Nordic Competition: Characters Looking for Themselves

in 37th Göteborg International Film Festival

by Marie-Pauline Mollaret

The Nordic competition of the 37th Gothenburg International Film Festival was composed of features from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. All eight films seemed to be linked by strong characters exposed to the struggles of living. The struggles were most existential, indicating the fact that these people did not really know what to do with themselves.

Looking Back on One’s Life…

Some characters were at the point of looking back on their lives and trying to figure out how to move on. For example, in Sunfish (Klumpfisken), by the Danish director Søren Balle, the main character is a fisherman who has to deal with sudden change. The more he fights to keep his small world unchanged, the more everything turns upside down. To survive, he has to call his identity into question, much like the dying woman of Henrik Hellström’s The Quiet Roar, who tries to understand why she has wasted her life. This woman travels back in time with the help of a serum, and has the chance to confront her 25-year-old self and her former husband. After some time, she finally manages to understand her own choices and make peace with herself.

In a more humorous vein, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men shows characters who are governed by their animal instincts, even if it means risking their lives. They follow personal goals which have more to do with satisfying selfish needs than the meaning of life. This is their desperate (if hilarious) way of trying to find happiness.

…Or Waiting for One’s Life to Begin

In these films, young characters seemed to have to fight more to understand themselves. In Letter to the King (Brev til kongen), director Hisham Zaman follows a group of refugees on an excursion to Oslo. We expect these people to fight for solid necessities such as money or a place to live. But most of them are trying to deal with their lives like anybody else: a crafty teenager is looking for normality and dreams of having a Swedish girlfriend, a young widow who just got her passport can think only of punishing her husband’s murderer, and a martial arts expert has to use his professional skills, no matter how or where. All of these people are waiting for something to happen, and for their lives to begin in earnest.

The theme of an existential quest becomes even more obvious in four movies which center on characters who are completely lost: Sebastian, a young guy who lives at the border between genders in Something Must Break (Nänting mäste gå sönder) by Ester Martin Bergsmark; Simo, a 14-year-old who is deeply scared of reality in Concrete Night (Betoniyö) by Pirjo Honkasalo; Hera, a young girl who cannot overcome the tragic death of her brother in Metalhead (Málmaus) by Ragnar Bragason; and Mina, the young divorced mother who is trying to reconcile her own dreams with her family’s demands in I Am Yours (Jeg er din) by Iram Haq.

To Find One’s Place

Something Must Break gives us an accurate portrayal of a young woman trapped in a man’s body. Sebastian’s quest for identity is brilliantly enhanced by the poetic charm of the movie’s cinematography. Between self-disgust and huge despair, the young hero flirts with self-destruction. But a spark of hope springs up through his ambivalent love story with another man. Despite several faux pas, the movie gives us a strong overview of the troubles faced by young people who cannot manage to find their place in society.

Concrete Night also looks at the difficulty of finding one’s place. Young Simo is stuck between his impressive brother and his over-indulgent mother. He has strange visions which terrify him and lead him to lose contact with reality. In a self-destructive move, he commit an irredeemable act which destroys any hope of happiness. Even if we’re not always sure what is happening inside Simo’s head, his struggle with life — presented in splendid black-and-white images — inspires the portrait of a certain reality.

The Last Fight?

It does not seem easy to grow up in a small town of Iceland where you don’t really belong. In Metalhead, Hera becomes a huge fan of heavy metal music as a way of remembering her dead brother. But music is just a noisy way for Hera to express how badly she feels about herself. She also tries self-destruction (something all these characters have in common) and then resignation, but none of these seem too helpful. Even if the last part of the movie looks almost like a clichéd fairytale, most of the script remains unpredictable, moving between off-the-wall humor and deep irony.

Finally, Mina, the heroine of I Am Yours, has substantial difficulty in dealing with her life. She is obviously a modern woman who longs for a career in acting and for a nice romance in real life. But she has to deal with a very traditional Pakistani family, as well as the ghosts of her past. She cannot handle her roles of daughter, mother and lover, and this gradually leads her towards self-destructive behaviour. The director Iram Haq shows that it can be hard to be oneself, even in a modern society, when you’re different from what people (family, but also her Swedish lover) think you are.

Most of the 2014 Nordic Competition movies make the same pessimistic observations, which might say something about life in Northern Europe: in these beautiful countries of seemingly endless peace and freedom, the last challenge lies in the necessity of accepting oneself and being accepted by others, without any regard for taboos.

Edited by Lesley Chow