North By Northeast At The 33rd Tromsø International Film Festival

in 33rd Tromso International Film Festival

by Häkon Tveit

The popular film festival in arctic Norway, though reliably highlighting films from northern territories, also maintains a glance towards the east; this year it added an appealing Arab-focused section as the event returned post-COVID in full force, with packed venues the norm.

As elongated Norway leans east once it crosses the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is much closer to Murmansk than to Oslo. Since 2002, this has been reflected in the festival having a section called East Side Stories, focusing on former Soviet republics. Standout this time around was the thrilling Russian historical drama Captain Volkonogov Escaped (Капитан Волконогов бежал), enjoying a belated first Norwegian screening; having premiered at Venice in 2021, the film was pulled from Trondheim festival Kosmorama in March 2022 following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Directed by Natalya Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov, the 1938-set film follows a captain of Stalin’s feared policing/surveillance behemoth entity, the NKVD. The protagonist is played with subtle intensity by Yuri Borisov, recently seen in Compartment No. 6 (Hytti nro 6) and Petrov’s Flu (Петровы в гриппе). The directing pair confirm the promise of their fascinating 2018 Venice title The Man Who Surprised Everyone (Человек, который удивил всех).

Claustrophobic and unyielding, their new film becomes an action-packed ride, as the eponymous captain breaks rank in a bid to end his contribution to persecution, and instead help the next victims earmarked for extrajudicial execution or GULAG exile. Paranoia and fear permeate the audience as the hunt for the escaped captain escalates; the context of Russia in the thirties feels depressingly current and relevant.

From Ukraine, Butterfly Vision (Бачення метелика) by debutant Maksym Nakonechnyi might be more directly concerned with current topics at first glance, yet the bold and talented young filmmaker explores ambiguities and nuances that might have partly disappeared since the film’s completion ahead of its 2022 Cannes premiere.

Rita Birkovska impresses in the leading role as a soldier who returns from separatist captivity in eastern Ukraine, only to encounter the many shadows of her status as national hero for a country at war. The brutality of conflict and the ambiguities of heroism and social media are some of the issues highlighted through her experience, in which gender roles and expectations fulfill a central, sinister function. The visual use of online chats, drone footage, amateur videos and news broadcasts adds to the disturbing feel of reality.

Another excellent inclusion in East Side Stories section was Georgia’s A Room of My Own (Chemi otakhi) by Ioseb ‘Soso’ Bliadze. This beautiful and intimate study of the clash between friendship and patriarchy is as subtle as it is nuanced. Co-writer Taki Mumladze stars alongside Mariam Khundadze, the duo deservedly sharing the award for best actress when the film premiered at Karlovy Vary last summer.

Mumladze’s character develops gradually from a withheld, somewhat conservative attitude, opening up via her facial expressions and her body language as the two flatmates grow closer. The character played by Khundadze, an upcoming Georgian Audrey Hepburn of sorts, is fresh from the get-go, and charms the audience with a ferociously free attitude that seems partly off-putting, partly alluring to her co-protagonist. The script does not opt for obvious or simple paths, proving that talent is still plentiful in the small Caucasian country.

Heading south, the new section Arabica was overseen by Tromsø-resident Palestinian filmmaker Mohamed Jabaly, whose gut wrenching documentary Ambulance (Ambulance/Gaza) was an IDFA Amsterdam hit in 2016. Palestine was present though director Firas Khoury’s Alam, which was launched at another “TIFF,”  in Toronto. Khoury’s first feature film is a mellow, likable story of Palestinian high-school students in Israel, balancing resistance, falling in love, getting through school, getting high and just getting by.

The Egyptian winner of the 2021 Semaine de la Critique in Cannes, Feathers (ريش) by Omar El Zohairy, also earned a slot for its absurdist variation on magical realism. The pitch-black comedy has a pop at sexism, not shying away from turning a paterfamilias into a hen. What to do in the absence of the patriarch? Egyptian women just might find a way, in this inventive and stylistically rough-and-tough satire.

Cinema from the Arab world also made its way into the main competition in Tromsø. Further west, in Tunisia, we find Under the Fig Trees (That el Kamouss), the first fiction feature by Erige Sehiri. She stays close to verité in style, following one day in the life of a group of people who pick figs for a living. Beautifully shot, the film lets us delve into an atmosphere that feels very real. Friendship and flirting lift the spirits as the camera flows smoothly between the branches. Power relations, possible abuse and economic hardship threaten. Through an eventful day, Sehiri says a lot with apparently modest means in this charming piece from Cannes’ 2022 Quinzaine des Réalisateurs.

Morocco’s Maryam Touzani also competed with her sophomore film The Blue Caftan (Le Bleu du Caftan), which premiered at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, the section where her debut Adam was also first screened. Her portrait of an old-school tailor and his wife lets the camera delve into the fabrics in a way that recalls Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, but with a more alluring story about closeted homosexuality, friendship and love. The brilliant main cast make the most of their striking faces, expressive in a subdued style.

A perhaps naïve escape from the harsh realities of the outside world enters an intimate sphere of characters fit to calm any spectator’s soul. The warmth of the textiles as well as the relationships feels like a good way to escaping the freezing Norwegian cold as the sun sneaks above the horizon for a second on the day of the award ceremony, visible for the first time in more than six weeks. Truly, the cinema is the right place to be during the dark days of January in Tromsø.


Håkon Tveit