The Guilty is Gustav Möller’s debut feature, a low-budget creation based on his own story. Jakob Cedergren plays Asger Holm, a cop reduced to answering emergency calls because of – at the start of the film – an unspecified mistake. Like Locke (2013, UK-US) it is a one-location film, though it expands to an adjacent room rather than just inside a car. The benefits are a cheaper made film; the challenge is to keep it interesting.
Cedergren’s performance and Möller’s story are likely to keep most gripped throughout the film and Philip Flindt, the sound effects editor, ensures that the narrative space of the phone calls is created with a magnificent aural landscape. However, it is more than an exercise in style for, as the title suggests, the film investigates the nature of guilt. The slow reveal of Holm’s transgression, and what’s actually happening with the caller he’s desperately trying to help, add a psychological dimension. It can’t quite be called Dostoevskian but there’s enough cerebral nourishment to go with the visceral thrills.
In my initial tweeted response to the film I suggested that the direction needed more imagination. Given its low-budget origins, however, this is a little unfair and Möller does a good job. The way Holm isolates himself in another room as he gets deeper into trying to save the distressed woman and his physical reaction to frustration are all satisfyingly cinematic.
Möller has worked on a couple of episodes of Follow the Money (Bedrag, Denamrk, 2016-) (the first season, at least, was good), one of the plethora of ‘Scandi noir’ TV series that have brought brilliant grimness into our homes. The Guilty is another satisfying example from the dark side of Scandinavia.
The Charmer is classified by IMDb as a ‘psychological drama’ and that may be a possible description, but this is a complex film which draws on several genre repertoires. It might not be a unique take on a modern phenomenon and I’ve certainly seen elements of the story in several other films, but I don’t think I’ve seen them combined quite like this before. We are in the world of migrants attempting to achieve something ‘better’ in a new land, but the narrative begins with a rather shocking action which seems to be immediately forgotten, only to re-appear as an issue much later. Those of you who enjoy second-guessing the mechanics of the plot will probably see the moment coming well before I did.
The ‘Charmer’ of the title is a handsome young man (perhaps in his early 30s?). He appears to be facing the chop from his girlfriend after the couple have attended a social event in a beautiful house and garden. We follow him as he disconsolately travels back to what appears to be an upmarket hostel of some kind with quite pleasant rooms. After an interview we realise that he is a migrant applying to stay in Denmark and that his time is running out. The hostel turns out to be less inviting when we watch officials arriving to take one of the other migrants away.
Our charmer is called Esmail and he’s from Iran. He earns money by working for a removals firm alongside Amir who has been in Denmark longer. Esmail makes occasional calls home, often being cut off or perhaps deliberately cutting himself off. At night he frequents an upmarket wine bar hoping to meet Danish women who might agree to a longer term relationship and provide him with an opportunity to stay in Denmark. But they could easily turn out to be married and just looking for ‘a bit on the side’. The narrative changes when two things happen which suggest different genres. One refers back to the opening of the narrative and creates the threat of the thriller. The other involves Sarah (Soho Rezanejad) a young and attractive woman who is from an Iranian family which is established in Denmark. She sees immediately what Esmail is up to, but she seems interested him. What will her interest lead to? Together these two events will determine Esmail’s future. I won’t spoil the plot further. First time director Milad Alami, working from a script he co-wrote with Ingeborg Topsøe, handles the narrative and his lead Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili) very well. (Alami was born in Iran, grew up in Sweden and now lives in Denmark.) We are never quite sure where the narrative is heading and what kind of genre conventions might pop up. The film looks terrific as photographed by Sofia Olsson – who I note shot the film Volcano (Iceland-Denmark 2011) which I saw in Bradford a few years ago when it won a European Cinema Award.
Esmail is in a sense a double bluffer. He has learned enough Danish to ‘pass’ as a resident. How long has he really been in the country? But also, who is he? What could he do apart from move furniture? Who is in the family back home? There are answers to some of these questions, but we realise that migrants who make the journey as undertaken by Esmail will always want to keep aspects of their identity under wraps.
