Uneven Levels of Ambition in Haugesund

in 45th Norwegian International Film Festival Haugesund

by Thor Joachim Haga

The 2017 edition of the Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund, Norway (the 45 th of its kind) was surprisingly similar to previous editions – both in its eclectic programming and its many film industry events. However, the desire for a more ambitious audiovisual profile is once again felt.

Credit where credit is due – unlike many other Norwegian film festivals, the Haugesund programmers don’t merely succumb to weeping camels and rustling shrubbery; if the profile gets too niche, the festival undermines its own relevance. Genre films and more audience- friendly material should co-exist with weightier festival films, and the event should simultaneously be a launching- and screening platform for the industry as well as an open arena for pivotal, contemporary film art.

Yet it is worth asking why they haven’t chosen more interesting genre films, or why the individual programs haven’t been curated in a way that makes them more consistent, internally.

This was clearly evident in the main competition, which — on the one hand — could revel in brilliant festival films like the Safdie brothers’ sparkling noir thriller Good Time and Joachim Trier’s new masterpiece (and Toronto-ready) Thelma, but also included disappointing Cannes titles like Happy End (Michael Haneke), The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola) and 120 Beats Per Minute (Robin Campillo), as well as less talked-about titles like the conventional and over- extended Finnish movie Tom of Finland (Dome Karukoski).

The different Nordic programs (six in total, if you include the movies up for the Norwegian Amanda Awards) offered a similar scope in quality and ambition, especially the Nordic Focus subcategory. The Danish 80s comedy Dan-Dream (by the creators of the popular Klovn series), Baltasar Kormákur’s Taken-inspired The Oath (Eiðurinn) and Jens Dahl’s chamber thriller 3 Things (3 ting, supposedly a passion project for its main star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) were all solidly crafted specimens within their respective genres, but with few audiovisual ambitions beyond that. The less said about Ole Borndahl’s embarrassing and totally unfunny comedy Small Town Killers (Dræberne fra Nibe), the better.

Many of the films in the Nordic Focus program present what appear to be warm, intimate stories, but somehow get lost in their ambitions along the way – either because they’re unable to structure their storytelling properly, or because they succumb to conventions and references that become more obvious than they are gripping:

Daniel Joseph Borgman’s Loving Pia (At elske Pia) presents itself as a hybrid between fiction and documentary, but the staged elements surrounding the intellectually challenged Pia’s love affair with the simple village fisherman Jens appear overly deliberate and awkward. Katja Wik’s multiple-story film The Ex Wife (Exfrun) attempts a Ruben Östlund-like aesthetic in its long-distance observations of desperate housewives, but ends up being too self-aware. Olli Ilpo Salonen’s ambitious student film Wendy and the Refugee Neverland displays impressive deep focus photography and a gorgeous synth score, but should have been a short, not a feature length film. The two coming-of- age stories Star Boys (Visa Koiso-Kanttila) and Garden Lane (Trädgårdsgatan, by Olof Spaak) are convincing in their delicate childlike direction, but the “bad things” the children have to cope with – especially their parents’ morally questionable life choices – often appear unnecessarily constructed as a narrative device.

However, two films stand out from the rest, with a more playful aesthetic: Hlynur Pálmason’s Winter Brothers (Vinterbrødre) describes the lives of two brothers in an (unnamed) mining facility. Using pale, icy cinematography and a zithering soundtrack that constantly fluctuates between silence and noise, the mine becomes a living, organic being that eats its way into the environs of the two moonshine-producing protagonists. Here’s a little bit of Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker), a little bit of Bela Tarr (Satantango) and a little bit of Werner Herzog (Lessons of Darkness).

Rojda Sekersöz’ debut film Beyond Dreams (Dröm vidare) was another breath of fresh air. It may have acquired some of its DNA from Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood (2015) in its depiction of a group of petty criminal girls in a Swedish suburb, but it is Evin Ahmad’s lead role that really adds energy to the social-realist expression. The story of a resourceful girl who becomes victim of her circumstances is perhaps not particularly original, but it touches so many emotional tangents over its course – sober, but always justified – that there is nothing to be ashamed of when it finally starts to tug on our heartstrings.

It isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself that these film programs are so eclectic, but the leap in ambition is peculiar, from more-or- less standard genre films to “unrealized” message movies to rightful quality films. The only thing that really felt consistent – yes, almost to the extent of parody – was the nominations for the Nordic Council Film Prize: all of them debut films, and all of them coming-of- age stories (barring the Danish film Parents, which is about “the other side” of childhood).

As usual, the films were accompanied by industry events and seminars, most of them seemingly successful and well-attended, even though the thematic angle sometimes appeared too general: what is really meant by “the film politics of the future”? Some logistical mishaps must be attributed to less hands-on staff, but as a whole, the festival could once again check their obligatory boxes of mingling parties, seafood, canapés and independent audience events.

The Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund continues to be an important pitching venue for Nordic composers, and a great arena for Nordic films of all levels of ambition, but the profile may be both more succinct and have better quality assurance the next time – without the festival losing any of its identity.

Edited by Lesley Chow