I was pleased to finally catch the latest film from Aki Kaurismäki in cinemas. I knew I would like it and indeed I spent 100 joyful minutes in the splendid Hebden Bridge Picture House relishing every moment. Looking back I see that I spelt out Kaurismäki’s unique approach in detail in relation to Le Havre (2011). Nothing has changed. The Other Side of Hope returns us to Helsinki and the docks where a man emerges from a pile of coal in the hold of a ship and walks purposefully into the city. This is Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a young Syrian who has made his way across Europe, but who has lost his sister at a border crossing in Serbia. Running in parallel is a second story about a Finnish man who leaves his wedding ring with a woman (is this his wife?) and climbs into his 1950s American-style car for his rounds as a shirt salesman. We know very well that these two men will meet and that there will be bouts of live music from a variety of performers plus some strange encounters with officialdom, retail staff and others – everything shot in the lighting and colour palettes of 1950s cinema – although this time I also thought about the exquisite production design and mise en scène of Roy Andersson with its more drab palette but similar flat feel.
I don’t know quite why Kaurismäki’s films work quite so well but much of the appeal is the inherent ‘goodness’ of the characters, even when they behave ‘badly’. Khaled is a young man, but the shirt salesman Wikström is just into his 60s. Like many of the older characters, Wikström is not movie star handsome but he is allowed to be smart (but not too smart) in the way he organises things. He eventually leaves his job, wins some money and buys a run-down restaurant business. Some of the funniest scenes are those showing his attempts to ‘re-brand’ the business, including as a sushi restaurant. Here Kaurismäki gently mocks the idea of appropriating cultural identities.
Kaurismäki’s characters fall neatly into three types. The villains are simply villainous (here mainly defined as racist thugs). The officials are efficient (without being super-efficient) and apply the rules of the system fairly. ‘Ordinary’ people (less important officials, workers and Kaurismäki’s usual group of marginal people living rough) are usually helpful to the Khaleds of this world, recognising the need for working-class solidarity. If only real life was like this. Yet Kaurismäki is right to think that by presenting his absurdist images of a tolerant, accepting host country, he is performing a service for audiences in countries like the UK where a handful of Syrian refugees seems like the limit (but I’m proud to live in one of the cities that has taken a significant number). In a Guardian interview he refers to the ‘shame’ of Europe’s response to the refugee crisis, noting how Brexit will make things worse (too right). But he seems tired of making films and trying to keep up with changing technologies. I hope he gets over this and makes many more films that raise spirits. I wish he felt he could make a film in the UK. We certainly need his talents and humanist commitment.
I laughed and cried all through this film. It’s a ‘feelgood film’ with an edge of dark humour based on a popular novel by Fredrik Backman that has in turn become one of the most popular Swedish films of recent times. Sweden’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, it has already taken some $1.5 million from a limited US release and with a Swedish take of over $20 million it is odd that no UK distributor appears to have bought the film yet. This is even stranger when the film’s leading actor Rolf Lassgård is already well-known in the UK as the first incarnation of Inspector Wallander in the TV films based on Henning Mankell’s novels and more recently in Sebastian Bergman (2010-2013). It would be a surprise if A Man Called Ove didn’t end up on BBC4.
Ove, at least in later life, is a universal figure (not that dissimilar from the UK sitcom character Victor Meldrew). We meet him at the point when his employers of 43 years decide to ‘let him go’ aged 59. His beloved wife Sonja died just six months ago and his officious reign as the ‘regulator’ of his small block of houses also seems to under threat. Ove has had enough and decides to end it all and join Sonja. But he hasn’t taken into account the arrival of new neighbours, a heavily pregnant Iranian woman with two small daughters and a ‘useless’ (Sewdish) husband – an ‘idiot’ as Ove terms him. So far, so predictable. Three aspects of the film take it beyond the predictable. First is the power of Lassgård and the chemistry between him and his new neighbour (and her daughters). Second is the presentation of Ove’s ‘back story’ about his childhood and hesitant romance with the ever-smiling Sonja and third is that dark edge of Swedish humour. There are moments when it is possible to recognise the world of a Roy Andersson, especially in the several suicide attempts – and sudden accidents – all presented in a matter-of-fact way.
