Challenging the stereotypes

A guest at this week’s Reframing Reality Festival in Jerusalem, Swedish director Lena Koppel speaks about her experience working with special-needs actors.

A SCENE from Swedish director Lena Koppel’s second film ‘It’s All About Friends.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
A SCENE from Swedish director Lena Koppel’s second film ‘It’s All About Friends.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"These actors don’t worry about how they look as much as professional actors. They have accepted the way they look and that’s that,” says Lena Koppel, the Swedish director of The Importance of Tying Your Own Shoes and It’s All About Friends, two feature films starring people with special needs that are being shown in the Reframing Reality Festival, which opened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on October 25 and runs through October 29. It is sponsored by Shekel, an organization that provides services to people with special needs.
Koppel is one of several international guests who will be attending the festival, which features more than 20 movies by and about people with special needs. The movies themselves – feature films, documentaries and shorts – are as varied as those whose lives they portray. There are also workshops and performances. The movies have been made accessible to all audiences, with spoken translations via headphones and subtitles. A shuttle bus is running to the Cinematheque before each screening from the First Station.
The actors Koppel is talking about are from the Glada Hudik Theater, a Swedish theater company that has actors both with and without special needs, including people with Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia and various other conditions.
“The first film [The Importance of Tying Your Own Shoes, which came out in 2011] was about the man who created Glada Hudik, Par Johansson,” she says. “It’s about his journey.”
The character based on Johansson is called Alex and is played by Sverrir Gudnason. An aspiring actor, he went back to his hometown of rural Hudiksvall after he lost his job in the city and his girlfriend kicked him out. Like the character, Johansson took a job leading activities with a group of special-needs people.
Although initially he was reluctant to work with them, he quickly connected to his charges, and began to challenge the focus on their disabilities rather than on what they were good at. His group was especially musically gifted, and with his encouragement they entered a singing competition along the lines of American Idol. Johansson went on to found the Glada Hudik Theater in 1996, and it has performed all over the world, in shows such as a tribute to Elvis Presley, and is currently performing a production of The Wizard of Oz.
Actors from Shekel’s Si’im Players, a group similar to Glada Hudik, and the Nissan Native Actors’ Studio will perform Day Dream, a light, funny adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, during the festival.
The Importance of Tying Your Own Shoes is not only a praiseworthy film about the beginnings of the troupe, but an acclaimed film that was “a huge success. It was the most seen film in Sweden that year. It was in theaters for months. I didn’t think young people would go, but lots of teenagers went. And it really changed people’s views.”
One of the people whose views it changed was the director herself. Koppel had no previous experience working with or even knowing people with special needs, but the producers approached her with the idea of directing the film because “they liked my movie Bombay Dreams,” about an adopted boy who runs away from Sweden to India in search of his biological parents, which was inspired by Koppel’s relationship with her own son, who was born in Thailand.
“I like making films about important and heavy subjects, but I make them in an entertaining way, to get people to come,” she says.
In spite of the fact that she was interested in doing the project, she wasn’t quite prepared for the reality of working with people with special needs.
“I was touched and moved, but it was a big challenge for me. I was very curious, but I definitely had a moment in the beginning when I was afraid of them,” says the director.
Working with special-needs actors required a great deal of flexibility.
“It was very easy to connect with these actors, they are very emotional and once they trusted me, they trusted me totally.
They all have different problems... But the biggest problem when we started was trying to stick to a regular film schedule. We had to work in other ways. One of them would say, for example, ‘Every Tuesday I go to a cafe.’ There were other times when we would have to stop filming and hug each other, because one of them had sensed we were feeling stress.”
Being in the spotlight has had unexpected benefits for many of the performers, who still live a modest life in a group home.
Ellinore Holmer, a young woman with autism, has gone on from the singing competition portrayed in the movie to an actual career as a singer.
At first, with Tying Your Own Shoes, she didn’t even want to come out of her room, let alone act in a film, and now she is a singer/ songwriter, performing all the time,” says Koppel. “She calls me from time to time, just to let me know what she is doing.”
In the second film, It’s All About Friends (2013), which focuses on a successful cameraman in New York struggling with loneliness there who comes home to Sweden to make a documentary about his friend’s special-needs daughter and her housemates, Holmer is markedly more confident and articulate than in the previous film.
Koppel tries to keep her sister in mind when she makes films. “My sister works hard and she never goes to cinema unless she is going to be entertained. I think of her and make movies that are entertaining and fun, but also get something going in her head.”
To get more information, go to the festival website at