Northern Lights, Burning Issues

in 46th Göteborg International Film Festival

by Teréz Vincze

At the 46th edition of Scandinavia’s leading film festival close to 250 films from 73 countries were showcased. The very rich programme included the Nordic Competition section, in which nine feature films competed for the main prize of the festival (the ‘Dragon Award Best Nordic Film’ that comes with an extremely high money premium, one of the world’s largest, to be precise), and for the award of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI). The films in the Nordic Competition, as well as the programme and accompanying events of the festival, reflected the most pressing issues and conflicts of our time.

One of the most memorable events of this year’s festival was the manifestation led by actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi in support of the people of Iran and the artists that have been detained by the regime. Ebrahimi, who herself fled the Iranian dictatorship in 2008, served as the head of the Dragon Award Jury this year and invited all her fellow members to join her on stage before the screening of the Iranian movie, Subtraction (Tafrigh, dir.: Mani Haghighi), and read out the statement of solidarity together with the two hundred names of imprisoned Iranian artists. The solemn event has powerfully drawn attention to the cruelty of the oppressive regimes of our time, and the plight of women in the context of the events in Iran.

The status of women and the stories it inspires also featured prominently in the Nordic Competition programme. The winner of the Dragon Award, Malu Reymann’s Unruly (Ustyrlig, Denmark–Sweden) tells the heart-wrenching story of physical and psychological violence against women in 1930s Denmark, when those who could not or did not want to conform to social norms were labelled mentally unstable and were then institutionalised. Director Reymann’s forceful work that is based on real stories from the past is an important addition to European women’s history and hopefully finds its place among the pieces that, thanks to their easily understandable form and style, could effectively help to educate the new generations about the dark memories of the past.

The harsh reality of female faith in the age of human trafficking was the central theme of the Swedish film, Dogborn (Isabella Carbonell). The action-packed social drama about the fight for survival felt stuck between being a genre-driven thriller and a more sophisticated artistic take on a social problem. Although the topic of trafficking vulnerable young girls for sex work is an important one, this film could not turn its theme into a memorable piece.

Not so the Norwegian director, Ole Giæver, who also chose an important theme for his film Let the River Flow (Ellos eatnu). The film not only won the prize of the film critics’ jury, but also the audience award went to this fine historical piece about the Sámi ethnic minority’s awakening in the late 1970s and 1980s. After decades of oppression and racism many members of the Sámi minority were hiding their ethnic identity and tried to become fully Norwegian. The construction of a hydroelectric power plant and a dam on Alta River sparked massive protests by Sámi activists at the end of the 1970s and signalled the beginning of the fight for indigenous rights in Norway. Lately, Sámi film and TV projects are on the rise, the Sámi culture seems to attract investment and distribution. Let the River Flow could successfully follow the path of Sámi Blood (Sameblod, Amanda Kernell, 2016) that was a well-received film all around the globe about a similar topic.

Besides the topics of women’s and minority/indigenous rights, the memory of colonisation was another pressing issue that resulted in two extremely different but equally interesting films of the Nordic Competition. Frederikke Aspöck’s Empire (Viften, Denmark–Sweden–Spain) was one of my favourites. The absurd humour of the story about the end of slavery in the Danish West Indies evoked both the twisted depiction of history in the TV series Bridgerton, and the critical take on colonization by Lucrecia Martell in Zama (2017). Aspöck’s work follows the great tradition of criticizing historical situations by demonstrating the sheer absurdity of the rules governing those times and creates a very entertaining historical lesson.

On the other hand, Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland (Vanskabte land, Denmark–Iceland–France–Sweden) is an ambitious and serious undertaking both aesthetically and thematically. The story leads us into the late-nineteenth century when a Danish priest is sent to Iceland to build a church and serve the community on a remote part of the island. Since the priest is a devoted photographer, his passion becomes not only a trope of cinematic self-reflexivity in the story, but also a symbol of modernity arriving. The breath-taking cinematography and the astounding landscapes of Iceland make the film a real feat for the cinephile, and a memorable addition to the line of films depicting cultural colonisation and the clashes between tradition and modernity from Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo to Jane Campion The Piano.

For a visitor arriving in Göteborg from the Southern parts of Europe, one of the first visceral sensations is the change in light: the angle of the sun’s rays, the quality of the light, the intensity of the contrast between light and shadow are so strikingly different here. It was the first time I had been to Scandinavia and the experience made me realise a lot about Nordic cinema—now I understand the mesmerising quality of light in these films better. Beside Godland, the other Danish film Copenhagen Does Not Exist (København findes ikke, Martin Skovbjerg) also played masterfully with the unique quality of light. At the heart of the story is an old cinematic topos: the disappearance of a woman. The mysterious psychological thriller revolves around an interrogation in an empty apartment, but flashbacks also take us to various Nordic exteriors. The masterful photography plays an important role in creating an atmosphere where the boundaries between guilt and innocence are blurred, and it becomes extremely difficult to judge the events and the people involved. Mystery and mysterious lights create a superb cinematic experience.

This year’s Nordic Competition proved convincingly that Scandinavian cinema continues to deliver memorable cinematic experiences in all genres.

Teréz Vincze
Edited by Savina Petkova