Grumpy old men should love this film (I speak from experience), as will their partners and their children. Ove is rude and officious. He is very competent with all kinds of technology but rather lacking in emotional intelligence, though it is there for those with the know-how to release it in him. In the flashbacks we see Ove played by Viktor Baagøe as a boy and Filip Berg as a young man. Ida Engvoll plays Sonja. The back story introduces some of the reasons why Ove has grown up to be the man we see. In particular he’s clearly justified in being suspicious of ‘the men in white shirts’ and the pain that is experienced because of the incompetence of other workers. There is also an indication that Ove’s experience as a worker has imbued him with a sense of working-class solidarity and collective responsibility. It’s interesting to note that Ove collects into his band the physically disabled, those with learning difficulties, a young gay man and various migrants. He’s a role model for grumps!
Blue Eyes is a TV serial from SVT, the Swedish public service broadcaster, made as a co-production with the regional film fund Film i Väst and various other Nordic partners including the major player Nordisk and effects house Chimney Pot. Blue Eyes is very much a high-profile property and was broadcast on the UK channel More4 as one of the ‘Walter Presents’ series of European drama productions. It’s a 10 x 58 mins serial. Made in 2014 and broadcast in Sweden in late 2014/early 2015, its UK début came during the long campaign leading up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in April/May 2016. There are certain parallels between Swedish and British political developments over the last few years and this production focuses on the rise of nationalism and a ‘disguised’ far right party – not unlike UKIP in the UK. Watching Blue Eyes on ‘catch-up’, these parallels are even more stark with the senseless and tragic murder of the British MP Jo Cox.
Blue Eyes is the creation of Robert Aschberg of Strix TV, Alex Haridi and a team of writers. Haridi was also a writer on Real Humans, the original Swedish drama remade/adapted as Humans, a UK/US series for Channel 4. The opening titles for Blue Eyes are distinctive and to me suggest a political thriller. Much of this comes from the music, which I find difficult to describe, but which seems very familiar with its incessant urge to sweep through public events. It made me think of House of Cards (the original UK series). The titles include low angle shots of official buildings with clouds racing across the sky. This sequence is cross-cut with similarly low angle views of ordinary Swedes involved in various mundane activities, but again with speeded up clouds hurtling across the screen. Finally, the third element is a montage of blown up TV sequences, seemingly related to political campaigns. The overall effect is very unsettling suggesting a coming ‘storm’ overtaking Swedish society.
(There is some spoiler material in what follows, but only enough to enable a description of the genre mix in the serial.)
The serial narrative offers a large number of characters, some introduced very briefly (and therefore making the links between characters later on quite difficult to follow). There is one clear central character, a young woman, Elin Hammer (Louise Peterhoff). She is invited in mysterious circumstances to return to her old job as ‘Office Manager’ for the Swedish Justice Minister at the start of an eight week election campaign. The Coalition Party is in power but is facing a fight against the growing Security Party – a right-wing populist party. Elin is possibly an ‘investigator’ in two ways. First, she wants to discover what happened to the previous Office Manager who is now officially on ‘sick leave’ but whose disappearance seems odd. Later, Elin will find herself questioning the motives of everyone in the Swedish political system, including herself – an ‘internal’ or ‘self’ investigation perhaps. This narrative alone would make a political thriller, but a second narrative combines politics, crime and family melodrama. Sofia (a striking portrayal by Karin Franz Körlof) is a working-class young woman in a bad relationship with an abusive man whose behaviour threatens the couple’s young child, ‘Love’. Sofia has a teenage brother Simon and her mother Annika has been selected by the Security Party as a local spokesperson. What makes Blue Eyes so powerful – and disturbing – is that this family group becomes the locus for a discourse about working-class life in Sweden. When a tragic incident occurs, Sofia is pushed into joining a violent right-wing group with terrible consequences. But despite her fierce looks and aggressive stance as well as her extreme political views, Sofia remains a figure that many audiences will find sympathy for. In addition, there is at least one Security Party politician who also evokes some sympathy. At the same time, the Coalition Party is not all ‘above board’ and Elin will find various rotten apples in the barrel.
