The Göteborg International Film Festival took place for the 38th time this year. It is the biggest film festival in Scandinavia, and one of the biggest ‘audience’ festivals in the world. For the lover of Scandinavian cinema, there is nothing that compares to it. The very first day of the festival, snowfall covered the beautiful seaside town all in white, and later rainfalls only reinforced the feel of Scandinavian winter. That in no way put a damper on the spirits of the locals, though, who showed up in big numbers at seemingly each and every screening. The main competition, The Dragon Award, which includes a prize of 1.000.000 Swedish Kronar, apparently the biggest prize in the festival world, is only for Nordic films, and included eight features. Every afternoon, eight days in a row, hundreds of people went to the beautiful old Draken cinema, capacity 708, and watched a new great Nordic feature film, followed by Q&A with the director.
Michael Noer won the Dragon Award for his first film R, co-directed with Tobias Lindholm. His first solo feature, Northwest, won the FIPRESCI prize here. Both films depict violent troubled young men, R focusing on life in prison, while Northwest depicts gang life in Copenhagen’s troubled Northwest neighborhood. So it might seem as if Key House Mirror, showing the life of an old woman at a retirement home named Sølund, is a swerve for the director. But if it is a swerve, it’s the best kind of swerve, the kind that shows new possibilities and horizons that was already graspable in the earlier films. We might have thought that Noer was a depictor of angry young men, but perhaps his strength is in showing a special kind of milieu, and in showing people feeling caught in their own lives? The early scenes showing life at Sølund are immensely strong, alternately warm and frightening. And Ghita Nørlund is great as Lily Sørensen, who originally moves into the home to be with her husband who can do almost nothing after having suffered multiple strokes, and then has to find meaning in her life, as well as fight her own troubles as she age. A brave and vulnerable performance. And the film is a triumphant surprise for Noer, showing a maturity of theme, and a willingness to depict his story in a truly filmic manner, especially through more and more confusing editing.
If Key House Mirror is an artistic breakthrough for Noer, then In Your Arms, by debuting director Samanou Acheche Salhstrøm, is the kind of promising debut that gives hope for such a breakthrough in the future. The visual side of In Your Arms is very poetic and impressive for a Danish film, especially impressive for a debuting writer-director, but every now and then there are a few signs of inexperience, in a stilted line or line reading. Lars von Trier is credited as ‘Creative Producer’, which makes sense. The film is a powerful look at a assisted suicide. Peter Plaugborg gives a strong performance as the young, bitter man, tired of his paralyzed existence and wanting to end it. Swedish actress Lisa Carlehed has the less flashy role – seeing as she can act with more than her face – playing the nurse escorting him to Sweden, and she is great as well.
Both Swedish films were about young women. My Skinny Sister is the first feature by Swedish filmmaker Susanna Lenken. It follows Stella, a not entirely skinny 12 year old girl, and Katja, the titular older skinny sister, whom Stella adores more than anything, but perhaps also resents ever so slightly. Katja is thin and beautiful, more mature, and an aspiring figure skater, while Stella is a bit weird, and not at all good at figure skating. But perhaps the beautiful sister has her ugly inner sides as well. The film lives in its amazing depiction of sisters and girlhood. Visually, it’s a bit indie-by-numbers, shakily handheld shots, a few more visually dynamic sequences, mainly of figure skating, and even an indie classical sound track by a Swedish composer doing his best to sound like Max Richter. And succeeding quite a bit, it has to be said. But the aesthetic side don’t show the personality and sure hand that permeates the handling of themes and character, which grows ever more impressive as the story grows darker. Also, both young actresses are stunningly good (The elder sister was played by Swedish child popstar Amy Diamond. Imagine Miley Cyrus starring in a drama about eating disorders. That is Sweden for you).
Underdog, directed by Ronnie Sandahl, stars young female comic Bianca Kronlöf who is a marvel in only her second screen performance. She plays Dino, a young Swedish woman living in Norway, with little money and a problem with alcohol abuse. The character doesn’t speak or act that much, so it all depends on the startling presence of the actress. There is so much power in her eyes, her smile, that it overwhelms everyone else in the film. Dino is hired to baby sit for an older, Norwegian man who’s estranged wife is in Botswana. He is by design a boring man, at times even slightly pathetic, so the romance between the two, which takes up much of the film, doesn’t excite much. Instead, the film lives in it’s great lived-in atmosphere, with characters and sets always seeming sweaty and messy. And a fine subplot shows the man’s teenage daughter, awkward and unsure of herself at the start of the film, slowly coming into her own by copying the way Dino carries herself.
