Space and time

Stefanie Kolk on her approach to the grieving process in Melk

by Amber Wilkinson

Frieda Barnhard as Robin in Melk. Stefanie Kolk: 'I already felt like there was already conflict in just the amount of milk because you're like, something has to happen with this milk'
Frieda Barnhard as Robin in Melk. Stefanie Kolk: 'I already felt like there was already conflict in just the amount of milk because you're like, something has to happen with this milk' Photo: Courtesy of Warsaw Film Festival
Stefanie Kolk's measured debut Melk, considers the aftermath of a loss for a young couple Robin and Jonas (Frieda Barnhard and Aleksej Ovsiannikov). As the pair try to come to terms with their grief, Robin also has to face the fact her body has begun producing Milk. Kolk and her co-writer Nena van Driel carefully guide us through what happens next, allowing silence to occupy the spaces other filmmakers might clutter with dialogue. Her film tackles a difficult subject with great sensitivity and, ultimately, considerable hopefulness in regards to humanity's ability to help one another heal. We caught up with her at Thessaloniki International Film Festival to chat to her about the film.

I’m really interested in your use of silence. Obviously, you kept the script quite spare but did you find yourself trying to strip it back even further when you were shooting?

Stefanie Kolk: So I am naturally somebody who talks a lot, has a lot of ideas, a lot of themes and the characters are quite outspoken. So not this kind of film, actually. But I enjoy watching films a lot that give me space to have my thoughts and reflections. So I felt I needed to answer to the call that I was feeling for this film being a film with space. So there was a lot of stripping down and in the writing already and then later on, I stripped down a bit more. We found out in the edits for example, a wider shot works better. So in various stages, we just felt this film needed this. I feel a bit like a film exists outside of me a bit and it's asking for things, like I have a relationship with it. Although, of course, I'm making it and, of course, my taste is in there.

Well, at the end of the day, you put these films out into the world and then they have their own journey that you don't have anything to do with. So in a way they are separate from the creator.

SK: That's also what I see. I used to do science and nature also surprises you. So you have an idea about what it's like, and you're testing that and then it surprises you. And you have to be humble in your relationship to nature and be willing to be surprised and be willing to change your mind all the time. And I feel that's similar to filmmaking in some ways.

How did you come to move from science to film? It doesn't seem the most likely career path.

SK: I guess I kind of always wanted it, but I didn't really know what filmmaking was, I just knew I loved film. My dad is a bit of a cinephile. He's a neuropsychologist, so he's not in the arts but he’s definitely an art buff, I will say. He talks about films in a really smart way. He’s an Ingmar Bergman fan. And I could stay up - that was the most important thing. So film always played a role in my life. I just realised at some point, I love science, but this hobby of writing things and making something needs to be central to what I do. If you have a job that's a bit less demanding, maybe, but like sciences is by itself a vocation. So I felt I needed to change that up. So I had to make a film to apply to film school and I had all this anxiety for a year because I was really afraid I wasn't good enough. But then I got it.

I also I feel like there's quite a strong scientific underpinning of this film, even though it's not about the science.

SK: There's a few small things, and maybe a big thing that connects to the heart of the film, for me. One small thing is the way I portray medical people. Because I find it a little bit annoying sometimes in Dutch films. Very often doctors and medical people are portrayed in one light or the other. Either they are very cold and distance and scientific, so to say, or they're like a mum figure. Also an actor will ask you that. “Am I feeling like her mum?” I’m like, “No, you’re her doctor, it's not the same as a mom.” And it just annoys me, because what's so interesting about real doctors, is that in reality they have to juggle these two things.

Melk director Stefanie Kolk: 'I enjoy watching films a lot that give me space to have my thoughts and reflections. So I felt I needed to answer to the call that I was feeling for this film being a film with space'
Melk director Stefanie Kolk: 'I enjoy watching films a lot that give me space to have my thoughts and reflections. So I felt I needed to answer to the call that I was feeling for this film being a film with space' Photo: Courtesy of Warsaw Film Festival
And of course, there are kind doctors and less kind doctors, but I'm talking about the juggling of a professional role, and having to maintain a little bit of distance. Because otherwise you can’t do your job. So in the first scene there, the person who gives them this bad news, so to say, and explains the procedure, is somebody who does these kinds of conversations quite often with young couples. So she's a gynaecologist and everybody you see in the film has a medical profession. So that's one of the small ways that I think the science got in there. And of course, we took the physical aspect very seriously because I felt also this was an important part of the film. The bond between a mum and her unborn baby or birthing parents and their unborn baby is strictly physical in the beginning. And ‘physical’ for me it's not something superficial, necessarily, because it also involves a real bond. That’s what the film is all about because this bond is perpetuated in the milk.

