«At this very moment they are all alone.»

What Gina wants more than anything else is for them all to remain a family. The nine-year-old girl is already taking care of her younger brothers. She’s also prepared to look after the baby that’s on the way. She does her best to keep an eye on her mother, who is in the later stages of pregnancy and suffers from alcoholism. In GINA, filmmaker Ulrike Kofler looks at three generations of a family where failure is perpetuated inescapably, addressing the delicate issue of what happens when the private sphere urgently needs help from outside.
GINA is your second feature film after What We Wanted. An attempt to perceive a connection between the two films could see them both revolving around questions of motherhood | parenthood – the desire for this state, losing it, escaping from it... Why is this subject so central to your narrative work?
That's a good question; interestingly enough, I can't really answer it. I notice that I’m interested in the theme of family, in its most varied forms, or even just... affiliation. Without being able to define it exactly, the subject of parenthood – whether it is lived, desired, avoided or, as in GINA, neglected – also takes hold of me again and again.
In GINA you tell the story of a single mother who is expecting her fourth child, although for various reasons she’s not up to the task of caring for four children. How did this family take shape during the script writing phase?
During an early phase I worked with the Youth Welfare Office of the city of Vienna. I’ve always experienced a fascination with the subject of family backgrounds, ultimately also because I am the mother of a foster child myself. In my research, I came into contact with so many incredible stories. Who could imagine, for example, that four-year-olds have to change their younger siblings’ diapers because there’s nobody else to do it? I took a lot of inspiration from accounts of things like that, which were made available to me anonymously, and my characters, including the four children, gradually grew out of them.
Why did you decide to highlight the eldest daughter, nine-year-old Gina, as the main character – even though the mother has an equally important role.
GINA is a female three-generation portrait of a family from the point of view of nine-year-old Gina, as the eldest of three siblings with another baby on the way. I'm interested in patterns that repeat themselves and how difficult it is to get away from what seems to be a wheel of destiny spinning endlessly. Why is Gitte, Gina’s mother, the way she is? Why is Branca, Gina’s grandma, the way she is? How will Gina shape her own adult life? These were the central questions. From a dramaturgical point of view, it was necessary to focus attention on this point again and again, clarifying who the main character is, because the mother and grandmother also have a lot of potential.
GINA raises questions about being a child and being an adult. The film depicts adults who have remained children and children who have to take responsibility which overwhelms them.
It’s important to me that Gitte shouldn’t be condemned for only being able to perform the task of being a mother in a very inadequate way. I want people to see that she wasn’t given more, either. Branca, too, has merely found a strategy that allows her to live her life, to survive; I don't want to condemn that either. I want to show how phenomena such as poverty, neglect and lack of education repeat themselves from generation to generation, how difficult it is to escape solely by your own efforts.
The film repeatedly features images of the family asleep, in a wide range of arrangements. They all convey an image of family, and this serves to raise questions about the single, classic model. Gina says that when the baby arrives, they’ll be a real family. Is it important to you to question the mainstream family model?
I definitely think this debate is a fascinating topic. When Gina dreams of a "real" family, she isn't thinking of a classic family set-up; she doesn't have any understanding of that. Gina longs for support, someone who will take her by the hand, someone to give her security and take care of her needs. That isn’t a question of blood relations or of classic gender roles.
How do you portray a household where children are neglected?
Actually, it’s often a matter of basic supplies not being available. There isn’t enough to eat, the children are hungry, and when there is some food, they start hoarding it, to provide for worse times to come. All those anonymized stories from the Youth Welfare Office were certainly the main source of inspiration. You’re confronted with things we simply can’t imagine in the bubble where we exist. One important driving force behind making this film was definitely the need to describe things, which are happening right next to us.
You also created the character of the Youth Welfare Officer, who doesn’t have an easy task. Even though her aim is to help the children, she is clearly perceived as intruding on people’s privacy. And it becomes clear that removing a child is extremely violent act. What thoughts did you have in depicting this delicate issue?
