Chilling Love Stories at the 2008 Scandinavian Film Festival Los Angeles

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An up-to-the-minute romance, a mysterious family drama, and a sober period piece offer fresh vistas of Scandinavian domestic life in Norway’s WINTERLAND, Iceland’s PARENTS, and Sweden’s THE NEW MAN at the Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. where, according to the fest’s Founder and Director, Jim Koenig, “Nordic film culture gives us an entry into the attitudes, issues, and passions of those societies.” With themes ranging from personal predicaments and cultural pressures to searing social polemics that haunt us to this day, the films wrap us warmly in the desires of their characters. And seeing more of their world than they do in a given moment, we want to nudge them closer to each other, toward the tolerance, patience, and heart that drive the films.

The festival’s second weekend opens the door to a slate of masterfully etched, multi-layered stories of contrived marriages, fractured homes, and taboo love through characters who make sparks fly for ties that bind. At the same time, referring to one of the over-arching themes of the festival, Koenig comments, “In the celebration of ethnicity, identity, and community, it’s important that we don’t form a circle with our backs turned on the world, but that we face outward and expand our circle.”

I make films about people, not about politics,” claims Hisham Zaman, whose earlier short film, Bawke, brought him over twenty national and international awards. And yet Winterland, his first feature, pointedly plays with the political themes of our day as it paints the dilemmas of a middle-aged Kurdish man, settled into the remote countryside of northern Norway, and the woman who enters his life by surprise, since he thought she was “made to order” and would appear as he had imagined her.

Maybe matchmakers and picture brides belong to the past, but Renas sincerely believes that the solution to his life is a wedding by proxy staged for him in Kurdish Iraq. When Fermesk, his new wife, arrives, no longer the slender youth donning the flowing dress and soft smile of the “princess” he fell in love with in his photograph, she also wonders what happened to the suave man in uniform with a full head of dark hair in the portrait he sent her from years ago. Their troubles have just begun, because his house is no mansion and his bank account is no mint, and besides, Fermesk has a secret of her own….

Renas was almost happy in the snowbound north with his steady job and loyal Kurdish friends, but now the wide white hills are like vast desert dunes between him and his wife, and neither the phone booth beside the house nor the satellite dish above it is any oasis of connection with the homeland.

And yet the bluish landscape of the cold north takes on many hues as this story about dashed hopes and slow reconciliation speaks affectionately and sympathetically of both newly-weds and newcomers, couples and cultures, at once. Winterland also brings to wit the nature of cinema. “A photo never tells the truth,” comments one of Renas’ friends. Then how do we bridge the gap between pictures and reality?

“Imagination is far-reaching and can tell truths behind truths through the powerful and effective art of film,” explains Hisham Zaman, “but I still feel that life is much bigger and more detailed than the truth portrayed on the screen.”

Working from a similar premise, Ragnar Bragason explains the modus operandi in making Parents, the second (after Children) in his pair of films from Iceland’s innovative theatre company, Vesturport: “The thing was to be, not to act.” The ensemble has delivered award-winning productions to Iceland, England, Germany, Finland, and Russia and is always on the lookout for new and provocative ways of putting a story across.

For its first feature films, Vesturport joined Bragason in his pursuit of character studies that would allow thespians to reach a deep level of integrity in acting. In combination, Children and Parents facilitated the exploration of a single and fundamental theme.

“Inspired by the working methods of Leigh, Godard, and Casavettes,” recounts Bragason, “I got the theatre group Vesturport to collaborate with me. The actors were given the assignment of presenting a character they knew from their own lives or one that was loosely based on real people. They were to undergo practical training and explore particular aspects of their characters, such as getting to know their characters’ jobs.”

Then several months were spent improvising and researching in order to build up the characters and develop the plot. “During this time,” says Bragason, “I decided how the characters were to be linked and then retired to write the outline, which was primarily to distill the improvisations to their essence, give them structure and develop the story. And then shooting began, with no written dialogue, but each with an extensive sense of his character.”

“First and foremost we wanted to tell the stories that matter to us, and hopefully would affect our future audience,” insists Bragason. Parents works brilliantly as one of those stories. For the longest time it’s not easy to discern a reason for three sets of characters to be developed in parallel with each other. Yet when their threads do tie together and come full circle, it’s with as much grace as subtlety, and we’re enlightened and rewarded by the seeming inevitability of their connection.

While the parents are caught up in their passions (or pressures) to raise children, often enough they behave like children themselves. Oscar the dentist would be happier with his wife of five years if they were also raising a child of his own along with her children that he adopted. And Katryn Rose really wants her son back from her mother, in whose care she left him at the age of three while she lived in Sweden for eight years. So she takes a steady job as a dental assistant. If only her past would remain in Sweden… But a rather traumatic Freudian slip gives her away.

