The Nordic Competition: Proficiency Over Originality By Ingeborg Bratoeva
Just seven new features and one documentary were in the competition for the Goteborg festival’s Nordic Film Award, a lovely mosaic dragon. Nevertheless, this small selection represented all the industries of Nordic cinema: The host country, Sweden, participated with four films (two of them in co-production with Norway); Finland had two pictures; Iceland and Denmark a single work apiece, and Norway represented by the aforementioned Swedish co-productions. Goteborg’s competition offerings gave the general impression that the recent Nordic cinema is developing in a stable and confident manner, secured by solid and frequent funding. All the movies in this contest were made with skill and flair, the majority of their directors having already pursued successful careers in the film industry as editors, assistant directors, commercial creators and TV dramatists. It is also worth emphasizing the proficient camera work and good acting in every one of the competing films. These achievements stand well in the long and powerful Nordic traditions of acting and cinematography. I pay my sincere respect to the qualities of these Nordic films and consider their merits a good starting point of my review, but I could not ignore the main problem of this selection: A lack of originality.
The Danish film The Blessing (Velsignelsen) opened the jury’s feature screenings, introducing alienation and depression as the main themes of the competition movies. Depression, a predictable outcome of alienation, emerged as the common condition of the main characters in almost all contending films. As a result, the audiences of the Nordic program were doomed to face practically every kind of despondency — postnatal depression in The Blessing; the misery of drug addiction in Sweden’s In Your Veins (I Skuggan av Värmen); the dejection of the mid-life crisis in Sweden’s Guidance; the serial suicide mania in Norway’s House of Fools (De Gales Hus). The only exceptions were the young heroes of the Finnish picture Forbidden Fruit (Kiellety Hedelmä), but at the expense of this, they had to confront the rigorous moral regulations of a Protestant sect. Even the only comedy in the competition, Iceland’s Country Wedding (Sveitabrúkaup), painted a sarcastic picture of the modern family as a domain of alienation and broken relationships. The director Valdis Oskarsdottir has stuck accurately to the paragraphs of the Dogme manifesto (as evidenced by her director’s comment: “No set decoration, no lighting, no make-up, no costumes, no marking on the floors”), using a heavily shaking camera (four cameras, to be precise) to produce one really noteworthy effect — to make the spectators physically nauseous. Nevertheless, the disturbed equilibrium of the audience is no guarantee of cinematic originality.
It was the same with most of the other pictures: Abiding by the standards of the craft of film-making, their directors produced nothing more than a row of skilful exploitations of clichés. Beata Gårdeler shaped In Your Veins after dozens of films about drug abuse, without revealing any new aspect of the theme. Dome Karukoski displayed a similar inclination on the subject of repressive religious communities in Forbidden Fruit. Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää’s The Visitor (Muukalainen), manufactured in a strikingly secondary style, called to mind the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Zvyagintsev. Eva Isaksen’s House of Fools resembled any number of mad-house-movies, starting with Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and ending up at Fri?rik ?or Fri?riksson’s Angels of the Universe (Englar Alheimsins). Thus, the general feeling from the Nordic competition was that the directors were much more concentrated on the fact that they had the chance to shoot a feature film, then on artistic originality and on the topics of their work.
The only encouraging exception was Heidi Maria Faisst’s The Blessing. Directed and shot in a deliberately “detached” manner, the picture focuses on the ultimate expression of detachment in the human world — the alienation of a mother from her newborn child. Following the young mother Katrine (Lærke Winther Andersen) through the commotions of postnatal depression, one could reflect on the lost sense of balance between freedom and commitment in the modern world, on the missing ability and willingness of our contemporaries to experience love as self-sacrifice. Emily Atef, the German director of the similarly themed The Stranger in Me (Das Fremde in Mir), claims that “in Germany alone, 80,000 new cases of postnatal depression are reported every year.” The high number seems to indicate an epidemic. Nevertheless, these cases are no surprise in a culture where sexual satisfaction has become the primary purpose of love and where commitment, devotion and selflessness have been totally excluded from the system of values. Focusing her film on the last boundary of alienation, the young director Faisst offered an excellent example of cinema’s ability to communicate the most important problem of the modern individual: The lost ability to give ourselves in love.