TIFF 2022: 'Unruly' reveals shocking history of 1930s women's institutions in Denmark

·3-min read
"Unruly" (Courtesy of TIFF)

Filmmaker Malou Reymann tells a shockingly heartbreaking story in Unruly, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), based on teenage women in Denmark in the 1930s who were institutionalized for displaying rebellious behaviour.

“I couldn't understand that this was part of such recent history in Denmark and that I didn't know about it before,” Reymann told Yahoo Canada.

“It was just normal women, there wasn't anything wrong with them, but they were basically just poor and…it didn't take more than just being a bit [wild]...for them to be locked up.”

The central character of Unruly is Maren, played by Emilie Kroyer Koppel, the eldest daughter from an impoverished family. When she receives a diagnosis of being “slightly mentally deficient and antisocial,” after being deemed "ill-mannered and promiscuous," Maren is sent to an institution on the island of Sprogø. Maren’s roommate Sørine (Jessica Dinnage) helps her navigate this new environment, where the women are meant to "behave properly," but Maren pushes back against the system. Things get worse when a law is passed that mandates the “mentally deficient” need to be “sterilized.”

The actual women’s institution in Sprogø was in operation from 1923 to 1961.

“I remember just totally falling in love with the script and with Maren, and with everything she goes through, I was so touched by it,” Koppel told Yahoo Canada. “It was really hard to, during these difficult scenes, [to know] that this has happened in real life, not that long ago, and that there have been so many women experiencing what was so terrible.”

“It helped a lot to talk to my family about what we were doing… I think communication and talking about what the scenes were about made me be able to put the role away when I got home because otherwise, it would have been too hard to take Maren with me… I think after doing the movie I had done so much crying and screaming, and [shown] so many emotions, I was tired. I just really needed to relax for a bit and find myself again.”

Malou Reymann (Andreas Haubjerg)
Malou Reymann (Andreas Haubjerg)

'Women have this inner shame about their bodies and their sexuality'

Malou Reymann first came across the story of these 1930s institutions through a podcast and as she continued to research for the film, what was revealed to her was how much the filmmaker could personally relate to these women.

“The more I dug into it, the more I was surprised by how much I could relate to it and how much I could relate to these women, which was just weird since they felt like they were living in a completely different time,” Reymann said. “I think a lot of women have this inner shame about their bodies and their sexuality, and we just don't necessarily notice it and don't know where it comes from.”

“Why it is so easy to relate [is] because we still live with that, we still live in [societies] that have a very deep fear of female strength and the ability to reproduce, and the female body.”

With recent changes in the U.S., specifically, related to abortion rights, concerns about controlling women's bodies are particularly relevant and crucial right now.

“Watching everything that's going on in the world just makes me want to scream that this movie is out and I just feel such a strong injustice and anger, and I think showing it to an audience and getting a reaction...makes me happy, but I think it's scary how relevant these themes are today,” Emilie Kroyer Koppel said.

“I think there's something about trusting what you feel is real, because I think that's really something that we worked on with the film,” Reymann added. “Being told that you're wrong in what you're feeling and experiencing, and kind of starting to doubt your own reality… The first step for everyone is to trust in what you feel, and what you feel instinctively is right.”