The real mystery is why Oscar isn’t more devastated by a big black lie he discovers on the part of his wife. Ingvar Sigurdsson, one of Iceland’s most prolific and gifted actors, plays Oscar with his usual warmth and vulnerability, and he also conveys the uncanny self-knowledge for which he is so admired. It makes for a perfect exchange between performance and cinematography — the camera’s lonely roaming over the all-too-expansive interiors of sleek houses and restaurants and hotel rooms, pristine offices looking out onto treeless streets, where connection seems all but impossible.

When Klaus Härö was first asked to make the film, The New Man, he said “No.” In 2003, while he was in pre-production on his acclaimed Mother of Mine, a screenplay arrived in the mail from Kjell Sundstedt, the screenwriter of Härö’s first feature film, Elina. He read it and quickly responded, turning it down out of his tremendous respect for Sundstedt, one of Sweden’s best contemporary writers. The subject was rough and demanding, and for only his third feature, Härö worried that he would not do it justice. This is amazing for a director who has garnered more than sixty prizes at festivals worldwide from critics and audiences alike, whose last two films were submitted to the Oscars, and who in 2003 was awarded the Ingmar Bergman Prize, decided upon by Sweden’s legendary pioneer himself.

For decades through the middle of the 20th century, Swedish doctors and politicians conspired to subjugate the country’s low-income families by depriving them of reproductive rights. This, it was thought, would enable the growth of a new society of mentally fit and socially able citizens while the others were drafted into work homes until they gradually died off. Seventeen-year-old Gertrud is relocated into such a home for the “feeble-minded” in The New Man, where at first she believes that if she simply complies, she will find a way out.

A piercing drama, The New Man is about the tragedy of Sundstedt’s own relatives during the forced sterilizations that took place in Sweden in the 1930s – 1950s. Härö explains, “His mother’s sisters had been forced to meet this fate, while his mother managed to escape it. Therefore, you could say, he is alive and writing today. His writing was a miracle per se, since he is blind today. (He suffers from a disease he inherited from his mother’s side.)”

“I know,” adds Härö, “that as he writes about the policies of the ‘30s and ‘40s he is also writing about today: How de we treat people who are less well off than we are; who is to decide who is fit to live and who isn’t? When life turns out differently from what we were hoping for, then it’s still — yes — A LIFE. These questions are tackled in an intense drama about a young woman — bearing resemblance to Kjell’s mother and aunts — who stands up for herself in the system of an unjust society.”

Sundstedt was offering Härö the chance to direct the most important work he had ever written. After making Mother of Mine, Härö read other screenplays. But few of them seemed worth the trouble. He recalls, “I would have loved to go in another direction (away from drama and especially period pieces) and make a light comedy… But I noticed my thoughts, again and again, going back to the story and screenplay of The New Man, as if the characters and events were really taking shape in my imagination. And finally I had to admit: I wanted to do this film and I had tried to escape it.”

Going back to the writer and producer to ask if he could still make the film was the hard part, according to Klaus Härö, who reports that the rest was “a joy — committing to the film and working with the young and quite unknown actors was a pleasure.” Throughout his making of short-form and documentary films, the director has honed his great talent for working with children. In his third feature, it’s the third time that Härö, a Swedish Finn who has made films in both countries, has delivered a masterful portrait of youth falling victim to avoidable social circumstance.

“I am sure that I speak for both Kjell and the cast when I say that we would rather have seen that the events in the film had not taken place. But since they did, we are honored to give these women — most of whom never got to tell their story — their say on the screen.”

It’s pertinent that the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Shanghai International Film Festival. And as this article is being posted, The New Man has been nominated for the Swedish “Guldbagge” (the Golden Beetle, the Swedish film prize) for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Maria Lundqvist, from Mother of Mine), and Best Screenplay. Look for dramatic camera angles, framing, and lighting that complement mighty ensemble performances and a sensitive rendering of atmosphere in this urgent and harrowing story of families at-risk and a heroine not soon to be forgotten.

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About Author

Diane Sippl

With a PhD in Comparative Culture from the University of California, Irvine, Diane Sippl has taught 100 courses in film, theater, literature, writing, and culture studies for the University of California Los Angeles, the University of California Irvine, Occidental College, and California State University Los Angeles. She has also published over 70 researched articles and reviews as a critic of contemporary world cinema for journals such as CineAction, Cineaste, and FilmMaker and as an arts and culture critic for magazines and newspapers. Dr. Sippl also curates and writes on American independent cinema and has prepared materials for IFP and Film Independent on films screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival. She has critiqued scripts for the Story Department at Paramount Studios. Since 1994 Dr. Sippl has served as a program adviser for the International Film Festival, Mannheim-Heidelberg in Germany and also as a festival planner, panelist, and jury member at the Locarno International Film Festival and Cinéma tout écran in Geneva, both in Switzerland; the Los Angeles Pan-African Film Festival; and the Houston Pan-Cultural Film Festival. She has lived and worked in Hong Kong and Germany and has traveled extensively throughout Asia, the Russia, Europe (east and west), and the United States.

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