The second narrative involves Sofia and Simon with a neo-Nazi group intent on terror aimed at breaking Swedes’ trust in their democracy. The terror is created by extremely violent actions (a reference to the activities of the Norwegian extreme right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in 2011?) and simply by the two central characters responsible for these actions – one, older and seemingly ‘respectable’, one younger and highly-focused as a killer. There is a connection between the two narratives – involving problems at the heart of the Coalition Party. The key to this is briefly introduced in the first few minutes of Episode 1. Many viewers (me included) will struggle to remember these few minutes when the link becomes more obvious later on. Along with the resolution of the overall narrative (which leaves the possibility for a second series) and the large cast of characters, I think this makes the series a difficult (but still absorbing) watch for viewers outside Scandinavia. Reading subtitles is always a trade-off against missing visual cues and is also subject to the difficulties of translation. I’m not sure that the Swedish secret service organisation Säpo is ever properly explained. Also confusing for overseas viewers is the geography of the action. The Swedish government offices are in Stockholm, but much of the action takes place around Uddevalla, a small coastal town in Västra Götaland County on the other side of the country. This is where Simon, Sofia and their mother live – again a parallel for the run-down industrial towns of North-East England which have suffered from austerity and voted for UKIP and Brexit. Presumably this plot detail was necessary to justify funding from Film i Väst by filming in the region. The genre mix in this serial is unusual and that too might work against it. It was a massive hit in Sweden and perhaps the DVD box set may allow a more leisurely ‘reading’ environment. Kudos to Channel4/More4 for showing this but I do find the long advertising breaks tedious – I wish it had been on BBC4. But if this has crept under your radar, I recommend tracking it down
Over the last seven or eight years Danish film and television has become almost familiar in the UK. The major TV serials from the Danish public service broadcaster DR have attracted audiences of around 1 million each week for BBC4 – far larger than for any foreign language films in the cinema. But the same lead actors, writers and directors have also begun to feature in both ‘Nordic’ and Anglo-American films.
Tobias Lindholm is at the centre of much of this activity as a writer and also as a director. Between 2010 and 2012 he wrote 20 episodes of the TV serial Borgen and then the script for the Thomas Vinterberg film The Hunt before writing and directing his own second feature A Hijacking (2012). That film, about a Danish ship boarded by pirates off the Horn of Africa, had lead roles for Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling and Dar Salim – three of the actors who became known to UK viewers via Borgen and other Danish serials. The same trio appears in A War and Pilou Asbæk’s high profile in Denmark is an important factor in how the film works.
Danish shipping is central to Denmark’s profile in international affairs, as is the country’s role in NATO and its participation since Iraq in the so-called “coalition of the willing”, including supporting the Americans in Afghanistan. The aftermath of military service in Afghanistan was the setting for a crime thriller in The Killing 2 serial, but A War offers a rather different narrative in which the focus is on one man’s decision in the midst of battle and its impact both immediately and as examined in a tribunal back in Denmark.
Anti-war? Realism and personal stories?
