Culture gap is something that you would expect while travelling from one of the European countries to Japan or Congo. However, most of the citizens of Eastern Europe experience a cultural shock while moving to Scandinavia. Nordic countries seem to be as exotic as the Middle East for Polish even though the only distance that keeps us apart is the Baltic Sea.

Sweden became a synonym for paradise during the Communistic times in Poland, and it has been continuing to be a lucrative tempting destination to spend a whole life. The lure of paradise is also a reason why Barbara (Agnieszka Grochowska), Marek (Bartłomiej Topa) and their nine- year old daughter Ula (debuting Barbara Kubiak) – the main characters of the film by Dariusz Gajewski Obce Niebo (Strange Heaven), come to Sweden. Although the parents appear to adapt to the new reality even if they communicate in English, their daughter has trouble with being accepted and accepting the new environment at school even though she speaks Swedish fluently and has good grades. As the problems are growing the social worker Anita (Eva Fröling) becomes interested in her situation blaming her home for the girl’s adaptive difficulties. Neither does the clerk want to understand the cultural differences in expressing emotions nor is she eager to explain the rules govern in the Swedish society.

Ula, who is unaware of the consequences, calls the Children’s Helpline a day after having quarrelled with her parents. This phone call opens the Pandora’s Box. The girl is taken away from her loving parents without any warning and placed in a foster family. Gajewski confronts the despair of Ula’s parents and their helplessness with the unemotional system. The key to the whole situation is a cultural difference in expressing emotions.

Barbara and Marek do not understand that the more emotional their approach to this case will be the fewer chances they have to get their child back. The scene when they come to the Social Office for the first time to talk about why their daughter had been taken straight from school, without any warning, reveals the immense contrast between emotional Poles, who first say then think, and a cold, heartless system of administration, which does not take people’s intentions and feelings into consideration. It is also a difference between following the rules to the letter no matter if the consequences are good or bad. Mother’s despair is heartbreaking, Agnieszka Grochowska shows a huge variety of feelings, which are genuine and overwhelming. It is impossible not to trust her, no matter how hysterical she may seem to be at her wits’ end. Bartłomiej Topa is much more tranquil, more flexible in the matters of following the rules even though he does not know them well. On the other side of the wall, there is Anita – a woman who was brought up in the society with the imperative of keeping stiff upper lip and following the rules for all cost. There is no reflection whether the rules do any harm to children and their emotional development. Eva Fröling plays her role perfectly. From the very beginning, we feel antipathy and reservation towards her. In small gestures and grimaces, she shows that she really does not care if Ula is happy with her parents or whether she will be happy with a new family. The most important for the bureaucrat is the feeling of doing her duties perfectly. Fröling demonstrates how she despises the newcomers from Eastern Europe, how much lower they are for her in the matters of civilisation. The scene when she looks with an immense disgust at Barbara while she is smoking a cigarette illustrates it very well. Accidentally she observes also a quarrel between a mother and daughter when the child gets a smack. That in her opinion legitimates all the actions to take a girl away. She does not want to understand the cultural differences in expressing emotions – it is almost barbaric when someone cries or shouts. She is an extremely good example of a self-contained Scandinavian whose life is subordinated to the imperative of fitting into a system which she regards as the best in the world. She manipulates with the facts, not wanting to listen to the other side of the conflict.

There is also one more side in this war where the child is the main stake. There are foster parents – Harriet (Tanja Lorentzon) and Björn (Gerhard Hoberstorfer) who suffer the loss of their biological child. Their daughter drowned a few years ago and they are trying to fill this empty space in their hearts. They are not bad people, not at all. They keep doing their best even when Ula seems not to appreciate their efforts, trying at first to run away. When time passes it seems that the girl is getting used to her new guardians although she still craves for meeting her parents who come for a visit, which ends with a row – they are too emotional, they want to hug their child and tell her how much they care. The meetings take place under a watchful eye of Anita whose attitude is less than tolerant towards any kind of expression of emotions. She as a clerk is the one who has power and who pulls the strings in this game. It seems to give her a sadistic pleasure even though she claims that she does it in the name of justice and child’s sake. As schematic and partial the plot may seem it is not. We are aware of the second bottom – that there must be children who really need such help. There must exist some pathological families with parents who are deviants. However, there is a question – why the system has got interested in Barbara and Marek’s family. Certainly, they have different priorities. But is being different something wrong in the country so famous for its tolerance?

In 1971 a book with a striking title “The New Totalitarians” was published by Ronald Huntford. He compared Sweden to the totalitarian universe straight from the Huxley’s Brave New World, where the system stretches its tentacles into the citizens’ privacy. After over forty years later Strange Heaven shows that the system has taken control of almost everything. It might seem shocking to people from outside of Scandinavia (a similar or maybe even worse system in the matters of childcare is in Norway), but the state has virtually overtaken the most of the control over bringing up children. In the name of their rights – which, as one has to admit, used to be violated by aggressive parents in the past, the state overuses its power often discriminating the newcomers. In Strange Heaven, it is also a deeply hidden xenophobia and the feeling of superiority of the Swedish nation.

CategoriesIssue 13 Reviews
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.