to adapt to that and some are not, they cling to the industries and jobs that no longer work in this new enviroment. You can´t keep digging for limestone on an island of this size for a very long time because eventually you´re going to run out of space and then your going to have issues. But we´re also talking about hundreds of potential jobs, and that´s also importnat, especially on northen Gotland where there is´nt a whole lot of jobs available. It´s a complicated issue. That´s what the film is inspired by, but the story is fictional; we´re not actually calling it Oinarö, there are no real names in the film.
Not ”based on a true story” then?
P: No, just inspired by something that did happen, something that I think is very universal and very interesting. But I want to heighten the drama of it for the film.
Then it must have been helpful to stay at the Bergman Residency – what did you think of it?
P: It´s a dramatic place! It was good for me to be able to stay so close to that terretory, so i could meet with the limestone people; I went and visited the quarries and the factories, and i went and talked to enviromentalist activists and they showed me around the forest, and I met the landowners who also could be affected. It was great to just be so close to the whole thing. But I´ve been pretty independent through the process, I had a very specific plan of what i wanted to do with my time here and it wasnt neccesarily about writing but about research and talking to people.
Did you find it inspiring?
P: Inspiring is not a word I would use for it [the Bergman center]; in some ways it is, there is a darkness to it – it might have something to do with the time of the year that I spent there. The weather´s been terrible, when you sit in that house and the wind is blowing and they waves are coming in and its raining, it´s kind of dark. And that can be inspiring in some ways, but it´s not necessarily pretty or inspiring in the traditional way.
You also do a lot of commersial work, besides your documentaries, which have a focus on social issues –how do you combine those sides of your creative carrear?
P: There is no strategy, necessarily – my background is the visual side of filmmaking, since I studied graphic arts at Cooper Union School of Art – the visual aspect is where Im most comfortable, and even my documentary work is very visually oriented. Especially the last one, Shield And Spear, is a very political film, but it is very much focused on the visuals, even if it´s about a broader art scene than just visual arts. People in the fashion industry hire me because of that, because of that quality, that i can do both political and pretty art. For me, the fashion bit is easy; it´s a visual palet cleanser and i don´t work so much with the concept as with the visuals. I´m presenting the fashion in the most interesting way. Every once in awhile it´s nice to do something that is just pretty. Earlier I also had a graphic design firm in New york, so that was my profession for some time before i left it four years ago – I left my firm, it still exists but I´m no longer involved with it, so I can make films full time.
When you have finished your script and started actually filming – are you going to return to film on Gotland?
P: I am, yes.
Are you going to hire local talent or do you bring people here?
P: It will be a mix – the film is going to be in English, I´m writing in English and it will be a Swedish-American co-production – there is funding coming from both the US and sweden, and the actors and the crew will be a mix. The crew will probably be mostly Swedish but I think the actors will be English-speaking, but not exclusively American. I dont know if I´ll use Gotlandic actors. Maybe. But we´re pretty far from staring the filming; I still have more work to do on the script and we still haven´t figured out all of the funding, we already have some funding in place, but we still have a bit left to go. We´re not going to film anything until 2016, at the earliest.
It´s always interesting for a small comunity when someone brings in a large scale production. As we were talking about the loss of jobs that came with the industries shutting down- if you bring a large-scale film production here that would mean a lot of job opportunities for people on the island.
P: Maybe, to be honest I dont know how large it will be. But it will certantly employ local film workers. I think Film på Gotland is especially engaged in trying to build an industry and trying to bring more productions here. They´re good at it! But up to this point its mostly commercials and tv-series, a lot of crim-drama; Gotlands-däckare. But there´s not a whole lot of feature film being shot on Gotland.
How is it to stay on Gotland after so much time in New York?
P: This is my second home, after New York. I´ve lived there for over 20 years, longer than i ever lived on Gotland. I´ve lived on Gotland for 15 years. But I spent my formative years here, from 5 to 20 years old, when a lot of the things that shape you happens. Childhood i essentially spent here. And this is where I´m from, and it always will be where I´m from. No matter how long i live in New York i will always be defined as Swedish, and from the island of Gotland. I carry that identity with me. But it´s fun for me to return here – I shot my last films in Russia for two and an half months straight, then in South Africa where I shot for two years, I went back and forth. This is nice because I can actually do a project in a place that i can call home. I guess in some ways, I´m an outsider, since i dont live here any more but I don´t feel as much of an outsider as I did in South Africa or Russia. I think whats nice is that i can have both and insider and outsider perspective.
Do you feel like you return to the specific social place that you occupied when you lived here? Or are you now an outsider amongst the people who have grown up here?
P: I think its both, actually. I have a lot of good friends here, people I´ve grown up with, some that have returned, others that never left. But I think that in some ways I was always an outsider, because I wasn´t born here, I was born in Stockholm. We moved here when i was five; I dont speak the accent, but i like being able to be both.
You can watch trailers and read about his upcoming work at his website; here