New Swedish Reality – A Review of ‘Underdog’

Ronnie Sandahl’s film Underdog is a drama about class and gender. It gives access to a world where one becomes familiar with what it’s like to be a young Swede in Oslo. The Swedish motion picture competed at the Titanic International Film Festival taken place in Budapest in April.

Despite being a welfare state Sweden has to face great challenges when it comes to handling youth unemployment, which is obviously one of the consequences of the financial crisis. While refugees and immigrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe are looking for a better life in this particular Nordic country, thousands of young Swedes have actually left their homeland to seek jobs and opportunities in Norway instead.

Searching for a better life does not always mean that everybody is entitled to have one. However, with a bit of help, one might find both her/his financial security and happiness in a foreign country, nevertheless, she/he might be still treated as an intruder there. Unfortunately, millions of people are sharing this unwanted and poignant destiny, and taking into consideration the events taking place across Europe (the EU) and within its borders right now, the happy end is far, far away. But this issue should be addressed in another, greater discussion of global migration.

Especially, because Ronnie Sandahl explained he was inspired by the fact that his former classmates immigrated to Norway owing to the hopeless conditions in Falköping situated in Västra Götaland. He compared the current wave of migration to the one that happened at the end of the 19th century. He emphasised that more people left Sweden during the past years than when thousands of Swedish citizens decided to search for a new home in the USA. Having said that, the media does not cover this phenomenon, primarily, because “it affects the countryside and not the biggest cities,” stated Sandahl.

The film’s main character, Dino is played by Bianca Kronlöf, who is an actress, comedian and feminist among others. Sandahl admitted during the Q&A after the screening that he wanted Dino to be both funny and strong. He added, he was irritated by the fact that female leads were shitty characters most of the time. Furthermore, he purposely chose someone who was not blonde and named Anna for that role, which supports a statement on today’s Sweden as well, namely it is a multicultural country. Despite this Dino still might be considered as a foreigner in Sweden, who speaks with a heavy countryside accent, but she is definitely a Swede in Norway. It’s basically a matter of perspective.

Underdog follows Dino, who has settled down in Oslo just like her room- and flatmates.[1] Struggling, humiliation, misery and distress, these are the words that perfectly describe their everyday life. This probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if not two Nordic/Scandinavian countries were involved, but yet the viewer acquire knowledge of something that might be slightly unbelievable at first sight. The story undeniably starts a new conversation on Scandinavia and the common Scandinavian spirit that seems so tenacious and more or less united. Even the Scandinavian countries build this image and promote common Scandinavian values.

However, when Norway found its fortune, namely the hidden oil fields in the ocean – quite soon the power shifted and Norway obtained the dominant role. From that time, Norway stopped being the poorest and least important Scandinavian country. Until that ‘Sweden was the big brother of Scandinavia because they didn’t do anything during WWII,’ said Bianca Kronlöf in an interview given in Australia during the Scandinavian Film Festival[2]. With Dino’s words, now Swedes see Norwegians as they are the retarded cousins who have won the lottery. Of course, this is strong generalisation but carries some truth.

After the one-hour-long Q&A I sat down with Swedish director Ronnie Sandahl, and even though the director himself stressed that it was essential for him to end the film with portraying sisterhood, I was more interested in the social structure and the issue of class. During the interview we discussed the film, its title & background, but also the Swedish film industry.

Ronnie Sandahl

Let’s talk about the title first! For me, for instance, the Swedish one Svenskjävel says more than the English Underdog.
Yes, it’s very different, but the international title is better. While the Swedish one is more upfront and more focused on the Sweden–Norway thing, Underdog is capturing more of the ambivalence of the film. It’s a more complex title because from different aspects they all are underdogs somehow. I’d also say that Svenskjävel is a more commercial title. I’m very ambivalent to it but at the same time I want people to go to the cinema.

So you have to be provocative…
The film is kind of provocative but with small letters. It’s subtle, still slightly provocative. Additionally, it’s impossible to translate the Swedish title. We actually had a working title for a short period of time: it was Fucking Swedes. But our sales company said: ‘If you want to sell it only in one country.’ Because nobody is allowed to have fucking in the title.

Yeah, but there is Lukas Moodyson’s Fucking Åmål, for example.
Yes, but that wasn’t called that abroad.

Yes, that’s true, it was something with love.
Anyway, the good thing about Underdog that it works in every country, and it couldn’t have been called that in Sweden because there is a famous novel called Underdog[3]. That one is not known outside Sweden.

You’ve said you’re from Malmö, but in the film the characters are talking about areas from Gothenburg (e.g. Frölunda) and even Borås, so chiefly Västra Götaland is mentioned. Why is that?
Yes, I live in Malmö now but I’m from Falköping, which is a little more than an hour far away from Gothenburg. So I’m not from Malmö from the beginning, and most people who go to Norway from Sweden to work are in fact from that area; it’s the western part with Gothenburg and around there. Furthermore, these kinds of details are also very important to me, such as accents and stuff like that. It wouldn’t have been believable if people had talked Stockholm dialect or with Stockholm accent in the film.

