by Dov Kornits

“I considered “Motherfucker”, but I thought it portrayed a wrong tone for the film,” Lamberg tells us over email of an early title for her second feature film as writer/director/star, Westermarck Effect.

“I first saw an article about adoption reunion ending up in a relationship between a parent and a child back in 2016,” she says about the incestuous subtext of the film. “It piqued my interest and I started researching. I found several more articles, and The Guardian reported that some post-adoption agencies estimate that elements of genetic sexual attraction occur in 50% of reunions. When I saw that figure, I realised it is not a small phenomenon, just one we don’t hear about, and started writing a script whilst I was in post production on Innuendo. I came about Edvard Westermarck’s work as a part of my research and given my Finnish background, Westermarck Effect became a natural name for the film.”

Saara Lamberg’s debut feature Innuendo also touched on family, specifically the ties that bind twin sisters.

“I am interested in exploring the human psyche and all things that make us, challenge us and provide us joy and substance,” Lamberg says. “As a filmmaker, I don’t feel it’s my job to judge a story or a character; indeed, all of us have lightness and darkness about ourselves, some have more trauma than others, some have an easier and more straightforward life. I have had a life rich in experience if not wealth, and I like to use my brain capacity to explore themes that some may find too confronting.

“I did get some hate mail when I was doing a crowdfunding campaign for the film,” she admits. “In some ways that encouraged me, because I felt that if some are so passionately against it, it must be a subject that will interest people. Personally, I believe film is art and art is subjective and if one tries to please everyone, one might end up pleasing no one.”

For an arty micro-budgeter, Innuendo punched well above its weight in terms of production quality, nabbing local distribution, screening in cinemas and on free to air TV.

“I had been encouraged by [former Roadshow exec] Seph McKenna to start working on my next film as soon as possible,” Lamberg says today. “I had observed how many filmmakers never get past their first feature and I was committed to not fall into that gap. Then I had a chat with [producer] Mark Lazarus at the American Film Market in 2016 where I sought advice from him on which screenplay I should proceed with, as I had a few completed ones. He encouraged me to make whichever I had the most passion for. Turns out, it was Westermarck Effect.

“I had hoped that off the back of Innuendo I would have had some more leverage with the funding bodies, sadly, I did not,” she says. “I must admit I feel quite disheartened by some responses from the funding bodies to my career. I am unsure what to do about it, but I believe in one lifetime and in some ways, art is an obsession for me, and I will continue pursuing it.”

Thankfully, Lamberg has found plenty of collaborators who are equally obsessed with filmmaking, including newcomer Jayden Denke [above], who acts opposite her in Westermarck Effect. “I had about 100 applications for the part and myself and two casting associates ran auditions for about 20 of them,” Lamberg says about the crucial role of her son in the film. “We made a shortlist of three and I almost got swayed by my colleagues to cast another actor, but something about Denke always captured my imagination and I am glad we ended up working with him. He brought with him just this can-do attitude, he just threw himself to the work and fully trusted my direction and helped out as a crew member when he was not needed as an actor.

Westermarck Effect was the first feature for both Jayden Denke and Mariah Mannae, and both have gone to be in more features and Mannae is now producing her own features, I am really proud of them both.

“I was lucky to work with mainly the same crew for Westermarck Effect as I did for Innuendo. I feel incredibly supported by my peers and those that continue encouraging me through the challenges.”

And finally, the Westermarck Effect cast and crew can enjoy some of the fruits as the film is about to premiere at Cannes. “The entire thing has been stalled because of the pandemic,” Lamberg says. “It was selected to premiere at the selection Cinema des Antipodes of Cannes Cinéphiles 2020, however that year the festival did not go ahead. It did in 2021, but the Australian travel ban made it impossible for myself and my crew to travel so we asked to postpone our release. This year, Cannes has had some radical changes to their programming. One of them is that after 25 years, the entire selection Cinema des Antipodes of Cannes Cinéphiles has not been renewed. However, the festival has decided to screen Westermarck Effect as a special screening, and I feel duly grateful for the festival director Bernard Bories for really believing so much in my film that this can go ahead.”

And what about in Australia? “My experience when releasing Innuendo was that there is a lot of interest to arthouse films here and audiences are hungry for unexpected content,” she says. “I really hope that I can get the film to theatres, television and streaming services domestically and internationally. If a large streaming service was interested, I would like to hear from them.”

Will we see any more films from Saara Lamberg in the future? “After two, soon three [she has meta film The Lies We Tell Ourselves nearing completion] feature films, I feel like I have made my point that I am capable of doing this.

“It would be fantastic to be considered ‘mainstream’ enough so that I would finally get some proper funding for the work that I do and particularly money for those that work with me. I think more people know my work now and I can hope that outlets would see the value in the ideas, resources and the originality that us independents provide.”

Westermarck Effect will world premiere on May 19 at Théâtre de Cannes – Théâtre Alexandre III, with bookings through the Festival de Cannes online ticketing system. This year, tickets are also open to public, not only industry representatives. The public have to register on the site and apply for a ticket. 

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