Isabella Eklöf Shook Some Audiences with Her Film ‘Holiday’

One year after the #METOO movement began, where do we go from here? Isabella Eklöf thinks the solution is more visibility and more awareness, as evidenced by her boundary-pushing film.

The hugely influential #METOO movement as we know it began almost exactly one year ago. Sparked by the controversies around the now-notorious Harvey Weinstein abuses, our awareness has grown to include the stories of thousands of women. Hopefully now we are approaching an age of further awareness and understanding for these types of experiences; as director Isabella Eklöf expresses, the first step is visibility.

Isabella Eklöf was born and raised in a suburb near Stockholm, Sweden with a nearly unquenchable thirst for literature, poetry and stories of human existence of all kinds. She says her passion for expressing her own vision evolved throughout her arts education which began with an early exposure to classics like Chaplin and Fellini, back when VHS tapes were a thing.

Her work, Holiday, which she co-wrote and directed, is a combination of the experiences of several women, including herself, and reflects a somewhat haunting tale of young womanhood. The story itself unfolds like some sort of poisonous flower; it draws you in and wakes you up to a narrative that is vitally important to understand in the context of the real world as well. The themes of abuse, desire and personal liberty come strongly into play and give strength and visibility to the joys and perils of being a woman.

Have you always been interested in film?

As a kid I wanted to write. I started reading very early. I was one of those kids that really reads, you know. I lived in London for a year when I was seven, and that’s when I started to really reading and I think it really boosted my love for literature.

But at some point it became a bit lonely and my writing was a bit manic and disturbed. It was a little bit like yelling in a way. When I was in my teens I joined a free theater troupe which was great because it was more social and more fun. So I gradually got more and more into theater. I wasn’t really very conventionally pretty and I wasn’t getting any fun parts so I gradually switched to directing. And then at some point I got into this evening class video course. This was before everyone had a video camera in their pocket so it really felt like a “thing”, you know. I had never really used one before and it definitely got to me. The magic of editing. It’s amazing how easy it is to trick the eye.

What was your exposure towards film in the early days? How did it develop?

My parents had this huge VHS library with all the classics, so I’d actually seen Chaplin and Fellini and Bergman and all those just by coincidence, almost. Swedish television in the eighties was also great; they’d show all kinds of art house films and stuff.

But I had seen myself as a person who was more into literature. My mind was all poetry and literature, so I realized I had to educate myself visually. I set about doing that by attending a two-year video free school just to learn how to think visually. I focused on cinematography and videography as well as still photography. When I got into Gothenburg, which is sort of an art school, that’s where I narrowed my interests a bit more. Then the Danish Film School was a bit more industry-focused.

What was your experience like at the Danish Film School? Why Denmark?

It was absolutely amazing! I moved to Denmark in 2007 to got to the Danish Film School because the Swedish film school is shit. But really, they are on another level and some great talents come from there. I’m really lucky to have been surrounded by a really creative group of people and among some prolific people. While the Swedish setting was very much about art house and exploration, the Danish experience was more industry-based and with a focus on screenwriting.

The film industry is where the #METOO movement really began, since the spotlight is already there, but we know that this problem really extends far beyond Hollywood, as your movie Holiday really highlights. Can you expand on that?

Yeah I was actually thinking about that recently because whenever I do press for the film, everyone wants to know why I made the choice to portray the realistic rape scene because that’s all they know about it if they haven’t actually seen it. I mention #METOO of course and my grounds for saying that we actually need to see this stuff and show this stuff is because if we don’t see something, if we don’t experience it, we don’t know the details of it, then we don’t know what we’re talking about really. So to solve the problem, you have to understand the problem first.

So many people seek the easy solutions. It’s either “every guy is a rapist” or “it’s their own fault, they’re asking for it”, or whatever. But it isn’t nearly that simple. You have to look at the details of the situation and even more important, the system in place which allows these things to happen. But yes, I believe that the first step towards a realistic solution is actually understanding what’s going on in these types of situations. That’s what I want to expose in the film.

You mentioned the rape scene. What has been the initial reaction to the rape scene in the film?

It’s interesting because people react to it like it’s such a violent rape but it’s really not. I guess you could say it’s actually a pretty standard rape, where you could say “she didn’t scream loud enough” or “there were other people in the house” and “she could’ve just walked away, why would she stay with him afterwards” et cetera, et cetera.

I think people have to try and understand the complexity of the situation. It is an experience of physical and psychological violence even though she isn’t beaten severely in the film, and the experiences with this type of abuse range very widely. Again, it’s important to keep perspective.

How did Holiday come to be?

Holiday is very very loosely based on a book by Johanne Algren, my cowriter. Not based on the book exactly but I became interested in the topic while reading her book, and I was proposed to depict the book by a producer which I wasn’t that keen on because I wasn’t that interested in the plot really. But I really like Johanne’s eye. She’s got a great eye, a great sense of detail and obviously she knew quite a lot about this world – a world that I didn’t know anything about and that, of course, is quite interesting. So we had a very long development process where we really worked into what the heart of the matter is and what fascinates me most about the story. But in the end, I’d say the story is very much about her, a little bit about me and also a bit about Victoria as well. It’s sort of a combination of several different experiences of women.

Since it was such a personal story, what was the casting process like?

The casting took almost as long as the screenwriting process because, to me, casting is one of the director’s most important tasks. Basically you could cast the right people, have the right script and walk away. I mean, in the end it’s not as simple as that of course but it is very vital, in my opinion. So the process was very long and involved a lot of time and effort. We did test screenings and even a pilot for ourselves, narrowed down to several candidates for each of the roles and really carefully chose who we wanted to portray and embody each character.

And are you happy with the end product? I know sometimes the harshest critic are the filmmakers themselves.

It’s been more than six months but I think it’s still a little too fresh. But I think maybe you never know. I know many directors who never see their own films, and I think I might be one of them. I’ve seen it twice and that’s quite enough for me. But yes, maybe you never quite know how it sits with you. I certainly like people’s reactions to it, I like the images. As usual, I have about one million details always that I could change. But overall I am pretty proud of how it turned out. It’s true, the cliché, it’s like a kid. You know, it has the genes but it’s going to grow up, do what it does and have a life of its own.

Were you surprised by people’s reaction to the film in any way?

Well, negative reactions are always more difficult of course, but in the end I care most about my own opinions than those of others. There is always going to be speculation, but you can always reach inside yourself for the truest point of reference for your work. But I guess any reaction that is not my own is going to surprise me in some way.

But it’s always wonderful when someone has an overwhelmingly positive connection with something you’ve made, and when somebody feels “seen”. That you maybe let them feel that they are not alone, you know?

What’s your advice to women and girls out there?

Dare to be ugly.