First published in the Canberra Times on 8 July 2016
Arriving with the mid-winter chill, the Scandinavian Film Festival is back on cue this July. By turns bold and beautiful, Scandinavian cinema can be outrageous, funny and frank, and can deliver a jolt, like a shot of vodka, straight to the solar plexus.
As a catch-all for countries of the Nordic tradition, the festival captures the latest cinema from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, as well as Finland and Iceland. It is now in its third year.
In recent times, Scandinavian film has been acquiring a bit of a name for itself. As It Is in Heaven was a uniquely stirring, endorphin releasing film from the region that was a soaring hit here in Australia around 12 years ago. With Michael Nyqvist as an ailing conductor who rediscovers joy with a choir in his remote hometown, this film ran continuously at the Hayden Orpheum cinema in Cremorne, Sydney, for more than two years.
A special event at the Scandinavian festival this year will be its sequel. As It Is in Heaven 2: Heaven on Earth, made by the same director, Kay Pollak, picks up where the original left off, after Nyqvist’s character passes away. The young Norwegian actor, Jakob Oftebro, who appears in it, is this year’s festival guest.
Oftebro was recently recognized as one of the top ten best young European actors in 2014. He also appears in the lead in the historical drama, Gold Coast, as a rebellious, anti-colonialist idealist who is sent to a Danish colony in Africa in the 19th century. The film was a recent nominee for the top film prize at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.
Idealism is also explored in another Danish film due to screen. It concerns the actions of a journalist who exposes an international cover-up following a nuclear accident in Greenland in 1968. The Idealist has won several awards, and indeed, nearly all of the films screening at the festival have been either film festival nominees or awards winners.
Land of Mine, the winner of the best film award this year at Gothenburg, the Nordic film awards, is also screening at Scandi. For the Gothenburg jury it is ‘a film which shows the tragic cycles of war, when the winners adopt the brutal techniques of the losers’. It was in official competition at the Sydney Film Festival.
Another intimate human drama in the aftermath of WWII is The Fencer, Finland’s official Oscar contender. Based on real events, it is about a fencing master and former reluctant recruit to the German armed forces, who settles in a remote village in Estonia in an attempt to leave his past behind.
Welcome to Norway!, selected for opening night of the festival, promises to throw political correctness to the winds with comedy about a struggling entrepreneur who turns his rundown hotel into a state-funded refugee asylum to stay financially afloat. Welcome to Norway! won the audience award earlier this year at the Nordic awards at Gothenburg.
When one of the big news stories emanating from Europe now is immigration, the Swedish documentary, Nice People, seems particularly topical. It reveals how rural Swedes and Somali refugees find common language as they form a team to play ‘bandy’, a cross between ice hockey and soccer, apparently. Clearly a crowd pleaser, it won the audience award at the 2015 Hamburg Film Festival.
Around a quarter of the films screening at the Scandi festival are billed as comedies, or variants of. Some memorable comedies have emerged from Scandinavia in recent years. The Swedish absurdist comedy, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, featured at the inaugural Scandinavian festival in 2014. Robert Gustafsson played the part of the centenarian whose life odyssey was revealed in the vein of Forrest Gump. The actor, a king of comedy in Sweden, turned out to be a sprightly 50-year-old. If you caught Headhunters from Norway, another Scandinavian festival film that went into release here in 2014, it was also a riot of hilarity, though of a more grisly and twisted kind.
Last year, Rams from Iceland appeared on the festival program. I suppose you might call it comedy, in spite of itself, but it is more memorable for the extraordinary landscapes and the dogged and perverse resilience of the Icelanders that it introduced us to.
Many of us have become addicts of the morally complex crime fiction that’s become known as ‘Nordic noir’, in TV series like The Bridge and Borgen. This is distinct from the ‘Nordic gloom’ that Scandinavian cinema has been known for, fairly or unfairly. That grand old man of Swedish cinema, Ingmar Bergman, long gone now, who left us with unforgettable movie experiences like The Seventh Seal, Persona and Scenes from a Marriage, can’t be held entirely responsible for this reputation.
Not when there are striking dark journeys into the soul in the terrific films of the Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier like Open Hearts and Brothers. The new enfant terrible of Danish cinema, Nicolas Winding Refn has brushed aside his aging predecessor, Lars Von Trier, for the time being at least with work that is visually arresting, propulsive and harrowing like Drive and Only God Forgives.
A sidebar of the festival is Winding Refn’s Pusher gangland trilogy. Don’t be fooled by this director’s bland image of the corporate clone. His work typically has style to burn but is not for the faint-hearted. The trilogy features early performances by the remarkable Mads Mikkelsen, who has shown his sensitive side to international audiences since in dramas like The Hunt and After the Wedding.
The Scandi cinema has built quite a profile in recent years, and its actors, like ours, are flying high. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo from Sweden was huge, so huge that it had to be remade it in English with Daniel Craig. The Millennium series’ original star, Noomi Rapace, has joined the international film industry, as has Mads Mikkelsen, playing opposite James Bond in Casino Royale, and Alicia Vikander, in Testament of Youth and The Danish Girl.
It’s quite a record for a group of countries spread across vast arctic spaces with a combined population that adds up to just 26 million people.
The Scandinavian Film Festival screens between 12 – 27 July at the Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, ACT.