Interview with Nordic-Region Programmer Steve Gravestock at TIFF

Interview by Erik Anderson

Birthdays can be a time for great reflection, and there are few birthdays which carry the gravitas of 40; one can no longer claim amnesty for impetuous impulsivities that go along with youthful decision-making, nor can one hide from the wrinkled laugh lines of experience accrued with wisdom. But perhaps one doesn’t want to. With forty can come self-confidence, stature, a sense of oneself, and the hard-wrought dividends of accomplishment. The Toronto International Film Festival is no different in this regard. From its humble beginnings as an upstart aggregate program to its near-dominant sway in the run-up to the Oscar season, TIFF has continued to assert itself on the world stage and made Toronto a surprising epicentre of glitz and glamour in the early fall season.

Now celebrating its 40th year, TIFF continues to show hundreds of films from around the world, including many from the Nordic region. This year’s line-up boasted films from some of the region’s most luminous filmmakers, including Joachim Trier and Anders Tomas Jensen, amongst many others.

I had the chance to sit down with its Nordic-region programmer, Steve Gravestock, to speak about the festival’s love affair with Nordic cinema, the region’s shared sensibility with Canada, and the ‘dogme’ of being jokingly serious… Or was it seriously joking?

How did you get involved with TIFF and the Nordic file in particular?

A lot of the programming department is organised geographically. I do Canadian features, Nordic features, and the Filipino features as well. At the time when Piers (Handling) suggested that I take on the Nordic file, there was no one doing it, so it was a wide open territory. And it was a very rich time to start because it was only a couple years after the breakthrough with Dogme and Celebration and the emergence of (Lars) von Trier. And there’s a deep cinematic tradition in all of the countries. I had a long interest in Scandinavian cinema going back to watching Jan Troell movies on TV in the seventies when New Land and The Immigrants were first on TV.

Did TIFF screen some of those early Dogme’95 films?

Oh yeah. I think (TIFF) programmed Celebration and quite a few of those for sure. I don’t think we played Dancer in the Dark because that opened in New York that year but we definitely played Breaking The Waves and for sure Europa, because I reviewed that in a college paper, actually. When I started, the first major thing I did with Nordic cinema was showing a big spotlight, and we showed Lone Scherfig’s Italian For Beginners, which was her big breakthrough and we showed Ole Christian Madsen’s Kira’s Reason, and that year we also had the Oscar-nominated film Elling by Petter Naess from Norway. And we had a Jan Troell film, As White As in the Snow, a beautiful epic film about an aviatrix in the 1920s. Really strong, and very much a portrait of women fighting for a more prominent position in society. We eventually had Jan Troell here with Everlasting Moments which was a tribute to his mother. In the end, it was a thrill because Troell was always one of my favourites.

And you had Susanne Bier as well?

Yeah, Susanne Bier. We showed her first Dogme one – the one with Mads Mikkelsen-

Open Hearts?

Yeah, Open Hearts. And then we’ve had a long relationship with Susanne since then. Brothers, which I think was probably her major international breakthrough, and then After the Wedding, which wound up being Oscar nominated. And of course In a Better World and subsequent titles.

She, of course, has collaborated with (Anders Tomas) Jensen who has a film in the festival this year (starring Mads Mikkelsen)-

Anders, yeah. Anders co-wrote with Lone Scherfig and Susanne Bier, and also at one point was collaborating with von Trier on Antichrist too. It’s great to have him back this year – that film (Men & Chicken) has done quite well here. There’s a real sort of buzz around it. And we’re lucky to have the actors here, too. Soren Malling and Nicolaj Lie Kaas. It’s a very funny, quite twisted movie.

Mikkelsen’s fantastic in it-

Yeah, and Nicolas Bro too.

Knowing the region so well, do you notice a lot of these links between the films, in terms of the collaborations? Because Scandinavia and the Nordic countries are still quite small in population.

