26 January – 5 February 2007
The 30th Göteborg International Film Festival proved why it is Scandinavia’s superior film festival. Featuring 450 films from 65 countries, the festival balanced its wide breadth with a strong concentration of new Nordic films as well as a singular chance to catch up on all 2006 Swedish premieres.
The local press was ecstatic about this year’s crop of domestic productions. Sweden’s largest daily Dagens Nyheter declared the national film crisis over. This sentiment was both correct and unfounded. The Swedish film industry was in fact never in a true crisis. Surely, with the exception of perhaps Roy Andersson’s Sånger från andra våningen (Songs from the Second Floor, 2000) and Lukas Moodysson’s projects, there has not been any sign that a cinéma des auteurs will emerge to assume the tradition of Ingmar Bergman and Bo Widerberg. Instead, the leading Swedish films of the last 15 years have been quality genre films with an unmistakable local specificity: one direction, for example, is the large wave of milieu studies featuring immigrants, such as Josef Fares’ popular comedies Jalla! Jalla! (2000) and Kopps (2003) or the excellent Före stormen (Before the Storm, 2000) and Om jag vänder mig om (Daybreak, Björn Runge, 2003). This attitude towards national cinema — that Swedish film should tell above all stories about living in the society rather than experimenting formally — has only continued in this year’s crop.
Particular to the festival’s Swedish films is the almost exclusive thematic emphasis on teenagers and rites of initiation: this is the year of the coming-of-age flick. The most formulaic was Linas kvällsbok (Bitter Sweetheart, 2007), based on Emma Hamberg’s popular novel of the same name. In it, Lina is a self-described “completely plain, completely normal, completely uninteresting” 15 year-old girl. Steeped in Danish director Hella Joof’s sepia tones, the film chronicles in voice-over diary entries Lina’s struggles with her catty friends, getting into a good high school, and losing her virginity to a hockey-playing oaf. Unfortunately, the stylised aesthetic jars with the pimply story. The camera work is a play of shifting shallow focus and the set design has the characters meeting coincidentally under the only street lamp on the block. But what is one to make of this beauty when the dialogue is littered with menstruation, chewing tobacco and vomit jokes? Joof’s film suffers in comparison with Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love, 1998). The films share genre, demographic and almost identical leading actresses. However, Moodysson’s grittier aesthetic, more daring narrative, and social critique lay bare Linas kvällsbok as more an exercise in nostalgia.
Swedish film’s focus on teenage girls’ sexuality — and in particular their sexual exploitation — is not new. Productions such as Hip Hip Hora! (The Ketchup Effect, 2004), Fjorton suger (Fourteen Sucks, 2004) and Säg att du älskar mig (Say that You Love Me, 2006) — not to mention Moodysson’s harrowing sex-trade fable Lilja 4-ever (Lilya 4-ever, 2002) — have set the trend in recent years with graphic depictions of rape and sexual exploitation. In some sense these films show the dark after-effects of the Swedish mother generation’s sexual revolution. Nanna Huolman’s debut feature Kid Svensk (That Special Summer, 2007) could appear akin upon superficial inspection: another film narrated in voiceover about a bratty adolescent curious for her first lay. However, despite the prominent friendship and romance between young protagonist Kiri (or “Kid”) and her childhood playmate Jamppe, the film is above all a mother-daughter love story and a milieu study of the Finnish minority in Sweden. Kid lives in 1984 Göteborg with her Finnish mother, a school janitor who speaks no Swedish and longs to return to her homeland. Although Kid wins an essay contest to work at Radio Göteborg for the summer, her mother decides that they will spend the summer in Finland with family friends. The trip yields sexual romances for both mother and daughter as well as a final reconciliation between the two. Huolman relates the feeling of home(land)lessness with sensitivity and restraint. Although the narrative stays fixed to the coming-of-age mold, Kid Svensk acknowledges outside political and social pressures, spheres that Linas kvällsbok denies. In between the “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” scenes emerges a provocative work about how daughters inherit their mothers’ sexuality, not to mention a pioneer snapshot of Sweden’s largest minority group, hitherto ignored in domestic features.
