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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Interview with Jannik Splidsboel over his Film "Misfits"

It was a newspaper article in the New York Times that sparked the idea of making this documentary film for director Jannik Splidsboel.  A Youth center, called the Open Arms Youth Project, has bloomed despite the fact that it is squeezed between two churches in a city that houses over two thousand churches.   His film portrays the struggle of young gay, lesbian and bi-sexual teenagers (LGBT) in a Bible-belt community.  He follows three main characters throughout this documentary. It is a documentary which consists of intimate interviews, while at the same time showing the city of Tulsa as a seemingly safe place but in actuality it is a spooky place. This film shows safe small houses contrasting with big churches in order to give the film a claustrophobic look. There are three main characters in this film. Larissa, 17, who had to leave home because of her coming-out as a lesbian. She also left school but is now fighting her way back in order to get her diploma in education. Benny, 19, was bullied by his older brother Gage and finally opened up to his family which has now become a great support system for him. D has been abused most of his young life and was dumped at his up to now unknown father’s place in Tulsa, who turned out to be a caring and loving person. D is currently looking forward to the future and to what he will become.

Shelly Schoeneshoefer: So you read an article and then somehow it jumped out at you and you decided to make this film, right?
Jannik Splidsboel: I was curious about the subject and thought this is a film I could do. I had never been to Tulsa and that intrigued me too. I had never done a film in the US and that is every film maker’s dream.
SRS: Was the coming-out scene with Benny’s family rehearsed or was it just a straight shot?
JS: That was the first shot of the family. I had just met them and I didn’t even know the whole family was going to be there. I thought I was only going to film Benny but they said they would like to be a part of this film. So I sat down on the couch and this scene just happened in front of my eyes. It was a sixty-minute take. Everyone was talking about their experience and the crying scene with Gage took a very long time and afterwards he came up to me and hugged me and said thank you because he really needed to talk.
SRS: If you did this same idea in Europe do you think it would work out the same way?
JS: It depends on where in Europe - in Russia, no and in Italy, yes. Americans are very open and like to talk. The film was based on a dramatic curve of three characters: Benny finds his family, Larrisa loses her family and D is looking for his family. Ben has a good support system. We start in that emotional scene and how the family is struggling. Having a gay member in the family is a struggle.
SRS: Do any of these kids go to church?
JS: A few still go to church but once they are found out, they are not allowed to go to church anymore. That was the inner conflict for them:  I am actually Christian and I do believe in God but God doesn’t want me.
SRS: So it sounds to me that they need a gay church?
JS: Exactly, I actually met two gay priests in Tulsa but to film them would have added yet another dimension and would have made it too complex.
SRS: How did you try to get permission to film inside the churches? Was that due to security reasons? Were they afraid that you would abuse the material?
JS: I approached the community but the minute I told them why I was making this film it was a no go. One pastor agreed to do it. He did not talk about gays in the church, but we did use his narration as a voice-over. We also went to an institution where they try to take the sexuality out of the kids through prayers. This is were we recorded the sound.
SRS: I was quite surprised to see kids being filmed inside the church since Americans are so afraid of things happening to their children and the idea of a stranger filming would probably not be permitted.
JS: That is true because we started filming right after the Sandy Hook school shooting that had happened in Connecticut So there was a major lock-down. We had obstacles that we had to overcome. We did finally get into a couple of schools and a couple of churches.
SRS: You had mentioned that you had to improvise some of the scenes because the teenagers didn’t do a lot but just sat around. So what did you do?
JS: We asked them what they would normally do, so for example D does this exercise route in his home. They talk about sex, about the meaning of family, what was good or bad about being gay. At the youth center they already had a routine where they would work on their goals and, for example, they would try to overcome problems such as with D who would like to work but did not have a birth certificate or transportation. They would help him achieve his goals.
SRS: Your documentary is really wonderfully done, since one feels like they are just living their lives; the camera is not intrusive. Can you describe how you managed that? And why the title Misfits, I mean there are bands called ”Misfits” as well as a television series. So why this title?
 JS: I think it is how you work with your characters and they trust me. Security is important and I take on the responsibility as a filmmaker for those people involved. It was a working title that just stuck. These guys are misfits in the society and the society sees them as misfits even though they themselves do not see themselves as misfits. It has a double meaning.
SRS: D is in essence a homeless person in this apartment with no electricity? His dad is never there, working day and night, and when his dad sleeps, he is at his girlfriend’s house. His life seems so despairing. Somehow there is a failed infrastructure in America wouldn’t you agree?
JS:  There are a lot of problems there. For example Aids is hugely stigmatized, despite that it can be cured in Oklahoma but there is no sex education in the schools. I could talk to a lot of kids. Some had not told their parents yet and therefore it was a no-go situation for me to include them in the documentary. The family had to know about their sexual inclination and had to be o.k. with it.

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