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A Surrealist Documentation of Life: Johannes Nyholm’s THE GIANT

Johannes Nyholm’s first feature entitled The Giant premiered in Sweden on 14 October. The long-awaited debut film has already gained recognition abroad, and now it continues its triumphant run in its home country. The Giant is a surrealist drama injected into a documentary, or shall I say that it is a documentary injected into a surrealist drama? Either way it dazzles its viewers, and gives hope for them that another tomorrow is possible.

Once upon a time there was a film director who wanted to realise his feature film but was hindered by the lack of resources to actually do that. Time went by, short films were made, and one day the surrealistic tale finally escaped from its imprisonment, and words became images thanks to a few producers who were brave enough to take risks. The start is definitely promising as Johannes Nyholm’s film is both praised by critics, and viewers at festivals responded positively to it. The domestic audiences are yet about to discover it on the big screen.

The Giant’s main character is Rikard, who faces many challenges in life, but tackles all the obstacles thanks to his inner strength. He is on the spectrum, he lives in a home for mentally challenged people far away from his mother, and his appearance is far from being normal – or what people consider normal. He is passionate about pétanque, and he is training with his teammates to win the Nordic pétanque championship in Denmark. He doesn’t speak that much but he expresses his ideas, thoughts and emotions in his own way. Those might seem incomprehensible as Rikard’s ability to speak is hindered, however, his great friend, Roland always tries to understand them. He takes the time to explore Rikard’s world, and even if the entire world was against them, they would keep on fighting to prove that nothing is impossible if you have a friend you can count on.

Johannes Nyholm’s film, which combines the elements of documentary and fiction films, advocates the importance of human relationships. The story offers plenty of modes to interpret it, either one focuses on the colourful, surrealistic part of it, or the realistic one, in which the colours are rather matt and deep in tone. The divine and mundane images perfectly supplement each other, which diminishes the distinction between these two worlds and creates a balanced world with full of possibilities. Rikard wanders around in this world, and tries to make sense of life in it. He is really fond of Roland, but also of his mentally ill mother who couldn’t take care of him. Still, his love is so strong, he wants her to be proud of him, and therefore he sends all the cups he wins to her. Those exemplify how much he is worth despite all his disabilities and struggles he has to overcome to demonstrate to his teammates and others that he shouldn’t be treated differently.

In spite of the fact that Nyholm emphasises weirdness and analyses the reaction to it, his film undeniably describes a universal story. Everyone can be in a situation in which he/she needs to destroy barriers of some sort to be able to articulate what he/she is thinking of. The condition and the process of alienation greatly characterise today’s society. Everyone ought to feed her/his inner giant to overcome all the challenges one encounters during life.

The film, in which professional and amateur actors are playing, has already gained some recognition on the festival circuit. It has won the Special Prize of the Jury at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, and the jury awarded a special mention to the film at the Reykjavík International Film Festival this year. Its success surely will continue concerning both its theatrical and future festival release.

Since we were absolutely amazed by the universe Johannes Nyholm created, we interviewed him to discuss certain aspects of the film. We talked about the idea and the splendid music of the film as well as the importance of the casting process.

Cinema Scandinavia: You mentioned in the crowd-funding video that you had written the script 10 years before. What were the main ideas behind the story?

Johannes Nyholm: The main idea was to present a psychotic state I experienced in a feverish dream as a child. In that dream I felt isolated from the rest of the world, my body was trapped in another body that I could control remotely. Moreover, people around me were alien to me, and I could not communicate with them. This state of disconnection from the world is present in Rikard, the main character – both in body and mind. I’m also curious to see how he deals with it, and how society deals with him.

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How much has the script changed during the years, if it’s changed at all?

After I had found producers who were keen on helping me realise it, I fine-tuned it, made the dramatic curves clearer, and gave the characters more depth. In an early stage the script was more atmospheric, subtle and less dramatic.

At the press conference in San Sebastián you were talking about the casting process being crucial regarding the film. Please tell us about the reasons for this. 

