• Interviews

Isabella Carbonell on Her Debut Feature Film “Dogborn” (2022)

Isabella Carbonell’s Dogborn tells the story of refugee twins, a woman (Silvana Imam) and her brother (Philip Oros), who are homeless and living rough in Sweden. It is obvious that they have traumatic experiences in the past: the brother has not spoken, since they arrived in Sweden and the sister is a loose cannon who freaks out when under pressure. When the sister pressures their cousin Petri (Lukas Malinauskas) to help them get a job with the Swedish entrepreneur Yann (Henrik Norlén), he hesitatingly obliges and they get the seemingly simple task of making some deliveries. In return, they are promised a roof over their heads and a more promising future. But when they discover what they are delivering, the deal is not as sweet as it seemed, and the siblings are in an ethical dilemma when they meet a young Chinese girl (Mia Liu) and her sister (Emma Lu).


Dogborn is Carbonell’s debut feature film, after being noticed with several short films like Boys (2015), Maniacs (2016) and Brother. It had its world premiere in the Critics Week at last year’s Venice Film Festival and was screened recently at the film festival in Gothenburg, Sweden. We spoke to the Swedish director via Zoom from her home in Stockholm.

You wrote and directed Dogborn. Where did the idea come from?

It was a combination of two factors. The first being my rage, which has been growing ever since I was 17 and first heard about human trafficking. I was angry that it was so normalized in the media and pop culture to sexualize schoolgirls. I have always been very confused and angry about how this can be a normalized thing.

The second factor was that I am a film geek, and it has been my dream since I was a really small girl to make movies. So, I am always listening to movie scores and music and it was while listening to music that the twins popped up. It just happened naturally that they merged into this setting, where violence against women and children played a huge part.

The film depicts a less flattering side of Sweden. It is a very dark world that we enter. Is this a Sweden you personally know?

It is true. However, it is not a Swedish issue. It is a huge issue here in Sweden, but it is a global issue. There are men all over the world, whose demand for ownership over women and children is so big that it has created a global industry. I don’t think we spend enough time talking about the absurdity of that. It is a multi-dollar industry and the demand is growing. And the legal repercussions are either minor or non-existent.

But one has to start in one’s own backyard. So I am focusing on Sweden, as this is where I live. Sweden is a special case, because this country has no reasonable excuse to be detached and blasé about this. It is such a rich country, and we are branding ourselves as an equality mecca and my personal relationship to this is that it is a lie. In Sweden, you can traffic, abuse and rape women and children and barely get any jail time at all. There can be proof of it and there will still barely be any jail time. We are basically telling the Swedish people: you can do whatever you want. This makes me very angry.

Where did you shoot the film?

In the Swedish town Norrköping. One of the film’s producers had recently shot a film there and recommended it. It is a great city. It is like Stockholm but smaller.

Do you personally know people who have been trafficked?

I have worked with people, and been around people, who have had to sell themselves. I know people who have spent years waking up thinking that they had to sell themselves in order to survive that day. Once you have experienced meeting people like that, of course it does something to you.

Are the twins based on someone you know?

As I mentioned, they came to me when I was listening to music. All my ideas come to me like that. But I was also inspired by fragments of people that I met when I was working for one or two years with homeless women in Sweden. Obviously, not all homeless women do sex work but a lot of them have to in order to survive. There were elements of my observations that were injected in the twins for sure. But they are not based on a set of twins that I met.

The twins start dealing with a Swedish entrepreneur, Yann, whom we discover is a kind of mafia boss. Was it a deliberate choice to make this character Swedish?

It was very much a conscious choice. I did not want to add fuel to the racist idea that immigrants come to Sweden and bring crime with them as if it did not already exist here. I especially did not want to do it now, where racism is shaping our government. Even with viewers who don’t view themselves as racists at all, it can still cement a narrative that I don’t want to participate in cementing.

When the twins discover that their cargo is human and the job is sex trafficking they complete their task anyway. What does this say about the condition they are in?

When I wrote the script, I really wanted to portray a system that benefits from disadvantaged people turning on each other basically. Where you are confronted by a choice of either selling yourself or selling someone else in order to survive. They are utterly desperate in a way that most people watching the film cannot even comprehend. I cannot even comprehend it. I have never had to consider whether to sell myself or someone else in order to get myself off the streets. I cannot imagine the desperation and the compartmentalizing that you are forced to do in order to survive.

Let’s not defend them. They do facilitate a rape. They do also reach a point where they are confronted with their own morality and it is interesting talking about this because we have the luxury of having these moral discussions and debates but when you are living a life where you are actually not living but just struggling to survive, I wonder how much time or effort the twins have been given to even explore their sense of morality. So it is not about defending their actions, but when you have a system like this, disadvantaged people are going to turn on each other and it is not because they are less human. They’ll do anything in order for their family to survive and it is disgusting that they are forced to do that.

You cast the Swedish rapper Silvana Imam in the role as sister.

I had an image in my mind who sister is and it might sound negative but I thought I was never going to find what I had in mind. It turned out I was wrong, because she just popped up. Someone recommended that I watch a video where Silvana wins an award and this was during the times where the racist party, who are now in charge really were becoming big and there was a lot of political tension, so when she accepts the award, she starts talking and in the beginning she is joking, but she becomes more and more angry and I could see so much of my anger in her and the feeling of frustration and hopelessness. She kind of flips out and she kind of begins to scream and it was beautiful. So I thought: ‘that is sister. That really is her.’

Silvana was already famous in another field, so I thought it would be impossible to get her and I started worrying I would not get hold of her. But I was wrong about that too. It ended up being really simple. We connected through Facebook. Without meeting me and without reading the script, she said that she would do it.

Why did you cast Philip Oros in the role as the brother?

We cast him in 2017, so Silvana had already been attached for two years. An actress recommended him and showed me his picture and as soon as I saw it, I saw something in his eyes, which made me want to audition him right away. The question was how well he would get along with Silvana. We had an audition with both of them and it was new to Silvana and it is scary to audition with all these men and be intimate in front of the camera. But with Philip, it was the most natural thing in the world and she went from being hesitant to meeting Philip and being completely comfortable touching him in the most natural way. We were like: ‘you are hired.’ And that was that.

How important it is to present your film at a film festival?

It means so much. For those of us who are not making Marvel films, we are completely dependent on film festivals. Especially now that fewer people go to the cinemas, we depend on the platform that they can provide. The success of the film, which in this case I have invested my entire adult life into, is shaped by festivals. People and companies that are potential collaborators and who have ignored you for months, suddenly want to work with you when they hear that a certain festival has accepted you. That is just how it works. So professionally it means the world for Dogborn, for the story, for the team that made and for me, the director.

It is also hugely important that female and non-binary filmmakers take up space, because that could get hope and inspiration to people like me, who get a lot of nos in this male dominated industry. It is so important that we see more of films like Malou Reymann’s Unruly win Best Nordic Film in Gothenburg and to see a pregnant woman standing there, holding that award. It is representation and it means something.

What is your next project?

I am working on three projects. I have a film called Utopia in development and I am actually developing that partly with an American company in Los Angeles.