A film like this might fall foul of the censors in Iran, so sequences set in that country were filmed in Turkey. This is a well-made and engaging film with good performances and I think it should please audiences across Europe and beyond. This was screened in programme strand of ‘Pioneer’ – first or second films by directors. Unfortunately it hasn’t yet been sold for UK distribution.
This title opened the 2017 Leeds International Film Festival. It was screened in a fairly packed Victoria auditorium at Leeds Town Hall. This has a large well placed screen for the occasion and the illumination levels are suitably low; though you get extraneous light when people enter or leave during the feature. The acoustics are less favourable, especially for dialogue. This feature offers Swedish, English and Danish with part sub-titles. Presumably because of the English dialogue the soundtrack was fairly loud but one could manage.
The film itself won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I am not totally convinced by the Jury’s choice but I could see why the film received the award. It was written and directed by Ruben Östlund whose Force Majeure was one of the stand-out releases in 2014. The bad news for those who enjoyed the earlier title is that Fox have acquired ‘remake rights’.
The Square is a worthy follow-up and the style and themes of the film are recognisably similar. However, I thought this title lacked the tight focus and some of the subtlety of the predecessor though I found the ending stronger. This is rather like a picaresque novel as it follows the travails of a curator of a museum devoted to contemporary art in Stockholm. One nice touch is that the museum is called ‘X-Royal’ because it is sited alongside and uses part of the original Royal Palace.
In the course of the narrative we follow Christian (Claes Bang) at work and outside of the museum. And we meet a range of other characters including his managers and colleagues, his children from a separated marriage and the privileged members of the ‘Friends of the Museum’. The Museum and its patrons are the main target in a feature that is predominately satire. The museum elite and the patrons are holders of what French intellectual Pierre Bourdieu termed ‘cultural capital’. And the film draws a contrast between these members or hangers-on of the bourgeoisie and a range of characters from the lower depths of the working class, possessing literally no or minimal cultural capital.
Some powerful and at times sardonic sequences in the film focus on this class conflict. And Christian’s metaphorical journey in the film appears to be designed to accomplish something similar in audiences. So the film veers between almost slapstick humour, sometimes heavy-handed satire and emotive dramatic moments. It is a long film, 140 minutes. I do not think it is too long but in the weaker moments I was conscious of the length. A member of the audience opined that
‘the film tried to include too much’.
I think this is accurate but it is also that the film has too many targets whereas Force Majeure limited itself effectively to gender and family contradictions. The Square reminded me of the 2016 festival entry Tony Erdmann. Both films follow a picaresque form, both are partly satirical partly dramatic; and both target aspect of European political culture. But both are scripted by the director and I think a specialist scriptwriter would have improved the work. It is the sort of film that Jean Claude Carriere would have been good on.
The film is very well produced. The cast are excellent. Even in some of the more bizarre scenes they are completely convincing. The technical aspects are extremely well done in terms of settings, cinematography, sound and editing. The last named technique uses abrupt cuts frequently positioning the audience to fill in an ellipsis and its consequences. The production team are especially good at the use of stairwells, two finely presented settings. The title was shot on the Codex digital system and on Alexa cameras. It is distributed in a 2K DCP which looks fine.
It is a film I think I will see again. It goes on general release via Curzon (who follow somewhat restrictive practices) in 2018. It has a couple of genuinely shocking sequences. The BBFC have not released their certification yet but I would expect it to receive a ’15’.
For my state of mind and my tired brain, I was relieved that my first day of three at the London Film Festival ended with a Danish comedy drama starring one of my favourite actors, Søren Malling. This was a ‘Scope picture presented on the big screen at Curzon 1 Mayfair with an appreciative Thursday night crowd who enjoyed what is a major Danish production. This UK screening came just a week after the official release in Denmark. The Q&A with director Henrik Ruben Genz was equally entertaining and I’m sorry I had to leave before it was over.
