Camilla Strøm Henriksen has just reached the end of a 13-year journey, with the release of her first full-length feature film, Phoenix. But for Henriksen, the film represents more than her transition from actress to fully-fledged director. It tells a very personal story.
TEXT: PAULA HAMMOND | MAIN PHOTO © LEE CARTER
Phoenix is a gripping Bergman-esque family drama, starring Maria Bonnevie (Insomnia), Sverrir Gudnason (Borg vs McEnroe) and Ylva Bjørkaas, in a startling debut as 14-year-old Jill. From a young age, Jill has been the responsible adult in her family, caring for her loving but mentally unstable mother and her younger brother, Bo. When her estranged father calls to tell her that he plans to visit on her birthday, Jill will stop at nothing to have the best day ever – even if fate has other plans.
It’s a compelling film, crafted with skill and lots of heart, but there are no easy answers or Hollywood happy endings here – just a family in crisis trying to survive as best they can. “I think, yes, that’s the central theme – survival,” Henriksen says, “as I survived, as a child of a dysfunctional family.”
Sverrir Gudnason (Borg vs McEnroe), Ylva Bjørkaas and Casper Falck-Løvås as Jill’s father, Jill herself and Jill’s brother Bo in Phoenix. Photo © Courtesy of Hummelfilm and Lukas Salna
Henriksen and her younger brother grew up in Oslo, raised by a single mum – very much like Jill in the film. “It’s not an autobiography,” she explains, “but it’s inspired by events and the dynamics in my own family group. My mother was, mentally, quite ill, but at the time, it wasn’t really addressed. It was something that me and my brother had to cope with and, because I was the oldest, that responsibility fell largely on me.”
Growing up, Henriksen longed to be an actress but, after 12 years in the business, she decided it was time to try something new – directing. It was while studying at the London Film School that she made a discovery. “I loved directing, but I also loved writing. That came as a real surprise. I hadn’t harboured any dreams of writing, but once I started to pen my own stories, there was really no turning back. I don’t miss acting at all.”
Getting Phoenix from that initial script to the cinema hasn’t been easy. “I had,” Henriksen admits, “a couple of down periods, but what kept me going was that I wasn’t tired of the story myself. Whenever I went back to it, I felt quite curious about the material. So, even though I lost hope from time-to-time that it would ever get made, I didn’t lose faith in the material.”
A chance meeting with David Yates, who directed four of the Harry Potter films, finally turned things around. “Five years into my work on Phoenix, I asked him if he wanted to be my mentor, because I felt really stuck, and he said yes. And he read it, and he loved it, and he said ‘I’m going to help you get this to the screen’.”
Ylva Bjørkaas makes her film debut as 14-year-old Jill in Phoenix. Photo © Eirik Evjen
Phoenix is told from Jill’s perspective, and there’s an atmosphere of quiet, bottled-up anxiety within the film that those who have lived with trauma will recognise: that strain of trying to present a calm, controlled face to the world in the presence of chaos. “It’s Jill’s story, and the most important thing for me was trying to express her feelings,” says Henriksen. “I wanted to tell the story through her eyes, and her emotion colours everything. She is very calm and controlled because, I think, that’s one of the things that children who are in these situations often experience. There’s very little room for them to express their needs. They don’t take up too much space, because all that space is taken by the parents.”
Having survived her own dysfunctional family, Henriksen believes that the key is using those experiences “to become yourself” while recognising that the trauma does leave its marks. “My childhood has really shaped me. I would say it’s been a theme in my life that I needed to work out: how do I feed myself and benefit from those experiences? Because there is also rich material there. I wouldn’t have become what I am – and I’m quite happy about now – without it. I don’t mean to idolise it, but it’s important to recognise and appreciate your history and also break free from it.”
For Henriksen, the need to break free informs her as a director too. “I would say that my default setting is to be more closed off, because of my background. So I have quite consciously tried to let go, let people take total control. Even if it’s my vision, I have the responsibility to involve people as much as possible in every stage of the film making, so that they have ownership of the project. I think that’s one of the most important things as a director, and that’s the way I want to work.”
Henriksen now has new roads to travel, and new journeys to make. She’s enjoying stints as a director on Hotel Caesar, Hvaler and Occupied – with a collaboration with David Yates in the pipeline. But, after 13 years, does she feel any sense of closure now that her Phoenix has finally taken flight? “My parents are dead, but I have a brother who I’m very close to. He has been one of my biggest supporters… But when Phoenix was finally finished, he was surprised by how hard it was to watch. It’s all been quite tough for him, and for me but, yes, it’s a big release and a relief too.”
Phoenix is released in UK cinemas on 13 September.