A questing mood was in the air at this year’s Gothenburg International Film Festival. The stage curtain of the Cinema Draken, the festival’s main venue, sported a grandiose motif of a Viking longship, and the opening film Kon-Tiki celebrated one of Scandinavia’s greatest modern-day adventurers. It may have been a sign of the Swedish city’s Viking blood; it may also have had a lot to do with a film industry in rude health.
Kon-Tiki is the story of Thor Heyerdahl, who in 1947 sailed a raft across the Pacific to prove that Polynesia had been discovered by voyagers from South America and not from Asia, as scientists had always believed. At a cost of nearly £10m, it is the most expensive Norwegian feature ever made, and has been nominated for best foreign picture at this year’s Academy Awards, alongside the Danish historical drama A Royal Affair, which cost £5.3m. Also nominated, in the documentary category, is Searching for Sugar Man, directed by a Swede. No wonder some of the region’s film-makers feel bullish.
“I think it’s important for us to tell these bigger stories and that has been happening in Scandinavia lately,” says Espen Sandberg, Kon-Tiki’s Norwegian co-director (with Joachim Rønning). “They cost more but audiences want that. There’s so much great drama on television, so we have to step up when we make movies ... We have to tell bigger stories and tell them in a more epic way.”
Since its inaugural event in 1979, the GIFF – whose honorary president for many years was Ingmar Bergman – has grown to the point where it now screens about 500 films and offers the world’s highest cash prize for winning a film festival competition.
This year’s Dragon Award for Best Nordic Film – along with a cheque for SKr1m (£100,000) – went to Kurdish-Norwegian director Hisham Zaman for his first film Before Snowfall. A study of “honour killing”, it follows a young man who travels from his native Kurdistan through Turkey, Germany and on to Norway in search of his elder sister, who he believes has brought disgrace on his family. Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf, who presided over the festival’s international jury, called it “an original and honest vision that goes beyond clichés”.
The Audience Award for Best Nordic Film went to another of the eight pictures in the main competition: A Hijacking, Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s thriller about a freighter stormed by Somali pirates, which was shot off the coast of Mombasa.
Equally gripping was another sea story. Iceland’s Baltasar Kormákur’s fact-based The Deep, about the miraculous survival of a fisherman whose trawler capsized several miles off the coast of Iceland in 1984. While most of the crew perished within minutes, Gulli, the so-called “seal-man”, made it back to land. Kormákur’s decision to shoot in the Atlantic itself pays huge dividends, creating a stunning fresco of the sea’s forbidding power.
The natural world was a similarly vital component of two other competition films: Norwegian director Sara Johnsen’s disturbing All That Matters Is Past and Swedish director Fredrik Edfeldt’s Bergmanesque Sanctuary. Both were shot deep in Scandinavian forests during the summer months, and they share similar themes about dropping out of society and living off the land.
In All That Matters Is Past a woman chucks in her job teaching poetry when an old boyfriend reappears and invites her to run away with him. With its biblical undercurrents and graphic scenes of birth and decay, Johnsen’s film polarised audiences while tapping into a very Norwegian obsession.
“The mythical idea of nature and women wanting to go back to it is very much part of our tradition – you’ll find it especially in Ibsen,” says Johnsen. “For centuries Norwegians have owned small cabins up in the mountains that don’t have proper toilets or running water.”
One of the most striking things about Johnsen’s film is its beautiful Nordic light. In this respect the film’s Norwegian director of photography John Andreas Andersen perpetuates a tradition of shooting with natural light that he first learnt as an assistant to Bergman’s long-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist.
The shadow of Bergman weighs heavily on Edfeldt’s Sanctuary. Its original Swedish title Faro conjures up Bergman’s famous island home, even if it is supposed to refer to the Portuguese city. The scene in which the young protagonist paints her face to create a kind of mask is especially reminiscent of the Swedish maestro. And the encounter with a deranged former actress who has retreated from the world deep into the woods was partly inspired by Edfeldt’s reading of the autobiography of Ingrid Thulin, the cool blonde star of Bergman films such as The Silence.
“Even if you want to do something completely different you can’t get past this fact that Bergman took film-making so seriously,” says Edfeldt. “It was really a matter of life and death for him. I find that sort of ambition to bring film into the fine arts and not just keep it as entertainment really inspiring.”
However, Edfeldt, who earned plaudits on the art-house circuit for his last film The Girl (which was co-written by his compatriot Karin Arrhenius), worries that it is getting increasingly difficult to make personal films.
“It’s getting tougher for original film scripts because everyone is asking me to direct films that are based on a familiar story,” he says. “The success of popular Swedish crime writers like Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson means that everyone is looking for popular books which already have a built-in audience.”
It is not just Scandinavian producers who have their eyes on an increasingly global marketplace. At the end of last month, six of the region’s most prominent directors, including Danes Thomas Vinterberg and Lone Scherfig, joined forces to form a co-operative called Creative Alliance to develop English-language films in the US. The longships have once more been launched.