You’ve also said this is the first film that addresses the phenomenon of mass immigration to Norway, however, there are other films that deal with similar issues, such as The Savage (Odjuret by Emil Larsson and Martin Jern) or Gabriela Pichler’s Eat Sleep Die (Äta sova dö).
There has been a couple of film, yes. I think my generation of film-makers see society where it’s really hard to get a job. That’s why you see it in different stories now. It’s probably the biggest problem in the Swedish society at the moment, that we have a generation of Swedes that is the first generation since WWII that has worse opportunities than their parents.

It is harder to find a job, an apartment. It’s difficult to get a proper contract. In Stockholm you have to be in line for like 15 years to get an apartment if you don’t want to buy one, or you know someone, and it tends to be the middle class who knows people. I would say we see a country where the class gap has increased, and that’s why you see it more in Swedish cinema presently. Even though both of them (Martin Jern and Gabriela Pichler) are older than me, we might have the same experience that might be a bit more political or at least oriented towards contemporary society.

What does the audience say about the film?
It’s been in the cinema now, and it’s been very good. It received a fantastic response in Gothenburg (editor: Gothenburg Film Festival). It was 700 seats in the theatre, and 150 people didn’t get in so there were 850 people coming. It’s been a very big interest, probably, because we’ve won at so many festivals, almost every one we’ve been at. Last week we got our 9th award so during that time the number of theatre in Sweden, in which the film was shown, increased from 16 to 65. It’s still in cinemas, and the numbers are good. We also got very good reviews. It’s the highest critic on average since Force Majeure. I feel very relieved and happy about it because you never know. You work with it for four years, and it might be good, it might be disappointing.

The Swedish film industry shows similar tendencies to other countries, namely we can find both the popular films, and the artistic, more challenging ones that don’t really get so much attention. How do you see the Swedish film industry?
It’s a complex issue because it’s both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that more provocative, interesting art-house films are getting money nowadays because there are no middle films anymore. But that bad thing is that for normal audience that doesn’t go to festivals, that doesn’t read the cultural sections in the newspapers, almost only the terrible films have left.

If Fucking Åmål were released today, it would probably be seen as an art-house film and would have the number we have, but 15-20 years ago it was not regarded as an art-house film. It almost had 1 million viewers, and that’s a fantastic number. Today it wouldn’t go over 100 thousand people.

I consider Underdog as an art-house film, which it’s not so hard to understand. It’s not a film that only for the upper middle class in Stockholm. I wanted to make a film that was for people from my hometown. It’s a very dangerous thing that in small cities only Fast & Furious 7 and awful Swedish comedies are screened. I think that’s a disaster for our country.

I have one last question regarding your film. It ends with a sort of happy ending. Don’t you think it was the easy way? I’m asking because most of the people who actually go to Norway to work there don’t have a chance like Dino does, and so their future is maybe not so bright.
It’s not a super bright ending, it’s only a little glimpse of hope. I would also say it’s totally the opposite way around. The easiest way to make an ending in a film to start with something being bad, worsening things, and then make someone shoot in the head at the end. That’s the absolute easiest way of making film as a film-maker. It’s extremely much harder to make an ending where there is a glimpse of hope, and actually things are tied together. Most art-house films don’t even have an ending, so that might be a big difference that I actually have an ending. But is it representative for many people who live there? No, it’s not. However, this individual gets a glimpse of opportunity. It’s not that much, she’s only invited for an interview at a community art school. It’s like the lowest opportunity you can get.

But it’s still something.
Yeah, it’s still something. It might be also that I got soft during the years but I can’t stand all this easy-way-out endings, for me, that is sloppy writing. It’s the easiest way of writing, and that is the way I wrote when I was 19. I wouldn’t do it today because it’s too easy.

Finally, my very last question. I know you have directed several short films before, but why did you switch from writing to directing?
The reason why I started directing was that I wanted to continue with word, but to make it real, to take it all the way. If you write a script, that’s just a prototype of the film. It’s nothing. As a novelist I also felt I lacked something, and the first time I worked with actors, it was like coming home. It was like, ‘ah, this is what I’m supposed to do’. I’m not directing films because I’m interested in the camera or production design, I’m interested in actors. So that’s really why I direct.

[1] Behind the scene info: the actors/actresses had to set up their own environment in which they feel home.
[2] http://www.3aw.com.au/radio/outspoken-underdog-interview-with-swedish-comedian–actress-bianca-kronlof-20150724-giju8d
[3] Torbjörn Flygt

Photos: Facebook

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.

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