What About Our Future? An Interview with Director Viktor Johansson

Viktor Johansson’s debut documentary film Under Gottsunda captures the stagnation of life in one of Uppsala’s suburbs. Young individuals armed with hopes and dreams are walking around in the area, but reality hits them repeatedly. They are looked down on or, what is worst, they are forgotten by society. In order to get a deeper knowledge of the issue, we also interviewed the Swedish director.

In 2014 I wrote another article entitled What About Out Future?, in which I reviewed the Swedish documentary entitled I’m a Fucking Panther, which came out in 2014 and interviewed one of its creators. The film told the story of a Swedish youth organisation founded by young people of colour called Pantrarna (Panthers), who were fighting for the restoration of their suburbs. This was also the year when Under Gottsunda was released, which is a film that also tries to make sense of suburban life. However, the subjects of integration and immigration are shown through different lenses, and the film style is slightly more artistic and lyrical. The pace is slower, and time does not fly at all but prevents the characters from moving towards a well-deserved better future without stereotypes and prejudices.   

The suburb Gottsunda is probably not a tourist destination or an area one can normally go to unless he or she lives there, but this doesn’t mean one cannot find something mind-blowing there, because talking to enthusiastic and passionate young people should definitely inspire everyone. In his documentary Viktor Johansson introduces a bunch of young people and follows them in order to provide some knowledge of their life (full of dreams, hopes and passions). Despite living in an environment where abandoned vehicles conquer the streets, they don’t let the circumstances affect their mood, even if some scenes in slow motion give the idea of a meaningless and desperate life that is not heading anywhere but ties them down instead.

Viktor Johansson might have initially thought that he didn’t have the rights to tell the story of these young people, but he does it in a perfectly detailed and subtle way. He is not pretentious but respectful and serves as an invisible guide who shows his viewers the images of reality that differ from the usual ones that one might see on TV or in newspapers. He aims at dismissing the stereotypes and prejudices and shaping the viewer’s world views on Gottsunda, its inhabitants and the Swedish suburbs in general. It doesn’t matter which country the person is from, Sweden is a home for all and the Swedish language is the tool to communicate with each other – to discuss life, Palestinian children’s life or the flavours of Ben & Jerry.

The issue of immigration and everything it entails is absolutely relevant in today’s world. I’m still wondering why you wanted to make a film specifically on Gottsunda and the people living there.

I wanted to explain the world to my daughter. One day on our way to the kindergarten we saw cars that were burnt down, and she wondered if those had crashed. What was the saddest, one might ask, whether the cars had in fact crashed or young kids burnt them down. I was thinking of my child, and children carrying petrol cans, that soon a child would be burnt up in Gottsunda, and people would only care about the cars nothing else. I felt those young people in the neighbourhood needed someone to defend them.

How did you come across the characters?

Everything started with a workshop called Gottsunda’s Stories during which young people wrote fantastic texts. They often invented subcultures and different phenomena, for example, street curling with frozen turkeys on the icy roads, etc. Some of them wanted to continue the project after the course had ended, and since they had such a wonderful personalities, I had the idea of making a film about Gottsunda, the home of all subcultures.

It seems bicycles and other kinds of vehicles have a special role in the film. I’m wondering if those reflect your characters’ future without hope, the fact that they can’t proceed in their life, even if they obviously want to have a life full of happiness, success and comfort.

I also noticed that those abandoned bikes had become a theme – those were everywhere. It was important for me to avoid arranging the surroundings considering the fact that we were shooting a documentary film. This way the bikes, and the cars, in particular became essential elements of the environment. The film – to a certain degree – is about why people burn cars, but most importantly, it’s about the psychogeographical environment, which is called Gottsunda, and about how those young individuals walk with crouched head because everyone thinks they are pyromaniacs.

What were the greatest challenges you as a crew needed to overcome during filming?

The shooting went smoothly and freely because I didn’t really know what the final product was going to be. Therefore, the job was more about hanging around in Gottsunda and let the characters play. We shot the material in documentary style first, and then we made a sharper version by letting the kids improvise. The result is a hybrid. However, the greatest challenge was to overcome the thought whether a white person like me with a nearly middle-class background would have the right to tell the story of those racialized young people. This might be disputed, still, I thought my angle was special.

When I saw the film, I was thinking about another Swedish film entitled I’m a Fucking Panther, which is similar to yours in terms of the main topics. In addition to that, one can think about other films (e.g. The Savage, Eat Sleep Die, Underdog, Kartellen) that are also dealing with immigration and tackling the problems caused by unemployment in one way or another. What do you think the most suitable way is to tell these stories: documentaries or fiction films?

I have to say documentaries, because one can reflect upon contemporary life more deeply by making non-fiction films. Fiction films can easily act on biases and generalisation for the dramaturgy’s sake. But many directors confuse the truth with the lack of ideas. The unemployed have fantasies too, and those should also be depicted, not just the hardship they live in. With Under Gottsunda I’d like to show that documentaries and social realist films can also be dreamlike, visionary, colourful and contradictory.

Documentaries that are about social, economic or political issues are becoming more and more popular nowadays. How much power do you think these films have to influence society and or politics as well as change the world?

Documentaries can show the viewers a bit of reality that otherwise would remain hidden. One can see clusters of youths in hoodies in a distance, but after Under Gottsunda, one knows that they are dreaming about which Ben & Jerry they want to buy, or get to know that they are writing poems about children living in Palestine. However, the best would be the foundation of a political party comprised of young people from the suburbs wearing hoodies. That would bring about a change in politics…

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.