Norway won the Dragon competition three last years in a row, but didn’t have the best of years this year. The film Homesick wasn’t among the best offerings in competition. The provocative drama focuses on Charlotte, a woman from a broken family, who’s need to belong leads to a much too close relationship with her half-brother. Ine Marie Wilmann is great as Charlotte, displaying both sides of a childlike forthrightness that at other times crosses over to insecurity. But once the provocative plot is underway, the film has trouble taking it anywhere exciting.
More successful was Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts, keeping the audience at Draken Bio enthralled throughout it’s runtime. An adaptation of a novel by Gunnhild Øyehaug, the film depicts the struggles of three female artists in different stages of life, with an energetic mix of voice over, crayon-drawings on screen and a percussion-filled soundtrack. Debuting director Yngvild Sve Flikke shows an impressive grasp on the tone of the film, shifting between hilarity and more thoughtful passages. By far the most fully formed of the debut features, the film does seem very novelistic and in thrall to it’s literary inspiration, which might have hurt it’s chances with the jury. Nevertheless, of all the films in competition, this seems to have the best commercial changes.
Icelandic filmmaker Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdson is inspired by American indie, and his debut film Either Way was in turn the inspiration for David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche. In Sigurdson’s Paris of the North the inspiration at times seems to come from Wes Anderson. The amazing title sequence at least looks quite Andersonian, with big yellow letters imposed on two long tracking shots of main character Hugi running through the little northwestern Icelandic town where he lives. Certain symmetrical framing of the city are Andersonian as well, as is the focus on men needing to grow up. But the film is filled with Icelandic humor, such as the local AA-meetings featuring Hugi, the father of his ex-girl-friend, and the father of said ex-girl-friend’s 10-year old son. Not much anonymity in that group. That son is also the only person in town Hugi really connects with. Like last years Nordic Council Film Award winner Of Horses and Men, Paris of the North is a darkly funny look at Icelandic manhood.
The clear standout in the competition was Finnish They Have Escaped, by Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää. The only film willing to go into truly dark territory, its first screening was divisive, with enthusiastic hollering at the end, but also much less people left in the audience than was there at the beginning. A road movie about a young boy and girl on the run from the juvenile institution where she’s living and he’s working, the first stretch is as energetic and humourous as any film in competition. But the film grows more and more dreamlike as it goes along, culminating in a trancelike sequence of the young couple doing drugs, featuring slow-motion, Fauré’s calm Pavane on the soundtrack, and the actors clad in animal skins in the woods. Some films feature sudden twists in an attempt to shock the audience. What They Have Escaped does is much worse, lulling the audience into a dreamlike state, and then slowly but steadily turning into a nightmare. Tough, dark, unshakable, They Have Escaped is a divisive must see.
There is also a competition for documentary films, which is less prestigious, though the film were no less accomplished. All the Nordic countries boast documentary filmmakers of a very high level. The competition was slightly lopsided this year, though. In fact, when wished ‘the best of luck’ in the documentary competition, Amir Escandari, who directed the film Pixadores, answered: ‘We need more than luck. The Look of Silence is a masterpiece.’ Having already won Silver Lion at Venice and the DOX:Award in Copenhagen, The Look of Silence was the clear frontrunner, but if it hadn’t been that one, it could very well have been Escandari’s visceral and aesthetisized depiction of a group of young grafitti-artists from Sao Paolo. Not many documentaries gets nominated for technical prizes, but at the 2015 Jussi awards, but Pixadores was nominated for Cinematography and Sound Design, on top of Best Documentary.
The name of Magnus Gertten’s entry into the competition, Every Face Has a Name, sums up several of the other entries. Around half of the competition focused on giving names to the nameless, voice to the voiceless. Gertten’s film is great in it’s simplicity, working from archival footage of refugees from the concentration camps arriving at Malmö on the 28th of April, 1945, Gertten finds out who some of those faces were, and lets them tell their stories. It is then contrasted with another boat full of refugees from Syria and Africa arriving in Italy this summer. Thoughtful and inspiring, the film won the Angelos-prize, a film prize given out by the Swedish churches. Frida Kempff’s very fine ‘Winter Buoy’ offered a near going look on social workers in Toronto, working to help pregnant women dealing with mental health, homelessness, addiction and abusive boyfriends. The film is strong and visually impressive, featuring long takes and the cold blue colors of Canadian winter. And Pervert Park, by Frida and Lasse Barkfors, did something more disturbing, letting sex offenders living in a community in Florida tell their own stories, some of which gives sympathy to the offenders through tales of broken childhoods, abuse, and police entrapment, though in other cases there isn’t a whole lot of redeeming features in tales of anger and rape. Still, the film insists on the humanity of people that society would rather disappear altogether.
