‘The Material in Itself Generates a Resistance’: MAI Interview with Maja Borg
by: Ingrid Ryberg , June 25, 2022
by: Ingrid Ryberg , June 25, 2022
Maja Borg is an artist and filmmaker based in Sweden. Working at the intersection between documentary, fiction and experimental film, their work often involves laborious analogue processes in explorations of societal norms and structures from a personal, queer, perspective. In the short MAN (2016), Borg stages a set of layered tableaux, impersonating masculinely coded figures while following their own bodily changes during pregnancy. The short includes hand-processed Super-8 images and stop-motion animations, along with a soundtrack built around the only remaining recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice. In the feature-length hybrid film Future My Love (2012), Borg sets out to understand capitalist economy by drawing parallels to personal experiences of love relationships. Their new feature-length documentary, Passion, combining 16mm and digital footage with a flamenco and Arvo Pärt-inspired original soundtrack by composer Katharina Nuttall, is a personal film about healing and belonging in the wake of a destructive relationship. Following Borg’s process of seeking to reclaim intimacy and re-establish boundaries by adopting rituals and play from both BDSM and Christianity, it tells the stories of queer BDSM practitioners in Berlin, Stockholm, and Barcelona, and illuminates similarities between BDSM and Christianity on emotional and spiritual levels. ‘This search for strategies to overcome trauma is the driving force of Passion. My hope is that this film can be part of the growing awareness on constructive and destructive use of power that started with the Me Too movement, in order to move beyond stigmas that oppress pleasure and provoke abusive behaviour,’ Borg themselves remarks on the subject of the film. A year after its international premier at CPH:DOX, and a week after its Swedish theatrical release, Ingrid Ryberg met with Maja Borg for a conversation about creative strategies and documentary ethics. They know each other from when they both participated in the Dirty Diaries project, a series of short feminist porn films, produced by Swedish filmmaker Mia Engberg (Belleville Baby, 2013, Lucky One, 2019) in 2009, and have worked together in the context of Ryberg’s documentary En armé av älskande (An Army of Lovers, 2018), on which Borg worked as a photographer.
Ingrid Ryberg (IR): There is one question, or a dynamic that I see in your filmmaking throughout, but things are really put at stake in Passion. There is this tension between control and loss of control thematically, but also in your methods as a filmmaker. You are free not to agree, but this is kind of a headline for this interview. All of my questions gravitate around this dynamic.
Maja Borg (MB): You are not posing ‘control and freedom,’ you are posing ‘control and the loss of control?’
IR: Yes, but we can talk about that! I am curious to hear if it is ‘freedom and control,’ or is it lack of control?
MB: Freedom is such a difficult word even to define, but I guess in terms of emotion it is relevant. Maybe not freedom, but liberation. There are totally times where there is this play on, but also this active use of, non-controllable processes both behind the camera and in front of it.
IR: In Passion, the starting point is to try to regain some control or sense of power after having experienced loss of control in a destructive relationship and being in the grip of someone else.
MB: Yes, but it is also having experienced control, and wanting less control: it is both. It is taking control back, but that is not necessarily the same as that sense of liberation. Maybe they are two different processes, I do not know.
IR: In relation to BDSM, such a dynamic is played out in terms of setting up an extremely controlled frame where you can give up control inside it—and maybe experience freedom?
MB: I think what is equally in the filmmaking process and in BDSM, which is also one of the main themes in Passion, is this paradox of creating limitations to experience something limitless, something unbound. Of course, in BDSM that is what you do with being able to let go or surrender within that framework, but also in religious ceremonies—they have a similar effect of creating a kind of emotional boundary around you. Within those you are safe to experience, for example, grief, or to evoke religious experiences. I think about it as a resistance. I also look for this resistance in the material. I like these analogue processes that I have some control over, but not complete control over. The material in itself generates a resistance, which creates something that I can respond to. If I have complete control over a process and use digital technology and technologies that are very controllable, then I am more limited. I am limited to my preconceived idea of what it can be, and I do not get to work intuitively. I do not get to listen and respond. I think that is a similarity.
IR: That is what I was thinking about, and I am curious when you say resistance. Because I also think about concepts like safer space or something that holds you—but you talk about resistance?