Tobias Lindholm has made several statements about his film after its selection as the Danish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars – where it was nominated as one of the five finalists. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it received a great deal of attention in the US, including from other filmmakers such as Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
I wanted to make a film that you couldn’t tell in short words. We wanted a story that was complex and challenging enough that you would bring it back home, and confront your own self-image. I am sick to my stomach; every fibre of my body hates war and what suffering war is creating, so I thought, what if I could make a story where I could start to sympathise with a war criminal and even get the audience to cheer for him — then we’re getting closer to the complexity of the world. It became a private obsession of mine. I used my good old socialist Scandinavian mother as a role model for this. How do I make her feel sympathy towards this guy? (Tobias Lindholm interviewed on IndieWire: blogs.indiewire.com)
In the same interview Lindholm explains that he developed the script with soldiers who had been in Afghanistan and several of them appear in the film supporting Pilou Asbæk. Lindholm also worked with Afghan refugees from a camp in Turkey (where part of the film was shot, as well as Jordan, Spain and Morocco). Apart from a few key lines of dialogue much of the script was improvised/developed by the soldiers themselves, ‘reacting’ to the situation. In the same way, the interpreter gave Asbæk a ‘live’ translation of what the Afghans said during each scene. Lindholm also used the same technique for the Danish scenes of family life – the children were left to behave more or less as they would do at home with relatively few set lines of dialogue. All of this tends towards a mode of realism often associated with Ken Loach and others influenced by Italian neorealism.
The audience I watched the film with seemed to feel that Lindholm did indeed present the complexity of the situation. Claus Pedersen is a company commander in Afghanistan who, because he feels close to and wishes to protect his men, perhaps becomes too involved in the day-to-day routine patrols the men carry out. As a consequence he finds himself in a situation in which he makes an error of judgement – one which is quite understandable but as the senior officer he must be called to account when things go wrong. Back home in Denmark we see the effects of his absence on his wife Maria (Tuva Nuvotny) and his three small children – and we know that whatever awaits him after a tribunal, his family will also suffer. We are asked to think about the deaths of families (men, women and children) in Afghanistan alongside the dangers for Danish soldiers and the effects on their families. Only the deaths of the Taliban (seen here only in long-distance shots) seem to be ‘collateral damage’. But the Taliban didn’t invite the Danes to come and be shot – perhaps there is an argument that the Taliban (and their supporters too) should be humanised?
The political context
There are several key ‘absences’ in the film. We don’t see any media representations of what would presumably be a significant legal action in the military tribunal and we don’t hear any debates about why Denmark is in Afghanistan. Although we see a few TV vans in the distance and there are reporters in the court room, we don’t hear politicians or media commentators and the soldiers are not ‘doorstepped’ by the tabloids. Though the country is identified, the (English) title implies this is not specifically about Afghanistan but rather about ‘war’ in general (Lindholm’s previous film was ‘A’ Hijacking). For the World Socialist Website (wsw.org) this won’t wash at all:
A War is one of those ‘non-judgmental’, ‘apolitical’ films that is, in fact, thoroughly judgmental and political – its assumptions are simply so in tune with official public opinion as to go unnoticed by the filmmaker and critics.
There is something in this charge and it is certainly a valid point to make about many of these films about Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m not sure about the Danish polity but it would be fair to say in the UK that while a majority has been opposed to involvement in Afghanistan (post Blair and the Iraq fiasco) there has also been widespread support for the men and women who have been sent to Camp Bastion (where the Danes were also stationed up to 2014). But that seems to be Lindholm’s point. He wants us to sympathise with Claus Pedersen while at the same time considering what he has done and what the effects are.
I was surprised by the ‘coolness’ and ‘flatness’ of the film in that it deals with quite shocking and emotional material. I found that I was engaged and I cared, but also that I was aware of the issues. Lindholm avoids all the genre trappings of the usual courtroom drama. It is a ‘lay court’ comprising three assessors hearing evidence presented by a judge-advocate with Pedersen defended by a lawyer (Søren Malling). By UK standards the tribunal is remarkably calm and civilised (and takes place in a typically low-key, modern setting). The film has a simple narrative and direct, often hand-held cinematography by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. Lindholm makes the most of small scenes and, for all the improvised acting, a carefully-written script in terms of structure. The WSW criticism lambasts the film for not ding many things and ends up claiming that Lindholm:
seems to be making an effort to create a national-patriotic mythology, portraying the Danes as hardy, stoical and ‘straight-shooting’, precisely at the historical moment when anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment is being stoked up in the country.
