Margreth Olin

in 26th Tromso International Film Festival

by Peter Stuart Robinson

This year’s Tromsø International Film Festival (TIFF) featured a surprising choice of opening film, Doing Good (Mannen fra Snåsa), a portrait of Joralf Gjerstad. He’s a lifelong faith-healer and practically a household name in Norway.

TIFF has tended to favour features-films for past openings and while the programme always includes other forms, film fiction would seem to be the staple of the festival. Does TIFF 2016 mark a change of direction in this regard?  Organisers seem to have made use of this latest offering from established Norwegian filmmaker Margreth Olin to steer the event as a whole in an unusual – and more documentary – direction. For a start, they placed the opening film in the illuminative frame of a retrospective, and Olin’s back-catalogue is comprised, for the most part, of documentaries.

The one exception is Angel (Engelen), an affecting tale of a struggling drug addict, who gives up her young child to the care of foster parents. Olin treats the theme in a nuanced and understated way, avoiding any facile judgements or, for that matter, any obvious narrative prompts that might encourage her audience to make their own. The film is all the more remarkable for being a kind of improvised ‘Plan B.’ Work had begun on a documentary about the woman upon whose story the feature-film is based. Olin elected to abandon the documentary, however, concluding that it was just too sensitive to be screened.

The scope of the retrospective was extended – or nested – in an innovative way by taking a known source of inspiration for this director, the renowned documentary-filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, and providing, in addition, a retrospective of his work. In this way, cinemagoers are not just invited to view a film that may be more or less entertaining in itself, but to view it in a kind of analytical context and, not least, to use it as a springboard to further cinematic exploration.  This is the stuff of which good film festivals are made. One of the charms of TIFF is that it possesses the refreshingly alternative quality of an event clearly made by film-lovers for film-lovers.

Doing Good is a powerful film capturing in a stark and visually arresting way the emotionally charged encounters of the faith-healer and the troubled souls who seek his help. The lessons of Wiseman’s ‘fly on the wall’ approach have clearly been learned. Moreover, Olin brings something new and distinctively her own to the table. There is namely an emotional realism here that is not so readily apparent in the rather more phlegmatic work of ‘the master.’

Olin sensibly avoids entering a jaded controversy over the validity of claims to the performance of miracles. Instead she focuses on the man and the genuine social and human engagement that forms the core of his life’s work. In so doing she has made a worthy contribution to the documentary form.

Every year the net-based film magazine Montages organises a series of film talks at the festival. This year one of the talks was naturally enough with Olin. I had the opportunity to talk to her briefly, and she said this about her filmmaking practice:

You let the camera run and you see all the sadness and the laughter, the tragedy and the comedy of life, and capture it, but when you´ve done all that – and you know it when you have – then it’s all in the mix. It’s all in how you deal with your material, the creative treatment of it, how you put it together. It’s all in the editing… that you are able to transfer what you have seen and give it back to your audience, and that, in documentaries, is where the huge work lies.

Our up-close-and-personal encounter, as an audience, with the characters of the small town of Snåsa –and those drawn to it – might seem the most natural thing in the world. We may even assume that what looks so natural must therefore have been easy to make. Cinematic appearances are deceptive, however. Olin only makes it look easy. This is the surest sign of a gifted filmmaker at work.

Peter Stuart Robinson