Born in Sweden, Petter Ringbom has spent most of his life in the United States, where he has been working as a director of documentary and narrative films. Although the list of his works is not very long, all his films have been successful. After his first short film which was called “May Fly,” he produced another one called “Questions for My Father,” which was later followed by a narrative documentary “The Russian Winter.” Although so far he has worked mostly with documentary films, Petter is not willing to constrain himself to one genre and looks forward to expanding his horizons. Youth Time has managed to get an exclusive interview with the director.
How did you get into the film industry?
I was an art director and had my own, pretty successful, design firm for about 10 years. I started doing music videos for friends and moved into short films and commercial projects. Eventually, I left my company and became a full time filmmaker, but only after years of working nights and weekends on my film projects. It takes a lot of time, dedication and stamina, especially if you have to do other work to support yourself.
What can you tell us about your first film? What challenges did you face while making it?
My first film was a short called May Fly that we shot in San Francisco. The main challenge was that I didn’t really know what I was doing. But, since I surrounded myself with people who knew more than I did, something pretty good came out of it. My first documentary feature was The Russian Winter. There the biggest challenge was that we had a really tight timeline. It was less than a year from when we started shooting till the film was done, which is really quick for a documentary.
At the moment Russian Winter is your largest project. Tell us a bit about the film, about your trip to Russia, and most importantly about the main character – John Forte.
The film is about the dramatic life story of John Forte (American musician, Grammy Awards nominee) and his charity concerts in the remote parts of Russia. John contacted me and asked if I wanted to come to Russia. He had seen some of my short films and commercials and liked my approach. I knew of John since I was a fan of the Fugees, but I didn’t know about his difficult fate and his prolonged imprisonment (John Forte was sentenced to 14 years in a U.S. prison for drug possession. Later, by a presidential decree, the sentence was reduced by half). Once I did some research, I realized that this was a great opportunity to both tell his life story and document his tour through Russia. Russian Winter is a film about John’s irresistible desire to be heard.
We spent almost two and a half months in Russia. It was an extremely rewarding experience, but it was also quite hard being away from home for that long. The tricky thing with Russia is that not a lot of people speak English, so if you can’t speak or read Russian, then you’ll end up feeling a bit alienated after a while.
What is your favorite film?
My favorite film is The Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick.
What is your favorite saying?
“This too shall pass”
Why did you decide to primarily work in the field of documentaries?
After I’m done with the feature documentary I’m currently working on, I plan to make some narrative films, probably starting with a short one. But, to answer your question, I currently find it to be a fascinating genre. Right now, I think there are better films being made in the documentary field than in the narrative field. This is partly because of the evolution of technology. Right now I can go out by myself and shoot a film with a $3,000 camera, a good microphone and a laptop, and the end result will have a professional quality, at least from a technological point of view. This means that today there are a lot more docs being made and filmmakers are experimenting more with the genre. We’re pushing the boundaries of what a documentary film is supposed to be.
How do you find ideas for documentaries?
For me, it’s impossible to actively go out and search for stories and ideas. I tend to stumble upon them. For example, I’m currently working on a feature documentary called Shield and Spear about freedom of expression in South Africa. This film got started because I met a South African musician. We started talking about music and art in South Africa and I realized that there was a story there for me to explore.
You were born in Sweden, and received your education in the U.S. Which do you feel like, in a creative plane, a Swede or an American?
When I travel I tend to call myself “Swedish-American.” I’m neither Swedish nor American, yet I’m both. But, you have to remember that I live in New York. It’s a city of immigrants. Most people in this city are from somewhere else. So, I identify myself mostly as a New Yorker.
And how does this self-perception influence your art?
Our cultural heritage and identity automatically influence the work you do in any artistic field. For example, I grew up on an island with a beautiful and dramatic coast line, because of that I tend to be visually drawn to open planes and vast horizon lines. You see that quite a lot in my work. But, I also live and work in New York, which means that I’m perhaps less interested in telling stories of rural life.
What’s the best country for an artist or a director to work in?
I can only answer from my own experience. In Sweden there are tremendous resources and opportunities for artists. But, I prefer the U.S., or more specifically New York, where I’ve lived for the last 18 years. Not because this place makes it easy for artists by any means, quite the opposite. I like it here because there’s an energy and hustle to the place that I haven’t found anywhere else.
Was it hard for you, a village boy from Sweden, to find your place in the United States and get your works recognized? Tell us about this process.
Well, first of all, I grew up in a small town of Visby on the island of Gotland, which is a pretty large island smack in the middle of the Baltic Sea. While it’s somewhat remote, it’s also a pretty worldly place with tourists visiting from all over the globe. I left the island when I was 20 and I’ve lived abroad ever since. I received my education at one of the most prestigious art schools in the United States, so it wasn’t that hard for me to find work and start my career after I graduated. I consider myself very lucky in that regard, but I’ve also worked really hard, at least as an adult. I wasn’t a very good student when I was younger, especially in high school, but once I discovered that I could actually make a living creating things, there was no stopping me.
Tell us about the Swedish film industry. What are the main differences and unique aspects? Can you give us a couple of tips on what one should watch from quality Swedish cinema to become better acquainted with the cinema of the country?
I honestly don’t know that much about the Swedish film industry. But, here are my top three Swedish films of all time: My Life as a Dog by Lasse Hallström, Persona by Ingmar Bergman, and Show Me Love by Lukas Modyson. They are all great classics and will reveal a lot about Swedish sensibility and psyche.
Give some advice to young people. How does one build a successful career in cinematography?
Three words: watch, shoot, and write. Watch a lot of films, get a cheap camera and start shooting and start writing treatments, stories, and screenplays. It’s hard for me to make any other recommendations since that’s all I’ve done to become a filmmaker. The traditional route is to start by assisting or interning for film productions and that’s probably great, but I never did it that way, so I can’t recommend it. Actually there are many paths to becoming a director. I went to art school and my strength lies in the visual part of filmmaking. My advice would be to figure out what your strength is and explore it.
Photo: From the archive of Petter Ringbom