tv & movies

Presenting the highs and lows of being a social media influencer

Writer-director Magnus von Horn’s sophomore feature Sweat is an evocative exploration of the darker side of being a fitness influencer. As it streams on MUBI, the Poland-based filmmaker and the film’s lead actor Magdalena Koleśnik talk about their collaboration.

With no physical screenings held at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the Polish-Swedish movie Sweat missed all the extravaganza — the red-carpet appearances, photo-ops and global attention — that comes with being an official selection for the festival. Writer-director Magnus von Horn “terribly missed” the experience of showing Sweat, his sophomore feature film, on the big screen to a packed audience.

“When I was in Cannes recently, watching this year’s selection, I felt a little jealous. Now that Sweat is streaming on MUBI, I’m curious about the audience response it would garner,” says von Horn, over a video interview from Sweden.

Considered to be a breakout feature for von Horn, Sweat is the story of three days in the life of fitness influencer Sylwia Zajac (essayed by Magdalena Kolesnik). Sylwia’s social media-perfect life is disrupted when she breaks down and talks about being lonely in a post that goes viral. For someone who revels in the public attention, it is deeply disturbing when a stalker DMs her about how lonely and similar both of them are.

As her successful public personality and insecurities of private life collide, Sylwia experiences an internal shift and becomes more accommodating of her real self. “Some of the scenes are embedded in Polish realities even though this story is universal. I’m keen to know how the audience in different countries respond to my character,” says Kolesnik, a graduate from National Academy of Theatre Arts in Krakow.

The idea of Sweat started taking shape when von Horn began watching fitness motivators on social media almost obsessively and observed “the way they made their lives into reality shows.” The Poland-based filmmaker says, “I am active in a passive way. I don’t post much. I prefer to watch.” Much to his amusement, he found influencers sharing a lot about their everyday life. There could be “20 videos of a dog playing with a rubber toy and then an emotional speech about love problems.” For the 36-year-old, it was “provocative”, making him “both hate and love” them.

The story of Sylwia, according to von Horn, is an “exaggerated version” of sharing one’s life. “Sylwia takes 5-10 mins to create one post. Their duration on social media is short and stories are unfinished. It does not require a beginning, middle and end. I like that narrative and think there is something fresh about it,” says the 36-year-old. He adds, “I take four-five years to make a film and that’s my post.”

In 2015, von Horn, a graduate from the Polish National Film School in Łódź, had made his first feature titled The Here After, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival that year under the Directors’ Fortnight category. It centers around a juvenile offender who is met with a cold reception when he returns home after serving his prison term.

The making of Sweat involved a long and interesting collaborative process between von Horn and Kolesnik. “Magdalena was the first actress we invited for casting. She was great, and then we kept looking for months without finding anyone better,” he says. When they started working together, what helped was that they were on the same page about the process. “I was open to modifying the script together,” says von Horn. For Kolesnik, it was an interesting departure from working with a finalised script. “As an actor, it was a unique experience for me to take part in finding a solution for a scene,” says Kolesnik about her first lead role in a feature film.

As the scripting progressed, Kolesnik treated Sylwia like an extension of herself. The writer-director says, even when he would be at a loss regarding Sylwia’s action, Kolesnik seemed to know her character’s mind. The preparation for the film, however, demanded much more. Though Kolesnik used to practice Ashtanga Yoga, to achieve the required physique of a fitness influencer she had to train at a gym under a personal trainer for little more than a year. “We wanted to be as authentic as we could,” says the actor. Kolesnik says, she relates to Sylwia’s “vulnerability” and desire to be “perfect”.

Shot in 21 days, the film had a mobile crew and most scenes were done in one shot. “We wanted to be able to capture every scene in one shot. We relied a lot on our intuition. This gave the film the documentary feel that we were looking for,” says the director, who, till then, had always worked with strict storyboards and carefully planned scenes.

The writer-director will be working on a Danish movie next. Does he look at Europe as his playing field? “I go where the story takes me. This story is set in Denmark. I’m curious to see how I will make a Danish language movie in Poland,” he says. Born in Sweden’s Gothenburg, he works and lives with his family in Poland.

Meanwhile, he still actively follows people on social media. “I can get sucked into it in a way that I can get lost. I have to struggle when I say I will spend less time with the phone,” he says. Kolesnik, on the other hand, has managed to disconnect from social media. “There are so many stimuli in social media. I don’t have the ability to distinguish which information is important. For me, it’s a dangerous field,” says she.

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