Fishing For Compliments: Eilif Bremer Landsend's Mermaid

in 33rd Tromso International Film Festival

by Neil Young

“I’m not sure how much conventional film-school can really teach someone like Eilif Bremer Landsend,” I wrote in May 2009—when the Norwegian writer-director was just 19, and making small but auspicious waves on the international festival-circuit with his 8-minute drama Last Stop. “I’ve been on several short-film juries in recent years,” I continued,” and he’s already got a greater grasp of the basics than the majority of adult filmmakers who work in that particular form.”

Spool forward a little less than 14 years to the 33rd Tromsø International Film Festival (TIFF; January 15-22), which has taken place in the city known as the “Gateway to the Arctic”—Bremer Landsend’s home-town—since 1991. Here he unveiled his latest enterprise, the 14-minute Mermaid (original title Havfrue), in the competitive Films From the North section dedicated to productions made in or near Arctic Circle countries.

There were three regular screenings of Mermaid in city-centre cinemas and one exhilaratingly unusual show during a festival-organised harbour cruise aboard Hermes II. This wooden boat from 1917—which now mainly caters to the tourists flocking to Tromsø in rapidly-increasing numbers, most of them hoping to catch the Northern Lights—was the ideal nautical setting for Bremer Landsend’s engrossingly low-key documentary portrait of a father and daughter who make their living aboard fishing vessels.

Perhaps heeding my 2009 advice, Bremer Landsend (who celebrated his 33rd birthday during the festival) never enrolled in any formal filmmaking course. His career so far shows that, while film-schools can fulfill important functions, they aren’t by any means the only way for cinema-oriented young people to develop their creative talents. According to his production-company Fasasona’s website, “Eilif likes to inspire young people to make movies by facilitating film workshops in Northern Norway; Murmansk, Russia; South Africa; the Mathare slum in Nairobi; and Ramallah, Palestine.”

Bremer Landsend’s output since Last Stop includes the feature-length fiction Dive (Stup, 2015)—about a retired fisherman—and Fifty Miles (Sju mil, 2020), a documentary about an elderly lady living on a remote island, which was nominated for Best Short at the Amanda awards, Norway’s equivalent of the Oscars. He also spent a couple of years working for Norway’s national broadcaster NRK before leaving to set up Fasasona in January 2022 (a direct successor to Redhead Productions, which the carrot-topped Bremer Landsend ran from 2010 to 2011.)

Both Dive and Fifty Miles premiered at TIFF, on whose governing board he now serves. Given the latter detail, it was perhaps a little eyebrow-raising to see Mermaid granted a slot in a competitive component of the festival (the winner of this eclectic section was Inga Elin Marakatt’s 1920-set Sámi-language horror tale Unborn Biru). In any case, Bremer Landsend has amply confirmed the potential of his late-2000s juvenilia by maturing into a confident and accomplished writer-director, one who will likely continue to pursue an “amphibian” career in both cinema and television.

Mermaid is, from the very first second, obviously intended for big-screen exposure; Bremer Landsend and his cinematographer Tor Edvin Eliassen shot on 35mm and display the image within the celluloid’s frame, complete with slightly rough edges and rounded corners. This has been quite a modish visual format in the last decade or so, from Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (2014) to Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland (2022)—both of which, like Mermaid, deploy the framing technique to evocatively display rugged natural landscapes and impart a certain bygone feel.

But while Alonso and Pálmason’s films are fictional period-pieces, Mermaid is very much a snapshot of present-day reality. A handsomely-mounted affair, it explores the daily grinds, joys and hazards of fishing folk’s lives on the wild north-Norwegian coast—the protagonists are from Andenes, located on a tip of a long peninsula whose western shore is pounded by the Atlantic.

Bremer Landsend and his editor Mik Stampe Fogh interpolate the fishing action with interviews in which Sisilie Skagen and her crusty seadog dad Bjørn discuss their profession and their family relationship. The result is a compact miniature of brisk empathy, celebrating and showcasing a traditional industry through the prism of two representative but idiosyncratic individuals.

Jazz musician Daniel Herskedal’s score is a prominent element, working in tandem with the “found” sounds of Rune Hansen’s audio-mix—the raucous throbbings of boat-engines, the skrill of gulls, the perpetual crash of the waves, and so on—to create an immersive documentary experience. Welcome changes of mood are provided when Bremer Landsend uses Kjetil C Astrup’s underwater cameras to glimpse the deceptively placid world beneath the bubbling surface, a zone of glimmering shafts of spectral sunlight through which dismembered fish-parts eerily float.

Film-edits are made deliberately left unconcealed, the 35mm film-splices being marked by near-subliminally brief white flashes. Celluloid inevitably feels more “artisanal” than digital, and here the atmosphere of hard-knock authenticity is an organically aesthetic match for Bremer Landsend’s engaging subject-matter. It seems that those death-knells for celluloid heard with tiresome frequency throughout the 2010s may well have been highly premature.

Having shot Fifty Miles on 16mm and Mermaid on 35mm, Bremer Landsend is now planning to complete a loose trilogy of sea-related documentaries—and in conversation with me over a beer in Tromsø, he was mulling whether to do so on 8mm or 70mm. I proposed a simple solution: why not make it a quartet?

Neil Young