I don’t agree with this and a film which tried to do everything that the WSW demands would be very difficult to produce. Lindholm cast Dar Salim (a prominent actor who was previously a soldier) as Pedersen’s second in command and close friend placed in a difficult position. He also cast Dulfi Al-Jabouri as ‘Lasse’, the soldier whose welfare Pedersen seeks to protect and who unwittingly becomes central to the incident which leads to the tribunal. Is this contrived casting to skew the argument or is Lindholm trying to act positively to represent Denmark’s immigrant communities? I don’t know, but I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
A War is definitely worth seeing and provides further evidence of the strength of Danish/Nordic production. The film is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal and I’m disappointed that one of Europe’s leading film companies hasn’t made a better job of promoting the film. I couldn’t find a Press Pack and the DVD (no Blu-ray?) is a barebones affair. As a film that deals with military procedures, one of the difficulties is that it is almost impossible to tell what rank Pedersen holds and as someone pointed out to me, in the British Army Pedersen would have been supported in the field by senior NCOs, experienced men with authority. Is the Danish Army different, just like the Danish legal system? It would be useful to know.
The Here After is a début feature from Magnus von Horn, a Swede who attended the famous Łódź film school in Poland where he teamed up with a Polish student, Mariusz Wlodarski. After several prize-winning short films and a documentary, The Here After produced by Wlodarski with a partly Polish crew was an official co-production, shot in Sweden, in Swedish. The film, like many other European films, tapped into the regional film fund of Film i Väst and the credits also suggest some form of support from the National Film and TV School in the UK and the French film school Fémis. The Swedish production company involved is Zentropa International, one of many ventures associated with Lars von Trier who started the Danish Zentropa with his colleague Peter Aalbæk in 1992. Zentropa is now 50% owned by Nordisk and ranks as the biggest Scandinavian producer. With this kind of muscle it isn’t surprising that The Here After screened in Cannes and that it has received a release in Poland, Scandinavia and UK with France due in May.
Von Horn has adopted the strategy of telling us nothing about the characters or the situation and forcing us to learn as much as we can as the action unfolds. We see a young man, John (played by a well-known young Swedish pop singer, Ulrik Munther) who appears to be being released from some kind of secure institution. His father has come to collect him and drives him home to a farm where we meet his younger brother, his grandfather and the family dog. John’s mother is never mentioned. There is a great deal of tension between John and the three other family members but his situation doesn’t become clear until he returns to school and an extremely hostile reception from the other students. What has he done? We will eventually find out, but again not directly, only through piecing together what’s said and following the action. John will make a new friend in Malin, a girl who is new to the school and doesn’t know the history (but who is inquisitive). Otherwise, virtually everyone is suspicious if not aggressively hostile.
At first, I felt quite hostile towards the film, partly because von Horn adopts a visual style with lots of shallow focus and which along with other devices such as shooting through windows/doors, often in long takes, helps to distance the audience from the narrative. I understand that this expresses John’s state of mind but it isn’t easy to watch. I was surprised to discover afterwards that the film was shot by Łukasz Żal, the Polish cinematographer who was one of the two contributors to the look of Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013), one of the most astounding visual treats of the last few years. Much is made on the film’s website about the meeting of Scandinavia aesthetics and Polish emotional intensity:
“An over-aesthetic Scandinavian world clashes in the film with Polish sensitivity, creating a new Polish-Swedish quality in world cinema.”
“Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, enclosed in the sombre, sophisticated visual layer of the movie, enables the transition of the pain which accompanies the main character of ‘The Here After’ into an aesthetic experience. The world where John is doomed to live is meticulously scrutinised by the director. Von Horn and Żal have managed to wrap the bitter story in a soft, poetic form, giving rise to a remarkable sensitivity and a coherent cinematic language.” (See http://www.the-here-after.com)
There is a danger here of getting just a little too precious. As far as I can work out, the images are either drained of colour or it is particularly gloomy in Sweden in March (or May? – I couldn’t quite read the calendar on the wall). Either way, this is a world of predominantly blues, greys and greens. I think that I did eventually manage to gain some kind of entry into John’s world and the struggle may well have been worthwhile to experience ‘poetry’ and ‘sensitivity’. But I’m not sure that is what I wanted or expected from the film. I want here to speculate on issues of genre and representation. The Here After signs itself as an art film and as such has succeeded in getting widespread support. But I was also reminded of two other relatively recent films with similar narrative elements. The Swedish film Flocken (2015) has a similar visual style, a not dissimilar location and concerns a younger school student ostracised in her small community because she accuses a boy of sexually assaulting her. Flocken has not got a UK distributor and I wonder if it is thought too generic and not sufficiently ‘arthouse’? Another film which has something of the tone of The Here After is Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did (Ireland 2012). This latter film did get a release and Abrahamson has become a very successful director straddling arthouse and mainstream ‘quality film’. All three films share a narrative in which a teenager does something that ‘shocks’ a relatively small tightly-knit community, leading to disturbing group behaviour and the sense that the various social institutions involved are less effective than they should be – implying perhaps some kind of metaphorical statement about a failing society. I think this is potentially a genre topic and relates to a wide range of films that play with morality, group behaviour and sensitivity around youth and adolescence. Back in the 1960s this would have been classed as a ‘social problem film’ in the UK. Then the narrative would have been expected to deliver an authority figure who would ‘solve’ the problem, but in these recent films a lack of narrative resolution has almost become conventional.
The Here After takes place in an unspecified region, although both the director and the young lead are from Halland county in Western Sweden. It seems to me that there are several films which portray life for adolescents outside Sweden’s main cities as tedious and dull. One of the best known is Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (Sweden 1998). The original title of the film is the cry of teenage girls bored to death with living in Åmål. (The film was sweetly re-titled Show Me Love for release in the US and UK.) The Here After focuses on the more violent behaviour of teenage boys, but also on the way in which some of them are supported by parents for whom group solidarity is more important than any form of moral behaviour or social justice. Like What Richard Did, The Here After is based on/inspired by a news story. Even if there is a ‘truth’ in such a narrative, it still seems to me that there is a danger of ‘typing’ small town Scandinavia as particularly dismal in terms of social relations. Perhaps there is some Swedish scholarship on these kinds of films?
The Here After has received almost universal acclaim – though not too many screenings. It opened on just 10 screens and on its first weekend took only £330 per screen. None of the reviews I’ve read seemed interested in the kinds of sociological questions I wanted to ask. If this is meant to be Sweden, the judicial system and the rehabilitation of offenders seems out of kilter somehow. Of the various reviews, Jonathan Romney makes the most telling point when he describes Ulrik Munther as ‘delicately handsome’ and suggests that his pop star profile is well exploited (at least in a Swedish cinema market context). But too many reviews simply see von Horn as a diligent student of Michael Haneke. I was impressed by Munther’s performance and I certainly appreciated the way tension was built up but I would have liked more in terms of narrative development and more for the audience to chew on.
This is a political thriller which received its UK premiere at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is based on actual events in 1968 when a B52 bomber, loaded with nuclear weapons, crashed at the US Airbase at Thule in Greenland. Greenland was a territory administered by Denmark and in both cases there was a ‘nuclear free’ policy. At the time the USA and Denmark maintained that the accident site was cleared and the weapons accounted for. In the 1980s workers involved in the clear-up in 1968 started showing signs of illnesses linked to radiation. The investigations led on to evidence of both contamination at the time and of a cover-up over the incident. The film explores this story focusing on a radio journalist, Poul Brink (Peter Plaugborg) who researches and reports the story. There is a full account of the historical events on Wikipedia: the film has obviously simplified the process for dramatic effect.