So I felt we needed to get this physical aspect right so one of my friends had given birth and we completely copied her body, including the tummy, everything onto Frida’s body, because they had a little bit the same build. And it could actually squirt milk. And then the science that is at the heart of the film is the fact that we can comfort each other by just being there, perhaps.

Anybody who's experienced grief will tell you that articulating it is exceptionally difficult. It's incredibly hard to put into words. And what's interesting about your film is that you basically don't try to do that. You do what most people do with grief, which is processing basically. You've avoided a lot of what I would call deliberate dramatics. There's a point in the film where I feel like a lot of filmmakers would have chosen to create a lot of friction between her and her boyfriend. And you’ve not done that.

SK: I did it for a number of reasons. The inspiration came also from meeting real partners of mothers and the mothers who donated milk after this. Of course, initially, you get told by the producers, and everybody, “Oh, yeah, he needs to be like an antagonist, you know, because otherwise, you don't have an antagonist.” I already felt like there was already conflict in just the amount of milk because you're like, something has to happen with this milk. That's what everybody feels, because milk is not like water. You feel this amount of milk is already a problem or something. Maybe not a problem, but something that demands something. It demands a drinker, this milk.

The way you show the milk is striking, how it occupies a physical space and is, in some ways, a physical representation of Robin.

SK: I didn't find a way to include it in the film but I became really interested in the fact that this milk becomes more in volume than the baby. I don't know why but I find that really moving. Coming back to the mothers, I talked to three women who also donated their milk and then also to their partners, who were all men. And you go into this a little bit nervous because there's a huge loss that they've incurred. And you're really thinking about what you should say all the time. And, at some point, after talking to the woma that I got closest to, I started crying and I felt I had to hold it back. I really felt I couldn't cry more than her because it felt inappropriate. So I was really holding myself back. And she noticed that and she said, “You know, you can cry too. It is really sad.” I realised later also that this is what everybody around somebody who is grieving tries to do. They try to say stuff, and they try to say the right thing.

Stefanie Kolk: 'We really looked at the contrast between the different spaces, between the house space and forest space'
Stefanie Kolk: 'We really looked at the contrast between the different spaces, between the house space and forest space' Photo: Courtesy of Warsaw Film Festival

And I also realised maybe you don't need to say anything, you just need to be there. And that's also literally what one of the husbands told me. The foremost emotion for him was really pride. So we looked at the pictures of all the milk, his wife had pumped 60 litres. So it was like a whole coffee table full of bottles. And he was really getting a bit tearful just looking at the amount and remembering and he was very proud of his wife. I felt this was so touching. He was so proud and it was also a comfort for him. But of course it is the question, how long do you continue? That becomes more and more of a theme. He said, “In the end, I felt I didn't actually need to do that much, I just needed to be there. And I can feel my feelings. And I can say what I want to say. And it's just a matter of sharing space, and being in the same room a lot.” And so that became a theme. How we can find comfort in just physically being together and being there for each other.

How did you cast the silent walking group, because you’re basically asking actors to do something very unusual there.

SK: They’re not professional actors. I knew there was a big tradition in the Netherlands of walking groups. And there are a lot of retired people. I found this walking group to be such a hilarious, touching, weird, but beautiful thing, because in the Netherlands, we have very small forest, so they’re are all kinds of just walking in circles but still, it's about creating this meaning. It’s also about how you share grief and share space with each other, share your sadness without saying anything. We posted on these Facebook groups for people who like to walk. They're mostly retired people. And we asked them to send a little video of themselves introducing themselves and their face. And we just basically cast purely on our feeling, if we thought they had a kind look on their face or touched us somehow when they spoke. In this particular case, it really worked because they were so sweet. They were the nicest people and they became really good friends.

On the flipside of the silence, tell me about the sound design in the film, which is very present.

SK: In order to feel a silence, you can’t make an entirely silent film. So you have to let somebody feel the silence after there's a lot of sound and then you can feel what it means. Otherwise, it's meaningless. It just becomes the stuff of the film. So we had to look at how we used sounds to give meaning to the silence as well. We really looked at the contrast between the different spaces, between the house space and forest space. We looked at small physical sounds. We were really inspired by Ghibli films. There’s one, The Wind Rises, where there’s a wonderful scene where there's an earthquake and the floor literally rumbles and makes human noises. So initially, we were kind of inspired by that idea with the pumping and we tried to layer different sounds inside the pumping noise and making everything surrounding the pumping a little bit larger than life.

The beauty of your film is that you give people space to think about whatever they want to think about.

SK: It's kind of films I like seeing, because my brain is always so busy feeling and thinking a lo. So I don't know what I'll do next. I’m thinking about a lot of things. I think one thing that’s going to be present but in a very broad way, I just feel some hope in that we all have a human body and we’re all animals. For me, it unifies us. I guess that’s something that one way or another will be in the film.

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