Fathers and Sons – A Strained Relationship

in 12nd Reykjavik International Film Festival

by Kira Taszman

A troubled woman haunts her relatives like an evil ghost, a teenage daughter plays a dangerous game with her parents, other daughters vehemently try to break free from their mothers and a young woman’s family prevents her from starting a family of her own. Most films of this year’s fine New Visions competition compiled by Giorgio Gosetti, programmer for the Reykjavík International Film Festival, dealt with family issues. But in spite of the selection’s decisively feminist touch, another leitmotif emerged: fragile young males having to learn bitter truths about their fathers. Geopolitical circumstances, personal guilt, as well as the absence or weaknesses of their fathers make these young men realise that their genitors are rather useless as role models.

Tenderness and desperation alike define the father-son relationship in the beautiful drama Babai by Kosovo director Visar Morina. Very much in sync with today’s news headlines, the movie deals with refugees wanting to reach Western Europe. The film’s hero is Nori (Val Maloku), a bright ten-year-old Kosovo boy. He sells cigarettes with his father Gezim (Astrit Kabashi) and lives with him in dire conditions at an old relative’s house. There is not much light in Nori’s life, so the boy desperately clings to his dad, sabotaging the elder’s plans to look for work abroad by hiding in the trunk of Gezim’s car or throwing himself in front of a bus bound to leave the country.

When the father finally manages to sneak out of Kosovo behind Nori’s back, the son embarks on a life-threatening journey to Germany. He hides in the luggage trunk of a bus, and later narrowly escapes death on the Adriatic Sea. When he’s finally reunited with his father in a gloomy German city, his first reaction is not joy, but anger.

Yet, to his great dismay, the father he so much wants to admire does not turn out to be the protector of his dreams. Repeatedly, the son witnesses his father’s helplessness when it comes to getting a residence permit or a job with which to support them. The ensuing odyssey of humiliation by German authorities amplifies Nori’s desolation.

The young Maloku impressively plays his part, his child eyes always wide open, and conveying, in turn, anger, resolve and incredulity. In this bittersweet road movie, Nori is the stronger of the two, a child coping much better in life than his good-natured, but inept father. However, Nori is too young to grasp his father’s failure in this foreign country depicted only during night or in no-man’s-lands like parks or the home for asylum seekers. Thus, the harshly realistic Babai (the title fittingly meaning “father”) is a tale about a very serious child coming of age far too young in a complex world, where his father and he seem to be eternal outcasts.

A son who cannot blame his father for his own deed is portrayed in the Swedish-Polish co-production The Here After (Efterskalv) by Magnus von Horn. 17-year-old John (Ulrik Munter) has served time in a juvenile detention centre. He wants to go back living with his little brother and his father in their small Swedish town. But from the very beginning, the spectator senses that his plans are bound to be unsuccessful. Everywhere John goes, he is subjected to disapproving looks by his peers and other townsfolk.

In a supermarket, a woman beats him up, before John’s father finally rescues him. It turns out that John is guilty of a horrible crime and that his classmates and the other members of the community have not forgotten about it, let alone forgiven him. With no mother in the household, John relies on his father to support him or show him some sense of direction. But his father is not up to the task. Torn between the love for John and the awareness of his son’s guilt, he does not possess the natural authority to deal with the pressures surrounding him.

There are power struggles within the family the father does not win. Blood ties prove to be insufficient in this tightly knit community, where there is no place to hide. The community wants revenge; maybe to atone for what they retrospectively feel was their failure to prevent the crime. There being no strong figure to guide him, John has to rely on himself. He meets a girl, obeys his parole conditions, but in the end, he remains utterly alone.

Rural landscapes are the only places where John can move around freely, but even then, his seemingly morally impeccable fellow inhabitants take every opportunity to beat him up, feeling no guilt for it and giving him no chance for rehabilitation. On the other hand, one cannot be sure that John is fully aware of the implications of his deed. Healing wounds clearly takes time, a process John and his father have underestimated, and John’s desire to reintegrate the community is naïve at best.

In the gripping Canadian film Sleeping Giant (skilfully directed by Andrew Cividino), three 15-year-old boys – cousins Riley (Reece Moffett) and Nate (Nick Serino) and sheltered teenager Adam (Jackson Martin)– meet in the summer holidays at Lake Superior. Riley and Nate spend their time fooling around and challenging one another with more or less dangerous tests of courage, cultivating a rather unrefined conduct and language.

Adam, on the other hand, grows up in what looks like a well-off, educated family. The boy yearns for appreciation from his peers and is particularly attracted to Riley. However, a nasty incident involving a girl, jealousy, and the ever-scheming Nate lead to Adam betray his friend (and vice versa). He cannot confide in his father William, who ingratiates himself with the teenagers by turning a blind eye to their foolish doings. By trying too hard to be his son’s best buddy—and by being caught cheating on Adam’s mother—he loses his son’s respect. Riley, meanwhile, having no dad of his own, is yearning for a father figure.

When the inevitable catastrophe the film has been foreshadowing all along, with its allegorical images of destruction, death and decay, eventually happens, Adam has no one to turn to for his feelings of despair and guilt. William’s dishonesty and inconsistency have shattered his ideals of adulthood.

The absence of yet another mother is bitterly felt by the 15-year-old hero Ari (Atli Oskar Fjalarsson) in Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Icelandic drama Sparrows (Þrestir). Ari used to be a choirboy in Reykjavik. His mother having moved to Africa with her new partner, Ari  is left with his biological father Gunnar, whom he hardly knows, in the Icelandic West. Gunnar (played by Icelandic star Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) is the cliché of an Icelandic macho, drinking, whoring, swearing and feeling sorry for himself.

In the beginning, tough guy Gunnar tries to bond with his sophisticated son, taking him out fishing, which, unsurprisingly, goes wrong. After the death of Ari’s grandmother, father and son grow increasingly apart, with Gunnar continuing to let himself go and Ari trying to make friends with the local youths and falling in love with his childhood friend Lára. Yet Ari cannot count on his father for tips as to how to win her heart. Gunnar thinks, like Lara’s current boyfriend Einar, that a man just has a natural right to take (and keep) a female.

Life in Western Iceland with its beautiful mountains and wild landscapes is rough and so are its inhabitants. Gunnar cannot understand Ari’s behaviour, which he considers girlish, whereas Ari is dismayed at his father losing his grip of life. When something disturbing finally happens to Ari, his father is the last person he can confide into.

So the experience of pain, loneliness and the ensuing resolve to take matters into their own hands; to come of age with a wisdom gained by the tough lessons life has taught them at an early stage in their existence, is something that the young male heroes in this year’s New Visions competition have to tackle with a lot of courage and without the support of their helpless or immature fathers.

Edited by José Teodoro