The two Danish docs dealt with the same issues, but in more complex ways. Democrats by Camilla Nielsson depicts the process in Zimbabwe of creating a new constitution after the violent election in 2008. Ostensibly a process of allowing the people to be heard, the film quickly comes to depict a fight between Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and the opposition party MDC-T. The sad conclusion finds Mugabe shelving the constitution after it has been signed, making the film a portrait of the voice of the people being defeated by the power of the system. The Look of Silence, on the other hand, shows the other outcome. Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing, this time the film focuses on the victims of the Indonesian genocide in the sixties. Following Adi as he confronts the murderers with what they did, the film not only allows visibility to the victims, it puts the victim up against the power of the system to silence him, and, as the two films by Oppenheimer has been among the most famous documentaries of the last few years, to an extent it delivers an important blow on the victims behalf. As such, even with so many of the docs telling worthwhile stories, there was a feeling that Look of Silence was the one film that took things one step further.
At the other end of the spectrum was Solveig Melkeraaen’s Good Girl, a film about her own struggle with depression. While being a fine film, it did bring up the question why, since depression is such an internal thing, and has been the subject of so much great art, it would fit the documentary form rather than simply being a fiction film. Only in the final 20 minutes, as actual real unplanned events intrude on the plan of the filmmaker, does the film achieve some of the realness and energy that the documentary form allows.
(If there had been an Audience Award for Best Documentary, my guess is it would have gone to Lina Mannheimer’s The Ceremony. That film was so popular that every screening was sold out, making it impossible to review it.)
In the competition for Best Swedish Short Film, the audience award went to Amanda Kernell’s beautiful Northern Great Mountain, about an old woman confronted with her Sami heritage in Northern Sweden. The jury instead went with John Skoog’s art-short Rediut, a single tracking shot circling in and out of an old house build in the forties to protect the locals against a potential Soviet invasion. Also worthy of mention was Maximilien von Aertryck’s absurd documentary short Second Deputy Speaker, a depiction of the futile protest the other political parties undertook when the far-right Sweden Democrats became the third biggest party in Sweden, and therefore had earned the prestigious post of Second Deputy Speaker in the Swedish Parliament. Funny in a tragicomic way, it’s a sharp portrait of the political paralysis that has overtaken much of Europe.
All in all, the program was strong, without any bad films, but perhaps also lacking singular visions such as Concrete Night, Of Horses and Men or Something Must Break, three tough films all in competition in 2014. In this – Danish – writer’s opinion, Denmark had the best showing at the festival, and therefore it seemed quite right that the prizes mostly favoured that country. In Your Arms ended up winning the main prize, and the critics FIPRESCI prize as well, while The Look of Silence – obviously – won the Documentary Prize. The Cinematography prize deservedly went to They Have Escaped, while the Audience Award slightly surprising went to My Skinny Sister instead of Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts – though seeing as the audience was Swedish, and that the prize was handed out on Saturday, perhaps the Norwegian film that premiered on Friday was at a disadvantage. Outside of Scandinavia, the Ingmar Bergman International Debut Award went to Bulgarian film The Lesson by Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva, while the Audience Award went to Estonian In the Crosswing by Martti Helde.
If anybody wants to travel to see Scandinavian cinema, Gothenburg in January is the place to be. Outside of the competitions, there is also a retrospective on the film-year in Sweden, and a yearly spotlight on another Scandinavian country. This year it was Norway, showing films such as Blind and In Order of Disappearance. Several other parts of the programme showed Scandinavian films of all kinds, from the new film by Oscar-winner Susanne Bier, to debut features from all over the region. Outside of that, there’s the usual assortment of festival-favorites, gala-screenings of forthcoming films, and small gems from all over the world. The audience was game for even the toughest propositions – even the four (!) screenings of 5½ hour black-and-white Filipino drama From What is Before sold a fair amount of tickets. Both as a celebration of Scandinavian films, and as a celebration of films in Scandinavia, it’s still unrivaled anywhere.