To North American eyes, Scandinavian film seems familiar, and yet like a parallel world. I grew up in Northern British Columbia, Canada in the 1990s, and the first time I watched Lukas Moodysson’s 1998 film Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love) the world portrayed felt familiar to me. Although the plot of the film did not necessarily mirror my own childhood, I recognized and connected to the culture. The film captured what it felt to grow up in a small town, be it in Sweden or in Canada.
I now live in Alberta, Canada’s western-most prairie province. North America as a whole geographically closely relates to Scandinavia. British Columbia and Alaska’s fjords are a mirror image to Norway’s, while the average coldest days in Scandinavia only rival what we see here on our plains and prairies. The American remake of The Killing (with Vancouver, Canada standing in for Seattle, USA) uses the Pacific Northwest as a stand in for Copenhagen. On the surface, these two areas may seem different, but their underlying tones reflect each other. Whether in the Pacific Northwest or in Denmark, peaceful beauty betrays underlying darkness.
As countries, Canada and the United States may occupy the same cultural Zeitgeist, but Canada has the reputation of having a strong welfare state, in part due to our long-standing universal healthcare system – a form of healthcare constantly under debate in the USA. Compared to Canada, however, the Nordic model of its social programs seems to provide an alternate view with a strong social net that still encourages capitalism. Issues of government spending debated upon in both Canada and in the United States – from childcare to pensions – appear to be cornerstones of Scandinavian society. Film production fits snugly into this model: many Scandinavian films are produced through state support.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Scandinavian film, to North American eyes, is how it grapples with its social structures. Scandinavia represents a different view of the welfare state, with different connotations as to what that might mean as compared to North America. Government intervention in social programs in North America is constantly controversial, a narrow line with impassioned debates on either side. What’s refreshing about Scandinavia is that no matter how entrenched these ideals may be, these issues are firmly discussed in the culture in a constructive and critical manner. As stated by Linda Rugg, Professor of Scandinavian literature and culture at U.C. Berkley, “the social project of the.. [Nordic] welfare state has to do with trying to perfect society. The problem is that society isn’t perfect.” (Sweden Noir) The media is not afraid to show this.
From the surface, Scandinavian film-making comes from a similar place as in North America. We recognize this disillusionment with our government and our social systems. In a climate dominated with debate, where the liberal and conservative factions move ever further and further apart from each other into extremism, there’s something clear and honest about seeing other nations – who, on the surface, appear to have its social systems figured out – still grappling with social problems, corruption, and crime.