A Search for Identity

in 37th Göteborg International Film Festival

by Boyd van Hoeij

The Gothenburg International Film Festival (GIFF), which ran this year from January 24 to February 3, is the world’s most important showcase of Scandinavian films. GIFF’s most important piece of programming is the Nordic Competition, which showcases eight films from the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Iceland), and where the films in competition are judged by not one but two juries: the Nordic Jury and the FIPRESCI jury.

Equally as important, if not more important, is the Nordic Film Market, which ran from January 30 to February 2 this year, and which brings together over 400 film professionals who get to see the latest Scandinavian films, works in progress which will premiere at festivals in the near future, and features networking opportunities galore for people in the film and TV business who work in or want to work with the Scandinavian industry.

The Nordic competition this year consisted of two films each from Norway, I Am Yours (Jeger din) and Letter to the King (BrevtilKongen); from Iceland, with Metalhead (Malmaus) and Of Horses and Men (Hross I oss); and from home country Sweden, which offered Something Must Break (Nantingmastagasonder) and The Quiet Roar (the latter partly filmed in Germany).

Though the Icelandic entries straddle the porous divide between drama and dramatic comedy (or comedic drama) — the stories of these films are different, yet so strikingly similar, that it suggests Icelanders must be the happiest or at least quirkiest and most sophisticatedly humorous of Scandinavians — all the other aforementioned films are drama, with the sole Finnish entry, Concrete Night (Betongnatt), being another solemn drama. Thankfully, the competition wasn’t only doom and gloom, with Danish entry The Sunfish (Klumpfisken) offering something a little lighter which almost veers into romantic dramedy territory, even if the film’s protagonist is a fisherman who finds it so impossible to eke out an existence that he thinks of doing something, um, fishy, with his allotted fish quotas.

By far the most serious film was the gorgeously photographed (in black-and-white) but grimly staged Concrete Night, from director Pirjo Honkasalo, which looks at the downfall of a young boy whose father figure, his older brother, will be sent (or returned) to jail soon. The boy tries to adopt his sibling’s tough attitude and manners, which gets him into a lot of trouble.

There are also a lot of mirroring movements in Henrik Hellström’s Quiet Roar: not least because the film moves between the present and the past and the same character is played by different actors, reinforcing one of the central ideas of the film, namely that people who existed in the past might be strangers or people we don’t understand — even if we’re thinking of ourselves in the past. Hellström underlines this point by having the 68-year-old protagonist (Evabritt Strandberg) talk to her 25-year-old self (Joni Francéen) in her subconscious.

The two Norwegian films are also about people who try to come into their own; the protagonist of I Am Yours, played by Amrita Acharia, is a woman who’s defined, as the title suggests, by belonging to other people, picking and playing different roles (lover, mother, etc), perhaps because facing up to herself is the scariest of all. No wonder she’s a professional actress. Something similar can be said of the Kurdish ensemble who star in Letter to the King; they derive their sense of self from belonging to one community, but the worth of this sentiment is undermined by the fact that they all live in a centre for immigrants in Norway. In order to survive in their new reality, they need to adapt, but this process can also be taken too far or performed haphazardly, preventing them from retaining a sense of both personal and national identity.

Going back and forth between different identities and trying them on for size to see if one fits better than the other is also the main subject of Something Must Break, in which a transgender teenager who was born a male, Sebastian (Saga Becker), falls in love with another punky youngster who claims that he’s straight but also very attracted to Sebastian. Like the best movies and that pesky Facebook status: it’s complicated.

Edited by Lesley Chow