They’re smaller in terms of population, but I think in every country there is a real deep tradition of filmmaking, and I think a real desire to see their stories told on screen. A lot of the stuff I see feels quite contemporary and you don’t always get that in other national cinemas. There’s a desire to assess where they’re at in relation to their traditions. In particular, Sweden was one of the first to really deal with the demographic shift and the change in population with Jalla! Jalla! from a while back – a really fun movie about the Lebanese immigrants to Sweden; and it was one of the first countries to take in a large number of Lebanese immigrants.

The countries have their own characteristics and idiosyncrasies, but do you think there is a semblance of an overall approach to Nordic cinema or do you find that the countries themselves are very different in their approaches?

I find there are certain motifs that pop up, though a pan-Nordic thing is deeply problematic. But those motifs/themes – they’re the kind of things that make good drama. There’s a lot of dysfunctional families and bad parenting. And there’s also a sense of humour that is shared or at least recognised in the Nordic countries, and I think that there’s an affinity to that in Canada. It’s a sinister humour; making fun of things that aren’t conventionally made fun of. A bleaker, darker, sensibility. I think that’s related to climate and the close proximity to one another. Obviously, in all those countries, nature plays a key role, but I think that nature is also a bit of an adversary- especially in the winter months. I wouldn’t want to play that up too much, but I think that sensibility is close to Canada.

That’s interesting because I was going to ask if you thought there were any links in terms of sensibility to Canada-

The humour is somewhat caustic too, and self-deprecating – particularly with the Norwegian stuff, and the Danish stuff. And the Icelandic stuff – well, I guess all of them really-

Ha. Pretty much-

But there are serious links in terms of ancestry; there is a large number of population of Icelanders in Manitoba and Gimli and places like that, and you know, Guy Madden has roots in Iceland, Sturla Gunnarsson, etc. And similarly, there’s a very large Finnish population in northern Ontario. Particularly in Thunder Bay, but I think also Sudbury a bit, so I think that it strengthens those links.

And the other things that reverberate, is that they (Nordic filmmakers) often go to the same film schools because even though they are different languages there’s a lot of similarity between the languages, particularly between Norwegian and Swedish and Danish. And a bit of Icelandic too. Not so much Finnish. But almost every major filmmaker from the region has done something in English. So English also links them up as well.

Speaking of which, as you pointed out— Finnish is pretty exclusive in terms of its language, except for one other country that sometimes comes up in terms of the Nordic region: Estonia, whose language is fairly intelligible with Finnish.

Yeah, we’ve done some Estonian films; Mushrooming, etc. But I think that also the serious link between Finland and Estonia was television, actually. There’s a really great documentary called Disco and Atomic War that deals with how getting Western television really strengthened the bond between Finland and Estonia because that’s how they heard about the West. And I think that they were able to move quicker after the fall of the Soviet Union in terms of westernising while retaining a fairly unique flavour to things. I mean, if you go into Tallinn there are still huge markets every day. So it’s pretty neat that way.

Would it be part of the region that you cover?

I do look at Estonia, but it will vary according to the year. Sometimes there are other programmers looking at Estonia as well. Dimitri (Eipides) showed an Estonian film last year, and I think Andréa (Picard) showed one the year before. So it depends on the year. Andréa is obviously is looking for something more specific, through Wavelengths (a TIFF program) – which tends to be more avant-garde or less narrative-is driven than the stuff I tend to show, or the areas I’ve covered. But I think that there are lots of interesting things happening in Estonia. It is by far the biggest producer in the (Baltic) area.

What is the process for you in terms of deciding on the films? Is there a certain amount of slots?

I usually get about ten slots and we go from there. We try to distribute those evenly, but it will also depend on the year and what you see. Even though the program department is organized geographically it’s not super territorial. Often people will like the same film, so depending on the film and depending on the year I could do it or someone else could. For example, Michèle (Maheux) showed the first Baltasar (Kormakur) film we showed, 101 Reykjavik, and she was probably most closely associated with After the Wedding when it played here, and she showed Susanne Bier’s comedy, the one with Pierce Brosnan, All You Need is Love. It depends on who likes it the most and who can position it the best, in some ways. With ‘Platforms’ it’s different too. Land of Mine was done very well and it opened in the Platforms section and it has done quite well this year, which is nice to see because Martin (Zandvliet)’s a very interesting filmmaker and his producer has really done some cool work too.

