Undress Me (Ta av mig), and an interview with director Victor Lindgren

There's a subtle power play embedded in Victor Lindgren's Undress Me (Swedish: Ta av mig) that easily gets under your skin without your realizing it, until afterward. The title alone carries with it a tempting deception: who is the "me" being undressed? Well, it's the woman in the film, and the male visitor to her apartment, and cleverly enough, you.

Don't worry. I won't tell.

This 15-minute short reveals the essences of two lives while barely presenting much explicit information about the people involved. The guy doesn't even have a name. They meet at a party, and despite his figuring out quite early on that Mikaela is transgender, he still wants to go home with her. His questions about her body and her life are forward, and sometimes downright rude. Mikaela is stoic, reticent, but there's a layer behind that which is almost cat like; there's a stalking curiosity to match the guy's, only her curiosity seems to be a frustrated one. Through his own questions and comments, the guy reveals his own insecurities and quirks. A self-aware viewer will find their own "clothes" being removed while watching. Your interpretation, your fixed feelings on sexuality and the human body, will be re-exposed to your mind in an interesting way. And although the couple's anti-climactic interest in each other is sad, it's actually kind of refreshing. It's an intelligent arc on what would have otherwise been a predictably tragic story.

I wanted to talk about this. So I had a chat with Victor.

CR: Can you give me some background on the project itself and how you developed the story? This is not your "average transgender movie" that focuses on the struggle of the transgendered person to be accepted or loved, but it looks at a whole other side of the experience.

VL: Jana [who plays Mikaela in the film] thought it would be interesting to tell the story from the guy's point of view, because she thought he was the one that was the most interesting in the script. But I didn't think so; I thought that Mikaela of course was the main character, and I wanted to tell the story through her and through her eyes. I didn't want it to be about her as a victim or something tragic. We wanted to tell it straightforward, and not tell the audience so much what they should think. Mikaela didn't think he was so rude when it happened, but afterward she started to think about the situation and why, and whether it was a good thing or if he was rude or not. But in the moment, she doesn't think of him as that rude or insensitive. she thought it was interesting to meet someone who was honest and straightforward. Maybe because he's naive or maybe because he's drunk, he doesn't have a problem asking all those questions, which makes him or the situation pretty interesting. When she tells him that she's had a sex change, he stops treating her as a woman that he found attractive at the bar, and he starts to treat her like more of an object. Actually, the film starts from there, when he starts to try to discover her, and stops treating her as an attractive female and more as something else.

CR: Yes, it was intriguing to see that disconnect there but also how it fueled his interest. I felt that by the end the film it also became largely about his own insecurities and sexuality; he kept asking her what she thought of his body when he was naked, tells her that he knew she was transgender from the bar because she was too tall and her voice was too deep, and he wonders that if he has sex with her does that make him gay. So he exposes himself much more than she does, I think.

VL: That's a good point in the story as well because he becomes the strange one. She is the normal one, she's the one we emotionally identify with. He's the one that becomes the goofy one. So it's essentially an attempt to switch the norms.

CR: How comfortable was it for you and the actors to make the film? There are some scenes, especially where Mikaela and the guy are exposing their bodies to each other, that are so intimate and also so intrusive. Was it ever really uncomfortable for any of you on the set?

VL: Well, we basically got thrown into the whole thing. Winter was almost over, we didn't get all the funding we expected, and we had some changes in personnel, so we ended up just rehearsing for a day and a half! And then started shooting. And you can see it in Jana's eyes that she's a bit insecure at times, and that was good, we could use it, since we didn't have time to rehearse. She's not a professional actress, this is her first role on film. So maybe it was a good thing to do it the way she did and not teach her how to play a role. It was tense, and it was difficult the first time that he was going to show his dick, but you know. We just did it. If we had talked more about it or rehearsed for 5 days and then we started with the naked stuff, maybe it would have been more of a thing. [laughs] But we just did it, got it over with. And after you've seen a person naked one time -- the magic is gone.

CR: What have the reactions been so far at the screenings and other audiences who've seen it?

VL: It's been really great. And it's been wonderful to get validation from the LGBTQ movement as well. And we have a larger audience. Many of the screenings have sold out, and at the Berlinale people were talking about it. People found it really interesting -- it's not the victim story, it is trying to be true and human, and not offering the transgender = victim thing. It's naked and it's raw. When people see it they kind of get shocked, it's so straightforward and it goes very fast. And many people go, what just happened? So many transgender stories tell the story before the completed sex change, there's not many that cover the life afterward.

CR: That focus on a process of things, an arc, shows a lot in your work. As a director you zero in on a lot of pivotal moments that basically show the wholeness of a process and the evolution of a life, of people growing up, essentially. What made you go into directing and tell the kinds of stories you do?

VL: I'm very much of a doer, not much of a reader -- maybe not much of a thinker -- but I'm definitely a doer. I'd tried acting, I tried music, but I couldn't play any instruments. And I tried to do a lot of different stuff, but then I found that my thing would be film. Because it collects a lot of different kind of art into one. I just love it. It's SO MUCH WORK to make one film, but I've really started to like the whole process -- from writing, pre-production to shooting. I started when I was in high school, then I started talking to film people, and I worked as a runner/coffee boy. I just worked my way up, I never studied film or anything, I've done my own stuff regardless of how much money I've had. When I made Were you there then? I paid for it myself. I think no one can teach me how to direct; to tell stories I'm going to do it in my own way, my own words, my own method, so I've never studied anything. I've always felt that that's the key thing, to put oneself outside other directors, be unique, learn to do it in your own way.

CR: What kind of projects are you looking at right now to continue with?

VL: The latest one was Tony & Lena, which was just featured at BUFF (the International Children and Young People's Film Festival, Malmö) earlier this month. Many of my scripts have been and will be about growing up and about youth. Right now I'm mainly into drama, you know. I think the most beautiful element of the art of film is drama. When you get to learn to know people, deal with different and difficult emotions, that's what moves film for me. So I'm starting to work on a project now which is a TV series for youth. We've received some funding so far, and we're starting to develop 10-12 episodes of about 15 minutes each. Aside from that I have many small scripts and things lying around, a feature in development as well. So I just need the muscle and the time to just work work work work!

Victor is a part of the talented Bautafilm team out of Umeå, Sweden. Check out his portfolio of shorts and music videos. And don't miss this cute and kind of odd interview about Ta av mig from a bed, with him and Jana Bringlöv Ekspong on Berlinale Short Talks.

My thanks again to Victor!

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