A Bastard Child - interview with Director Knutte Wester
In 1909 in an undemocratic Sweden, a bastard child is born. Called Hervor, her mother is unmarried, and therefore labelled a ‘whore’ and driven from her home. Hervor grows up in shelters and orphanages, unwanted and rejected by society. When she becomes an adult, she fights for women’s rights and social justice for the thousands of children who were placed in similar situations as her. Artist Knutte Wester spends his childhood listening to his grandmother Hervor’s stories, which are much more vivid and true to real life than typical children’s stories. Wanting to put attention on his grandmother’s difficult life, Wester creates hundreds of watercolours based on the stories he heard as a kid and creates animations of how Swedish society deals with single mothers and children born out of wedlock in the early 20th century. Through his animations, Hervor becomes a pioneer of women’s rights, and her story serves not only as a reminder of the mechanisms of social control, oppression and rejection, but also a testimony to the possibility of change within society. These beautifully made watercolours are powerful and full of personal story, and in an age where Sweden is seen as a model country, these stories serve as a reminder of this very dark past.
Knutte Wester creating A BASTARD CHILD
Why did you want to make a documentary about your grandmother’s story?
Through her story, I wanted to be able to represent what happened in Sweden one hundred years ago. I didn’t want to create a documentary that would simply be a demonstration or argument about the changing world; it felt too difficult to portray on screen. Rather, I wanted to tell her personal story and perhaps through that represent contemporary Swedish society compared to how it was when she was a child. I wanted to highlight or perhaps question how we define our paths or decisions, and how we see our own society.
Was what happened to your grandmother common in Sweden at the time?
It was a common occurrence but it has not been talked about that much. It still happens in other parts of the world, and Sweden can be very quick to point the finger and judge other countries for their actions, as though the country has completely forgotten what happened here one hundred years ago. I thought maybe this film could highlight these changes and how we moved away from a society where these things happened.
When this film screens, people come up to me and tell me there’s a similar story in their family with either their grandmother or mother. I have heard so many stories, and they all share this common theme. However, what makes my grandmother’s stand out is that she told her story. The people who come up to me and explain their family’s story know this happened but no one has spoken out about it.
Also, her story seems to be common not just in Sweden but around the world. At the premiere there was a woman from Japan who had a very emotional experience watching the documentary because she felt it could just as well have happened in Japan; the shame associated dealing with honour and the rejection from society. She felt as though the film was about contemporary Japan and not about something that happened one hundred years ago on the other side of the world. I thought that was very beautiful. When this film was selected for Hot Docs in the World Showcase section, I knew my grandmothers story would mean more than just words.
How did creating this documentary change your opinion of your grandmother?
I’ve heard these stories since I was a kid, but making this documentary has made her even more of a hero to me. My opinion of her hasn’t changed, but it’s grown. I realised that her message had potential for others.
The documentary is made using hundreds of paintings. Why did you choose this artistic method over a conventional documentary?
When I was in art school I was an exchange student in South Africa. This was in the year 2000, so five years after the collapse of apartheid. Everyone in the country, even the art students at my school, was dealing with the country’s history and trying to rewrite the falsities that the government had created. This made me think about my grandmother; maybe she was trying to tell me this to rewrite Sweden’s history.
When I got back to Sweden I tried to make a conventional film about her. However, when I started filming her talk about her childhood, it felt too much like she was giving a lecture. There was not the magic I felt I had when I was told these stories as a kid. It was many years later when I was working on another documentary that I came up with the artistic method of telling her story. I was creating a new film and needed to fill in some missing scenes. Rather than go out and shoot them, I painted some scenes to fill in the gaps. When people saw that documentary, they really identified with the characters in the paintings, more than they had with the protagonist in the real-life images. That made me realise that my grandmother’s story had to be told using painting.
When you show a person on screen telling a story, it’s hard to be imaginative or identify with that person. However, when you a listening to a person tell a story as there are paintings on screens, it allows you to be more creative and imaginative in the process. By creating this openness, the audience could think ‘what if this was you?’ ‘what if this was your child?’. In a way, it works like literature; you must read and then create these images in your head. But I feel the final product is much closer to my own experience of hearing these stories. When my grandmother told me these stories, I was a child and had to imagine what she was telling me. I had to create these images based on her words. So I felt like I achieved a stronger documentary through this process.
How many paintings did you do altogether?
Overall, there are around 780 paintings in the documentary. When I first started, I thought the documentary would only be fifteen minutes. But the story kept growing and growing. It’s probably a good thing I tricked myself into this project because if I had known the length was going to be an hour I never would’ve dared to start.
What does your family think of the documentary?
My father has been with me throughout the process. Once a year he’d look at the documentary and provide feedback, and in a way, I saw it as a way to prepare him for the finished product. I knew he’d be emotional about the final film, so by showing these snippets he grew into it. However, when he saw the film in the cinema he still had to drink a lot of water afterwards because he had cried so much. He realised that while he had heard these stories many times, he had never imagined them. There’s a scene in the film at a frozen lake where a mother wants to drown herself and her child. He had known the story, but he had subconsciously censored him as to not became too emotional about it. He knew it had happened, but he had never thought about what it would look like. He never wanted to see his mother in that way. It was very powerful having my family see the film, and I’m glad my grandmother’s story can touch so many people now. Or, as Toronto Hot Docs puts it;
“A Bastard Child is also a striking reminder that society always feels the need to create outcasts as a way of uniting its members.”