Helena Bergström is best known for her roles as oversexed blonde bombshell in husband Colin Nutley’s successful genre films, e.g. Änglagård (House of Angels, 1992) or Heartbreak Hotel (2006). This year’s festival saw her debut as director with Se upp för dårarna (Mind the Gap!, 2007). The film follows Yasmin and Elin, two young Stockholmers who dream of attending the police academy. Yasmin’s father is a Turkish heart surgeon who works as a subway driver; similar to Kid’s mother in Kid Svensk, his refusal to learn Swedish and integrate into the native society provokes a conflict with his children. Elin’s family is native Swedish with deep roots in the police and military and takes a skeptical attitude toward foreign-born aspiring female cops. Bergström proves herself a competent metteur-en-scène in the vain of her husband. In fact, her style is in general fresher and sexier than Nutley’s. With a Diana Ross soundtrack and the montage treatment, Stockholm feels like New York in a mid-’80s Hollywood flick. Se upp för dårarna functions agreeably as a feel-good family film, yet one would have wished for a more challenging scenario. As it stands the film’s politics ring as universally as one might imagine (i.e. “racism and sexism are not positive values”). Yasmin, “the foreigner”, is more intelligent and speaks better Swedish than Elin and shows herself to be far more moral (the latter sleeps with the police academy teacher and lies about it to her pushover boyfriend). Bergström thereby counters only the basest prejudices of the lowest common denominator. The message to those who, like Yasmin’s father, “refuse to integrate”, emerges as “become more modern and Swedish”. Such slogans contradict the film’s initial liberal stance towards immigrants.
Foreigners are all but nonexistent in Maria Blom’s sex dramedy Fishy (2007), which premiered at the festival after being shelved since its 2001 shoot. Blom rose to renown with Masjävlar (Dalecarlians, 2004), a box-office coup about a yuppie who returns to her provincial village for her father’s 70th birthday. Fishy was supposed to be a one-off practice feature on DV and never intended for release. This is a shame because its intimate spontaneous quality surpasses Masjävlar‘s formulaic narrative. Maria Blom’s acknowledged affinity with Cameron Crowe is startling; if Masjävlar was a Swedish Elizabethtown (2005), then Fishy is Singles (1992) set in Stockholm. My Bodell is delicious in her portrayal of a promiscuous twenty-something and Dan Gustafsson exudes nonchalant charm as the dorky boy-next-door in a long-term, long-distance relationship. With an episodic form and a crack soundtrack Fishy chronicles the beginning of a friendship and its development into a love affair subject to the ironic laws of bad timing. Let’s hope that Blom’s new film due in March, Nina Frisk, takes more from this witty chamber piece than Masjävlar.
One Swedish premiere thematised the young male experience. In Hata Göteborg! (Hating Göteborg!, 2007), 19 year-old Johan spends the Helsingborg dog days playing soccer and getting into brawls alongside his scrappy pals. Somehow, though, this summer is different. The group implodes as Johan discovers – via an enlightened cousin from Göteborg – a masculinity apart from the macho slugfests. Robert Lillhonga’s sensitive drama is in many ways precisely what Swedish genre cinema needs: stories particular to the provinces and to contemporary life. His film is more substantial than, for example, this year’s guldbagge (Swedish film prize) winner Förortsungar (Kidz in da Hood, 2006). The Gustaf (son of Stellan) Skarsgård star vehicle is surely enterprising in its musical form, but there is never any cultural specificity to the School of Rock (2003) story; the children are little rascals instrumentalised for their cuteness. Hata Göteborg! always maintains a harder edge and commitment to independent cinema. Lillhonga’s work is the rougher cousin of the Swedish Oscar contribution Farväl Falkenberg (Falkenberg Farewell, 2006); the former Helsingborg drama revolves around hooligan macho culture and its aesthetic is correspondingly rough. Jesper Ganslandt’s hippie drama – also a rejection of Göteborg – is a love letter to a gentler form of masculinity that nevertheless bears a dark postscript. As one director at the festival mused, Farväl Falkenberg is Terrence Malick doing a Dogma film.