The Word of God is an adaptation of a Danish bestseller from 2004 written by Jens Blendstrup, the youngest ‘son of God’ in what is an autobiographical novel. ‘God’ is Uffe (Søren Malling) a familiar character in a number of narratives. In 1986, around the time of the Chernobyl disaster, Uffe’s traditional parenting methods are being called into question. His eldest son has left home and reversed all his father’s teachings, becoming a God-fearing Christian in what in the UK might be called a ‘happy-clappy’ evangelical community by non-believers. Second son Thomas has convinced himself that he has agoraphobia and can’t leave the house and Jens, the youngest is a 14 year-old ‘genius’ poet/writer. Swedish mother and wife Gerd Lillian (Lisa Nilsson) tries to keep this lot together. Uffe has a simple strategy to deal with both joy and despair – he makes ‘Army soup’ from his younger days, a ferocious concoction of unpeeled onions stewed in concentrated soup stock and schnapps. In his professional life he runs a psychotherapy group that convinces its members to abandon medical drugs and instead to progress with groupwork interaction (and copious amounts of beer and cigarettes). Beer is referred to as ‘vegetables’ (i.e. to accompany the soup). The ‘narrative disruption’ is double-headed when Uffe’s eldest returns to announce his marriage and Uffe himself discovers that he has developed potentially terminal cancer – and that he doesn’t want to accept new chemical treatments. In times of stress, as well as making his soup, Uffe retires to his ‘Arabic corner’ and smokes a shisha or hookah. When he discovers that Jens is a writer he unearths his typewriter from the ‘Swedish chest’ that Gerd Lillian brought as a her dowry and attempts to write his autobiography, inspired by Jens’ success writing morbid poetry. The narrative question becomes ‘can the family stay together and resolve their issues’?
I enjoyed The Word of God very much. It is funny and it is also quite moving, because of the performances I think. Lisa Nilsson is very good in a difficult role as the mother and the family rings true. Watching it I was reminded of two films for different reasons. The plot is very similar to that of East is East (1999), a British film which was very successful but which disturbed me greatly because of its representation of a Pakistani father and mixed-race children. It was also an autobiographical story – about a mixed race family in Salford in the 1970s. I found The Word of God to be less offensive and generally quite ‘humanist’ in its acceptance of characters (though some might argue about the wedding scene involving Uffe and his son’s Christian community). A more recent Nordic story which has less in common, apart from a seemingly anti-social lead male character, would be A Man Called Ove (Sweden 2015). Uffe is completely ‘unreconstructed’ but he does the right thing by his ‘patients’. He’s less successful with his children – though I think he always means to be helpful. Søren Malling is a terrific actor, but I hope the paunch he developed to play the role was prosthetic. The Word of God might confirm all the typical traits of Danish life in the 1980s for some audiences (including a questionable sex scene) but I was onside throughout. I hope this film gets a release over here and many more audiences in the UK get to enjoy it.
A trailer with English subs is here: https://www.levelk.dk/films/word-of-god/4003
The mystery is, why has this film, first seen at London Film Festival in October 2015 and Denmark’s Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, not been released in the UK until now? The answer may be something to do with the current spate of Second World War films on UK cinema screens. I haven’t seen Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk yet, but I would be surprised if Land of Mine wasn’t my pick of the summer. It arrives on our screens when not only Dunkirk, but the ideological quagmire that is Brexit is being widely discussed.
The film’s title is either brilliant or risible depending on your love of puns. The Danish title simply refers to the land mines planted by the German occupiers ‘beneath the sand’ of Western Jutland beaches during 1942-44, whereas the English title includes the crucial other element of the narrative concerned with national identity at a time of crisis. Like most UK viewers, I suspect, my knowledge of the experience of Danes under German occupation from 1940-45 is sketchy at best and mostly derived from Flame and Citron (Denmark 2008). I had to look up what happened in 1945 when British and Canadian troops advanced from Normandy, through Belgium and the Netherlands, and arrived in Denmark at more or less the same time as the German surrender to Montgomery at Lüneburg Heath on 4th May. The British Parachute Regiment arrived in Denmark to take control. This is the starting point of Land of Mine.
