Swedish filmmaker Marcus Lindeen is a new name for American audiences, but his latest documentary The Raft will change that. The film, which won the top prize at CPH:DOX, chronicles a much-publicized experiment known as the Sex Raft. In 1973, Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genevés, curious about the origins of human conflict, selected 11 volunteers from around the world and brought them out to sea on a tiny raft to cross the Atlantic. He set parameters that he hoped would lead to confrontation: The six women and five men on board were all young and attractive, the boat offered virtually no privacy, and Genovés offered the onboard leadership roles to women. Over forty years later, Lindeen brought the surviving participants to a soundstage to discuss their recollections and re-enact their experiences on a replica of the raft. (The set was designed by Simone Grau Roney, best known for her production design on films by Lars Von Trier.) With extensive archival footage and narration from Genovés’ writings, The Raft explores the surprising results of the audacious experiment with great ingenuity.
The unusual techniques on display in The Raft had their origins in Lindeen’s previous film Regretters, which was a major hit on the LGBT festival circuit. With a background in both theater and journalism, Lindeen discards familiar forms of documentary filmmaking for a stage-bound style all his own. “I don’t really believe in truth,” he says. The Raft reveals a major talent whose style leads us to a new frontier between nonfiction and narrative.
Austin Dale: You come from the theater. How did you begin?
Marcus Lindeen: I was really into theater when I was very young, as a child, basically. I was directing plays in our garage. My mom would sew curtains, and my dad built a stage for me. It was very cute. They were always very supportive about it. I directed school plays and stuff like that. Then, I got really hooked on journalism. I really loved to write, so, I left the theater behind and I started working as a junior reporter for the biggest newspaper in Sweden. From 15 years old, I was being published in the newspaper as a reporter. Then I went into the radio and hosted a Swedish version of This American Life for some years.
Somehow I started to find myself a little bit frustrated with journalism. I felt it was limiting me. I loved the material, the real people, the possibility for curiosity. Journalism was such a wonderful excuse to get close to people and ask questions. But on the radio, I found myself frustrated a lot of times, because people had great stories to tell, but they weren't necessarily always so great at telling those stories. So, I sat in the editing room, wanting to rewrite things, but I obviously couldn't because it was journalism, and you were supposed to be objective. So then I thought I should reactivate the theater dream I had when I was much younger. I applied for directing school at the Theater Academy in Stockholm, and I got in.
I thought that I was going to move entirely into fiction, and that was going to liberate me. But instead, I found myself quite frustrated with fiction. I didn't understand why I would direct classical plays. So, I started to work with documentary theater. I wrote my own plays, and I based them on interviews and research.
AD: That takes us up to the genesis point for Regretters, which began as a play, right?
ML: Regretters actually started out when I was a radio journalist. I was doing was a weekly show with different themes. We did a show about regrets, and people came on the show talking about different regrets they had. I interviewed one man that had regretted having gender reassignment surgery. When that show was broadcast, this other man called in to the show and said, "I heard the story, and I recognized myself for the first time in my life. I have the same story, and I would like to share it."
I came up with the idea that they would meet for a film, but that was very tricky, because I couldn't convince them both to be in the film. Orlando, the one in the red suit, really wanted to be in the movie, but Mikael was much more shy and didn't want to be recognized in the street. Then theater became a solution to giving them anonymity. I made a play based on transcripts from interviews, with the professional actors on stage portraying them. Then I managed to convince Mikael, and I made the film with them. I gave him a wig, some dark glasses, and another name, so that people wouldn't recognize him.
AD: Does the text of that play line up with the text of the film? It seemed that you were asking the participants to speak their own words.
ML: They differ a little bit, because of course I could, in a sense, manipulate the play more than I could the film. It’s not like I'm writing them a script as if they were actors. But we're discussing and negotiating what's being said, on the set. I would ask them talk for 20 minutes about a certain subject. Then I would come and ask them, "Maybe you can take this line another time.” I try to change this and that, and we talk to each other about that. Then we do retakes. That's the basic method.
From a purist, observational documentary tradition, that would be not very kosher, I guess, to work with retakes as a method. But to me, it's working fine. I think it's also involving them in a way that’s more ethical also, which maybe sounds a bit contradictory. But, they have some agency, telling their own story, and they understand what I want, and they try to deliver. Or they say no. They can refuse to do retake dialogue if they don't feel comfortable with it.
AD: What’s also clear in your films is that when people tell the stories of their lives, those stories change year to year to year. The initial interview you did with Orlando on the radio is probably a different story than the story that we all heard in the film.
ML: Exactly. Orlando is an interesting example of how memory's very elusive. You know, he was married for 11 years without telling his husband [about his transition], because that's what doctors told people who transitioned back then, in Sweden at least, that you shouldn’t tell anyone that you were not born a woman, and so on. I guess it's quite different nowadays, but back then it was like that. He lived with the secret for 11 years, which was quite dramatic, hiding it for so many years from his husband. When the secret was finally unveiled, he almost got killed by his husband, and then... I mean, you've seen the film. That's this monologue that comes at the end of the film, which is quite strong.
