Taking the pain

5. February 2024
Taking the pain

Swedish writer and director Gabriela Pichler reflects on moving into television for the first time with Painkiller, which tells the story of a unique mother-and-daughter relationship, and her personal connection to the series.

Dijana and her daughter Andrea, the protagonists in Swedish drama Painkiller, have a lot to answer for. Not only are they central to the latest project from award-winning writer and director Gabriela Pichler, but they are also responsible for Pichler’s first move into television.

We had no choice. Some characters refuse to be talked about in only a feature film format. They demand an entire TV series about themselves,” she says. “They forcefully elbow their way into the script and demand six episodes. And they are convinced that the audience will love them.”

Painkiller, a six-part series for SVT, introduces Dijana, a proud Balkan mother who has exhausted her body with cleaning and factory work. Meanwhile, her daughter Andrea is a successful artist, but still living at home. When Andrea manages to get her mother to start treatment for her chronic pain, the course is unexpectedly cancelled, leading Andrea to decide to treat Dijana herself. Suddenly, Dijana is the involuntary subject of her daughter’s new art project.

Starring Snežana Spasenoska (Dijana) and Dodona Imeri (Andrea), the series is co-written and directed by Pichler, produced by Anna-Maria Kantarius for Garagefilm and distributed by Reinvent International Sales. Filming took place in Gothenburg and Skåne between October and November last year, with the series now airing on SVT and SVT Play.

Here Pichler tells DQ about bringing Painkiller to television, her partnership with co-writer Johan Lundborg and her personal connection to a story that confronts healthcare and class with humour.

You have had a hugely successful film career. Why was now the right time to move into television?
Working with the half-hour format in six episodes felt incredibly liberating. I was curious about another kind of storytelling, playfulness and different dramatic structures that you sometimes struggle with in feature-length. With SVT, I could also reach a broader kind of audience.

What are the origins of Painkiller?
My mum has fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome, and went untreated for two decades. The situation reached its lowest point when I tried to enrol her in a pain programme at a local hospital. They promised a lot, but the programme was abruptly shut down before the patients could even see the pain specialist, because of a lack of resources. We gave up. We had tried everything up to this point. But in my various productions, I’ve often featured my mum on camera. Those moments served as brief respites for her, sometimes offering a distraction from the pain (if we were lucky). We incorporated this idea of using creativity and imagination as a distraction into the script.

What were the themes or topics you wanted to discuss through the story?
The series revolves around an unfair and crumbling Swedish healthcare system, and the cultural in-betweenness and social class differences of a working-class mother and an artist daughter. It is told with a lot of humour and with two unconventional female protagonists. The theme of gentrification in Gothenburg also forms the backdrop for Painkiller, noting the tendency to build and plan away socially vulnerable groups, and those without economic capital.

Click here to read the full interview.

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