I felt that Ursula Strauss is perfect to play that character, because she always radiates warmth despite the authority she portrays. The flexibility and understanding she brings to bear suggest how hard it is to make the right decisions in these situations as an intruder, an uninvited guest in a family structure. Taking a child away is an extreme act of violence for the family in question, and I’m sure this step is only taken after long consideration.
The moment the social worker sees that Gitte is drinking, she sets the procedure in motion – but she still tries to give the family a chance. It's an incredibly difficult balancing act. Alcoholism is a major issue in our society that is still trivialized. The scene where Gitte falls over in the disco when the baby is gone reveals the loneliness inherent in this woman’s life. How lonely this addiction makes her.
The role of Gitte is played by Marie Luise Stockinger, and you had to find three children who also had to be plausible as siblings. How did the casting process go, and what was filming with the children like?
Searching for the right children was quite a long process, though we did find them in the end, but filming with those three children (and with the babies, who weren't even born when we were casting) was a great source of joy for me. We were well prepared, and we had enough caregivers, all of whom supported me hugely in the task of directing the children. I had a lot of fun shooting with the children; they’re so honest, they’re always at one with themselves, always authentic. And an essential factor in the success of the production was definitely the children’s parents; they also supported us a lot.
Marie Luise Stockinger threw herself into the task of playing this difficult character with lots of energy and no inhibitions, and she also had a very close and fun bond with "her" children during the shoot. We all laughed a lot.
Gitte's family doesn’t live in a cramped apartment but in a very run-down though quite spacious house with a wild, old garden. Is this house the accurate metaphore of the inner conflict, the ambivalence of the situation for the children?
It was important to me to show bright and beautiful moments as well. The house is very run down, but I also felt it has a wild beauty, simply due to the garden, and it’s a place that lets you sense freedom. I really didn't want to shoot in a small apartment, partly for purely technical reasons but also from the visual perspective. I wanted to give the family a fragment of beauty and freedom.
The central costume element is Gina's oversized swimsuit; it suggests that there isn’t enough money to buy her a suitable one, that she has too much responsibility for her age, that she can’t swim ... What ideas were you trying to convey with the costumes?
I asked the costume designer Monika Buttinger to buy everything second-hand. In the end that wasn’t possible, unfortunately, because we needed multiple versions of some pieces. As for the swimsuit: I saw something a few years ago which turned out to be an important trigger for this film in general. I was swimming in Litschau am Herrensee; it's a very nice place, and because of the theatre festival a lot of quite well-off people come there, members of what is termed the educated class. I noticed a girl who was about nine or ten years old, like Gina, with water wings and a swimsuit that was too big for her. I watched her for a long time, wondering why she couldn't swim, why she was there all alone... That's how the swimsuit and the water wings came about, and also the idea of learning to swim at the end.
There are a lot of close-ups on details, views of silhouettes or finger games, perspectives from a swing ...  the camera seems to capture a child's gaze. How did you develop the visual language with cinematographer Robert Oberrainer?
We tried to depict as much as possible from a child's perspective, to stay at a child's eye level all the time. I’ve been working with Robert Oberrainer for a long time, and he functions very intuitively; he’s retained the ability to take a childlike, playful look. Quite often, when we're finished, he’d say "Come on, let's shoot it again quickly", not always to the delight of the rest of the team... But often those are the shots that make it through the editing.
Towards the end of the film, Gina asks about the meaning of the word fate. Her grandmother didn’t bring up her fourth child herself, either. What the grandmother describes as being "just the way it is with us" also has to do with passing on trauma. To what extent were you also focussing on the question of how children can overcome that?
Overcoming trauma is one thing, and practical assistance to rectify deficiencies such as poverty and neglect is another. A young adult who didn’t receive anything from their parents in their own childhood can’t pass on anything either. I believe there are ways to escape this perpetual cycle, even though it’s hard, but it requires social support and an open, alert society.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
June 2024

Translation: Charles Osborne

«I want to show how phenomena like poverty, neglect and lack of education repeat themselves from generation to generation. A young adult who didn’t receive anything from their parents in their own childhood can’t pass on anything either.»