The film in many ways falls into the genre of the investigative journalism uncovering secrets: films like All the President’s Men (1976) or Defence of the Realm (1986). So we get light and shadows, the neon lit urban areas at night, basements, [but not underground car parks], the following car, the officious sectary or policeman, and the missing files, either hard copy and on computers. There are also the humorous moments when irony is lost on some official or bureaucratic rules lead to unintentional revelations. However, the film also achieves a distinctive treatment through the use of archive film: bonus point, these are all in the correct aspect ratio. This footage is in black and white and colour and includes television interviews and reports and an unintentionally funny US military promotional film for the airbase.
The cast is generally very good, especially Peter Plaugborg. I thought the victims of the incident were credible, though not the main focus. And the members of officialdom, with those hiding something and those letting something slip, were very good. The film is well photographed by Laust Trier-Mørk. The landscape in Greenland offers great opportunities: there is one splendid shot of the Thule Base at night, shrouded in darkness. It well edited by the team of Olivier Bugge Coutté, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Molly Marlene Stensgaard. And director Christina Rosendahl has exercised very effective control over her team.
The film was shot on an ARRI Alexa and is screened from a DCP in standard widescreen. It runs 114 minutes, slightly long as some scenes drag a little, though overall it works well. The film has English subtitles. The film does not have a UK distributor yet but it is good enough to warrant that.
I approached this screening with some trepidation. I’d chosen it because it fitted my schedule. I’m always slightly wary of documentaries and I’m not sure why. I rarely choose to see documentaries at my local cinemas but when I do get to see them I nearly always find them rewarding. This one certainly sounded grim and when I arrived at the ICA (which didn’t have seat reservations for this screening) I found myself sitting behind the tallest person in the cinema. With poor raking in the cinema this meant I had to lean sideways to read the subtitles. It wasn’t a good start but I needn’t have worried.
People live and work on or near to rubbish tips all over the world and I can think of both cinema documentaries and fiction films set in Brazil, Egypt and India in which potentially positive stories can be found about their lives. I wasn’t aware of the same scale of living with rubbish in Moscow. Rummaging about in Cairo or Mumbai sounds relatively attractive in comparison to surviving a Russian winter in a makeshift hut on a waste tip in the snow and slush. But apparently this is what hundreds, if not thousands, of people do every year. The film’s title comes from a quote from Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1902), a play depicting ‘Scenes From Russian Life’ amongst the poorest classes. Hanna Polak’s film focuses on one young woman and offers us glimpses of her life over a 14 year period, starting when she was 10.
Hanna Polak is a celebrated Polish documentarist and a humanitarian campaigner. Reading her biographical details, her list of films and awards over the last fifteen years and the range of her work with charitable organisations, I’m surprised (and perhaps shamed) that I haven’t come across her before. After the screening she gave a spirited account of how she made her latest film and used the opportunity to encourage us all to promote the film and the various campaigns around it. In short, Hanna Polak embodies what was once called ‘social documentary’. Her films are meant to not only show the world but definitely to change it. In Putin’s Russia that’s a tough call.
The genesis of the film was a project that Polak began in order to try to help street children in Moscow. It was they who introduced her to the communities on the dumps. For a long period she worked to help children with medical problems, getting them access to treatment. She always carried a camera and took both still photographs and film footage but most of the time she was too busy to do this systematically. It was only later that somebody suggested that she make a film and that she realised that she might be able to do more for the people on the dumps if a film showed what was happening to a much wider audience. The decision to make the young woman Yula, the central character in the story was in effect retrospective and we see glimpses of her as a child before we get more sustained coverage of incidents from her later teenage years onwards. Across the 14 years, Hanna Polak had other films to make as director, producer and cinematographer including Children of the Leningradsky (2004) about street children living around a Moscow railway station. She made other social documentaries as well as, presumably, jobs to simply pay the bills. She graduated from a cinematography school in Moscow so she had contacts in the city but she had to look elsewhere for funding. Something Better to Come is co-produced by Polish and Danish/Nordic public funding (an example of Scandinavian support for charitable/aid-related work?).