Rikard is very unreal in his looks and appearance, but it is important to me that you believe in him as an existing being, as a human. So my strategy was to surround him with a kitchen sink realistic world, characters and cinematic language. In order for this to work, we used existing environments, and real people playing roles close to their own personas.

When it comes to the pétanque, for example, as an old pétanque player, it was crucial for me that you could see that the characters could play for real, that they moved around on the court as experienced player do. Instead of looking for actors who could play or learn how to play pétanque, we were looking for pétanque players who could act. This was quite a demanding task.

The biggest task however was to find the main character Rikard. I felt like the happiest man in the world when I finally met amateur actor Christian Andrén. He and only he could play that role. He had the background that made him understand the character on a deep level, and he had the humour and strong psyche to be able to handle being trapped in a thick head mask for two months.

What were the greatest challenges you have to overcome during filming?

This size of production was new to me. I am used to work in my own small-scale production company with few people, and have full control. Here, in the most extreme scenes, we were sometimes fifty people behind the camera and 300 in front of it. In addition to that, the amount of stress added by the lack of time was quite demanding. The scenes, which were the most difficult to do, were the most intimate and emotional ones. Doing those within a tight time frame is frustrating. Sometimes we got away with them by pure luck.

You also spoke about the tone of the film. You said when you have to make a decision whether you want to show the ‘dark side’ or the ‘light side’ of life, you would always vote for the latter. The Giant’s ending is certainly more of a happy ending but the scenes before it indicate much darker events. Do you consider it a real happy ending or is this that glimpse of hope you mentioned?

I don’t think I should say too much about the ending, since it could ruin the experience for someone… But sure, it’s an ambiguous ending. I’ve seen some people cry, some people smile, and others looking totally indifferent. What I personally think is not so important, but I want to give something to everyone.

You aimed at creating a combination of documentary and fiction film – which you have done in other films, too. Why do you find this kind of mix the most rewarding?

To me, film-making is a play. I want to feel free and fly unhindered through different cinematic expressions. I don’t like to get trapped in a certain form or shape. I want to give the viewer a ride into the unknown, into new exciting worlds where rules come and go and irrationality plays a big part. In this film the idea was to have a strong documentary fundament to make the audience relate to and identify with the characters, before gradually giving them stronger and stronger wings, so they could fly and watch the world from another perspective. The fairy tale aspect is important to me to communicate with the inner child in people, especially, since this story stems from the inner child in me.

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The film score is absolutely stunning and characteristic, just as in your short films. I’d say it’s one of the characters. How is the music composed and developed?

I already thought of Björn Olsson, one of my favourite musicians. For my latest short film I used a lot of his music, but then it was all pre-composed. This time Björn composed most of the music from scratch. I went to his home outside of Gothenburg quite a lot, we played a lot of table tennis, and listened a bit to what he had done. Then a little bit of talking and more table tennis. I realised early that I should give him more or less total freedom, not trying to cut his wings, only then would he feel inspired enough to produce his magic.

The music played by Rikard’s mum is written by Peder Andersson, my stepfather. He played it a lot when I was young – on the same accordion that the mother uses in the film. He has made some truly amazing songs that I would love the rest of the world to hear.

The Giant is your first feature film. Do you have another script in your drawer? What is next for you?

Before The Giant I started to work on another feature called Koko-di Koko-da. It’s more of a chamber play, more small scale, with few actors and a small crew, produced by my own company. It’s completely different from The Giant; it looks totally different. There are also some similarities though, with a realistic world and a dream world colliding. But while The Giant is bright and shiny, Koko-di goes down the pit-hole, into a spiralling maelstrom of terror.

Film details

The Giant / Jätten / Directed by Johannes Nyholm / Produced by Maria Dahlin & Morten Kjems Juhl for Beofilm & Garagefilm International / Written by Johannes Nyholm / Starring Christian Andrén, Johan Kylén & Anna Bjelkerud /  Local release date 14th October 2016

CategoriesIssue 16
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.