Ernestas Jankauskas, Gabija Siurbytė • Director of and actress in I Am Fine, Thanks
“Perfectionism is today’s religion”
by Marta Bałaga
- We talked to some of the team behind the Lithuanian film, which is based on something that the lead actress has experienced herself
In the Warsaw Film Festival-premiered I Am Fine, Thanks [+see also:
interview: Ernestas Jankauskas, Gabija…
film profile], based on something that she has experienced herself, Gabija Siurbytė plays neuroscientist Maria, trying her best to return to normal after being treated for panic attacks. Needless to say, it ain’t easy, especially as Maria wants to please everyone but herself. We talked to Siurbytė and the movie’s director, Ernestas Jankauskas.
Cineuropa: How did you want to show Maria’s breakdowns? They are so crazy sometimes, with massive rubber ducks or people looking like members of the Spanish Inquisition.
Ernestas Jankauskas: In general, the inspiration for these panic attacks comes from our understanding of them. When it hits, some feel they are stuck in a tunnel without any lights, while others say they can’t breathe. It’s all very personal, and for me, it was one of the biggest artistic challenges on the film. I also wanted to show the point of view of our society, of the people who are not affected by them, because I was like that, too. Whenever someone told me they were feeling bad, I would say: “Don’t panic. It’s not a big deal.”
Gabija Siurbytė: When Birutė [Kapustinskaitė] was writing the script, I was working on the structure and ideas, and Ernestas was left to fill in the gaps of these breakdowns. Panic attacks are absurd: you are afraid of dying when there is no real danger. Still, to the person experiencing them, it feels very real. I was one of them.
What you said about this line, “Don’t panic”, rings very true. There is still some stigma attached to it.
EJ: We are learning and talking about it more, but it’s also about this personal recognition that it’s okay to be imperfect. When you go through something like that, you say: “Something is wrong with me. I am damaged.” You start questioning yourself. It’s so hard to just say that it’s okay to be the way you are.
GS: Panic attacks and anxiety affect a lot of people who are strong. For them, admitting it would make them feel weak. You just feel ashamed – too ashamed to share it with anyone else. So many people feel that you are just being lazy. “Get over it; it’s not a big deal.” It’s difficult to understand a person having panic attacks until you have a panic attack yourself. We just lack empathy. Even admitting that you are going to therapy is a kind of stigma. At least it is here – in the States, everyone does it. We should normalise it.
Many women feel they need to do it all. She does that, too: she tries to be a lover, a scientist, a daughter. It feels exhausting.
GS: That was the point. She needs to admit she doesn’t need to be perfect any more. For me, it’s the same. I look at my social media and see so many perfect women who can juggle everything. You always feel like you are lagging behind, and then your body and soul come knocking. You need to understand that you are running for all the wrong reasons. You don’t need to, because people love you for who you are. It’s sounds so easy, but it took me ten years to understand it.
EJ: Anxiety and panic attacks are a symptom of something going wrong. It’s a red flag, telling you to stop. You just need to take notice of it. We say that perfectionism is today’s religion. The world is filled with success stories, and we keep wondering: “Am I good enough? Will my kids do well?” As a child, you start to believe that you will deserve love if you get good grades or clean the dishes. You want others to say you have achieved something. But the thing is, you see your reflection in the water only when it’s calm. If you are stressed, you will never be able to do it.
Why did you want her to be a scientist? And one who really has to fight for her position?
GS: This character has gone through so many professions. Originally, she was supposed to work in a call centre! We wanted to show a competitive field, especially for women, and have someone who depends on her intellect, having this mental issue. We heard about this experiment, “Universe 25”, when they were trying to create perfect conditions for mice to live in, but their world would always collapse. She comes up with the idea that what’s lacking is love.
You show three generations of women being dysfunctional together. Did you talk about how we treat each other sometimes?
GS: I think it’s a love-hate relationship – you just know each other so well. I had wonderful partners, like Neli Savičenko, one of our top actresses. With Mija di Marco, we worked with her when she was six years old on a short [The Queen of England Stole My Parents]. But I don’t think it’s just the mothers; after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we needed to rethink certain strategies, and our parents really wanted us to be successful. You were always asked to do more.
EJ: I liked directing that scene when we introduce the grandmother. I could identify with the weird way they communicate, even as a man, as that’s what families do. You could say there is a lack of love and understanding, but that’s not the case. It’s just the way they think they should act.
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