The Danish director talks about his teen suicide drama, which screens at the Goteborg International Film Festival, following its world premiere in Rotterdam.
Danish director Jeppe Ronde has spent the last six years travelling back and forth to Bridgend, Wales, to make sure he does justice to the town’s troubled history.
Ronde, a veteran documentary director, makes his fictional debut with Bridgend, which tells the story of a spate of teen suicides in the small town. The film, which world premiered at Rotterdam, will compete for Goteborg’s Ingmar Bergman International Debut Award.
Sadly, it is based on real events – there were 79 suicides in the area between 2007-2012.
“I heard about this story on the 27th of January, 2008, almost seven years ago now. It was a small article in a Danish newspaper, that there was this possible suicide cult in this small, small Welsh town,” the Copenhagen-based director remembers.
“I read that article and it said that all the youngsters were interconnected, and they all knew each other. I went to Wales a few months later to find out what was going on there. When you come to such a small community you find out quite fast that of course everyone knows each other, it doesn’t have to be a cult.”
The first time he went to Bridgend, he knew there would be a film to make — he just didn’t know then exactly what form it would take. “I knew there was no simple, linear story with a clear closure. Underneath it all was a stream of collective subconsciousness at play that I needed to investigate.
“I insist that any film is an investigation, whether that’s fiction or documentary. It has to be an investigation,” says Ronde, adding: “When you make a film like this, I feel that you have a moral responsibility that is much higher. You need to tell the story in the best way possible.”
Youth workers put him in touch with the young people of Bridgend, which is in an economically depressed former mining area. The fact that Ronde wasn’t a prying journalist helped him win the trust of locals, plus his documentary background helped in talking to people. He was also willing to spend years getting to know people in the town before he started shooting the film locally.
Young people were more willing to talk than their parents. “There is this gap between generations over there,” Ronde explains. “Some parents were not so willing to talk. It was too much for them. The young people might have died, but it’s the parents who were ‘killed’. I can’t imagine any greater pain than finding my daughter hung by her own hands.”
The story of the suicides is framed by the story of Sara, who moves to Bridgend as her policeman father is investigating the suicides. She falls in love with a local boy who could prove to be dangerous.
Bridgend avoids sensationalism and instead has a more deliberate pace in its storytelling, not trying to be a traditional thriller. “There is a moral responsibility in telling this story,” Ronde adds.
He spent more than 18 months casting the film, mixing normal teenagers from the town for authenticity as well as professional actors like Hannah Murray (Game of Thrones), Josh O’Connor (Peaky Blinders) and Steven Waddington (The Last of the Mohicans).
“The actors were brilliant, they gave everything and more. It’s a dark place they had to go, and they trusted me and trusted the project,” the director says proudly.
The film also shows off the dark beauty of nature in Bridgend, in the South Wales Valleys. “There is something about the nature there, it is foggy all the time, it’s depressing in a way in addition to being extremely beautiful.”
He adds, “I was thinking of Ibsen using the fjords as a nature-made prison for his works. It’s like the same thing for them [in Wales] they can never get away, nature is surrounding them like a prison. But it’s so beautiful at the same time.”
Ronde is an immersive director, and says he was drugged and assaulted during his time in Wales – he sees that related to his documentary work, where he has been shot at in South Africa, for instance. “I do go all the way in, so people see that they can trust me, it’s not a strategy that I have to make a film, it’s what I do. It’s who I am.”
After spending so much time investigating Bridgend, what does the director now think of the mysterious series of suicides?
“I hope it is in the film,” he says. Part of it is the generation gap, part of it is teenagers feeling trapped by their circumstances in a small town. Yet, he adds, “The actual reason is so much deeper than we want to admit, that it’s in our nature… How would I understand it, it’s like understanding the meaning the life?”
He is choosing another dark, emotional subject for his next film, which will be the fictional story of a cult in Denmark, and will explore themes of identity, faith, and the meaning of life.
“There is only one question that really interests me – why get up in the morning? I have to find out and I do that through film,” says Ronde.