Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” not only was named best picture at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, but also made big bucks at the box office. “Bowling for Columbine” attracted a large audience to theatres nationwide, and crystallized a lively debate about violence in schools. Similarly, the documentary “Super Size Me” was yet another U.S. documentary that became a global hit: That orgy of on-screen gluttony even gave the world’s largest fast-food chain, McDonalds, a severe case of PR-indigestion.
Nordic countries are not lagging behind in this increasingly important cinematic arena. On the contrary, documentary filmmakers from the top of Europe make dynamic non-fiction films that are popular and personal, innovative and imaginative, haunting and hilarious. The pioneering role of Scandinavia when it comes to documentaries is reflected by their surprisingly strong showing at international film festivals.
At the Amsterdam Film Festival (IDFA) last November, for example, roughly one third of all the documentary films which competed came from the Nordic countries. “We are very proud about that since Amsterdam is considered to be the most import documentary film festival in the world. It was pretty amazing to have so many of our films there,” says Karolina Lidin, director of Filmkontakt Nord, a Copenhagen-based organization founded in 1991 which promotes Nordic short films and documentaries. “Because we have these subsidy systems for film making in the Nordic countries, there are a lot of top-notch filmmakers in this region who concentrate on developing the documentary film genres. But the films in the various individual countries are actually very different,” observes Lidin.
In Sweden, it is common for films to portray life in regions far from the capital. Local traditions and community values of solidarity go head-to-head with globalization and standardization. “Arm Wrestler from Solitude,” for example, documents the charming story of a young woman from a tiny village in Lappland called Solitude (Ensamheten), which has a population of 16 people, all of whom are related. At age 23, Heidi Andersson, is a four-time world champion in arm wrestling. The warm-hearted documentary “Armbrtyerskan från Ensamheten” by Lisa Munthe and Helen Ahlsson follows the attractive young woman with arms of steel as she travels to Canada to compete against the best in the world, including a final close bout with a Russian. This isn’t so much a sports film as the story of a close-knit family drawing strength and joy from each other.
Swedish documentaries also have as long tradition of grappling with social or political injustice. “Compadre,” for example, tells the story of a poor Latin American family over a period of some thirty years. But there is a personal twist to the tale. Director Mikael Wiström first visited Peru in 1974, where he documented the situation of a physically handicapped man named Daniel who lived and worked on a garbage heap in Lima, together with his lovely new wife and baby daughter. When the Swedish film maker returns to Peru in 2003, the situation of his Peruvian friends is still bleak. Scenes of those early happy meetings of Mikael and Daniel are interwoven with the new material. In one emotionally candid segment, the head of the Peruvian family refuses to cooperate with the Swedish film maker unless he gets more money. Can a decades-long friendship survive the gap of the Poor South and the Rich North?
In neighbouring Denmark, Lidin observes, new documentaries tend to have an intellectual and poetic edge. This is probably due partly to the influence of demon director Lars von Trier, who casts a long shadow throughout the entire film world. Von Trier has previously made such art house flicks as “Breaking the Waves,” “Dogville,” and “Dancer in the Dark.” He is also the principal architect of the so called “Vow of Chastity,” the doctrine behind the sparse and raw “dogma” school of cinema.
In “The Five Obstructions,” von Trier has created a documentary of a most exotic and enigmatic sort.. The film stars the legendary Danish director Jorgen Leth. In this complex and wryly perverse film, Leth agrees to follow Von Trier’s instructions in creating five new versions of Leth’s classic short film “The Perfect Human,” which was released in 1967. The first obstacle set by Von Trier is for Leth to remake “The Perfect Human,” using no shot that lasts longer than half a second. Von Trier tries to get his elderly colleague to loosen up by setting increasingly impossible conditions, which takes Leth to Haiti, India, and Brazil. The aim is to make the director, who commonly hides behind the camera reveal himself and his vulnerability. Ironically, the devious obstacles set by Von Trier only seem to incite Leth to increasingly heroic efforts to achieve creative on-screen perfection.
Von Trier also indirectly has a hand in one of the most interesting and successful documentaries to recently come out of neighbouring Norway. “Raw Youth” by director Margreth Olin may be more correctly called a “dogumentary.” This critically acclaimed film about students in a tenth grade class at Hauketo Continuation School in East Oslo follows the dogmatic rules established by Von Trier which are intended to eliminate Hollywood artifice. Artificial light is a no-no, for example, as are musical scores and sets.