Presumably concerned about Denmark’s western beaches as a possible target for an Allied invasion force, the German occupiers had set over a million mines of various kinds on the beaches – more per cubic metre than in any other territory in Europe. Clearing them was going to be a major undertaking and someone decided it should be German POWs who would have to risk their lives. Sgt Rasmussen (Roland Møller), a Dane wearing the uniform of British Army Parachute Regiment, gets the job of ‘looking after’ a group of POWs and supervising them clearing the mines. Unfortunately these soldiers are very young, mostly teenagers aged 15-18, and they soon realise that they won’t get home until all the mines are cleared in their sector. The job is extremely dangerous and many will die (at the end of the film, on-screen text reveals just how deadly the task proved to be).
At the preview screening I attended, my colleague suggested that this was basically a suspense genre film – who is going to die next? I agree that the narrative structure does imply a certain kind of genre film that combines war movie, horror and suspense. It’s also an extremely fine genre movie in that the genre conventions are explored very carefully and with intelligence. Land of Mine would score well if it was simply a genre movie – but it’s much more than that. At heart it’s also a humanist film harking back to the classic humanist dramas of the 1950s. The young men, boys really, are not Nazis, though they may well be patriotic and homesick. The war movie genre leads us to expect that they will be differentiated in various ways and this happens. The horror movie suggests that they will be ‘picked off’ – killed by mines in different ways. The stereotype of the ‘British’ sergeant (though I think that sergeants are the same in most armies) gives us a man who is hard and experienced, gruff and prone to shouting, even bellowing at his ‘men’. But a good sergeant also cares for his men. He understands them, they are his children. He mediates for them with the officer class. In this case, Sgt Rasmussen (an excellent performance by Møller) begins by attempting to be cold and brutal towards the PoWs, trying to keep his distance. Eventually he will make relationships with them. He has to do this to make the operation work, but it isn’t easy for him.
The film moves beyond genre because of its interest in the Denmark of 1945. This is the point at which for viewers outside Denmark it gets tricky. I don’t know what the Danes knew in 1945 or how they felt, but in the film, the Danish officers (and the British) seem to treat the POWs extremely badly. This also seems to be the case with some of the local people on the coast, at least initially, and the film’s real strength is its exploration of guilt, compassion, justice and all those other difficult emotions that this unique situation sets up. Someone has to clear the mines. How should it be done? I won’t spoil the narrative any more. The film is ‘based upon real events’ but my attempts to clarify the historical facts suggest that this is still a contested issue (which may be shaming for Danes – and Brits). The numbers of POWs injured or killed is disputed – but not the danger. Under the Geneva Conventions the clearance depicted in the film shouldn’t have happened but the British and French seemingly encouraged the authorities in liberated countries to use German POWs in activities like this after 1945. They changed the wording to imply that the surrendering troops were ‘volunteers’. There are accounts of German soldiers supervised by their own NCOs (but controlled by Danes) operating as Minenkommando units and claims that these were ‘volunteers’. When I watched the film, I didn’t notice armbands to this effect but now I see them in some of the stills material. I found other web material, more clearly political in nature, which disputed some of these facts. I think it is safest to say that Land of Mine simplifies a story which is based on real events – but that it does expose one of the many stories about the immediate aftermath of war that make for uncomfortable viewing.
Land of Mine was written and directed by Martin Zandvliet. I’m surprised that I haven’t come across him before since he has won several awards for earlier films (Land of Mine has won many prizes). The cinematographer Camilla Knudsen has captured the strange atmosphere and beauty of the dunes and beaches in ‘Scope format. The young German actors playing the POWs are very good and Land of Mine is riveting to watch. Because of the suspense genre conventions, you will fear that something terrible is about to happen but the suspense will work – and you will be intrigued by the relationships. Don’t miss an opportunity to see it. Although it is released by Thunderbird (ex Soda), your best chance of seeing it in the UK seems to be at Curzon Cinemas and online until it gets to smaller arthouse/specialised cinemas. It is on at HOME in Manchester
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.
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: