Young director Monja Arts has made a compelling film that mediates on unrequited love and gay relationships. Here, she tells us why the film is not a coming out story.
You remember it, that guy or girl you fell in love with at 16 or 17. You know, the one that it never worked out with and the crushing feeling that accompanied the longing. Maybe the feelings weren’t mutual. Or maybe you never mustered the courage to tell them. Or maybe it just didn’t work out because life as a teenager can be pretty damn complicated. When watching young Austrian director Monja Art’s debut film, Seventeen (Siebzehn),it’s impossible not reminisce on those forlorn feels. The filmbrilliantly illustrates the kind of unfulfilled and hopelessly romantic love you can never quite shake off you.
The film’s characters inhabit a small rural world that consists only of high school and the local nightclub, far from the next big city. 17-year-old Paula falls head over heels for her classmate Charlotte, who has a boyfriend but at the same time feels strongly drawn to Paula. In an effort to forget about Charlotte, Paula starts getting involved with her classmate Tim. And when the manipulative Lilli starts to intrude, things only get more complicated.
The drama was recently awarded the Austrian Max Ophüls Prize and was shown at major European festivals like the Berlinale and the BFI Flare London LGTBQ Film Festival. We talked to director Monja Art about her own formative years in rural Austria, about same-sex desires in small towns, and why we perceive unfulfilled love as so damn romantic.
Seventeen takes place in Lanzenkirchen, the small town in Austria where you grew up. What was growing up there like? I remember my youth as a time when I felt free and I could do anything. I didn’t even miss the big city yet, because I felt like everything I needed was right there. At the same time, I remember going through periods of feeling depressed when I was unhappily in love.
You also wrote the script for the film. How personal is Seventeen to you?The idea for the script goes back to memories of my own youth in a small town. However, when I first started to write, the story was a lot closer to my own life experiences than the film is now. I worked on the story for more than three-and-a-half years, and over time it slowly developed its own character. When shooting the film, the actors also contributed a lot to the story you see on the screen now. The school uniform, the setting, and the main topic (desire), however, remain things that are inspired by my own youth.
As in real life, not every love in Seventeen develops into something real. Can you tell me a little bit more about the different relationships depicted in the film?I wanted to show a variety of love stories. We have a very positive love story with Mesut and Kathrin, who fall in love and end up as a happy couple. The love stories that I was really interested in, however, where the complicated ones. The stories where both people are in love with each other, but don’t talk about their feelings because something is in their way. Charlotte finds herself in this situation. For example, she is in a happy relationship with Michael, but she is also kind of in love with Paula — and she finds herself in the situation of not being able to decide between the two of them. Paula on the other hand is hopelessly in love with Charlotte, which is especially tragic, because Charlotte feels for her too. But sometimes love isn’t enough.
What does Paula see in Charlotte?Paula might be in love with Charlotte, but what she is really looking for is love in general. Charlotte is us all, I think. I believe that being in love often isn’t really about the other person but about what we want to see in him or her.
You said in an interview that lack is always more interesting than reality. What is so romantic about unfulfilled love?In reality, a relationship might not turn as wonderfully as you imagined it. In your fantasy, everything is magic — we have this perfect image of the other person. One also imagines a happier version of oneself in this imaginary relationship — even if it might be far from the truth. That is why the illusion is so much more romantic, interesting, and less painful than reality. I don’t think that this is something that is only true for teenage romances, by the way. This doesn’t leave us as adults — we always imagine other people as happier and wealthier and with better relationships.
Before Seventeen you shot a documentary about teenage girls. What is it about this age group that fascinates you?After Seventeen I can tell you that I think I am done with this age group for a while now (laughs). But, originally, I was interested in the manic-depressive side of youth. On the one hand, everything seems possible when you are young, and on the other hand the smallest things can totally throw you off track. One missing ‘Like’ on Facebook can lead to days of feeling down. Those mood swings are very specific for the teenage years. Also, this is a time that is already being romanticized while it is happening. Because you are aware of the fact that you will never be able to go back. You are constantly reminded that you are in the middle of this significant time that will never be repeated. That is why the number seventeen was so significant to me as well. In Austria, you do your Matura (finals) the following year — and afterwards there is no turning back, really. Afterwards, your youth is over.
At the premiere, you said that Seventeen is not supposed to be a coming-out film. And, indeed, all the characters seem to handle same-sex love very naturally. Is that wishful thinking or reality?I think and hope that this becomes more and more the reality. During my own youth in rural Austria in the 90s, this was already an accepted norm. And when I talked to my young actors about this, they also confirmed that it’s no longer a controversial topic in their opinion — even though they are from completely different regions of Austria. When we showed the movie at a school in front of an audience consisting of 17- and 18-year-olds in Saarbrucken, Germany, however, we heard something different. They were very surprised how openly and naturally we dealt with same-sex relationships in Seventeen.
All of your young actors were the age of their characters and most of them had never acted professionally. How much did they contribute to the story?We invested a lot of time in the casting process, because I was actively looking for actors who personally resembled their characters in some way — so all of them did contribute a lot in that way. Four of the actors — Paula, Lilly, Michael and Tim — had even known each other for seven years from a non-professional theatre group before shooting the film. I didn’t know this when casting, but I found out later that they even had similar relationships off-camera. I think this definitely had an impact on the dynamics of the film.