Take One Action: A look at doc Silvana

Roaring documentary Silvana follows one of Sweden’s most unapologetically outspoken musical acts, Silvana Imam, a lesbian hip-hop artist of Syrian and Lithuanian descent. We speak to the filmmakers ahead of its screening at Take One Action

Feature by Sanne Jehoul | 04 Sep 2018

“Go kiss your fucking swastika,” Silvana Imam spits on her 2015 hit Imam Cobain, in defiance of fascism and the rise of hatred and intolerance in Sweden. Three years later, on the day of another neo-Nazi march and counter-protest in Stockholm, we’re speaking to Mika Gustafson, Christina Tsiobanelis and Olivia Kastebring, directors of Silvana – the trio's film which won Best Documentary at the Guldbagge Awards (Sweden’s Oscars) and screens at Take One Action Film Festival this month.

Beginning in 2014, the documentary follows Silvana as her provocative, political raps take her from the underground to national superstardom, along with her highly publicised relationship with Swedish pop musician and LGBTQ icon Beatrice Eli. “When we started out, Silvana wasn’t known at all,” Kastebring says. “We thought we were making a film about an underground feminist artist who we wanted to write into the history books.” But 2014 was also an election year in Sweden, one in which both the Feminist Initiative party and the Swedish Democrats, a far-right party rooted in fascism, spiked in popularity. This political hotbed fuelled the success of the rapper, a gay woman from immigrant parents. “There were two parts of society fighting against each other, and Silvana was clearly stating what hadn’t been said before,” Kastebring explains. “That context helped her gain attraction.”

The doc depicts Silvana as confident, slightly arrogant – stereotypical traits of a male rapper, yet an attitude that society still struggles to tolerate from women. She asks herself on camera why our world won’t allow us to say we’re great. She ponders why anyone would describe her as a ‘strong woman’, since it implies that women are generally seen as weak. “We were initially talking about making a fiction film with a diverse female character,” Tsiobanelis explains, “but when Olivia and Mika were making a music video for Silvana they realised ‘well, this is the sort of person we’ve been trying to write.’”

In addition to the challenges of documenting Silvana’s unexpected rise to the top, the filmmakers came across another surprise element: her budding relationship with pop star Eli. “She literally just showed up in front of our camera!” Kastebring remembers. “During that time Silvana appeared quite weird when we were filming. She liked this person. We had a lot of discussions with Beatrice about how to portray her so she’d feel comfortable. In the end this is a film about Silvana, not about both of them. Beatrice deserves her own film.”

The directors’ own footage is interwoven with the rapper’s childhood home videos, and clips shot by Silvana and Beatrice themselves, showing private and intimate moments in their relationship. That level of access and collaboration between the filmmakers and their subject elevates the film. We see the first indications of Silvana’s sexuality as a young child, her ease around the camera, and her vulnerability when she’s alone with Beatrice. “She told us there were videos in which she’s rapping in school, so we asked if we could get those. She said, ‘yeah just call my mum,’” Tsiobanelis laughs. “Her mother just gave the tapes to us not knowing what was on them. They were really open about it.”

“We also wondered how we could give power to Silvana and Beatrice,” Kastebring adds, “so we gave them an old camera which they kept for half a year. When we saw their material we were like, ‘wow, this is gold!’ We didn’t think they’d let us use anything because it was so intimate, but they agreed that those images were what was missing from the film up until that point.”

What was supposed to be a short-term project – “when we started we just wanted to make some YouTube films about Silvana to post before the elections,” says Gustafson – ended up taking more than two years to complete, tracing the musician’s personal and professional arc at a crucial point in her life. The directors set out to portray her as an individual, as a complex young woman behind the art and the politics. “We talked a lot about when we should film her and when we should take a step back,” Gustafson continues. “Sometimes she’d just say ‘guys, I’m getting tired of you.’” The process reached a natural conclusion. “The last time we were filming her we spoke about how famous she’d become,” says Gustafson. “It got harder for us to get her to be personable, for her not to be promoting herself. She had grown into her artist persona.”

Take One Action runs 12-23 Sep; Silvana screens Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 14 Sep; Scottish Youth Theatre, Glasgow, 18 Sep

Both screenings are followed by programmes of spoken word and musical performances by Scotland-based artists whose work explores women’s empowerment, marginalised experiences and notions of belonging. At the time of writing, poets Nadine Aisha Jassat and Hannah Lavery are confirmed for the Edinburgh screening, while hip-hop artist Erin Friel, musician Heir of the Cursed and poets Tawona Sithole, Katie Ailes and Leyla Josephine will perform in Glasgow