Fighting Girl

in 45th Norwegian International Film Festival Haugesund

by Kira Taszman

It’s a scene from so many gangster films: from the gates of a prison, an ex-convict steps out. On his release, he is welcomed by no-one: not his spouse nor his ex-partners in crime. Swedish director Rojda Sekersöz’ debut feature Beyond Dreams (Dröm vidare) plays out this familiar scenario, but turns it upside down. For one thing, the ex-convict is a woman, 20- year-old Mirja (Evin Ahmad). For another, four people are waiting to greet her: her young half-sister Isa and the three other members of their juvenile girl gang, performing a little dance routine to celebrate the event.

On the car ride home, Mirja revels in her newfound freedom, but the dual nature of her welcoming committee foreshadows her future problems: the pressures exerted on her by the gang and her family. The two groups don’t differ much socially; both Mirja’s girlfriends and her family inhabit the same glum housing project on the outskirts of Stockholm. Her family is hardly a place of warmth and comfort. In this all-female household, Mirja’s chainsmoking single mom Sirkka (Outi Mäenpää) receives her with a warning: if Mirja does not sort out her life soon, she will be kicked out.

Not surprisingly, this throws Mirja right back into the arms of her surrogate family, the girl gang. However, after her jail time, she is not keen on joining the gang’s plans to heist a small store in order to fund a dream trip to Montevideo. Stalling her commitment to the gang, she takes on a regular job at a hotel without their knowledge. While she is pleased with her mother’s praise and excels enough to be promoted from dishwasher to chambermaid, Mirja cannot find the courage to come clean with her friends, instead avoiding them. But as the rules of storytelling demand, her secret eventually leaks out, and Mirja finds herself in strife with her job, her gang and her family. At the same time, her mother’s health deteriorates faster than anyone could have expected.

Beyond Dreams took the FIPRESCI Prize at this year’s festival, with the jury’s official statement praising the “raw energy of its juvenile heroine [combined] with the poignancy of Scandinavian social realism. It’s an engaging, well-acted coming-of- age story that never drifts into pathos and retains a sense of defiant optimism.”

Indeed, Mirja’s inner rage and her determination to escape her social and emotional misery are reminiscent of Rosetta, the heroine of the Dardenne brothers’ classic social drama. But while the Dardennes’ camera tracks the solitary Rosetta in an almost claustrophobic fashion, Beyond Dreams gives more room to Mirja’s tenacity and loneliness – an example is the scene in which she rushes past reception and into her future boss’s office to convince him of her merits, impressing both the employer and us as viewers. On the other hand, the atmosphere of the gang is ruled by youth culture – namely dance and music, which account for the film’s energy and drive. Yet Mirja feels increasingly like an outsider in her friends’ presence, a fact emphasized by her apathy towards their games, conversation and partying. In other sequences, her intense rage after setbacks is visualized in fast tracking shots following her through underground passages or images of her lying sobbing and desperate on rooftops.

In Mirja’s family environment, the film uses more conventional means to convey conflict, such as the verbal fights with her mother and Isa – the latter is a precocious and neglected 12-year- old, ready to repeat her sister’s mistakes. Out of a sense of protection and responsibility, Mirja intends to take over as head of the family, but this, of course, is easier said than done. Not wanting to alienate the gang, her boss or her family, she is bound to disappoint them all.

The plot developments, while coming as no surprise to the audience, are nonetheless credible and don’t drift into the deterministic or fatalistic. The film also avoids unnecessary escalation, preferring life’s logic over excessive dramatic twists. This does not prevent Sekersöz from telling her all-female narrative radically, with hardly any male characters at all – not even a hint of male friendship, let alone courtship. Focusing on Mirja’s inner and outer demons, the story stays consistently loyal to its heroine, who is taught the tough lessons of life. However, she never gives up on herself, fighting like a lioness and finally accepting that the task ahead transcends her personal dreams, aiming at a better life for both herself and the people under her wing.

Edited by Lesley Chow