What do you look like when you cry? How does it look when your husband is so ill you can no longer recognise him? Or when you find out your wife doesn't love you anymore?
Most people wouldn't want strangers to see these kinds of private, emotional scenarios playing out in their lives. But that's what happened to Mette Line and Kristian Boserup after Kristian suffered a stroke and had to undergo extensive rehab, and they let documentary filmmaker Sine Skibsholt in to witness their lives at intimate range.
Operating the camera herself, Skibsholt was there during moments that most people would consider extremely private, even taboo.
The end result, "Who We Were," premiered in Denmark earlier in the year, and the director watched the film with Mette Line and Kristian at several screenings.
"It was very touching to see them sitting there, supporting each other in the theatre during the tough scenes where they knew they weren't all that likeable to the audience," she says.
WHO WE WERE. Sine Skibsholt practically started filming right away the first time she met Kristian and Mette Line. Photo: Sine Skibsholt
A Life of Its Own
Soon, a debate was raging on Facebook and the press about whether it's "okay to leave your brain-damaged spouse." The two protagonists made themselves available for interviews and were even filmed again for "where are they now" stories. Meanwhile, Skibsholt, on maternity leave, was watching her film live a life of its own, propelled by Mette Line and Kristian.
In her research, Skibsholt learned that loved ones feel enormously guilty when they get irritated, when they don't have the energy, can't recognise the person they are with – or maybe don't even like the person who is left.
"People with brain damage and their loved ones alike have been feeling very lonely and unable to explain their situation," she says. "The film makes them feel seen and heard."
Skibsholt is proud and delighted that the film will now be attracting a different kind of attention, being selected for IDFA, than it did after its domestic premiere.
"All the press and attention at the Danish release was directed at the film's theme. Which was great, of course. But as a filmmaker, what I would like to see is that the attention also focus on the film as a work," says Skibsholt, who graduated from Denmark's National Film School in 2011.
Picking the Brain
Skibsholt is from a family of dentists, doctors and nurses. At the dinner table, science issues often triggered discussion. A few years ago, she stumbled on a book about identity and the brain that made her very interested in what creates our identity.
The filmmaker started looking for couples where one partner had suffered a brain injury that affected his or her personality.
"I posted on a forum for caregivers of stroke survivors to hear what they thought about my idea," she says. "Mette Line wrote to me there, four months after it happened to her and Kristian. I went out and talked with her and practically started filming right away."
Skibsholt decided to do the filming herself, both because she likes photography and because it would be weird to include other people in the intimate space she was creating with Kristian and Mette Line.
"I became almost like a therapist for them. Now they had me to share everything with," Skibsholt says. "Sometimes, I'd come over without filming and did things like look after their kids. We couldn't have built up that kind of intimacy with other people around."
WHO WE WERE. Before his stroke Kristian worked with motion graphics. Photo: Sine Skibsholt
Who He Was
One of the biggest challenges of telling this story was that Skibsholt only knew Kristian as what he had become after the stroke.
Early in the film, Mette Line tells a friend that she's had to ask Kristian not to kiss her – it was too weird, because he had changed. But Kristian can kid around and he relates to his own situation in a reflective way. How could Skibsholt show that his personality had really changed?
"That was one of the challenges: showing what Mette Line has lost. That was tough," she says. "It's in the little nuances that are hard for others to see. That's why a lot of people who leave their brain-damaged partner are scorned."
Because Kristian is sweet, funny, high-functioning.
"But we don't know what he used to be like. I think he was really sharp. They kept each other on their toes. He pioneered a lot of things in animation – techniques, cameras, computers. After his stroke, he was milder, more sensitive," she says.
It was also important for Skibsholt to talk with Kristian off-camera.
"A lot of people lose the will to live after suffering brain damage. They can't come to terms with what they have lost," she says. "Maybe they lose their job, and their identity with it. Kristian, too, went through a huge crisis, and we talked a lot about it. He was an inventor, a pioneer in his field. How do you not feel worthless after losing all of that?" It was a sad situation for both Kristian and Mette Line.
"Seeing how much a person you love has lost is really hard. Your own bullshit has to take a backseat – the illness comes first," Skibsholt says, sighing.
"It touches me so much to talk about it, like it did when I shot the film. I sometimes cried while I was filming. It's tough for both of them, and it's tough for the kids. It's not black and white." It's a dance between yourself and your characters, as she calls it.
"I give a lot. That's how I work. Otherwise I couldn't expect to get as much back as I do" •
More about the film
"Who We Were" is directed by Sine Skibsholt and produced by Helle Faber for Made in Copenhagen with support from the Danish Film Institute. International sales are managed by LevelK. Find more about the film and filmmaker in factsheets right.