Is There a Swedish New Wave?

in 66th Venice International Film Festival

by Gunnar Bergdahl

At this year’s festival there were four Swedish features in the official programme. My guess is that it has never happened before. And this fact might raise the question – is there a Swedish New Wave?

As so often concerning new trends, the answer is both yes and no. As a former festival programmer, I know how easy it is to pick a few good films out of an annual production of 30-40 films and proclaim that something is happening. If there are suddenly a few very good ones shown at the same time, it could be an aspect of pure chance. But, in this case, if we keep to Swedish filmmaking with artistic ambitions, the answer must be more yes than no.

Let’s take a closer look at these four films in the Venezia programme. First we had Eric Gandini’s documentary Videocrazy, which of course created a certain Italian reaction as the film depicts the media empire of Silvio Berlusconi. It was also released in the cinemas in Italy in 70 prints directly after its crowded festival screenings. It is a philosophical more than a hard-hitting documentary which moves more like a butterfly than stings like a bee. But, as I share the frustration and fear of Gandini that the Berlusconi media dictatorship through banality might be the future for almost all Europeans (just look what is happening with Public Service!), it is certainly an important film. It was produced by the little company Atmo in Stockholm and it happens to be the very same company which produced Tarik Saleh’s animated future thriller Metropia.

These two films are a good example of a new trend in Swedish filmmaking. Inspired by the successful Danes in the 90’s, there are a couple of very creative groups of young filmmakers who are helping and inspiring each other, changing roles between director and producer, going from one project to another. Of course Atmo is one of these. Metropia, which opened the Critics’ Week in Venice, is also a Swedish film directly planned to be shown internationally. It’s in English and the voices which go together with its innovative animation style belong to Vincent Gallo, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier and Juliette Lewis, among others. I have some criticism of the actual story of the film – I found it too complicated with too many strange story details – but I was,  at the same time, impressed by its claustrophobic atmosphere and its political dimension. Of course these two “young” (both have passed 30…) filmmakers have been cooperating and helping each other out and they have shared the same producer, Kristina Åberg.

Also the first film of Jörgen Bergmark, A Rational Solution (Critics’ Week), is an interesting cooperation between the director and Jens Jonsson, who made his first feature last year after a row of prize-winning shorts. This time he is the scriptwriter. Even this film was from the very beginning meant for an international audience with a production background of script support from Cinemart in Rotterdam and the producer Helena Danielsson has officially said that nothing but an A-festival should be the starting point for an international presentation. A Rational Solution is more a twisted, satirical comedy than an formalistic experiment and is extremely well-acted (by some of Sweden’s internationally established actors like Pernilla August and Rolf Lassgård). It is to be noted that this film will be released in Italy (40 prints!) before its Swedish premiere (with fewer prints for sure).

The fourth Swedish film in Venice this year was Jesper Ganslandts The Ape (during Venice Days). An uncomfortable thriller about a man who obvious has done something horrifying. It is a very intense little film and also a very good example of this new cooperative trend in Swedish cinema. Ganslandt, who made his first feature Farewell Falkenberg three years ago, is something of the central figure in a group of filmmakers, originally from the west coast but now based in Stockholm. Fasad production company includes filmmakers such as director/cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel, director Henrik Hellström (these two made Burrowing which was presented in Berlin in February 2009) and producer Jesper Kurlansky. By the way, he claimed officially during the biennale that he is very satisfied with the options to produce quality films in Sweden at this time.

And he might be right. The problem for Swedish cinema is not a lack of possibilities to produce – even though that the new policy of the Swedish Film Institute concerning production is that there should be fewer but bigger Swedish films to compete with the Americans. An example of where this idea leads is in the recent episode of the everlasting television crime series Beck about the Swedish detective.  It included three shoot outs instead of one and some helicopter shots… In my view all these four films were made possible not according to this new policy but in a struggle against it.

The key problem for Swedish cinema is distribution as we now have one cinema owner for the whole country Svensk Filmindustri, SF. In a few of our big cities there are still art houses but for the Swedish population in general it is not possible to see these new Swedish films – with or without international festival success – as they are not considered to be commercial enough. It really doesn’t matter that almost all Swedish film productions rely on federal money. The Swedish Film Institute, Public Service television, regional film funds like Film I Väst or Film I Skåne, Nordic Film&TV-fund etc etc. Concerning distribution the holy market is handling everything, including the above mentioned four films.

Here we find another reason for these young filmmakers to draw their interest directly towards international festivals and distribution possibilities.

Beside these Venice examples it’s necessary also to mention the production company Plattform, based in Gothenburg. Around director Ruben Östlund and producer Erik Hemmendorff a certain creative atmosphere has arisen. Östlund, now shooting a new feature, declared very early about his previous Involuntary (the most interesting Swedish film of 2008 in my book) that this film was for Cannes and to Cannes it came. During this year Plattform production also presented the very special documentary Greetings from the Woods by Mikel Cee Karlsson and last year the very first Swedish feature shot by mobile telephone. Both films were presented at the Göteborg International Film Festival.

There are even more to find at the moment. If you also include well-made first features like Glowing Stars by Lisa Siwe, Guidance by Johan Jonasson (premiered in Rotterdam earlier this year) and the coming Miss Kicki by Håkan Liu (shot in Taiwan), it’s definitely a year to remember.

So is there a new Swedish wave? Out of the need to survive the extreme Swedish distribution situation our young filmmakers are going international. Perhaps not as a tsunami but for creating films of great cinematic interest.

Edited by Steven Yates