James Koenig is someone whose voice is heard in various arts arenas. He graduated from Northwestern University with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in voice continuing studies in Italy, Germany, and California. As a classical singer he has sung in opera and concert venues around the United States and in Europe. He also enjoys teaching, directing, and writing. He is the founder/director of the eighteen-year-old Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. He says “My life seems to be filled with translations, sub-titles, super-titles, and sub-texts!” As a writer he has written theatrical pieces, articles for Odyssey Classical Music Publications in the U.K., journalistic pieces for a variety of publications, and a novel, as well as choral and liturgical works. He has been a contributor to a number of film publications including Cinema Without Borders. He was decorated by the Finnish government as a Knight of the Order of the Finnish Lion for his musical and cultural contributions.
Bijan Tehrani: Please tell us about the 2017 Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. and the festival’s screenings location
James Koenig: We are back at our “home away from home”— the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills— or as we say “where Nordic film winters in Southern California. And it’s hard to believe that this is the 18th year of the festival. You know, Bijan, from the very first year when the festival emerged from an idea it was clear that the savvy L.A. film audience had a real interest in what was going on in Nordic film. Someone wrote “This is cinema cultural exchange at its finest.” We bring people together for the shared experience of film. A diverse crowd gathers in a theater. The lights go down— and on the screen unique stories, time travel, tears, laughter, love and imagination— stories with individual cultural markers that bring our common humanity into focus. And over the years we’ve seen various themes, concerns, commonality of a collective conscience. So I asked a country “What’s on your mind?” and they sent me a film. This year the stories encompass a human searching for hope, for home, for identity. There are touching stories of the immigrant experience— or maybe better put, the refugee experience in films like the Norwegian award winning documentary THE CROSSING that puts us on a journey with Syrian refugees, to the Swedish Oscar entry A MAN CALLED OVE— with the contact of a desperately lonely curmudgeon widower and his immigrant neighbors. We also have wonderful “coming of age” or “coming of age revisited” stories from the beautiful Icelandic HEARTSTONE to the Finnish LITTLE WING. And, while we always get wrongly “accused of only dark heavy films”— we have wonderful comic moments in films like the Estonian Oscar entry MOTHER— a Fargo-like comedy, or the modern family drama of A HOLY MESS where with their girlfriend nine months pregnant a gay couple decides it’s time to come out to the relatives that they’re ‘in a family way.”
BT: How many countries have been covered in 2017? Any new film makers- will be introduced this year?
JK: We have gone from just Nordic films— from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden— to including, as many festivals like Nordische Filmtage (Nordic Film Days) in Luebeck, Germany, films from the larger northern region. So we began including Baltic neighbors— Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
We have adopted the phrase “top films from the top of Europe.” And in doing such, we represent eight northern European countries and languages.
BT: Are there any Scandinavian Box Office hits among films screened at the festival? Any major award winner?
JK: Any number of our films have had wonderful box office success “back home.” The Swedish film— A MAN CALLED OVE— had great box office success in Sweden. It was based on a popular novel of the same name and everyone was excited about seeing the movie version. In fact, director Hannes Holm said that at first he was “hesitant” about the project because the novel was already so popular. But he adapted the book to the screen and readers and viewers alike were happy.
BT: Will there be any filmmaker guest attending the festival and Q&A?
JK: Often our guests are “surprise” visitors— since we don’t have the kind of budget that allows us to invite guests to come from abroad. The co-star of A MAN CALLED OVE, Bahar Pars is planning on being here with “Ove” and with her directorial efforts in the Swedish short Ghetto Swedish. On the diplomatic front we will have the new Finnish Consul General Stefan Lindström with us, along with Lithuanian Consul General Darius Gaidys, and the Estonian Consul General of New York Eva-Maria Liimets, and our honorary consuls’ general of Norway, Iceland, Estonia, and Denmark.
BT: Are there any US or Los Angeles premiers among the films screened at the festival? Any Academy Award nominees?
JK: I am happy to say that three Nordic films have been “short-listed” for the Oscars— Sweden’s A MAN CALLED OVE, Norway’s THE KING’S CHOICE, and Denmark’s LAND OF MINE. That film will be our opening night film.
BT: How can international cinema fans attend the festival?
JK: SFFLA and film in general is a celebration and kaleidoscope of diversity. Hopefully people are getting more and more used to sub-titles and finding out they aren’t as “allergic” to them as they thought. International cinema gives you the music of the languages— you’re having a firsthand experience instead of a translated generic one that takes out the spices and flavors of each language. To get a look at the program — and to order tickets— go to our web-site www.sffla.net and plan your get-away! January is a great time to escape into the theater for some arm-chair travel.
BT: We have the same question as every year how can you continue to have this challenging festival to happen on annual bases? And how challenging was to arrange 2017 festival?
JK: I said to someone this year “No one realizes what a pain in the ass producing a film festival can be. But it also has it great joys.” When I see audience members engaging in conversation— or debate— about various films. When I see people moved to tears, because a story from one of the films resonates with their own heartstrings, I am very satisfied. The most challenging part if the yearly fund-raising. We are bringing such a quality experience to people— and now after 18 years they expect us to be there— but the expenses of doing a festival are formidable. I like to say that our festival avoids the hype and focuses on the art— the art of film.
BT: 2017 marks the 10th anniversary of Cinema Without Borders, how do you thing this site has served the international film community?
JK: First of all— congratulations on your 10th anniversary! Cinema without Borders serves the international film community already with its very name reminding people that cinema has no borders. It’s the same sentiment as the German phrase “Die Gedanken sind frei.” “Thoughts are free.” It’s the truth of art— you cannot imprison the human spirit as long as people create, write, imagine, protest, hope, and express in words, image, music, literal and visual prose and poetry. If you worry about politics and conflicts and polarized populations— there is always a reminder in art that you cannot put out the flame of truth expressed. Art has sustained us, and helped us survive the worse that human existence can put in our paths— and has given us language to express the best as well. And after all is said and done— international cinema helps us to both appreciate the unique identity of people and places, while at the same time reminding us that we aren’t so different one from another. When it comes to film—it is very life affirming to remind people that cinema— and art—has no borders.” Thoughts are free. Images fly. Truth survives. And when we affirm each other’s stories we somehow affirm human bonds that are stronger than fences, walls, and borders.