The Malmö rapper Leslie Tay in the official photo for Leslie on Fire. Photo: Stefan Berg
What were you thinking when you first met Leslie, what was the project you were working on?
I was working on another film project called Pojkar (Boys). It was about one of the headmasters at Sofielundskolan in Malmö. You know Sofielund, it's one of the most segregated areas in Sweden. And suddenly when I was walking around in the school, this charming 14-year-old kid popped up in front of the camera, just like that and introduced himself. That was 2003, 15 years ago, and it was like an instant love story between the camera and the kid. I was behind the camera, like I usually am, and after that I asked the headmaster, 'who was that?' and he said 'that's my favourite. he's called Leslie'. I just thought I had to follow that up and I did an interview with Leslie right away in the school.
Stefan Berg at the Nordisk Panorama Festival. Photo: Richard Orange/The Local
How did the project develop?
I asked him if he wanted to be in a movie about himself, and he said “yes”, with a big smile, he really wanted to do that. And simultaneously with the Boys project, I started up a new project in cooperation with Swedish Television, and they gave me a task to follow him for five years, between 14 and 19, so he was almost a grown-up when I was finished. It was an epic study in a guy's teenage years. Then, at the premier in 2008, when I was walking out of the cinema, I thought that this was some kind of preparation for another film that I'm going to make in the future. What I saw was a combination, to turn back to him when he was a grown-up and use all this huge material, over five years, as an archive material, like flashbacks, to tell a parallel story. The grown-up and the kid, between those two levels.
How did Leslie react to the idea?
I asked him, “do you want to make a follow up, A new film?”. And he said, “I don't know”. He was sceptical and I noticed he wasn't that keen on it, like he was when he was a kid.
He played some demos for me, which was a kind of music that was completely different from what he did in the early days, gangster style, the new music was more like pop music, soul RnB, pop music, with nice melodies and he was singing in a soft, tender voice, in a Malmö accent, and I loved it. I thought it was brilliant, and that was before he released his first EP, with the songs Vems Fel and Sofie.
Do you see aspects of the city that have changed?
Not really. The context where he grew up is exactly the same, maybe it's worse. It's segregation and it's criminality and it's violence. You grow up to be tough and hard and you're not supposed to show feelings or talk about feelings and being vulnerable is the worst thing to be, and this is why it makes the new story interesting because when he works with this album, he has to look into himself and find his fragility and he has to show himself vulnerable in the lyrics and in his voice. It's a very sensitive music.
And what brought that change around?
He got tired of this rap style. It became boring. He wanted something else. The film brings up this very important conflict between between emotions and masculinity. There are so many boys and young men out there who are a bit confused about masculinity today and at the same time there's this hypermasculinity and macho culture. There's a message in the film when you watch Leslie that it's ok to be sensitive. It's ok to be vulnerable. It makes you even stronger.
Coming from the UK, I often feel the media establishment in Sweden has a preconceived idea of what should be important to people living in the suburbs, that the culture doesn't really listen or open up a space where these people can express themselves. Would you agree with that?
Yes I agree with that and that's why Leslie is a perfect character for a story like this, because he's got the power to make his own way out of that into something else, and it's a huge leap he takes actually. At the end of the film, there is a twist. His management disappears and he is standing alone with this half-ready album and he has to move back to Malmö and pick up his old friends from Sofielund to help him finish it. He has to kind of pick up a piece of his old ego, his old persona and bring it in with a new package, and then he becomes a whole person, you see what I mean. And that's a process that not many kids could manage to do.
Where do you think he's going to go from now?
I am absolutely sure that if he plays his cards the right way, he can be huge, because he's unique. He's a very special person.
What do you think would have happened to him if you hadn't got involved so early on?
I can't answer that. I don't think that I messed up his life. I don't think that. On the other hand, I don't think I have helped him a lot. I think he has done it himself. Of course, he has used me and I have used him, for two different purposes, and that's a win-win situation I hope.
In the promo, when he's at the awards ceremony, it's very striking that there's hardly anybody there who isn't white and Swedish, and I wondered to what extent is that his audience, is he performing for people like you and me?
His aim is that everybody should love his music, everybody. And if they don't, then he hasn't done his work well. That statement he makes in the film, so I don't think he has a niche. He compares himself with, for example, Eva Dahlgren, Ted Gärdestad, Ulf Lundell, huge Swedish icons, singing in Swedish. He wants to go up there, be among them.
How does Leslie Tay now feel about the film and about you, how's your relationship?
I know that he loves the film. I know that, because he's told me. I haven't spoken so much with him after finishing the film actually. I don't know what he thinks about his album, Vilja & Tålamod (Will Power and Patience). There's still some singles left to release. It hasn't been a huge breakthrough for him. Everybody respects this album and thinks it's good, but it's not a smash. I can't tell you what he's thinking right now, I don't know. Maybe he's happy for the film, and maybe the film can help his career as well. I hope so.
In making a documentary over a very long time-frame, did you have any influences?
No, not at all. It's just endurance, patience and passion that drives me, to create something. I have no influences. There are others, but they don't have this continuity, it's more, “film the children, then film the grown-up”. But in this film we have everything in between as well. I haven't seen a film like that. The driver was to integrate this old material in the new story. One plus one makes three.
I try to get as close as possible to the character, physically close actually. You see when you see the film that the director is not afraid of the character, and it makes the audience come close as well. For example, there are interviews when Leslie is in bed, and I'm sitting on the bedside. He's lying there and I'm filming, for hours.
Would anyone think that was overstepping some kind of boundary?
Yeah. I think so, lots of people would think so. It's very odd to do something like that. I think it's also what kind of person you are, as a director. There's no A B C, do like this. This is something you've got as a person that makes people talk to you and open themselves up to you.
Leslie on Fire will be released at cinemas in nine major Swedish cities on November 9, and will be aired on Swedish Television next spring.