Göteborg’s best film was Darling (2007), the deserved winner of the Nordic Competition. Johan Kling’s debut feature begins with a very 1970s credit sequence and a devilish score; Stockholm at night looks like London in American Werewolf (1981). The story follows two characters whose paths cross for a moment and then diverge: Eva, an arrogant young woman from the chic Stockholm neighbourhood Östermalm’s upper class, and Bernhard, a good-willed, unemployed 61 year-old. Eva is cool and blasé. Her world exists hermetically sealed between the White Room and Spy Bar clubs on Stureplan. After she loses her job at a Gucci boutique and her mother disappears to a lover in Dubai, Eva resorts to working at McDonald’s. It is there she meets Berhard, also forced to flip burgers because his age makes him a “liability” elsewhere in Sweden’s youth-centric society. Kling’s feat pairs American Psycho‘s cynical humour and Ken Loach-like social realism. This is not the unhappy marriage it might seem. Every time the Bernhard story tends toward the melodramatic, a cold burst of black comedy breaks the spell. Michelle Meadows – a media studies student with very little acting experience – excels in her role as the unreflective Eva with a whole spectrum of blank looks. Well-known character actor Michael Segerström is perfectly cast as the eternally grateful old-school Swede. Although Kling’s film could function as an overdrawn milieu study of the Stureplan set – a group who would sleep with anything in order to be rich and famous within those few square kilometers – it is above all a diagnosis of an historical break in Swedish society. For a nation fundamentally shaped by traditional Social Democratic values of solidarity and equality, today’s youth (born into universal prosperity) “rebels” with extreme narcissism and self-fetishisation. Darling unveils perfectly the subtext behind almost all of the festival’s films and the national cinema as a whole: life in Scandinavia is one big coming-of-age film.
If the Swedish films obsessed over teenagers and the loss of innocence, Iceland, the European country with the highest birthrate, presented a cinema preoccupied with parents and children — especially if one judges by Ragnar Bragason’s programmatic contributions, Foreldrar (Parents, 2007) and Börn (Children, 2006). In a land with 46 cinema screens for 300,000 residents, Bragason’s films have represented roughly one-third of Iceland’s annual features in the last two years. The twin movies share largely the same ensemble cast (including Iceland’s European Shooting Star, Gísli Örn Garðarsson), a similar black and white aesthetic, a suburban Reykjavík milieu, and the Short Cuts narrative form. Börn is the more violent of the two, casting Garðarsson as the vicious thug Gardar. After screwing up at work, Gardar attempts to re-enter the life of his estranged son. The boy’s mother, Karitas, is already locked in a bitter custody battle with her three daughters’ father. Foreldrar, which played in the Nordic Competition, was the better of the pair and revolves around three characters. Dentist Oscar has lived with his wife and her children for five years and longs for children of his own. Einar is a stockbroker with little social competence whose wife has thrown him out of the house. Katrin returns from Sweden to her son who rejects her for leaving eight years before. Börn and Foreldrar are acting-heavy pieces punctuated by long conversations (often shot through windows, store fronts, windshields, or other physical obstructions) improvised by the players: Cassavetes is a clear influence. Indeed, both ultimately succeed because of the high caliber ensemble and the plots’ unwillingness to fall into clichés. Unlike the more melodramatic examples of the parallel narrative form (i.e. Magnolia), Bragason leaves the intersubjective particularities open and ambiguous.
Rock’n'Roll Never Dies (2006) was Finland’s main attraction at the festival. Tiger is a remarkably boyish near-forty-something who lives with his parents and spends his days playing guitar and attending a creative writing class. The stories he writes for his class motivate voiceover flashbacks to his childhood. Tiger had a garage band with his pals Jack Nevada and Pumppu; his little brother Oku died of a disease that made him age very rapidly. In the present, Tiger and his parents are forced to move after the town’s saw mill closes. At the same time Tiger receives a letter from Jack Nevada, now living in America, and the metal band reunites for a last gig at a convention of Nevada’s pyramid scheme miracle cure, “Eternal Youth”. Veteran director Juha Koiranen delivers exactly what one would expect from a Finnish export: a cutesy brand of Aki Karausmäki’s laconicism with a big nod to Elling (2001). Quirky and harmless, the film should perform well abroad.
