“Authenticity is More Important than Anything Else”: Maria Fredriksson on Tribeca 2023 Premiere The Gullspång Miracle
Maria Fredriksson’s astonishing feature debut The Gullspång Miracle isn’t just stranger than fiction—it’s batshit insane. In the broadest of outlines, the doc stars two devoutly religious Norwegian sisters, Kari and May. May visits Kari in Gullspång, Sweden, where Kari now lives. They go to an amusement park where they take a ride inside a fake whale. May finds herself stuck in Sweden for many months, so the two decide to go shopping for an apartment, and end up buying one based on a divine sign they witness there. At the closing, they meet the seller Olaug (formerly known as Lita), a woman who looks identical to the older sister (who also used to go by Lita) that committed suicide three decades before. And that’s when things get really bizarre. So they do what any diligent Scandinavians would do, I suppose—reach out to a documentary filmmaker.
Which was likewise my compulsion, especially after realizing that this head-spinning yarn of a tale would not have unfolded (unraveled? gone off the rails?) at all had it not been for the presence of Fredriksson’s camera—a fact she makes unflinchingly transparent. So to learn all about collaborating with characters whose “desire to define their own truths becomes more important than knowing what is really true” (as Fredriksson claims in the press notes), Filmmaker caught up with the talented Swede just prior to the film’s Tribeca premiere.
Filmmaker: We learn early on that the film originated quite unusually with a phone call from one of the sisters pitching their strange tale. Were you the first documentarian they contacted? Do you know why they chose you?
Fredriksson: As the sisters told people about the miracle they had experienced, someone said, “This sounds like a movie, you should contact TV.” Which they did!
They called the documentary department at SVT, the national public television broadcaster in Sweden, and said they had a story. I have made several films about elderly women for SVT (you could say I’m a bit of an auntie filmmaker in Sweden), so SVT believed I might take interest in these ladies and gave them my number. That’s how I got that phone call. The sisters’ initial intention was not to become subjects themselves; they just wanted to share what they perceived as a miracle from God.
Filmmaker: I think this is the only documentary I’ve seen in which there’s a sort of manipulation symbiosis—we see you both staging recreations with the characters, but also becoming exasperated by the sneaking suspicion that you might be getting played by one (or more) of them. Everyone seems to be an unreliable narrator. So why was it important to present this absence of full trust, an element usually considered key to nonfiction filmmaking?
Fredriksson: At first, I had to find a way to tell the story of this perceived miracle. I knew from the start that I didn’t want to do dramatized reconstructions; I think those tend to ruin the sense of authenticity, which of course is a key in documentary filmmaking.
Instead I asked the sisters to show it to me as if it were a crime scene investigation: Where were you when it happened? Where did you go next? Who said what, was standing where, etc.? A “technical breakdown” of the divine signs. When someone is telling you something that strange, I think the transparency of the scene helps the audience understand the sisters as characters, and also understand their experience.
Later, when the story takes an unexpected turn, of course I could have chosen not to present this “absence of full trust,” but I think that transparency is needed at that point in the film. Also, a “voice of reason” is needed, someone who is asking the questions the viewer could possibly have. I had to be that.
In addition, in a documentary film with this amount of unexpected twists and turns, I think authenticity is more important than anything else. Because it’s almost unbelievable what’s happening, right? And what is more authentic than showing just those elements you would normally cut out?
Filmmaker: This is also one of the few films that leaves everyone involved—from filmmaker, to characters, to audience—with more questions than answers. Was it a struggle to decide which threads to pursue to the end and which to leave hanging?
Fredriksson: Yes! I thought we were done filming ages ago, but strangely enough, there’s always a new turn in this story. New questions. More questions! So we just kept on going, following the events and trying to find answers.
It has been a lot of digging and sleepless nights. At one frustrating point I felt I had a responsibility towards the audience to find and present answers to every question out there. I got very involved in the story, you could say. But then I realized that I as a filmmaker shouldn’t pursue anything at all, if the people I’m filming suddenly decide they are better off not getting the black and white truth. It would be crossing an ethical line if I continued to seek answers when they did not want to know more, just because I wanted to know.
For me, this film is very much about choosing/defining your own truth based on who you are, or what you can bear. And with some threads hanging in the end (yes, I might have a few answers not told), the audience also gets the opportunity to choose what to believe in.
Filmmaker: The ending of the film is rather ambiguous. Is there a sequel or docu-series (or even a narrative version) in the works?
Fredriksson: There is actually a miniseries in the works, and the sisters and the rest of the family have asked me to follow up on some new threads to make a sequel. So we’ll see. (And I would love it if someone wanted to make a narrative version!)
Filmmaker: How do all the characters feel about the final film?
Fredriksson: They are all very proud of the film and can’t wait until the theatrical release when they can finally share it on the big screen with friends and family. They all think it’s a fair and truthful depiction of them as people, and of what happened to them.