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What Films Don’t Show – A Review of the Swedish Film ‘Amateurs’

Amateurs (Amatörer) is a smart and well-constructed film directed by Gabriela Pichler who has proved once again that she really knows how to make a motion picture that can tell so much within a limited amount of time.

Gabriela Pichler’s latest feature entitled Amateurs is set in the fictional municipality of Lafors, which is – based on the characters’ description – located somewhere in Western Götaland. The town is known for its agriculture and textile industry, although the flourishing old days are long over. So even though the plot starts with some kind of celebration showing smiling faces, the unfortunate and rather devastating situation is soon revealed. The textile industry has more or less reached a dead end, and the population is shrinking year by year as young people are moving to bigger cities to be able to make a living. Therefore, it is no surprise that when a German supermarket chain named Superbilly shows interest in investing in Lafors, the local council finally sees the light at the end of the tunnel. And the master plan, for creating an amazing and unique promotional video that convinces the Germans to open their very first Scandinavian supermarket in Lafors, begins. Since the students’ videos don’t reach the quality the city council is aiming for, a professional documentary film-maker from Stockholm is hired. But that does not stop two teenagers, Dana and Aida, to shoot their own film about their beloved hometown.

Despite the fact that the film closely follows a small community, Amateurs is not only about Lafors but also our globalised world, and it’s a motion picture in which nearly every segment of society is represented. When detailing the problems people living in the Swedish countryside need to face, Gabriela Pichler broadens the horizon and demonstrates how interconnected the world is. The film depicts today’s (Swedish) multicultural society and all the challenges that come with it – whether it’s the lack of mutual language or the shared history and experiences. Sequence after sequence, all tiny corners of the colouring book are painted, and it is exposed how little the citizens of Lafors know about each other and how the survival mode, sadly too common for so many, hinders them to care about one another. The stereotypical Swedish way of handling things is completely ignored in the film, and confrontation between family members, friends, acquaintances and complete strangers do play a key part in the plot.

Those unpleasant moments, caused chiefly by the lack of understanding of each other, serve as a source of information and question social conventions, created mainly in the West. Assumptions and misconceptions as well as myths get destroyed, and all sorts of dichotomies are presented: urban vs. rural, working class vs. middle class, Swedes vs. migrants, Western Europe vs. Eastern Europe, whites vs. brown-skinned and black people, etc. Nearly all scenes have a connotation, however, those second meanings do not necessarily come through; it all depends on the receiver’s knowledge of Sweden and the world. The scene in which Aida is accusing a white male Swede of not being socially conscious enough is among the ones that can be understood worldwide. There is indeed a reason why someone would go and buy their groceries in the cheapest supermarket even though they are aware of the fact how those products have been made and under what kind of circumstances those who produced them live. It’s pretty simple in fact: they can’t afford to go and shop somewhere else, because their budget doesn’t allow that. And the last thing these people need to be told that they are trash just because of not expressing any signs of caring, namely spending their money on fair trade products, for instance. It must be said that though, that, in the film, the symptoms of a system are elaborated on, not the (neoliberal) system itself that might cause an increase in income differences among others.

Besides its extensive mapping of a divided society, Amateurs also draws attention to the lack of representation in cinema. Generally speaking, individuals belonging to minority groups barely see themselves on screen and their stories are hardly told. When their stories do get told, it’s still not their perspective, but an outsider has the power to do it in way in which he or she prefers to do so. Several scenes take on this particular issue and the clashes of opinions related to this phenomenon usually result in a heated debate. For example, when the documentary film-maker is invited to give a lecture in the school, several students raise ethical questions concerning his working method while filming less fortunate people. He, a documentarist, argues that he has the right to make and show that kind of films because the people in the film will never see them. So if they can’t see it, it can’t hurt them, right? To paraphrase his words a little. According to him, they have no rights whatsoever to see in what way their stories have been told and interpreted. His weak arguments trying to defend his approach to films don’t really convince Dana and many of her classmates, but their teacher who knows the film-maker pretty well shuts down all the criticism against him as if there is no problem with his way of ‘creating’. After all, he was kind enough to tell about his work and how films are made…

In Amateurs, everyone gets to tell their stories, whatever boring, gripping, happy, devastating, silent or loud it is. They hold their destiny in their own hands and have the power to create their own image and share it. Self-representation is key in the process. Pichler and her co-writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri also add a twist to the plot and show the sad truth that people (of Lafors) find their stories projected on the screen boring, probably because they have never had learnt that their stories can be interesting, too. Dana and Aida’s film that also make use of the footage filmed by the residents of Lafors is five hours long and shot in several languages. It is a kind of road movie in which everyone in Lafors has their fifteen minutes of fame and is given the time to share their thoughts on the past, the present and the future of Lafors. When it’s over, it’s only them and Musse from the council are sitting in the cinema, and, with an emotionally charged shot, the film is over, too.

With Amateurs, Gabriela Pichler continues the journey she started with Eat Sleep Die (Äta sova dö in Swedish). She is truly the megaphone of the working class, and her talent for storytelling flawlessly shines through the camera lenses. Her new film is the epitome of inclusive film-making; there is no proof of strain at all, only engaging storytelling. The film calls for sympathy and encourages its viewers to forget black-and-white thinking and see the whole palette of colours. Hopefully, it helps clear up the misconceptions about the other that feeds stereotypes and prejudices and might lead to severe issues causing the fragmentation of society. Viewers are surely left with a lot of things to think about after the end credit. No doubts, the film absolutely deserved to be named the Best Nordic Film at the Göteborg Film Festival this year.

The film is distributed by TriArt Film in Sweden.

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.