The Danes presented two films in competition. Prag (Prague, 2006) showcases Stine Stengade and the ubiquitous Mads Mikkelsen as a couple on their way to the Czech capital. Christoff is there to return his deceased father’s body to Denmark, but the trip steadily evolves into the break-up of his marriage with Maja. Ole Christian Madsen’s direction renders a Kafkaesque Prague from a “first-world”, Scandinavian perspective. This Bad Timing (1980) treatment suits the story, about a range of emergent psychosexual secrets. The more original Danish film, however, was Peter Schønau Fog’s Kunsten at græde i kor (The Art of Crying, 2006), based on the semi-autobiographical book by Erling Jepsen. Fog admitted in his introductory remarks to the screening that he didn’t know which bits of the book were fact or fiction and his film quite cleverly plays with this ambiguity. Like Badlands, the film presents a violent story with the innocent, unreliable voiceover of a child. Set in Denmark’s South Jutland region with largely non-professional actors speaking the local dialect, this mood piece depicts a family headed by a macho-diva father whose violent outbursts are followed by suicide threats and the sexual abuse of his children. Narrated in episodes by young Allan, Kunsten at græde i kor maintains a fine balance between black comedy and drama; above all this is a story about narration, perspective and hearsay. Fog’s direction and in particular veteran cinematographer Haral Gunnar Paalgaard’s exquisite sense of lighting in the location shooting are commendable.
Before the first film flickered at Göteborg, critics were proclaiming the “Year of the Norwegian Movie”. It was surely a form of cultural patriotism (or inferiority complex) that led the Swedish press to lament Norway’s three entries at Cannes. Among the films vying for the Ingmar Bergman Debut Award was Norway’s entry to the Oscars, Reprise (2006). Joachim (distant relative of Lars von) Trier’s first feature revolves around the friends Philip and Erik, who each post their book manuscript to a publishing house. One is accepted and quickly crowned his generation’s best author; the other flat-out refused. Trier (who was a two-time national skateboarding champion) claims to be “represent[ing] Oslo’s cultural ghetto” with this semi-autobiographical film and the work clearly has national-cultural relevance. The narrative unfolds in a mockumentary style with voiceover narration, hand-held camera and quick montage, introducing its now perhaps post-trendy theme of contingency and chance in the manner of Sliding Doors (1998) or Lola rennt (Run Lola Run, 1998). Trier’s direction is able and his representation proves no doubt true to the Norwegian capital’s young cultural elite. Still, the cast’s general attractiveness and slick charm might lead one to believe this is a tale about bankers rather than struggling writers. The Nordic Competition’s Norwegian entry, Den brysomme mannen (The Bothersome Man, 2006), also studies Norway’s upper-middle class, but with a slower pace unhinged from realism. In many ways of a piece with Sånger från andra våningen, Jens Lien’s feature is essentially an ethnographic/anthropological film about the mating and hunting habits in Social Democratic Norway. Forty year-old Andreas is a newcomer in a perfect city, where he quickly assumes a perfect life: job, apartment and a live-in girlfriend. Suddenly he is bewildered and irritated by this perfection and tries to kill himself — to no avail. Liens portrays Scandinavian society’s soullessness, but in a very different manner than Darling. Here the rich are less pernicious and immoral than vapid and unreflective.
The endless row of coming-of-age stories and general preoccupation with youth in the festival’s competition reveals a Scandinavian society anxious about a loss of innocence. And indeed, the Swedish national cinema is experiencing its own growing pains: in December the Swedish Film Institute announced its intention to redistribute its support money in the subsidy-heavy industry. Although the country has seen a boom in market share recently – half of the ten highest grossing films for the week of 7 February were domestic pictures, for instance – the sheer number of films produced annually (roughly half of Germany’s output, a country with nearly ten times Sweden’s population) has become cancerous. The new plan, to begin in 2007, calls for more funds to a smaller number of projects. Although some critics have named this system “Darwinism”, it might be time for the Swedish film to grow up.