When I was 9, my cousin Laura and I were brought onto the set of my mother Susanne Bier’s film The One and Only (1999) as extras. It was for the film’s last sequence, a wedding, and while I don’t remember a whole lot from that day, I do remember the bit we were shooting from the photos. My cousin and I, along with two other kids, had to dance around in our little suits and dresses to the same 28 seconds of music, over and over. And, we were told, it was important that we seemed be having a lot of fun. Each time.
Needless to say, being 9 years old, we got very bored, very quickly. I recall looking around at the adults in the scene, both actors and extras, and thinking how good they were at looking like they were having fun, and how much better they were at playing this very elaborate game of pretend. More than that, though, I remember looking at my mum and her crew, hard at work; no dancing for them; in fact, they hardly smiled, let alone laughed. And yet, watching them, especially my mum, being so focused and dedicated and engaged with solving problems way beyond my comprehension, made an enormous impression on me. I remember thinking that it seemed like that was where the real party was at; that they were the ones having the real fun; and that that was why we were there.
Filmmaking is a hectic and tricky lifestyle – not just for filmmakers themselves, but for their families, too. Both my parents make films, as do about 80% of the adults I knew growing up. So throughout my childhood, I watched my mum and dad – who divorced shortly after I was born, each re-partnering and having more kids – and their friends and colleagues juggle increasing workloads with expanding personal responsibilities. And watching that difficult, delicate balancing act – an act centred largely around myself and my four half-siblings – teaches you a lot about what makes a good parent. A good parent is, obviously, loving and attentive, no matter how busy his or her schedule may be. A good parent draws on the people around them to create a warm and wide network of loving friends and family members, who will help care for and listen to their children.
More than anything, though: a good parent is someone who does what he or she loves.
Growing up on sets and in editing suites, I got to witness my parents dedicate themselves entirely to their craft. And by involving me in that dedication – by showing me films, taking me to work and answering all my questions – they demonstrated to me how there was no conflict between their work and their family, no priorities clashing. Rather, they were twinned purposes in life, each enriching, enhancing and engaging with the other. Their films were a part of our family, as we were a part of their filmmaking. That’s not to say that there haven’t been times in our lives when we’ve felt overlooked due to my parents’ work. It happens here, as with anything else; as is blinding obviously, parents are just people, flawed and messy, be they filmmakers or otherwise. And that can be frustrating as hell to a kid. Still, those frustrations were tempered by the knowledge that this, their art and their craft, was something that mattered a great deal – to them and to us. After all, their films were ours, too, not just theirs.
All of this is perhaps a long-winded, convoluted way of saying something overly simplistic: that a good parent is a happy parent, and a happy parent is a parent that does what he or she wants. Naturally, it’s not even remotely that straightforward. Filmmaking is a turbulent trade, with more than its fair share of cruel disappointment and unfair frustrations, and it doesn’t always seem reasonable to inflict that on yourself and your children, all over such an elaborate game of pretend. And even then, I’m still only speaking from my own experience, which may very well have been a far smoother ride than that of other filmmakers’ children.
Nonetheless, when I try to work out why I now too have chosen to pursue films, despite knowing intimately how uncertain and unpredictable a path that can be, I’m brought back to that strange, pretend-wedding. And when I now think back on my mum that day, I do so with the pride and awe that comes with knowing how hard-fought and well-earned the success that followed was – especially in an industry that was and remains so shamefully male-dominated, even somewhere as supposedly progressive as Denmark. But I also return to that thought I had when I watched her at work, doing what she loved:
That’s why we’re here.