"I'm not exactly known for being funny," Mikala Krogh says self-deprecatingly but also with a good dose of humour. She's right. Krogh was never known for her stockpile of dirty jokes but for her aura of seriousness. A quick glance at the themes of her films confirms it: a man looking for the answer to who killed his grandfather in World War II ("My Grandad's Murderer", co-directed with Søren Fauli), a drug addict and prostitute keeping a video journal of her life in "Beth's Diary" (co-directed with Kent Klich), and now, in her new film "A Normal Life", a mother trying to maintain a normal life with a daughter who has had cancer since she was two.
"Having a child who is so sick that you're afraid of losing her – that's tough. I think it's immensely admirable to insist that that child also do dishes and homework and be a part of the family."
"I'm one of those serious people. People always told me that. Also, it's hard to do a funny documentary," Krogh says. For 20 years and counting she has managed to look like a mature, serious-minded woman. Humour may not be her core competency, but the 39-year-old filmmaker has no doubts about her true skill set.
"Nuanced depictions of people. I keep working with my characters until I understand their complexity," she says.
Overnight stays at the hospital
Nothing illustrates that better than her new film, "A Normal Life", an almost unbearably painful account of a mother trying to maintain a normal life for herself and her family while struggling to save the life of her 12-year-old daughter who has cancer.
"I spend an enormous amount of time with the people I film. And I thoroughly prepare before I start filming, so they know me really, really well. I spend a lot of time visiting them and talking with them, listening to what their everyday life is like, what they are interested in, playing with the little kids, if there are little kids," she says.
Krogh's current method is an about-turn from her background as a reporter for the Danish national radio DR in the late 1980s. Even though the youth station she worked for made a virtue of spending lots of time talking with young people about their problems, she was still practicing journalism with short deadlines, often from one day to the next. When she started in the National Film School of Denmark's documentary programme in 1997, she completed her first assignment by shooting during the day and editing the footage at night.
But that's not how the documentary world works. Now a seasoned documentarian, Krogh tells me how she would stay overnight at the hospital with Cecilie, the girl with cancer.
Of course it takes time to document what happens in a small family with a young daughter who has cancer. Sticking a microphone in the mother's face and getting her to say how tough everything is would be easy. But documenting how hard things are, trying to capture the family's life and convey it to an audience, that's a different, and much more time-intensive, story.
A mother's struggle
"A Normal Life" is not really about Cecilie, the 12-year-old girl with cancer, or her healthy twin sister, but about their mother, Stine, who tries to make the family's routines run smoothly, even as her daughter teeters between life and death. The film shows Stine scolding her spindly, hairless daughter, just back from a harrowing bone-marrow transplantation, because she won't do dishes or homework. It's heartbreaking, incomprehensibly hard, even. But there's a point to it, the filmmaker says.
"'A Normal Life' is a film about how important it is to maintain a normal life, even in a state of emergency. Having a child who is so sick that you're afraid of losing her – that's tough. I think it's immensely admirable to insist that that child also do dishes and homework and be a part of the family, because they believe in life. The film is about handling a crisis," Krogh says.
"A major challenge of 'A Normal Life' is that Stine is such a complex character. She is enormously loving, but she also has a very short fuse and she's a very honest person. She has many facets, which makes her a super interesting central character. But you have to be careful not to tip the scales and make her look like a hard mother, for instance."
So, what we get in "A Normal Life" is insistent seriousness and a real desire to penetrate as deeply as possible into the material. Any documentarian might say this about her films, of course, but very few can muster the same arch-Scandinavian, Strindbergian gravity as Krogh. Where does this seriousness come from?
All this seriousness
"I always invest a huge part of myself in the films I make and I always deal with themes I can relate to. I have twins myself, and I'm very involved in what it feels like to share your love equally between two identical children. That's a conflict I never thought about before I had twins. "A Normal Life" takes that conflict to an extreme, because one twin is in a hospital isolation ward, while the other is at home and about to come out as a teenager. I know this kind of conflict inside and out. I think the mother of these two girls could feel that I recognised her and understood her conflict, that I delved into the details of her conflict instead of just thinking, 'Oh my god, a cancer kid is such a great story.'"
"Everyone has themes in their life that can lead to a documentary. In "My Grandad's Murderer", I empathised with Søren Fauli's trauma (his grandfather was liquidated in World War II – ed.), because I'm Jewish and World War II has been extremely important in my life. My mother was born in Stockholm in 1943 and escaping from the Nazis has cast a shadow over my family."
In Krogh's next film, the personal angle is her father's job as editor-in-chief of the serious (naturally) daily Information.
"I grew up with the paper and the whole discussion of the journalist's role," Krogh says. She will spend the next couple of years shooting in the editorial offices of Ekstra Bladet, a Danish tabloid that, she says, "goes right to the line" in its journalism. Others would claim that the paper goes way over the line, but that only makes it a more interesting subject.
"Just as Andrew Rossi's 'Page One' depicted life at The New York Times, I think it's important to do a nuanced film about a Danish newspaper's offices and get a look into a world that has rarely been seen in a documentary," Krogh says.