Reporting on the new Nordic films that premiered at the 25th edition of Filmfest Hamburg turned out to pose both practical and ethical problems. There weren’t many and they weren’t very good, and though the causes that inspired some of them were worthy, their quality was outshined by much stronger films from elsewhere in the world.
How, for example, to assess The Wait, a documentary made for TV about an Afghan family seeking asylum in Denmark and falling victim to the cruel forces of bureaucracy? It raised an important topic: the abject injustice of these parents and kids being kept in uncertainty about their chances of remaining in their host country for years on end. But the film-makers flunked at everything else. It’s conspicuously unclear what exactly takes place at which moment, and it’s hard to escape the sense that all kinds of important information is being kept off-screen. And the crudely assembled footage/sound used to illustrate what these people went through to escape the Taliban and reach Denmark would shame a first-year film school student.
What Will People Say [+], about a bright Norwegian schoolgirl whose father forces her to endure an extended stay in her native Pakistan, was equally laudable in its intentions. Writer–director Iram Haq’s aim to address the devastating effects of enforcing ‘traditional’ mores on a young modern woman is clearly sincere. But she manipulates the heartstrings like Michael Bay does the adrenal gland, demanding not much more than moral outrage from a submissive audience. There’s hardly any attempt to understand or explain the family’s attitude. Even if it may be arguable that this is a fair way to treat appalling ideas about women, honour and justice, it doesn’t work in dramatic terms: everyone except the protagonist is underwritten and/or reduced to a caricature.
The girl’s particularly brutal encounter with corrupt Pakistani police officers, which caused walkouts, obliterated any sense of nuance the film may have had. Viewed at the festival alongside much more accomplished and truly brave work from countries like China and Iran, where trying to making ‘political’ films obviously means facing problems, dilemmas and dangers entirely unthinkable in Northern Europe, a film like Haq’s could hardly make an impression.
The Danish features screened in Hamburg, on the other hand, happily eschewed any reference to real life and any ambition to relevance. Both featured an unreliable narrator: in Letters From Amina, a psychiatric patient obsessed with a school friend; in Disappearance, the wife of a man whose brain disease may or may not have caused him to embezzle a fortune. The former was at least entertaining, the latter preposterous—and disappointing, since the director’s coming-of-age drama The Art Of Crying (2006) promised more than this.
Anton Sigurðsson’s Cruelty [+], a whodunnit about the murder of two pre-teen girls, was more memorable, if only because it lived up to its title. The inspector on the case spends the film ticking off possible suspects from a list of Reykjavík’s most miserable specimens, ranging from her own younger brother to an old man she accused of molesting a child decades earlier. It’s a competent crime drama, but two things make it more interesting than most of its sort. First, a relentlessly bleak view of Reykjavík’s seedy sides: the parade of people doing horrible things to each other is committedly grim (if sometimes risible, in the case of Iceland’s answer to Norman Bates). Second, expert use of sound. The film’s pervasive atmosphere of fear and loathing is amplified by unnerving ambient noises which interact with what’s on screen in interesting ways. Sigurðsson tried to achieve the same with his haunted house debut Graves And Bones (2014), but the technique turns out be much more effective in a realist context.
The Filmfest Hamburg took place between the 5th and 14th of October in Hamburg, Germany.