Scandinavian films at the Cleveland Film Festival

Location: Cleveland, Ohio, USA

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Gold Coast 

Director: Daniel Dencik Read our interview with the director

When Danish botanist Wulff Joseph Wulff set sail for Africa in 1836, he thought he was on a mission to establish a coffee plantation in what was then Danish Guinea (now Ghana). But soon after arriving, Wulff learned there were sinister forces swirling in the thick forests. Daniel Dencik’s GOLD COAST charts Wulff’s Heart of Darkness-like journey from well-intentioned innocence to disillusioned interloper as he runs afoul of brutal slave traders and corrupt government officials. The constant subtext: Wulff’s obsession with exotic plant life and the beautiful landscapes that fuel his philosophical musings about humanity, morality, and the circular patterns of nature. Jakob Oftebro sorrowfully inhabits Wulff’s psychological and physical deterioration. Dencik based his fictional tale in part on Wulff’s actual letters home and enhanced the drama’s authenticity by shooting on location in Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Denmark.

Men and Chicken

Director: Anders Thomas Jensen / Read our review

Elias, a sex addict obsessed with useless trivia, and his brother, Gabriel, a balding professor prone to panic attacks, are having a very bad day. Upon their father’s death, a hastily-made video reveals the two were adopted. Amidst a lingering series of questions, they set out on a road trip to a remote island where their supposed biological father is rumored to live. When they arrive at the decrepit house, they find three more violently temperamental brothers living there, a slew of bizarre animals, and few traces of their supposed patriarch. As Elias and Gabriel try to reconcile their new family, they find clues suggesting an unseemly tension in the chicken coop. Cue the laughs for Anders Thomas Jensen’s MEN & CHICKEN—an uproarious familial comedy that strikes a tone somewhere between “The Three Stooges” and “Tender Mercies.” Mads Mikkelsen leads a cast of top-form Danish actors through this circus of jealousy, desire, and feathered friends.

Motley’s Law

Director: Nicole Horanyi

Kimberley Motley identifies with Wonder Woman. And for good reason: she is tough as nails and suffers no fools. Raised in a bad neighborhood, Kimberley fast-tracked her way to a law degree. In 2008, faced with a chance to earn good money and pay off debt, she moved without her husband and three children to work as a litigator in Kabul, Afghanistan. Even though it was initially about the money, it soon became something much, much more. MOTLEY’S LAW fearlessly follows her into the violent streets and corrupt courts of Kabul on the eve of the American withdrawal. As the only foreigner licensed to litigate in Afghanistan, as well as being female, Kimberley battles to uphold the rights of women and children and navigate the nightmares faced by westerners in a maze of democratic and Sharia Law. Hovering over it all is the possibility of sudden and brutal death. Afghanistan is called the Graveyard of Empires. Kimberley is fighting to keep it from becoming the Graveyard of Justice.



Director: Elmo Nüganen

Staring death in the face with bombs and bullets flying is an occupational hazard for a soldier. But it helps to know who, or what, you are fighting for. In the summer and fall of 1944, Estonians were caught in the murky middle of fierce fighting between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. With World War II raging, men were sliced and diced into confused allegiances. The result: Estonians killing each other. Some wore the uniform of the Waffen SS; others served in the Red Army. “I don’t recognize myself,” laments one fighter. “It feels like you’re outside your own body.” Through riveting realism, Elmo Nüganen’s powerful and moving 1944 charts the bloody trail of two small groups of soldiers on both sides as they struggle with issues of identity, trust, honor, and love. Nüganen’s vivid storytelling is enhanced by stunning cinematography and heartfelt performances. The Second World War is a book with many chapters. This seldom-told tale is worth reopening.