The class portrayed in “Raw Youth” (Ungdomens Råskap) is made up from children of immigrants from around the world, and Olin critically views a school system struggling to cope with a changed world, and provides a sensitive, uncensored portrait of the students’ small victories and defeats.
“Norwegians have focused very much on documentaries for cinema,” explains Karolina Lidin of Filmkontakt Nord, “because they have a publicly funded cinema system.”
Some of these new feature length documentaries have been very successful in Norwegian theatres. “The one which has done best recently is ‘Cool and Crazy,’ about a men’s choir way up in Tromsö in Northern Norway. That is a beautiful film, which has attracted a large number of viewers in Norway,” Lidin explains.
“Cool and Crazy on the Road” by director Knut Erik Jensen follows a choir of thirty men from a small fishing village on the northernmost tip of Europe which goes on tour in the United States in the fall of 2001, only a few days after the 9/11 disaster. Most of the choir had never been in the U.S. before; the oldest member was 96 years old. “They encounter Scandinavian America in the Midwest, arrive as stars in Hollywood, and walk in the footsteps of Elvis—the Communist choir member's hero—in Memphis,” according to a Norwegian Film Institute summary. “This film follows their concert tour through the U.S. from coast to coast, their encounter with a nation and a culture literally miles from their own, and their thoughts and reflections about their experiences during these fateful days.”
One of the most eccentric documentaries to come out of the North in recent years also focuses upon a male choir on tour. Members of “Mieskuoro Huutajat” (Screaming Men’s Choir) don’t sing. Instead, this group of some 20 Finnish men dressed in dark suits, white shirts and rubber ties cut from car tires shout in unison at the top of their lungs. There is no melody or tune and no instrumental accompaniment. What does it all mean? The quirky documentary “Screaming Men” by Mika Ronkainen doesn’t necessarily provide clear answers, but it is thoroughly absurd and entertaining.
The faces of people in the concert audience in France, Iceland, Britain, and France at first resemble giant question marks as the Screaming Men start to yell, but soon broad smiles emerge. Wherever they travel, the Screaming Men perform the national anthem of the country they are visiting: perhaps a wry comment on nationalism, fascism, and militarism? In Iceland, however, they encounter an antiquated law which prohibits the performance of the national anthem in any other version than the original. Similarly, in France, the directors of the Paris museum of modern art and the Finnish embassy try to prevent the Screaming Men from performing “La Marseillaise.” Choir leader Petri Sirviö from the northern Finland town of Oulu takes the ban as a challenge: “Perhaps we should announce that we will perform “La Marseillaise,” and instead actually do “Deutchland Über Alles,” he quips.
One of Finland’s most celebrated documentaries in recent years, on the other hand, is a very quiet film. “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia” by director Pirjo Honkasalo, winner of over a dozen international prizes and awards, explores the grim world of orphans living in Russian Chechnya and Ingushetia. Instead of painting the conflict between Russia and Chechnya with a broad and accusatory brush, we simply meet some children whose lives have been tragically stained by the brutal war.
The earliest scenes take place at Russia’s Kronstadt cadet academy, where sad-eyed 11- and 12-year-old Russian boys, many of whom have been found living on the streets, are trained as child soldiers. The second “room” is in the home of a widowed and mortally ill Chechen mother. The film maker makes no comment as three infants make a heartbreaking good-bye to their bedridden mother, who can no longer take care of them. Finally, a visit is taken to Chechen children in Ingushetia, a few miles away from the conflict, where a woman named Xhadizhat Gataeva is providing a home for 75 orphans. There is almost no dialogue or narrative voice in this 86-minute documentary, which is accompanied by haunting music by Martti Turunen and Mart Otsa. But that doesn’t mean the film has nothing to say. At one point, for example, we see horses tethered in a misty field reacting suddenly in fright to the sound of bombs falling in the distance. Words would be superfluous.
Documentary films from the Nordic countries, even those which are set in America, Chechnya or Brazil, are hardly a unified breed. Nonetheless, the values and sensibilities of the directors reflect their education and background in northern Europe. Moviegoers who are familiar with fiction films from this region may be gratified to detect echoes of Nordic cinematic legends like Sweden’s Bergman or Finland’s Mika Kaurismäki in the documentaries. And for the American cinema fan who isn’t afraid of subtitles, there is a treasure trove of cinematic jewels to be discovered among the modern Nordic documentaries.
Text: David Bartal
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