Making its American television premiere on Independent Lens on PBS this Monday, October 20 [check local listings], Twin Sisters tells the story of the remarkable journey of identical twins, adopted by families from opposite ends of the world who discover their daughters are sisters. The film won the prestigious Audience Award at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and it’s not hard to see why: it really is an audience-pleaser. We connected with Norwegian filmmaker Mona Friis Bertheussen to learn about her own journey from Fresvik, Norway to Sacramento, California, and back in making Twin Sisters see the light of day. Bertheussen started her career by working for both NRK (Norwegian Public Broadcasting) and TV2 Norway, the biggest commercial TV channel in Norway, and also worked as a news reporter for the national news, before branching off into independent filmmaking. She is based in Oslo, Norway.

What led you to make Twin Sisters?

It happens sometimes in real life, that you hear about a story and you just can’t believe it’s true. About unexplainable incidents that happen, that makes you start to wonder how it all works… The story of the twin sisters is such a story.

There was no doubt, I wanted to make this into a film, and thankfully the girls and the families liked my vision for the film and we decided to do this together.

It took four years to make the film, and it has been a magic journey into the lives and destiny of the two twin sisters. I deeply thank Mia and Alexandra with families, for letting me be the one to tell their story.

 Director/Producer Mona Friis Bertheussen and twins, at National TV Awards Gullruten (Norwegian Emmys)
Director/Producer Mona Friis Bertheussen and twins,
at National TV Awards Gullruten (Norwegian Emmys)

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making Twin Sisters?

The story is about two twin sisters growing up on opposite sides of the planet [who] long for each other, and they have a strong desire to see each other again. It’s such a personal story, and I was not working with child actors. I went into this with strong conviction that the most holy principle in the filmmaking had to be that girls experienced the film process as something good.

Mia and Alexandra were really included in the making of the film, in that they could come up with suggestions on what to film, and they might at any moment say “no” to being filmed if they didn’t feel comfortable. I did not want to push them to do anything that wasn’t natural and felt fine with them. This was the right thing to do, but also quite challenging in a way. I think we played, read books, and did other things, as much as we filmed… And it made the film process quite different and more extensive in terms of time. But this has given a natural presence in the film, and I think that is also one of the reasons why people feel so connected to it. I believe a film will always reflect the relationship between the director and the people in the film.

And how did you gain the trust of the two girls and their families?

When I first heard about the story, I called both families. We talked back and forth, over a couple of weeks. I tried to explain my vision for the film, and also I wanted us to get to know each other a little. That way the families could decide if they felt that I was the right person to tell their story. I was very happy when they said they wanted to work with me, and today we know each other so well and have a great relationship.

With the success of the film, with record high ratings for the film in Scandinavia, several prestigious international awards and such great feedback on the film, this has been an amazing experience for everyone. Yet, the most important feedback for me is that the girls and their families love it. There was nothing they wanted to change about it, when I showed them the result.

Alexandra mails a letter at her nearest mailbox in Fresvik, Norway.

Was there anything you would’ve liked to include in the film that didn’t make the cut?

There are a couple of scenes that we had to let go, as there was not enough room for everything. There were two parallel scenes with the fathers, in Norway and the USA, and them sharing their thoughts on adoption. What would it be like to adopt compared to having your own child? They describe the deep love they have for their daughters: Like the American dad said: “I love her so much. I would take a bullet for her.”

What are your three favorite films?

I have many favorite films. I think the film I have watched the most times is The Piano by Jane Campion. I also want to mention two really good Norwegian documentaries: Harvesting the Wasteland by Hilde K. Kjøs and Karoline Grindaker, and also Big John by Håvard Bustnes.

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Have an open mind and an open heart. To everything around you: People, animals and nature. You never know where an idea will be given to you. Go only for the stories that truly resonate with you, and not because you think they could do well. You have to feel close to it, somehow. I think the following is very important: Do not try to do things just in order to get confirmation. Do things because it’s your expression. Only then it will be authentic and true. That’s the way to success, I believe.