Nordic Cinema 2009: "Trying To Be Good Can Be Bad For You" By Antti Selkokari

in 32nd Goteborg International Film Festival

by Antti Selkokari

In rather many films seen in the Nordic competition at the Göteborg International Film Festival the overall atmosphere left one a bit gloomy. In the Swedish director Johan Jonason’s Guidance, a depressed, middle-aged man voluntarily goes to a self-improvement course, which turns out to be a regular boot camp.

The depressed man has only one option; to muster up enough resolve to leave his depression and the camp.

In the Norwegian filmmaker Eva Isaksen’s film House of Fools (De Gales Hus) a woman in her late twenties throws herself into a shop window, thus committing herself to a mental institution. When stories like these pile up one has start wondering what’s rotten in the Nordic countries.

Quite revealing is the remark heard in an exchange between two teen-age girls on the lam from their families and a community of conservative Laestadians (a Lutheran revival movement, best known for forsaking the earthly pleasures of watching TV, drinking alcohol and having premarital sex) in Dome Karukoski’s film Forbidden fruit (Kielletty hedelmä). “It is not the weight of sin you are carrying, but the weight of guilt.” In the view of Nordic films one can consider whether the guilt referred to should be understood as guilt of not being successful enough, not enough an alpha male, or not good enough a patient to accept her treatment, or, as in the Danish film The Blessing (Velsignelse) by Heidi Maria Faisst: not good enough a mother to generate an emotional contact with her baby.

In the Critics Week section was seen the Anglo-Finnish documentary filmmaker John Webster’s Recipes for Disaster (Katastrofin aineksia), where the filmmaker decides to subject himself and his family to an oil diet of reduced use of fossil fuels and anything made of them (plastic, jet fuel, etc). The film exposes the viewer to the deep concern of a middle class consumer facing global warming. What are the right choices in a super market? Do individual choices matter? Is there anything to be done? On the other hand, the film raises questions about the filmmaker’s responsibility.

Is he doing the right thing by using his own family as guinea pigs for a year-long experiment of living on as small amount of fossil fuels as possible?

All this sounds confusingly like a mixture of Lutheran guilt together with the standard of success in modern business life; to become successful one must act like one were of the best A-group already.

Nordic films at Göteborg raised issues that are mostly linked to religion or to put it in secular terms, to ethics. The issue raised was how to be good. How to be a good mother, a queen, patient, husband or (earth)lover. There you have it: the heavy sense of duty brought about by Lutheran upbringing and mentality. It is somewhat surprising, because Nordic countries are the most secular countries to be found on earth. Perhaps the present generation of Nordic filmmakers does not know other ways of expressing their ethical concern than that of religious vocabulary and imagery of gloom.

In many of the films the protagonists are for the most part left without a context or character motivation. We only get few hints to them. It is for the viewer to start reading possible meanings into a film. Could the pronounced willingness to leave the films open for interpretation mean that today’s Nordic filmmakers are afraid of being seen as schoolmasters who bully their ideas down the audience’s throat? Either that, or filmmakers are not taking responsibility for their works.