Bunny the Killer Thing

Director: Joonas Makkonen

If you take the campiest of the campy 80s horror films, mix in a little bit of the idea that a production assistant in a lizard costume could pass for Godzilla, throw in some “Suicide Kings,” and top it all off with outtakes from “Porky’s,” you’ll get the first ten minutes of BUNNY THE KILLER THING. After that, you’re really on your own. And, as the characters in this Finnish comedy-horror can attest, on your own is a very dangerous place to be when a six-foot rabbit, whose longest appendage isn’t its ears, is coming after you and your … well, let’s just say your lady parts. A brilliant and hilarious send-up of the classic “cabin-in-the-woods” genre of horror films, BUNNY THE KILLER THING follows the exploits of a group of people partying in the woods when encountered by a science experiment gone horribly wrong. Finnish director Joonas Makkonen shows his chops while boldly fusing comedy, gore, and the beautiful Finnish landscape to bring us an exploitation film that is both jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring.

The Fencer

Director: Joonas Makkonen

Endel is on the run. With his past affiliations catching up with him, he eludes the secret police in Leningrad and finds himself in hapless Haapsalu, Estonia. It is the early 1950s and, in the wake of World War II, Estonia is living under the iron fist of Stalin’s Soviet empire, with many of the fathers lost to the war or shipped off to prison camps. Endel finds a job running the sports club at a secondary school, where he shares his expertise in fencing with eager young students. But Endel is undermined at every turn by his weasel of a principal, a communist functionary who is suspicious of his past and deems fencing non-proletariat. Endel must ultimately choose between guiding his team or running for his life. Nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film, and featuring a wonderful lead performance by Estonian actor, Märt Avandi, THE FENCER is a touching drama about a coach who gives children something to believe in. Based in part on the real life of expert fencer, Endel Nelis.


Here is Harold

Director: Gunnar Vikene / Read our review

For 40 years Harold and Marny have had a successful furniture store and marriage in Bergen, Norway. As illness threatens Marny, IKEA opens a store next to Harold’s. Within a shockingly brief time, he loses both his wife and his livelihood. Everything he has worked for and loved has been taken, and Harold blames IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad. Driven to desperation, Harold torches his store and sets out for revenge. He plans to kidnap Kamprad. How he will do this is unclear. Kamprad won’t just climb into Harold’s car. Well, actually he does. Now that Harold really has him at gunpoint, step two needs to be addressed. HERE IS HAROLD is a darkly satiric road trip where disillusionment and absurdity are the signposts. With the unsolicited assistance of 16-year-old runaway, Ebba, and a very feisty and vocal hostage in hand, things naturally begin to spiral out of control. Savagely skewering the media, corporate greed, and blind consumerism along the way, HERE IS HAROLD shows the unexpectedly hilarious (and touching) consequences of unfocused anger and poorly planned abductions.

Louder Than Bombs

Director: Joachim Trier / Read our review

Gene Reed (Gabriel Byrne) is an aging high-school teacher who, while grappling with the sudden death of his photojournalist wife Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), is also experiencing difficulties connecting with his youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid), a painfully shy loner who finds his only outlet on the internet. When Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), Gene’s wunderkind eldest son—a promising young academic who has become an insufferably moralizing pedant—returns to the family home almost immediately after the birth of his first child, Gene seizes upon the opportunity to try and mend the rifts in the familial fabric. This last-chance bid for reconciliation is made all the more urgent by an upcoming, posthumous exhibition of Isabelle’s work, which may lead to a public revelation of some of the Reeds’ darker secrets. Director Joachim Trier displays a truly novelistic sense of character and detail as he probes the fault lines of this singularly unhappy clan, and he also mines sly comedy from the generational gap between Gene and his sons. Powerful, memorable, and psychologically acute, LOUDER THAN BOMBS is both a lament for what has been lost and an affirmation of what remains.

