29 June, 2010

Nordic Angst On The Big Screen

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

I am not sure if it was completely intentional or just one of those alchemic side effects of working with what was available, but one of the unintentional strands of this year’s AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival can only be described as “Nordic angst”, a unique kind of melancholy only found in the sun-starved nations of Scandinavia and northern Europe. A group of films from the region, of diverse subjects and filmic styles, share a common denominator of showcasing this moody determinism, a mix of gloom and absurdist glee.

In THE LIVING ROOM OF THE NATION, Finnish director Jukka Karkkainen unfolds brooding portraits of lives unfolding in a collection of living rooms, that are balanced between near-slapstick hilarity with the uneasiness of loneliness and desperation. The people who pass in front of the lens, an expectant young father, a retired priest, an alcoholic lover, a subway musician…..all have a mix of irony and pathos about them that stirs the soul and ignites the imagination.

Director Dylan Williams brings a similar mix to the Swedish/UK/Italy co-production MEN WHO SWIM, which won the coveted Audience Award here. A group of middle-aged men in Sweden, disillusioned and slightly lost, find an unexpected sense of purpose and the true meaning of cameraderie when they take up the sport of synchronized swimming. As they prepare to compete at the All Male World Championship in Milan, self-doubts, questions about masculinity and a nagging existential angst plagues them all. But ultimately this is a tale of the redemptive power of community and finding one’s own voice.

Regret and self-doubt also permeate the Swedish film REGRETTERS by Marcus Lindeen. The camera eye is pointed at Mikael and Orlando, two aging Swedes who have something unusual in common…..they are both biological males who have undergone sex reassignment surgery but now wish to “change back”. Using a deceptively simple theatrical style of having the two sit side-by-side against a black backdrop, their lives become a kind of existential theater, as they engage in poetic give-and-take, mixed in with archive footage, photographs and other ephemera. What emerges is a complex philosophical interrogation of gender and selfhood.

Something that unites the Scandinavian culture is the love of the sauna, a ritual that stresses camaraderie and a kind of spiritual purging. In STEAM OF LIFE by Finnish directors Joonas Berghall and Mika Hotakainen, it is revealed that Finnish men’s deepest secrets about life, love and family rise along with their sweat in the “safe zone” of the sauna. Offering a kind of sanctuary that even the church cannot rival, these naked men engage with one another in a very intimate way that reveals a human need for connection and a personal imperative for clarity and transcendent freedom.

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