Theresa Traore Dahlberg Is the Documentary Maker, Artist and Woman to Watch
Among the women we admire and are most inspired by at the moment, documentary maker and abstract artist Theresa Traore Dahlberg is right at the top of our list. We've portrayed her for Make it last together with photographer Patricia Reyes.
Born in 1983 in Värnamo, Sweden, to a family of three brothers, Theresa split the rest of her childhood between the Swedish island Öland and Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso—two quite diverse experiences, we imagine. Her way to the arts went via assistant jobs and film studies at The New School in New York, to further educations at Stockholm University of the Arts and The Royal Academy of Fine Arts (in Stockholm), from which she graduated earlier this year.
Although she’s already got several short films in her portfolio, we dare say it’s Theresa’s more recent work that’s made her known to a broader audience. Her documentary “Taxi Sister” from 2010 has been shown in film festivals all over the word, and the newly released “Ouaga Girls” has already been very well received (—it’s definitely a must-see). In a way that’s poetic yet political and feminist, and entertaining while also being utterly thought provoking, Theresa tells new and different stories about what a woman’s life can look like in a West African country today.
Your new documentary “Ouaga Girls” is filmed in Burkina Faso where you also spent a part of your childhood. How would you describe it?
– It’s a warm film with laughter and depth about a car mechanic class in a girl’s school. It’s about their friendships, challenges and that time when you’re young and life “just happens to you”.
What made you want to document the girls at this school for auto mechanics?
– I lived in Ouaga when I was their age—when I fell in love for the first time, started going out, and so on—and I was curious to see what it’s like being a young girl in Ouaga today. I had already made a film called Taxi Sister about a female taxi driver in Dakar, who had decided to go against the stream by becoming driver. What I found so interesting in this case was that these girls didn’t become pioneers by choice. They’re just normal girls who ended up in this school after having to leave public school for different reasons (like teenage pregnancy and problems within the family). This is a way for them to get a job.
– I also wanted to make a film that I could watch and leave the cinema feeling proud, empowered and hopeful, which is not always the case with films that have been shot in an African country.
How would you describe your style as a filmmaker?
– I come from a photographer background, and my first films where completely silent. I work very closely with the photographer (Iga Mikler for the last couple of films) creating a visual language before even starting to film. I like to “stay in pictures”, and often use architecture, objects in a room, or atmosphere sounds to meditate the story. Some people get confused when seeing my films, since the word documentary sometimes comes with certain expectations. I don’t categorize my films myself, and I guess I usually think of them more as art works or paintings.
What do think are the key elements to making a great documentary?
Congrats on graduating from The Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm!
You recently exhibited your master’s project “Copper and Cotton”. What’s it about?
– It’s a 12 meters tall sculpture made from left over circuit cards in copper, and with wool spun by excluded women accused of witchery. The story and energy is in the materials, and the interchange between the viewer and the sculpture is very individual. Working with it intuitively made me think a lot about finding your own ways within as well as outside structures.
Are there any similarities between how you work with and think about documentaries and art projects?
– The similarity is that I get completely absorbed by what I do, but the processes are very different. When working with sculpture and glass, the collaboration happens between the material and me. I guess in filmmaking, I get to that part in the editing, when all the material is gathered and I start sculpting the film. But before I’ve got all those hours of film, it’s a lot about planning, budgets, trips, and finding a team to collaborate with. It takes a village to make a film, haha. For me it’s a good balance of working alone and with a lot of people; or working with material I can touch and with material saved on a cloud.
What does your work days look like right now, and what can you reveal about your next project?
– I have a short film coming out later this fall called ‘The Ambassador’s Wife”, about the French ambassador’s wife in Ouagadougou. Or, it’s actually more about the situation she’s in than her. She dream of being an opera singer, but is discouraged and told that it’s not suitable for a woman in her position. Instead she spends her days at a residency surrounded by staff. It’s a subtle and complex film that opens up for discussion.
– I’m also part of a group working on a solidarity project with Tensta konsthall, and will organize symposiums and round table discussions with them this spring. Of course, I’ll keep working on copper, yarn and glass projects in my cave as well.
What can we learn from the women in your films?
– It’s different from film to film, but maybe that we’re all complex.
Photography by Patricia Reyes.
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