MB: Yes, but it is similar. It is still about… it is a much more positive way of talking about something that holds you than something that you actively resist, that you need to fight against. But this ‘fight’ can be something that opens you, like in BDSM, that these processes can become painful, but this pain takes you somewhere. There is almost a masochistic element to this filmmaking process. Like in MAN, when I did these flipbooks of hand-coloured stop-motion animations, they took days and days and days to create, sequences that were just a few seconds long. First, it is meditative to do one paper at a time and scan it, one paper at a time and then redo it and redo it, but after a while it becomes almost painful. Then you get to have some kind of physical experience, and that is when I think about it as a resistance. I do want to fight with it. I do want it to slightly hurt me, but within my consent, because it takes me, and also the image, somewhere new. I am still the one setting these parameters.
IR: Maybe you could say something more about this practice and the process with Passion specifically? How has this dynamic played out there?
MB: We actively looked for ways of ‘playing’ in the production and playing in the sense of: ‘we are creating frameworks and boundaries, we are superficially imposing them, imposing limits to have an experience within.’
IR: What would be an example?
MB: The whole research was conducted with me breaking bread and sharing wine with twelve different thinkers. They were from BDSM, or theology, or queer theory—and that was the whole research premise. Then we played with the number twelve all through the production, all through the edit; we are doing the distribution as twelve Sunday screenings leading up to Easter. It gives people energy, and it is easy to explain, and it becomes a bit of a game. It might sound like kind of trivial things, but it really helps to shape the production and make it: ‘this is what we are working within, after my twelve breakings of bread and sharings of wine, then I will move on from research.’ But also in terms of negotiating with the participants, especially those from the BDSM communities, it was very important that they held the control over their own practice. I was not directing any of their own practice, but we had to do a framework in space and time that they could practice within. I had some limits of things that I was not comfortable with happening in the space, and of course they negotiated limits between them. For example, with the two men it is very clearly in the image because it is a square on the ground within which they do their practice and into which the film team was not allowed to enter. So, the square on the ground is not just an aesthetic choice, but also the whole practical framework for the scene. We could all use stop words if there was a problem, but they needed—or the dominant needed—to have the control over the time and space within these limitations. Of course, this was negotiated with the submissive who then ultimately sat that frame. We could then light the square from the directions we wanted to shoot, and we decided on a timeframe and that was the framework for the scene. Then on top of that we put in another limitation, which was filming on film—and we did not have enough film because of budget limitations. A take then becomes very important, which gives everyone a different kind of focus. So those are a few examples of how we worked.
IR: These issues are related to risk. It is risky to use analogue film. When you yourself are in front of the camera in BDSM scenes, you put yourself at risk in some sense—but you are the director, so you also have control. When you were shooting that with DOP Patriez van der Wens behind the camera and you in front of the camera, it seems that in this situation there is an entangled dynamic of risks and vulnerabilities and…
IR: Control, trust, giving up control, right?
MB: Patriez is such a huge part of the process of making the film. I could trust her to shoot what was important when I could not be behind the camera with her. I was comfortable giving over that control, and not because I am a director who is very comfortable giving over control. I have very strong ideas about how I want the image to look, maybe because I work as a photographer myself. I think some directors are more happy to let the DOP create the visual world. Because I have an enormous trust in Patriez, I was able to do that and without that trust this would have been a very difficult process. I also needed trust on a personal level. Like, not just professionally: ‘she will get the images that we need from enough angles to be able to cut something with this limited amount of 16mm film.’ I needed to trust that I could let go within the scene and not be judged. That was sometimes very difficult. We were super minimal, sometimes sound was not even allowed in the space, sometimes it was just me and Patriez, but maximum three people on the team. There was one scene where I felt so incredibly exposed on a personal level in a way that was pushing my boundaries so much that I could not look at them. I could not look at the crew for an hour or something. I had to leave the space and take care of my very personal process in the middle of a film shoot that I was responsible for. So, that was tricky, but we talked a lot about it all the time, and of course we had to talk a lot before to know what we were looking for. We did not heavily storyboard it, but we focused on ‘what is the essence that we want to capture?’
IR: This is not the first time you have put yourself in front of the camera. You use your own experiences and you put your own body in the picture and use your orientation in the world as a process of exploring and understanding larger questions, even though it comes from this very personal place or specific experience. What are your thoughts about using yourself in films?
