In Eva Marie Rødbro’s documentary feature debut I Love You I Miss You I Hope I See You Before I Die, Betty is a mother of two living on the breadline in Colorado Springs. She shares a small house with ten others, both adults and kids, and goes out with a flaky, debt-ridden guy who is looking at a custodial sentence for various non-payments.
Life is tough, but so is Betty, and she is determined to bring her kids up well, and have fun in the process, hanging out with friends, indulging both in sharp, funny chat (when pregnant she only got half a lay from her worried boyfriend who didn’t want to induce labour, she explains) and casual drug use.
What’s more, she is smart and somewhat of a deadpan philosopher, advising her baby that in the future she will have to put on act “to make everyone think that everything is fine, while you die a little each day.” In essence, she has the same instinct for survival as the rabbit in the film that succesfully hops across the highway between speeding cars.
Danish feature debutante Eva Marie Rødbro doesn’t like the comparison, but there is more than a touch of Sean Baker in the film, and especially his The Florida Project. It’s something she hears a lot, and understands that the films operate within the same social and economic “milieu”. Both deal with poverty and survival and have a tough cookie at their core. And both are at times shot from a kid’s perspective, and often set against glorious, but not so optimistic, blue skies.
Rødbro has known Betty for a decade or so, since her first film, the short US-based doc Fuck You Kiss Me, in which Betty played a short but memorable role. The pair became firm friends. Rødbro returned to Denmark while Betty remained in situ, but they always talked about making another film.
“But when the timing came together she told me that she was going to have another baby, and I was ok, that is really a bit annoying because the film I wanted to make with her was not about families and babies but still, I thought I’d better go and check it out,” comments Rødbro. “I was ready in my head. I was working in television for a couple of years and I was ready to go and really engage in my own project where I could nourish the things that I really wanted to do… Making this kind of project is my most favourite hard work.”
The director stresses how she was determined to avoid narrative constraints within the film she set out to make. That said, she was surprised that it turned as narrative-free as it did. She talks engagingly of the film as a separate entity that determines its own trajectory. “The film became more fragmented than I set it out to be, but that’s how it wanted to turn out – to stay honest. It’s kind of what it asked of itself.”
Rødbro’s use of audio is dramatic as she effects brilliant and jarring transitions between scenes which play like back to-reality reminders of the harshness of Betty’s ongoing life. At the same time we see the world through the eyes of Betty’s 4-year old daughter Jade who imagines ghosts in the kitchen, fantasises about monsters and “helpers who save the babies”, and wants to be an ambulance when she grows up “to help people.”
As importantly, Rødbro sets out to avoid at all costs the narrative tropes associated with the depiction of poverty and borderline destitution. “We have seen a lot of stories told about this socio-economic demographic. I think it is interesting to tell stories from this perspective which are not focussing on, for example, opioid addiction. Or political blah de blah, like are these Trump people? I am not interested in making an explanation, but I always wanted to see what we could do because Betty and I know each other so well, so it is more of a perspective from the inside of the family, a bridge that is already built between me and her, and to see what we could make out of that, and I was very interested to make it very much a collaborative process, and it has really been a puzzle making it.”
In that respect, Betty was no shrinking violet when it came to determining the film she wanted Rødbro to make, and how she should be depicted. “It’s not like I can decide what we are going to do,” says the filmmaker. “Betty is very independent … which makes a lot more space for me to work with her because she is not doing anything she doesn’t want to do. She is very aware why I am interested in her. Sometimes we would run into other people and they would be like, ‘oh what is that camera?’, and Betty is explaining and I hear her kind of pitch the film and I am like ‘whoa, she is saying stuff I never even try to put into words’. And even at the beginning when I was a bit too shy, she would be like ‘yeah, it’s about poverty and how you stick together as a family’.”
Yes, Rødbro and Betty may be close friends but there was always a sense of imbalance while shooting the film. “Of course it is super complicated and super advanced, it’s not like there is a simple contract between us. We are two people who know each other and two people who both insist on having an equal relationship, but on so many levels our relationship is definitely not equal. I come to visit her and I can always leave. And I am working when we are together, and I even sometimes get paid when I am there, and she doesn’t.”
“What is important to me is that she is aware of what she is doing, that she is aware of who she is in this film. She is herself. After she saw the film, that’s what she said, ‘it’s weird to see yourself recorded, but that is totally me in the film’,” Rødbro concludes.