So do you go to the Nordic festivals as well, to scout?

No, I go directly to the countries and we do private screening trips. It’s a great region to do because the institutes are incredibly well organised and they all have a connection to Toronto, so it’s fun that way. It’s not particularly onerous. The toughest part is which films to select because there are usually just too many good films for me to show everything that I like. You always have to make some tough decisions. The other cool thing is that particularly I think in Sweden, Noway and Denmark too, there are a lot of women working. Susanne Bier, Lone Scherfig in Denmark, Zaida Bergroth in Finland, Pirjo Honkasalo in Finland, Eva Sorhaug, Anne Sewitsky in Norway, Solveig Anspach in Iceland, Lisa Langseth in Sweden, this year Hannah Skold and Alexandra-Teresa Keining from Sweden, so it’s nice to see. And the films are quite distinctive.

How many Nordic films do you usually watch?

Depending on the year, it’s usually around 60 or 70 but it’s been higher. It’s usually picking one in seven or one in eight.

Land of Mine (2015)

And in terms of this year’s films, are there any highlights for you? Or are there ones you think will play especially well to audiences?

Hopefully they will all click as widely as possible, but there are some films that will play stronger to some audiences than others. It will be fun to see what happens with Land of Mine, Martin Zandviliet’s film, which was produced by Mikael Rieks -the producer I mentioned earlier- and Men & Chicken and The Wave has done well in terms of sales; Roar Uthaug’s film. I’m pretty keen on Girls Lost; Alexandra-Therese Keining’s film, which I thought it was pretty awesome. And I really liked the Finnish doc- well, I really liked them all or I wouldn’t have shown them-

I guess so!-

But I also think Rams could be a breakthrough for Icelandic cinema- and we had a strong Icelandic component this year. We had a new doc by Fridrik (Thor Fridriksson) and Bergur Bernburg, Sparrows – Runar Runarsson’s film, who I think is an extremely talented filmmaker. And obviously Rams, which won the prize at Un Certain Regard (Cannes). It’s a very Icelandic movie too. They all seem very tied to— well, it’s not hard to figure out they’re Icelandic. There’s a specific sensibility. A lot of it does come from the sagas too (the Viking Sagas). But anyway, you tend not to pick one, you’re hoping they will all do well.

This year you also have Joachim Triers film, Louder than Bombs

Yeah, it’s a great film. We’ve been lucky with Joachim, I think I was one of the first people to see Reprise.

Oh really? Three for three (great films). He’s doing pretty well.

He’s a sensational filmmaker, yeah. It’s funny because I think anybody can walk in and know what’s going on in Joachim’s films, but he’s hardly a conventional filmmaker. He really does play with time a lot. But there’s a sense of humour in the films too. They’re not comedies, but there are a liveliness and a vitality to them. At the same time, they are still quite serious too. It’s like the Jesper Jargil comment about Dogme – he made several documentaries about the Dogme filmmakers- and he said that “Dogme is a joke, but it’s a very serious joke.” And I think that applies to Anders’ work too. They’re funny, but they’re jokes about something that is significant, as opposed to someone just falling out of a chair. Although I’m sure Anders could make that funny too!

And do you have any favourite Nordic films or filmmakers (of all time)?