MB: I have kind of a love-hate relationship with that. Quite often in the beginning of different films, I am very sure that I will not be part of it. I am not very comfortable with cameras. It makes me quite stressed to know that I will have to be in front of the camera. Of course, I am exploring something inside of me, but quite often I use myself as an in-point into more general subjects, or larger subjects, and it has different reasons. It has one very practical reason: that I am always there. Sometimes that is very useful when you do a very long documentary process. If you need someone to be the personal ‘in,’ and if that someone is not you, then of course it is a very different process. So, it has a practical reason, but also political reasons about ownership of perspectives and things like that.
IR: What does that mean?
MB: I think it is something that should be talked about more in documentary filmmaking. This old documentary tradition, especially in the Western world where we go out in the world and harvest other people’s stories and cultures, and sometimes even their suffering, and then we go back home and profit from it: this I find very problematic. A way for me to very practically deal with it is to use my own entrance point, because that is the one I can own. I think there is a similarity with how in many of my films there is this dialogue between some kind of intellectual side of yourself and an emotional side of yourself, and you are in the middle.
IR: Can you give an example of that?
MB: Future My Love, for example, is really trying to understand world economy and alternatives—like, quite dryly, economic theories. It is incredibly fascinating, but it is also incredibly fascinating why we do not just leave the monetary system when there is pretty much consensus that it is totally destroying the planet. There are very high stakes to stay in this economic agreement, and it becomes about human emotion, and human power play—that experience you can also have on a personal level.
IR: In that film, what you do is to use your own love relationship…
MB: It is a very cobbled together love story, made up of many different experiences of relationships, to compare economy to relationships where we are connected to each other through emotion and we make choices based on these emotions, not just on ideas of the perfect relationship or the perfect economy. In Passion, what I wanted to explore was not my own healing process, but I wanted to explore BDSM, Christianity and power dynamics, and the questions that I had were more like, ‘why do we hurt people that we love?’ or, ‘how can we love people that hurt us?’
IR: There are these macro and micro levels in dialogue in your films, and there is this documentary approach to exploring the social and political world, power structures—and then you also have this experimental approach. I think this combination of traditions is interesting. Where do you see yourself in terms of influences from experimental film or documentary film?
MB: Of course, there is the experimental film tradition. It is something that I have gotten a lot of joy from, and also queer filmmakers: Barbara Hammer and Gunvor Nelson and Maya Deren. But it is not like I can draw clear lines. It is not like I have watched them and been like: ‘I want to make something like this!’ But of course, it is there in my—in kind of the mother’s milk from before. I think this combination of this more traditional documentary style—interviews and systems—is again creating structure and frameworks. At the same time that you can explore the structure through the personal, you are also exploring the personal through a bigger system, and it is not necessarily so that one is above the other. I think that is the case both in Future My Love and Passion.
IR: It has been a year since Passion had its international film festival premiere, and now it is in Swedish theatres. How has it been for you, the reception, and the opportunity to meet audiences?
MB: On an emotional level, I find the most difficult part of the process is from when you have locked the edit and finished the sound, to when you get to meet the audience—and this time, because of the pandemic, this period just kept getting longer and longer—because then, again, you have no more control.
IR: Right, you see where I am going.
MB: Yes. But you have all the room for doom-thinking. And then when it is received, at some point you can also let go. It is like you still have the responsibility for the film, but you do not have control over it, and this I find an incredibly difficult place to be in. The film got to meet some audiences, but I did not get to be there in the beginning. It premiered at CPH:DOX last spring, and the festival cancelled all physical events, so I could not be there. In the autumn, I started to go to some festivals, and then it was a different journey again because of the pandemic. It was not one of these things where I started with the biggest festivals, the biggest audiences. I did not have to follow that ‘A festival’ schedule. So, the first time I met an audience was in the Faroe Islands. It was a tiny screening, and a very particular community for this film—and a really beautiful screening, even though we were not many people, maybe like fifteen or something. Then I started to get to meet some audiences, and now we had the premiere in Stockholm, and the premiere in Stockholm was the first time I felt like: ‘ok, now I can let go a little bit.’
IR: How come?