He had told me this story several times, but he couldn't really specify exactly the details of what happened. He would tell me different things every time I asked him. Maybe it was too traumatic for him to remember a specific story or something. So, when I wrote it for the theater, I took the liberty to imagine an afternoon, and imagine the conversation that would lead to the violence. The violence was true in the story, but maybe not exactly the way I had told it. He accepted that interpretation of his life. He said it could have been like that. When we were going to do the movie, I needed that material for the film. So, he basically needed to say this monologue that I wrote for him. We worked with him doing that, but with a script guiding him through it. In the movie, he tells that version of his story.
It's funny, because a few years after the movie premiered, I was watching daytime TV, and there was an interview with Orlando. He was a guest on the Swedish Oprah Winfrey many years after the film had been made. She asked him, "What happened when the secret was unveiled?" And I heard him say my words. Like, he's telling my interpretation of his story. So, in that sense, it really shows how memory's so fragile and changeable, and it's really like, it's partly fictional, you know? He made my semi-fictional interpretation of his story integrate with his actual life, because that is what is most truthful for him. I think that's how memory works. Every time we tell a story, we tell it a little bit differently, and the next time, we will remember the last time we told it.
AD: I’m curious about how the process you developed on Regretters informed The Raft, because the truth is also very elusive in The Raft. You have all these scenes where, forty-odd years later, people are arguing about what happened and who these people were.
ML: Now, honestly, I don't really believe in truth in a sense. I believe that in a sense, everything is fiction more or less.
AD: That’s a very odd thing for a former journalist to say!
ML: Of course, it might be a controversial statement in times of fake news. But if I was a documentarian that was addressing current affairs—politics, these kind of things—I wouldn't be able to approach it with my methods of fictionalizing and working with retakes, structuring stories the way I’ve been doing it. I think that would be wrong. I feel like I'm identifying more like an artist rather than a journalist, working with reality as material. I feel like I operate in another field with other kinds of stories. I'm not trying to unveil something about Trump, or whatever, where it would be sensitive in another sense. I feel like Regretters and The Raft, they're almost myths. They're real, but they have some other quality that, for the audience, is not about what is actually true or not.
AD: Placing your participants on a studio soundstage is very effective shorthand for the audience, I think. We know we’re somewhere between fiction and non-fiction.
ML: It's about full control, and it's about being able to set the lights and the framing perfectly, and to control things. I wanted to continue exploring what can you do with documentary material inside the method that the studio setting provides. After Regretters, I wanted to take it further, and see what happens if I work with set design, so there's a spatial aspect with movement. Then I tried to find a material that would fit that. I had been playing around with this idea of a reunion, where older people would look back on something radical they did in their youth, and where there was an element that I could reconstruct.
When I started to read about the Sex Raft, I realized this is the perfect thing because it's super radical, it's super experimental, but it's not political, in a sense. People were not in it for ideology, they were in it to prove something about humanity. That, I thought, was really great. Then there was this international aspect of the crew, representing a mini universe, with people coming from different religions, nationalities, backgrounds.
So, I thought it was a really interesting group of people to possibly reunite. Then there was a raft that was obviously like an object I could reconstruct. The experiment had been about confinement. Reconstructing an apartment or something wouldn’t be so interesting to reconstruct. With the space, we could be sure the audience would understand what it was like to be there for three months.
AD: It seems to me that the central component of your films is the memory. This is something that really sets you apart from other documentary filmmakers, because you don't seem to be interested in contemporary subject matters. You’re interested in the way memory shapes and transforms people.
ML: Right. That's something that connects on a thematic level. But I think I'm also interested in failure in a sense: how it defines us, and how we relate to failure. How do you move on from that? Santiago’s whole experiment, trying to understand something about humanity, turned out to be a failure.
AD: The intended result certainly did not match up with what actually happened.
ML: It's much more interesting to explore failure rather than the success story. I mean, that's a whole genre of documentary films, the rags-to-riches stories of people who overcame troubles and came out on the other side as stars.
AD: In a sense, I feel terrible for Santiago, because the experiment was such an audacious idea. There was so much excitement from everybody involved. And then, there’s the humiliation. The first thing people find out about you is that you’ve got this great idea, and then the next thing that they find out is that you've come back a failure.
ML: At the beginning of the project, because he was not alive anymore, all the participants were ridiculing him and laughing at him. He seemed ridiculous as a character in certain ways, and I just felt very distant from him, like he was this alpha male, very macho. He was driven to be a famous scientist, and he ended up destroying his own experiment.
AD: He’s sort of a Dr. Frankenstein.
ML: Yeah, so I had a hard time relating to him, but then I had to renegotiate that myself. We were shooting one of the scenes with all of the women at the table, and we were doing a lot of retakes. One of them was getting a little bit frustrated, and she was like, "You know what, I think you're starting to behave a little bit like Santiago number two now.”
I had built a raft just like him. I had invited people from all over the world just like him. I'd found the finances to do this crazy project. He wanted things to happen between the participants 40 years ago in the Atlantic Ocean, and I wanted things to happen between my characters in the studio. I was putting on pressure just like he was pressuring them. He wanted to make some great scientific results, and I wanted to make some great artistic results. I was like, “Oh, shit.”