Well, the Passion of Joan of Arc is pretty major, and for me, Land of Dreams is pretty crucial. Karin Julsrud’s film was pretty key for me- Bloody Angels, and Pal Sletaune’s film, Junk Mail, Insomnia from Erik Skjoldbaerg. etc. And I keep finding films from Fredrick (Thor Fridriksson) that I love. I was in Iceland this spring and watched this great documentary called Icelandic cowboys. It was the only well-known country singer in Iceland. And I saw his movie called The Circle where he drove around Iceland because they finally put a road in around Iceland, and he just drove all the way around the country. And it’s funny because of course, it’s in the summer so the night only shows up very briefly because there is no night. You’re always finding new films or older films that you didn’t have the chance to see. So it’s quite rich that way.

I think a lot of classic Nordic filmmakers names have come up, and yet Bergmans name has never come up once in this conversation. Which is rare in a conversation about Nordic cinema-

Yeah, but you know, Ingmar Bergman is so monolithic. My favourite film by him is Smiles of a Summers Night, which is not the one people normally cite, though it’s an amazing movie. I’m not as big on the trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence). A lot of the stuff I know about the cinema came from people like Pauline Kael, and she was not a huge Bergman fan-

But she defended him from Andrew Sarris, which is one of my favourite take-downs in all of media-

Yeah yeah. But Bergman is clearly linked to those kind of domestic dramas —Ibsen, Strindberg— with a lot of psychoanalysis too, and Kael was never big on psychoanalysis, so I think that was part of it. When we did the spotlight in 2001, there was this thing that Jonathan Rosenbaum talked about a lot which is: there is almost this shorthand that film critics do, where one area can only be represented by one filmmaker, and that’s Bergman. When in fact there were many others, like Bo Widerberg and Jan Troell who were working at the same time, and in Norway when the cinema really burst out in the eighties and nineties it was Bent Hamer, Pal Sletaune, Erik Skjoldbaerg, Karin Julsrud; lots of interesting filmmakers, and that tends to be glossed over to just present one. It’s often sort of fake. And if you look at Wideberg and what Troell did, it’s quite different from what Bergman was doing. Wideberg dealt a lot with class and political action. And Jan tended to do more epic sagas, often about immigration and uprootedness. And those are all quite different from Bergman. The only (Bergman) one that’s like that is Fanny and Alexander which is very very late work, whereas most of them tend to be chamber dramas.

-Scenes From A Marriage, Persona-

Wild Strawberries, etc. The exceptions would be like, Seventh Seal, and Virgin Spring. But you can find anything in Bergman, because he’s just so prolific. The minute you see the first shot from a Bergman movie you know it’s a Bergman movie. And you know you’re in the hands of someone who knows exactly what they want, and they’re going to get it too. So, talking about Bergman, you almost separate him from the rest, because he’s such a major significant figure and was so productive and did so much work, it tends to suck everything else in.

Do you think von Trier is like that at all (in the last 25 years)?

I think he– well, the only person I can think of as productive as that is (Wernor) Fassbinder, and in a much shorter time frame. But von Trier has a huge impact, for sure. He is probably the filmmaker I anticipate most because you don’t know what he is going to do, he is never the same. He could do Antichrist, but the film before Antichrist I think was The Boss of it All. Which is gentle, hilarious comedy, that not many people in North America have seen.

Yeah, it’s great.

It’s really slyly funny, it’s not particularly dark at all. People tend to see him as an apocalyptic filmmaker, and obviously, he has that, but, you know, there are so many great Danish filmmakers like Vinterberg, Refn, Lone, Suzanne Bier, etc. I think von Trier’s contribution has really been as a trailblazer.

And finally, speaking of the directors who you’re anticipating work from, are there any movies youre looking forward to next year?

Everybody’s always working on something and it just depends on when it’s done. I’m quite excited to see them all. I know von Trier is working on a TV series which will be interesting to see.

Well, thank you very much, Steve.

Thank you.

You can read the rest of Erik’s TIFF coverage in the 11th edition of Cinema Scandinavia, out in December.

Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson is a full time thinker and part time filmmaker from the Canadian West Coast. He holds an honours degree in Political Science from Concordia University, and is an MFA candidate in Film Production at York University in Toronto. His mother is originally from Norway and likes to remind him of this constantly...