MB: It is very important to share this experience with the contributors, and until the Stockholm premiere there were many contributors with whom I had not been watching the film in a cinema. Because that is my first line of responsibility, towards them, especially in Passion because it is not an easy film to be a participant in. Again, it is not easy for me either, but it is my film. I am in control. They have been so brave, and there has been so much trust, and especially since it has been a very long process, things change along the way. It is not like we did it and it was done. We needed to keep talking and take care of new things.
IR: What have been your main ethical concerns and strategies with the contributors?
MB: It was a lot about negotiations and trying to create more informed consent. I think I learned a lot along the way, and I think in my next film, I will have more strategies in place from the beginning. I mean, you are not very pushed from the documentary side to be very ethical towards your participants. I have many more times experienced pressure from funders to make things more sensational, and it can also be hard as a director—it is getting easier with the years—but, you know, to want to deliver. In this film, it was so important to not have any pressure, and that was very much part of the production. That is why I choose not to have some funders, like, I actively choose not to look for funding in places where we might have less control to give to our contributors.
IR: Like, what would that have been?
MB: It would have been a more commercial funder, for example, or a funder that would demand ownership of the rushes. Because it was very important that within the frameworks that we shot, the contributors still could say ‘this I want to use,’ and: ‘this I do not want to use.’ If you have rushes lying somewhere in a drawer at a big production company, and they have the rights to use it, that would not have been ethically sustainable. That was important, and it was also how I chose my producers. I started to produce it myself. Again, it sounds like I wanted all the control, but it was a lot about not having pressure to take control away from the contributors. I think this is one of the film’s producer, Stina Gardell’s really good skills. She has made enough documentaries to know that you need to put the ethics of the contributors first, because it is documentary, and you make films out of people’s lives. She really protected the contributors throughout the process, and if something needed to change, she didn’t make anyone feel bad, but focused on how to make that change happen. Strategies like this, but I think we would have needed even more. We developed strategies for checking consent more as we went along, and I really missed these strategies from the film community when I started. It is something I am doing my own research about now, like: ‘what can you develop to create better power relations in documentary, and how can you inform the consent more?’ Because it is really difficult to understand what it will feel like to release a film in five years, that you do not have any control over: it can pop up anywhere. The BDSM world really helped with that. I think it helped that a lot of the contributors were from a culture where negotiating and stating your boundaries is a good thing, not a bad thing. It also helped me, because I could give away a lot of power to the contributors, and they took care of the power, if that makes sense. It would not have helped if I had pushed them: it would have had the opposite effect. Them having the freedom to say ‘no,’ to change their mind, I think also made them more comfortable to let me in, and to share the things that they did feel comfortable about sharing. But yes, it is difficult, really difficult. And I do not know if you can make an ethically perfect documentary. To be honest, I do not know.
IR: Going back to what you said about losing control when the film is out there. I am interested in this also in comparison to our experience, my experience, with Dirty Diaries—how weird it was sometimes to come from a queer community invested in this principle of safer space and to see the film in a public context where this principle is not a thing. Was it always self-evident that Passion would be in theatres?
MB: No, I mean we talked about it. It is a film that is very much made for the cinema because there is so much in the sound, and it is so much experiential storytelling, which is not completely lost when you watch it on the laptop, but part of the storytelling layers is lost. So, that was clear from the beginning, and it was also clear that it was not a film just for the community. This we had to talk to the different communities about, because there is also then a level of taking kind of cultural capital from a community and putting it in the mainstream. There is arguably a level of gentrification in a film like this too because you take it into the cinema.
IR: So, how has it been so far?
MB: I have had enough meetings with the audience where, not the whole cinema, but one or two people in the cinema feel mirrored or seen in a way that they have not before. We talked before about when you have just put yourself out there and are suspended in space and have no idea where you are going to land. When I finally got to land in some of those meetings, then it is worth it for me, the film. Then a more general thing is that it seems like it makes people talk. There is so much talk. Some people want to go home and process, but it is nice to see that people are talking, and I think the bigger themes are relatable. I do not think you have to be interested in Christianity or BDSM to see them as parables to talk about the bigger themes of power and longing, and people seem to be thinking and talking about them. People feel a lot too. There have been very emotional screenings. There has been a lot of crying in the audience. When I get to meet the audience, I also get to learn, and I get to be less alone. I have now had enough of these experiences to not be in this place of being suspended anymore.
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