Returning Home

Director: Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken / Read our review

Fredrik and Oskar are anxious because this is the day their father, Einar, has returned to rural Norway, fresh from a tour with the national army in Afghanistan. Almost immediately Einar criticizes Fredrik’s earring and calls attention to his seemingly rebellious attitude. He also seems to resent his older son’s reluctance to follow in his military footsteps. One day Einar vanishes in the frigid Norwegian wilderness, once again abandoning his two sons. Fredrik and Oskar set out to find him, embarking on a harrowing journey through picturesque mountains and fields. The further they move from civilization, the more their isolation grows. They follow a trail of clues left by their father until it becomes evident the brothers are being tested to use their wits to survive. Striking cinematography and deliberate direction highlight RETURNING HOME, a sentimental story about the after-effects of war and the bond between father and sons.

Staying Alive

Director: Charlotte Blom

The classic Bee Gees song, Staying Alive, has supposedly saved many lives: its pulsing disco beat mirrors the correct rhythms for life-saving CPR. And if anyone’s life needs saving right now, it’s Marianne’s. Happily married with two beautiful daughters, she discovers her husband, Hakon, is having an affair with a younger woman named Frida. Worse, he thinks he loves her. Suddenly Marianne, the wronged party, finds herself increasingly on the losing end. With nothing to rely on but useless and silly advice from her pregnant girlfriend and her parents (who she finds have their own “arrangements”), Marianne tries to plan her next steps in a hurt and angry daze. STAYING ALIVE is an honest, warm, and painfully funny look at how to move on when everything you thought was real turns out to be tinsel. With a heart as tender as a skinned knee, this aching and upbeat film proves that even when it all hits the fan, sometimes the good guys actually win.

Women in Oversized Mens Shirts

Director: Yngvild Sve Flikke

Trine, a budding Norwegian artist, has come up with the perfect idea for her breakthrough exhibition. Nine months pregnant, Trine will video stream the birth in a cage in front of a live audience while she wears a wig and Victorian-era garb. How could she not be catapulted to the top of the art world? Agnes will be Trine’s midwife, and until the baby is born, Agnes hires Trine for part-time factory work. But Agnes has a secret, and, alone in her office she pines to see her estranged son, Kåre. Kåre is a rapidly rising author who’s splitting his time between his wife and his girlfriend, Sigrid, who’s half his age. Yngvild Sve Flikke’s zany triptych of three unrelated women and their happenstance encounters is brimming with vibrant characters and unconventional wisdom. The empowerin WOMEN IN OVERSIZED MEN’S SHIRTS is a bright comedy that doesn’t need men to tell its story.


Every Face Has a Name

Director: Magnus Gertten

In April 1945 thousands of refugees arrived by boat in Malmo, Sweden. These were people of all nationalities, fleeing the concentration camps and other horrors of World War II. Cameras were there that day, filming the bewildered, hopeful, and frightened faces that disembarked to be processed into new lives and freedom. Filmmaker Magnus Gertten was haunted by this footage. He used the passenger lists from that time and set out to find as many of these people—the names behind that sea of faces—as possible. EVERY FACE HAS A NAME takes us from this startling archival footage into the homes and lives of some of the men and women filmed arriving in Malmo. From the United States, where a woman recalls being sent to Auschwitz as an American spy, to Norway, where we hear the story of Norwegian resistance fighters, they see for the first time this footage of their liberation and share the horrifying and powerful tales of survival that led up to it.

The Here After

Director:Magnus von Horn / Read our review

John did a bad, bad thing. Though it takes a long time to assemble the story, we know it is something evil enough to influence an entire town. Even to make everyone hate him with every fiber of their being. John is still a teenager and fresh out of a two-year stint in prison. Now he has to reintegrate himself with his family, classmates, and hometown. But John can’t even make a trip to the grocery store without being accosted and pummeled by one of the mothers in town. It doesn’t take long for the hostility surrounding John to swell out of control as John’s mental state begins to crumble. Magnus von Horn’s taut and mature debut is an edge-of-your-seat character study that’s full of deceptive turns. The plot of THE HERE AFTER confronts the viewer with a realistic level of tense discomfort. Newcomer Ulrik Munther captivates as the attractive, model-like ex-con who has irreparably fallen from grace.




Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.