The difficulties of making this film – physical, organisational, personal etc. – mean that it doesn’t offer many ‘aesthetic pleasures’ but it packs a powerful punch as a social statement. Yula herself is a remarkable young woman and Hanna Polak amused us by revealing that the 23 year-old Yula is now living a carefully organised life in Moscow which allows the filmmaker limited interview time. “You get one hour, then I must do something else.” Yula’s family lost their original apartment in Moscow and ended up homeless and eventually on the dump. Years later, almost like a miracle in a fairy tale, the Moscow authorities discovered that the family had property rights that were still valid and Yula got an apartment. In the meantime her father, like many others, had died. Life on the dump is hard. A temporary shelter may need to be moved every few days as the only work available is searching through the new rubbish for recycleable material and it’s important to be close by. The trucks and bulldozers move the mountains of rubbish and the ‘recyclers’ are paid in vodka for what they find. Alcoholism sits along hyperthermia in winter and various diseases associated with dirty water and contaminated food as major killers. The recycling is an illegal operation controlled by gangsters. Hanna Polak faced dangers working with the people of the dump and finding money to complete her film was a problem. Now she spends her time trying to find ways to promote her film. If a screening happens near you, please go to see it and support her cause.
Trailer for Something Better to Come:
‘Flocking’ here refers to the ‘flocking’ of sheep rather than anything to do with fibres or fabrics. The sheep in this case are the inhabitants of a small community in Swedish Lapland who are all quick to denounce a 14 year-old girl when she accuses a boy in her class of sexually assaulting her in the school toilets.
The film was introduced by Agneta Fagerström Olsson, one of its producers who re-appeared for a Q&A after the screening. She told us that this form of criminal sexual behaviour was an increasing problem in Swedish schools and that the film’s director was very committed in her approach to the material. Unfortunately Beata Gårdeler was prepping her next film in Vietnam and Agneta did not want to answer questions about her director’s distinctive visual style. My problem with this was partly because it was my first visit to Hackney Picturehouse with its very large screen (in Cinema 1). The projected image for Flocken looked dark – as if the projector was underpowered. Presumably this effect and the frequent use of very shallow fields of focus was the deliberate decision of the director, designed to suggest the isolation felt by the young woman – or possibly the distorted views of the community. It isn’t a visual style that is easy to watch even if it makes sense as a device to disturb the viewer for good reasons.
The film narrative works well to develop the pressure on Jennifer and to keep the audience thinking about whether what she has reported really did happen. Jennifer’s behaviour is carefully represented. But as one questioner pointed out in the Q&A in some ways the narrative itself is quite familiar – a dreadful thought, but such cases are not uncommon and films have been made about them fairly regularly. The film is potentially different, however, in two ways. First it introduces a narrative twist involving anonymous social media attacks on Jennifer and second it takes place in an isolated community so the school itself is very small and the accusation is something everybody knows about.
The interesting question is why does this community collectively behave in such a brutal way? I fear that this seems like another story about the brutality of Northern Sweden – where too much alcohol is consumed and too many guns are used for hunting. I have seen several such films and read several such crime novels. I also worry that Jennifer is a target because she is ‘different’ – dark compared to her blonde sister and single mother. The young actor who plays Jennifer has a name that suggests a migrant from South East Europe. Although it isn’t overt, are we meant to read a racism discourse here? Perhaps the two girls have different fathers? Is this an attack upon the single parent/mixed family? For a UK audience it is revealing to see the local priest who effectively refuses sanctuary (through weakness) and the local judicial system which works properly but doesn’t satisfy most of the townspeople. In the Q&A there was a suggestion that it was mainly a social class issue that meant that Jennifer’s family was ostracised so quickly, but I’m not sure about this.
Flocking is well made with good performances and its mainly female creative team explore how rape charges are handled in a thorough and sober way. Whether that is enough to get the film a wider distribution outside the festival circuit is open to question. The most recent film with similar plot elements is Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Denmark/Sweden 2012) but with its star cast, tight script and use of melodrama that is a hard act to follow. For me the visual style of Flocking was too much and it might have worked better for concentrated short bursts rather than seemingly throughout. Perhaps it would work better on a smaller screen?