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Life Is a Struggle: Thoughts on the Göteborg Film Festival’s Nordic Shorts Selection

This article is in the March issue of Cinema Scandinavia and will be free for 48 hours before available to subscribers only. 

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The three sections of the Swedish Short Film Programme at the Göteborg Film Festival we saw didn’t amuse us so much, but the Nordic Shorts Selection definitely did. More specifically, we needed to realise once again that Icelandic (female) film-makers know how to make thought-provoking and emotionally charged films about women.

All five films presented in the Nordic Shorts Selection belong to completely different realms, but they perfectly complemented each other. The nearly 90 minutes gave the audience fulfilment and a lot to think about – regarding both the offline and online world. All five films, namely The Night Thief by Khadar Ahmed, The Hunger by Kenneth Karlstad, To Be by Farzaneh Omidvarnia, Salvation by Thóra Hilmarsdóttir, and Cut by Eva Sigurdardottir depict a struggle of some kind. Ahmed and Karlstad use humour to balance the tension, Omidvarnia creates distance by letting puppets tell the story. In contrast to them, Hilmarsdóttir and Sigurdardottir don’t pamper anyone’s soul; they nearly push the audience over the edge and let them collect the pieces. While the former three somewhat provide a happy ending, the latter two keep the audience in the forest of vagueness. Is there a glimpse of hope at the end of the journey? There might, there might not be.

Khadar Ahmed approaches the issue of migration in an unlikely way, goes against stereotypes and starts a conversation on everyday struggles the working class in Finland needs to face. The Night Thief’s hero is Farah, whose car gets stolen every night and that causes him a lot of trouble at his workplace. There is a lot of pressure on him since he needs to work to be able to provide for his wife who is arriving in Finland soon. The pace of the film is rather slow at first, but with some rhythmic shifts, the level of excitement increases and the climax happens at the right time. The story is quite old and has been told many times before, but the film works because no unnecessary scenes distract the audience. It is a well-crafted film that allows its audience to ponder on the hardship of being unemployed or experience the fear of becoming one, but adds a lot of humour to make the entire mental journey bearable.

When watching The Hunger by Kenneth Karlstad, everyone will think about their teenage years and remember those awkward moments that very much characterised them. The sixteen-year-old Jørgen lives a double life; when he’s alone, he leaves the mundane world behind and enters his own personalised universe where he the star. His teenage uncertainty often kicks in, so the idea of injecting something to become stronger gets stuck in his mind. He wants to be seen, so he does whatever it takes to get that special drug. The linear narrative doesn’t give the audience so much space to have so many questions, so everybody knows what is going to happen, however, the practical side of the film-making elevates the film to another level. The director has a background in music videos, so it is not surprising at all that music and short cuts are prevailing throughout the piece – mainly when the fantasy world is shown. The Hunger is an experiment that proposes the question all parents ask: Was it worth it, my dear child?

In To Be, Farzaneh Omidvarnia keeps her characters and viewers in the dark, and shows how hard it is to get to Europe from an unsafe area and settle down there. One does what he or she needs to do; this is how it is. The poignant story is told by puppets, which makes it easier for the audience to digest the plot and all of those sad and devastating moments that the characters go through. Shakespeare’s Hamlet faced the dilemma of to be or not to be, Omidvarnia’s characters are forced to take actions that might save or destroy their lives – because both nature and well-established, more powerful humans can either take away their hopes and chances or give them an easy way in. And it is surely worse when one can’t do anything but take what life offers to her or him and walk away with it…

The strongest pieces among Nordic shorts were, without a doubt, Iceland’s Salvation by Thóra Hilmarsdóttir and Cut by Eva Sigurdardottir; but Eva also served as the producer behind the former production. Even if both films have an Icelandic touch, are masterpieces visually and their plots are well-structured, they walk different paths that come close at the very end. Salvation sets on Iceland and places a religious woman in the centre whose life was saved by a method her religion strictly forbids. Her guilt gradually becomes more powerful, which leads to drastic events and eventually salvation. Salvation is like a perfect harmony of notes played by the language of film. Sigurdardottir’s Cut might not be as dark and sometimes surreal as Hilmarsdóttir’s piece, still, it hits the audience in the face several times. Even if not so much information on the main character’s background out there, the film somewhat resembles Ken Loach’s world filled with the members of the working class. Chloe is a teenage girl preparing for a fitness competition, when her video made by her ex-boyfriend surfaces. In an instant, all the smiles disappear from her face and she takes her destiny into her own hands. Whether the final scene demonstrates real empowerment or it is only the illusion of that, it’s up to the audience to decide. What is sure that revenge porn and bullying ranks high among the issues teenagers face on a daily basis, and happy endings rarely happen.

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.