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  • Post last modified:January 27, 2023

Daughters: Living with Grief

Photo: WG Film

There’s a scene in this film where three sisters talk about what it was like to grow up without a mother. There was some degree of jealousy. Other girls, especially when they hit puberty, could turn to their mom and ask for help; it probably seemed natural to them, hardly something they thought about. Not so for the three sisters. There was no mother in their lives anymore. They did have each other, though. The bond between them is one of several reasons why this documentary is likely to bring its audiences to tears.

A sunny personality
We first meet them in 2011. Sofia, Hedvig and Maja are 8, 10 and 16 years old. They have different dads, but one mom in common: Carolina, a woman with a sunny personality who nevertheless took her own life. Hedvig describes her mother as ”the last person who would do such a thing… and yet, also the first”. There was something about Carolina that she wouldn’t really show her family, and therapy sessions clearly didn’t help her. Maja was the one who found her lifeless body; all Sofia can remember is how everyone prevented her from seeing anything. What was it like to live with that grief in the immediate aftermath? And what has changed a decade later?

Accepting a challenge
Director Jenifer Malmqvist had made a few shorts when she was contacted by Malena Janson, a film scholar and critic who wanted to see more films for children and young adults that dared take on difficult subjects. She reached out to several filmmakers, and Malmqvist accepted the challenge. At first, she considered making another short, but when she heard about the sisters and got in touch with them, Malmqvist realized that this would be a bigger project. The immediate focus was on how the girls were doing some time after their mother’s death, how they interacted with each other and friends; Sofia and Hedvig also spent time with their dad on a boat. There wouldn’t really have been much of a film if Malmqvist had put an end to the project there, but she didn’t. Instead, she reconnected with the sisters a decade later. Now, Sofia and Hedvig were in high school and Maja was all grown up.

It’s fascinating to see how their relationships have matured and how their talks differ from when they were kids; now they are more verbal and insightful. That scene where they’re talking about feeling envy toward other teenagers is part of a sequence where their grief is particularly raw, also for us in the audience. The film beautifully makes it clear how the pain comes and goes, how the grief can suddenly overwhelm you, but also how memories and healing look different, not only because the sisters are three separate individuals but also because there’s an age difference between Maja and her younger siblings. There’s a telling scene near the end where the 16-year-old Maja asks her sisters if they ever feel anger toward their mother for what she did, but they don’t really seem capable yet of understanding what she’s talking about.

It’s confident and thoughtful editing that knows how to achieve maximum impact.

The editing is a major reason why the film works so well. Together with editors Åsa Mossberg and Line Schou, Malmqvist cuts back and forth between the two periods in ways that emphasizes emotions and contrasts between childhood and adulthood, often focusing on one sister at a time, making sure we get to know them individually. It’s confident and thoughtful editing that knows how to achieve maximum impact. There’s no rushing things.

The filmmakers create a deeply moving whole out of bits and pieces from two different eras, that make us ponder sisterhood and the nature of grief, as well as ask ourselves what can be done to provide better mental health care.

Daughters 2022-Sweden. 90 min. Color. Produced by Margarete Jangård, Hanna Markkanen. Written and directed by Jenifer Malmqvist. Editing: Åsa Mossberg, Line Schou.

Trivia: Original title: Döttrar. Executive-produced by Fredrik Gertten. 

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