Interview with Susanne Heinrich, director of Aren't You Happy - Raindance

The director of our closing night film, Susanne Heinrich, chats to us about what it’s like to have her first feature film Aren’t You Happy? as Closing Night Film for the 27th Raindance Film Festival.


This is a fantastic debut film. Congratulations! Could you tell us how the idea for your first feature came about?

Thank you. I didn’t have this one idea. I have wanted to find a language for the discomfort I felt in society for a long time. People kept talking about the great freedom that reigned here in the western liberal societies – but I just didn’t feel it. I had my first marriage and my career as a writer behind me and felt blocked, disconnected, paralysed. I was diagnosed with depression – like so many other young women around me. At about the same time, I got involved in student’s protests at my university against the neoliberalisation of our film school, started reading theory and felt the urge to get engaged with feminism after a seminar on the unequal opportunities in film business and the frightening reaction of female students to these facts („Maybe we just have to make better movies“). Reading about us being „entrepreneurs of our self“ in „emotional capitalism“ made sense of my feeling of non-agency and fatigue. Stumbling across a queer theorist that tried to write about the social and political dimensions of depression instead of regarding it as a private issue, a personal failure or a „disease as every other“ that can be cured with medicine, made me shiver of excitement. I would frame this phase as the time I learned to recognise structures and systematics. Strangely enough, it didn’t solely lead to desperation. Quite the contrary: I no longer saw the oh-so-individual stories. Instead, things took on a model-like, serial and comparable form. With this perspective came humour. At a certain point it suddenly was there, the voice I had been looking for for years, and I was able to write the script within a few days.

In the film you talk about gender, social roles, feminism in a very ironic and absurd way giving the audience your judgement on these matters. Can you outline the message you are conveying to the viewers?

If I would have wanted to convey a simple message, I would have written a pamphlet. I’m quite hesitant towards an understanding of art, where the artistic medium is supposed to carry a message. And at the same time I’m a priest’s daughter and the film is probably quite didactic and full of convictions. Maybe a few small hints: A large part of the statement is in the form. At a time when half of all films look as if they could have been produced by bots, when there seems to be no alternative to narrativity and psychologisation and when politics merely appear as content, form criticism is more important than ever. And perhaps the film makes a few things addressable that are not (any longer) addressed by a forgetful contemporary pop feminism that mostly deals with everyday sexism and linguistic deconstruction.

How difficult was it to make a first film as a female director nowadays? Do you think it is getting easier for female directors or is it still a struggle – bigger than a struggle a debut male director would have to go through?

The first movie is not the problem. Anyone who studies at a film school can make a graduation film. It gets harder later. The statistics show that 80% of the key positions in the film industry are still occupied by men. There are numerous reasons for this, including the fact that the film business is still strongly organised trough affiliations between men, and that the working conditions are unfriendly to families. It is absurd that in 2019, for the first time in Germany, childcare on the set can be charged as production costs and that not a single film festival offers childcare or additional flights for small children and caregivers. It is clear who will suffer structurally as a result. This is also the case in other cultural industries: It is not those who make the best art who survive, but those who are best able to adapt to the demands of the lifestyle. Most of them are, of course, men, because they have different resources and less responsibility in care relationships. Equally interesting is the question of why women’s films win fewer prizes and, according to statistics, enjoy less public trust. I find it rather depressing that millions are still pumped into films that span bombastic, sentimental narratives about the ageing of neurotic, privileged white males, but I can hardly imagine that a fragmentary film about the daily struggles of a single mother is celebrated as great cinema. I find the question interesting whether there are certain aesthetics of capitalist patriarchy that render other cinematic forms and topics subaltern or peripheric. For me, the current hype of films and series that address pop feminist discourses in content but are highly problematic in regards to form is part of the problem.

Could you tell us a bit of your method of working with actors and directing them to achieve the hilarious yet dramatic deadpan performances in Aren’t You Happy?

We took a lot of time to rehearse. This is unusual in film-making, because this is where money is saved. One of the advantages of a student production, where everyone who gets involved knows that there is no money and has other reasons to participate. We have worked with poetry recitations and an exact choreography. It was important that I used a mechanical vocabulary, to not invite the actors to produce affects. So not: “Be sad”, but “Lean your head 45 degrees”. A leitmotif for us was this sentence by Brecht: “Instead of wanting to create the impression that he is improvising, the actor should rather show what the truth is: he quotes.”
Which filmmakers are you inspired by and you think influenced your pronounced style?

I don’t know for sure. I take in all sorts of things, but I can’t say where that will continue to have an effect. Of course I love Godard’s films, but I also love Jacques Demy. I especially love the films of the new women’s movement, Uli Stöckl and Helke Sander, and so many others. Farocki, Straub-Huillet, but also Chantal Ackerman. But even if the aesthetics of the melancholic girl are comparable in the end, they are not oriented towards role models, but are developed strictly from the text. For example, we took this sentence: “If this were a film …”, and considered how we could make the breaking of the 4th wall clear on all levels of the film. So we let her look straight into the camera and address the audience, for instance. The sets we designed anti-naturalistic, not like authentic inhabited environments but rather like artificial theme rooms. On the sound level we dubbed everything and worked with a foley artist. When a character leaves the frame, you don’t hear her steps continuing endlessly. Instead, you hear an actress going three more steps and stopping close to the camera. We wanted to produce the feeling that the filmic world does not continue outside of the frame. By that, we establish a distance between the audience and the screen that enables a critical way of watching and relating to the shown situations in different ways than in classical narrative film.

Is there a plan for a second film?

Oh, yeah. But I’m not talking about it yet so as not to raise expectations. Just this much: I will devote myself even more to the form of the musical film.
Book your ticket for Aren’t You Happy? followed by a Q&A with Susanne Heinrich and our Closing Night after party.


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