It’s 100% Experience: An Interview with Stefan Björnlund, the Director of the Existential Film Festival Dalarna

This article is part of the new issue of Cinema Scandinavia and is free to read online for one week. To read this article (and many other great ones!), please order a copy of our magazine or become a member. 

It’s been the 14th edition of the festival this year, so please tell us about your concept. What should everyone know about the festival?

The founder of the festival is Tomas Axelson, who had been the head of the festival for ten years before I took over the position. He’s now an Associate Professor at Dalarna University, so the festival started out as an academic event, but nowadays the focus is not so much on the academic, even though it is still part of it and connected to the university. Besides the university, there are three other organisations behind the festival: Film i Dalarna, Sigtunastiftelsen and Studieförbundet Bilda. Our aim is to provide a place for the audience to engage in different discussion on films and the issues related to them. Every year we have a main theme and several sub-themes, which are usually connected to the identity. What is special about our festival is that one cannot buy tickets for one or two screenings, but a festival pass. Those who attend the festival stay for two days, so it’s more of an intimate experience they can gain during their time in Falun. In addition to film screenings, we also offer a short film and work-in-progress section, and people can participate in seminar discussions. Our seminars are constructed in a way in which half of time is given to the panellists and the other half to the audience.

Festivals have a huge power when it comes to choosing which motion pictures should be presented. How do you select films?

We always start the selecting process in August. Unfortunately, we are a small festival, so we don’t have the capacity to go out to the world and find films. It would be amazing, though. It’s an advantage that we in the programming group are from different fields, so we can ask each other what kind of films the other has seen and what films people are talking about. Thinking about one film can lead us to another one that deals with the same issue but from a different perspective. So we can build our programme step by step. Of course, we aim at showcasing a diverse programme – not only in terms of countries and directors but also the characters in films. In addition to that, we always want to screen at least one documentary. Generally speaking, we want to include more serious films, which are usually screened at the beginning of the festival, and we tend to finish with happier pieces. We’ve also had a discussion on presenting TV shows in our programme, but we haven’t really found a good solution to do that yet.

What is your experience: Are people more interested in documentaries nowadays or are they still keen on watching more fiction films?

I think people are more familiar with fiction films, but also very interested in documentaries. One of the reasons for that is that many stunning documentary films are released here in Sweden every year.

The increasing number of films does not necessarily mean more access to films. Is it difficult for you to get the films you want to screen?

Not really, since we usually contact the Swedish distributors to get a copy of the films. The year when we screened Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, we wrote to the director, who told us to screen the director’s cut, because that version explained so much more. However, it must me mentioned that these films might be still in cinemas or were released a few years earlier. This is exactly the reason for putting the emphasis on the discussions visitors can join. This is how we can convince them to come and be part of our festival, even if they might have already seen the films we present.

Falun is located a few hours away from Stockholm, which might deter someone from visiting the festival. What is the composition of your audience?

People typically come to the festival as part of their work, other than that mostly regional people. I can really say that we have a core audience the members of which usually come back every year. Some people just meet here once a year. We also try to encourage students to attend the festival by giving them discount, since it might be expensive for a student to pay the full price. This is how I got involved, and – I can tell you – by attending the festival students can receive so much. If someone is planning to become a film-maker, the festival is the perfect place for them – not only to establish contacts but also to understand how film works and how to talk about films. Five years ago we also tried to organise the festival on a Friday and Saturday with the aim of including a more general public, but it did not work, so we went back to Thursday and Friday.

How many people can you host in Falun?

We can host approximately 160 visitors besides the people behind the festival. Our venue is the Mediahuset in Falun where we have two halls, so we can screen two films simultaneously. In order to be able to host more visitors, we should spread out to other venues, but we wouldn’t like to do that, because the intimate atmosphere of the festival would be gone.

Do you organise others screenings throughout the year?

Not really, but our organisations do, and we also have a pre-seminar right before the actual festival starts. It is more about the technical aspects of film-making, still it is more theoretical. In the last years it was about reception, narration and eye tracking. We don’t really hold any technical workshops, because the university is pretty good at those.

At events moderators tend to say that Swedish audience members don’t ask questions, because they are too shy. What have you experienced in Falun?

We don’t really have this problem anymore. Our visitors know the concept, and they know they can say anything. Students also come to realise that their opinion matters. It doesn’t matter who you are and where you’re from, your comments and questions are valid.

Any memorable moment related to that?

Once we screened Anna Odell’s The Reunion (Återträffen in Swedish, 2013), which is a really special Swedish film, because wherever it was screened, there was always someone who had a similar story. People have so much stuff to talk about after ten years: how they were treated or how they treated others. It is big part of life when you’re a teenager and you’re trying to find out who you are. After the festival screening we had the same experience. It’s one thing that you can see people being emotional when coming out of a screening, but another one when you can hear their stories. This is a big pay-off when it comes to a festival.

In recent years due to the technological advancements, people can attend more and more festivals online. Do you also stream the panel discussions and seminars live?

We tried it a few years ago to see how it would work. However, we still need to find a solution to that, because even if you are not at the festival, you should be able to partake in it in some way. YouTube is a great tool indeed. One can watch (live) so many interesting events online today, so it doesn’t matter that the seminars or the masterclasses take place in London or Copenhagen, people interested in the topic have the possibility to follow them online.

This might be one direction for the festival to develop… Even though you have a well-functioning festival for fourteen years, I assume you had to tackle a few obstacles in the past to reach the level you’re at now. What are the greatest challenges you have to face today?

Luckily, we have tons of experience now, so we know how things are done, but, of course, there are issues that need to be addressed, for instance, how we should develop, whether we should organise it more than once a year. But we don’t really know the answers yet. What we are certain about is that we want to keep the format, because otherwise we lost the core of the festival. People are consuming films and television on a much larger scale, and these media are important tool to start a discussion.

The audience is really in the centre of your festival. What can they expect this year?

This year’s main theme is ‘those you love’, we focus on close relationships and how we treat those we say we love. We screen nine feature-length films, have a work-in-progress session, a short film package and a few seminars. For example, we present Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, which is about how we construct relationships. Our audience can also see Spike Jonze’s Her, which is more about pushing the boundaries of how we define relationships. A few Swedish film-makers will attend the festival this year. Swedish director Suzanne Osten is coming to talk about her experience as a film-maker, and documentary film-maker Sara Broos and Guldbagge-winner Ahang Bashi will also visit Falun. This year’s pre-seminar is devoted to film music. Film scholar Johnny Wingstedt will talk about music in films. •

This year’s festival took place 6–7 April 2017 in Falun.

Website: www.existentiellfilmfestival.se

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.