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EMMA VESTRHEIM Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival Interview


The Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival brings some of the best film from Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and Norway to our shores. With the festival coming to Perth next week (July 17 – August 4 at Palace Cinema Paradiso and Luna on SX), DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to Cinema Scandinavia writer and film expert, Emma Vestrheim, about how Scandinavian film is about more than just Nordic Noir.

The genre that Scandinavian film is perhaps best known for, is Nordic Noir (Department Q (pictured above), Millennium Trilogy), why has this become so representative of the region?

In the last 10 or so years, Scandinavia has gained an international reputation as this utopian, perfect, equal and safe society. When The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out, it really challenged people’s perceptions of the region. Crime is a genre that can be easily translated around the world, so Nordic Noir became accessible and it became a unique insight into the ‘real’ Scandinavia. But Nordic Noir is also very typical Scandinavian; here all films/ TV series are funded by the government, and the way they use the funding is to mix genre with art film – art film usually meaning depicting real-world issues. So Nordic Noir is a great introduction to the Scandinavian style.

Speaking of which, I believe that the festival has a documentary focusing on Stieg Larsson?

The festival is showing a wonderful documentary on Stieg Larsson, and I think it’s great to learn more about him. He was first and foremost a journalist, and his research involved exposing the rise of the far-right in Sweden and throughout Europe. He uncovered a lot of corruption and extreme views, and used this partially as inspiration in his Millennium books. So in order to understand why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is so dark, I recommend learning more about Larsson.

I’ve noticed that there are two science fiction films in this year’s programme (Sons of Denmark, Aniara) – is there much representation of “genre” (sci-fi, horror etc) in Scandinavian cinema at the moment? 

Genre is very big in Scandinavia. When Scandinavian films receive funding from the government they have to do two things: 1) sell tickets, and 2) depict the culture of the region. Depicting the culture is usually done through making more artistic films that are very self-critical and self-analytical. Selling tickets is best done through the use of genre, particularly inspired by American genre. The biggest genre in Scandinavia at the moment is comedy – it actually has been like that since the 1950s – and one of the fastest growing genres at the moment is the science fiction film. Sci-Fi provides a good basis for discussing issues related to climate change and the environment.

What films would you recommend to look at in the Scandinavian Film Festival? 

Norway is doing great things at the moment, and this is very well reflected in two very different films: Out Stealing Horses and Sonya the White Swan. Out Stealing Horses stars Stellan Skarsgård, the film is based on a popular Norwegian novel and follows its protagonist as he moves back to his hometown after forty years abroad. Once there, he is confronted with various traumas from his adolescence, depicted in flashbacks that beautifully capture how difficult it was to live in Norway in the 1940s.

Another interesting country at the moment is Iceland. Icelandic film has been on the up and up since the early 2010s, starting with films like Rams, which shows two sheep farmers and brothers dealing with an outbreak of scrapie as well as their troubled relationship. A White White Day continues this trend in Icelandic cinema. The film follows a male protagonist who, very slowly, starts to believe that his late wife had an affair. But the film doesn’t show this in straightforward terms; it depicts the protagonists mental state through the changing of the seasons and the building of a house. This slowness and analytical style is very typical Icelandic. Also, there is Let Me Fall from director Baldvin Z – his previous film Life in a Fishbowl critiqued the Icelandic economic crisis of 2008, and Let Me Fall is a very real and grim look into drug addiction in Reykjavik. Interesting stuff from Iceland!

What’s the state of Scandinavian cinema at the moment?

I would say that Scandinavian film is still growing, and they are currently working to do more international co-productions and perhaps even more English-language productions. They are also really focusing on bigger, more expensive projects, such as science fiction. At the same time, I would say that Scandinavia is also realising that they can’t do Nordic Noir forever, and they have to evolve. That’s why we are starting to see more politically-driven films and TV series.

Are there any particular styles that are popular at the moment, or themes that are commonly explored in films?

In Norway, more productions are focusing on the discovery of oil and the resulting wealth and welfare system. In general, the Scandinavian countries are focusing more and more on issues of the environment and climate change because that’s the big topic at the moment anywhere in the world.

What do you feel characterises Scandinavian films?

For me, what characterises Scandinavian film is the way it mixes art and genre. While many European countries do this, the way Scandinavian film does it feels unique and fresh. They always feel innovative, they always make you think, and they are generally always entertaining.

What interested you in cinema initially?

I grew up making movies, and when I went to university I realised I preferred studying them. I was initially drawn to early silent horror films, like German Expressionism. I wrote a thesis about the use of the real-life issues in German Expressionist design, and as I was researching the subject I found out about Scandinavia. After looking it up, I learned that Scandinavia also heavily relies on real-life issues in its art, so I shifted my focus to modern Scandinavian film.

The Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival 2019 is at the Palace Cinema Paradiso and the Luna on SX from July 17 to August 7. Check website for session times and ticket information.

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