The 18th annual Scandinavian Film Festival LA is around the corner. It is one of my favorite annual Scandinavian events in the Los Angeles area. The festival takes place over two weekends in January (14th and 15th followed by 21st and 22nd) at Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. I always look forward to seeing what’s being offered and hope there’s a movie that will transport me back to Norway through language and setting or bring alive a part of Norwegian history for me. I also don’t mind being an armchair traveler to other countries in the region.
Despite my love of the festival, I have a very big pet peeve – the festival’s name. It is not a Scandinavian film festival in the true sense. Officially, Scandinavia is only Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Since its inception, this festival has included films from Iceland and Finland, and a somewhat recent addition has been films from the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. It’s too bad the name of the festival doesn’t properly reflect the scope of the festival.
This year’s entries include mostly features (many of them a country’s Oscar entry), a few shorts, and a documentary. There’s comedy, drama, adventure, and mystery. Big news for Scandinavian cinema this year is that three Scandinavian films made the shortlist for an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category – the Danish film Land of Mine, the Swedish film A Man Called Ove, and the Norwegian film The King’s Choice. The Danish and Swedish ones can be seen at this year’s festival,
but unfortunately, not the Norwegian one. UPDATE 1/13/17: The Norwegian submission The King’s Choice is coming to the festival after all! It will be closing the festival in the evening of Sunday, January 22.
(If you’re curious about the other shortlisted films and the process of how a country’s entry becomes a nominated film, take a look at Oscars: Nine Films Shortlisted for Foreign Language Prize.)
THE CROSSING (Flukten), documentary by George Kurian (2015), screening: Saturday, 1/14, 12pm — This award-winning documentary takes viewers along on one of the most dangerous journeys of present time. A group of Syrians, including young children, is fleeing war and persecution, crossing a sea, two continents, and five countries searching for a home to rekindle the greatest thing they have lost—hope. (55 minutes)
BIRD HEARTS (Fuglehjerter), short by Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel (2015), screening: Sunday, 1/15, 4:30pm — Benjamin and Maya share a life and an apartment in the center of Oslo. On the occasion of Benjamin’s 26th birthday, Tobias, Benjamin’s younger and more successful brother, comes to visit for the weekend. During a late night dinner party with friends, Maya tells a story about a sexual experience she had in Brazil. As a consequence, Benjamin’s insecurities and vulnerabilities begin to surface. (30 minutes)
ALL THE BEAUTY (Alt det vakre), feature by Aasne Via Greibrokk (2016), screening: Sunday, 1/15, 5pm — Ten years after their upsetting break-up, Sarah visits David at his summer house. He wants her to help him finish his play, but when he tells her it’s about their relationship, she wants him to abandon it. For decades, the two have been united by a web of paradoxes. Both wanted to be loved by the other, despite their faults, questionable morals, and lack of control. They have been addicted to each other’s company and yet they drove each other crazy. But even after all these years, despite anguish and dispute, they recognize that their relationship is still deeply grounded in humor, respect – and love. (91 minutes)
THE KING’S CHOICE (Kongens nei), feature by Erik Poppe (2016), screening: Sunday, 1/22, 7pm — The King’s Choice is based on the true story about the three dramatic days in April, 1940, when the King of Norway was presented with an unimaginable ultimatum from the German Armed Forces: surrender or die. With German Air Force and soldiers hunting after them, the Royal Family was forced to flee from the capital. They decided to go separate ways, without knowing if they would ever see each other again. (133 minutes, shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination)
ETERNAL SUMMER (Odödliga), feature by Andreas Öhman (2015), screening: Sunday, 1/15, 12pm — Two young lovers meet in Stockholm and begin a whirlwind romance that sends them on an impromptu road trip through northern Sweden, where their summer adventure turns criminal in this Swedish mix of Bonnie & Clyde with a soft touch of Natural Born Killers. (107 minutes)
GHETTO SWEDISH (Rinkebysvenska), short by Bahar Pars (2015), screening: Sunday, 1/15, 7pm — Aisatou is a black actress who’s been hired to record a voiceover for Stockholm’s top ad agency Måns and Petter. The session starts great, but it’s soon clear Måns and Petter want the ad to be more “gangsta.” Aisatou must chose between keeping her integrity or sacrificing it in order to please her employer’s stereotype. (10 minutes)
A MAN CALLED OVE (En man som heter Ove), feature by Hannes Holm (2016), screening: Sunday, 1/15, 7:15pm — Ove, an ill-tempered, isolated retiree who spends his days enforcing block association rules and visiting his wife’s grave, has finally given up on life just as an unlikely friendship develops with his boisterous new neighbors. (116 minutes, shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination)
A HOLY MESS (En underbar jävla jul), feature by Helena Bergström (2015), screening: Sunday, 1/22, 1pm — Simon and Oscar have been a couple for three years and together with their girlfriend, now nine months pregnant, they have bought an apartment outside Stockholm. They don’t know if Simon or Oscar is the father nor have they revealed any news to their families. They invite their somewhat homophobic families to meet for the first time during a Christmas celebration. (108 minutes)
LAND OF MINE (Under Sandet), feature by Martin Pieter Zandvliet (2015), screening: Saturday, 1/14, 7:30pm — A group of young German POWs are ordered by Allied forces to dig up 2 million landmines from the coast of Denmark with their bare hands. (100 minutes, shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination)
THE COMMUNE (Kollektivet), feature by Thomas Vinterberg (2016), screening: Saturday, 1/21, 6:30pm — A middle-aged professional couple in 1970s Denmark decides to experiment with communal living by inviting a group of friends and random eccentrics to cohabit with them and their daughter in a sprawling house in the upmarket district of Copenhagen. It is friendship, love, and togetherness under one roof until an earth-shattering love affair puts the community and the commune to its greatest test. (115 minutes)
SPARROWS (Prestir), feature by Rúnar Rúnarsson (2016), screening: Saturday, 1/14, 1:30pm — This is a coming-of-age story about the 16-year old boy Ari, who has been living with his mother in Reykjavik and is suddenly sent back to the remote Westfjords to live with his father Gunnar. There, he has to navigate a difficult relationship with his father, and he finds his childhood friends changed. In these hopeless and declining surroundings, Ari has to step up and find his way. (99 minutes, Oscar entry)
HEARTSTONE (Hjartasteinn), feature by Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson (2016), screening: Saturday, 1/21, 1pm — In a remote fishing village in Iceland, two teenage boys Thor and Christian experience a turbulent summer as one tries to win the heart of a girl while the other discovers new feelings toward his best friend. When summer ends and the harsh nature of Iceland takes back its rights, it’s time to leave the playground and face adulthood. (129 minutes)
THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MAKI (Hymyilevä mies), feature by Juho Kuosmanen (2016), screening: Saturday, 1/14, 4pm — This is the true story of Olli Mäki, the famous Finnish boxer who had a shot at the 1962 World Featherweight title. Everything is set for him to become the first ever Finn to be the world champion in featherweight boxing. His manager Elis Ask, a former boxer himself, has prepared everything for them to reach fame and fortune. All Olli has to do is loose weight and concentrate. But he has a problem – he has fallen in love with Raija. (92 minutes, Oscar entry)
LITTLE WING (Tyttö nimeltä Varpu), feature by Selma Vihunen (2016), screening: Sunday, 1/22, 5pm — Varpu is a 12-year old girl who learns how to drive when her friends steal a car. Meanwhile her mother is struggling with her own failed driving tests. One night Varpu has had enough of her mother’s misery. She steals a car and drives up north to find her father. (100 minutes)
AN EMPTY SPACE (Tühi ruum), short/animation by Ülo Pikkov (2016), screening: Saturday, 1/21, 3:30pm — A 10-year-old girl longed for a puppy as a birthday present, but instead she got a father she had no idea was alive. (10 minutes)
MOTHER (Ema), feature by Kadri Kõusaar (2016), screening: Saturday, 1/21, 4pm — This darkly comic crime mystery set in small-town Estonia centers on Elsa, the full time caretaker of her comatose son, Lauri, and the locals, who are abuzz with rumors about who shot Lauri and why. But in this tight-knit town, where everyone seems to know everyone and everything except for what’s right under their nose, the world’s clumsiest crime may go unsolved. (89 minutes, Oscar entry)
SENECA’S DAY (Senekos Diena), feature by Kristijonas Vildziunas (2016), screening: Sunday, 1/15, 2pm — In 1989, the final year of the Soviet era in Vilnius, a group of eighteen-year old buddies establish Seneca’s Fellowship. Its motto is “Live each day as if it was your last.” A love triangle breaks up the fellowship right at the time the nation experiences an exceptional sense of community via the Baltic Chain. Twenty-five years later, the main character, who appears to be accompanied by good luck at first glance, is disillusioned with himself. He has betrayed the ideals of his youth and become a cold observer of life. Life forces him to open up his own Pandora’s box. (106 minutes, Oscar entry)
AWESOME BEETLE’S COLORS, short/animation by Indra Spronge (2016), screening: Sunday, 1/22, 2:45pm — A nearly impossible story, supported by a catchy melody, guides us through the ABCs – from Awesome Beetles to Yellow Zebra. It is an educational film that offers visual, audio, and kinesthetic associations that help kids learn the alphabet. (3 minutes)
DAWN (Ausma), feature by Laila Pakalniņa (2015), screening: Sunday, 1/22, 3pm — This film is based on a Soviet propaganda story about Young Pioneer (the Soviet equivalent of a Boy Scout) Morozov, who denounced his father to Stalin’s secret police and was in turn killed by his family. His life exemplified the duty of all good Soviet citizens to become informers, at any expense. In this film, Janis is a pioneer who lives on the Soviet collective farm “Dawn”. His father is an enemy of the farm (and the Soviet system) and plots against it. Little Janis betrays his father; his father takes revenge upon his son. Who then in this old Soviet tale is good and who is bad? This film reveals that a distorted brain is always dangerous. Even nowadays. (90 minutes, Oscar entry)
Many interesting and intriguing images and themes jumped out at me when looking over these offerings. I loved reading phrases like “an apartment in the center of Oslo”, “summer house” (in Norway, along coast according to poster), “road trip through northern Sweden”, and “remote fishing village in Iceland”. Family relationships, friendships, gender identity, and racial stereotypes are explored. History is examined – Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, World War II in Denmark, and Soviet rule in the Baltic countries. There is something for almost everyone in this selection of works.
Before an unexpected trip to Norway came on my calendar, it was looking like it would be a busy first weekend for me. I had planned to see Norway’s All the Beauty along with possibly Denmark’s Land of Mine and Iceland’s Sparrows. I also had my eyes on Bird Hearts until I read this article which stated, “If you see one sex-film this summer, make it this one. If nothing else, it will all be over in half an hour, even allowing for a cigarette and a decent scrub-down.” (Though Bird Hearts’ filmmaker Tøndel is apparently “an exciting new talent… barely out of film-school… [who] already commands his medium like an old hand.”) I would have loved to see A Man Called Ove, but I haven’t read the book yet so I wanted to wait anyway. Instead of transporting myself to Norway and environs via the screen, I’ll get to immerse myself in Norwegian language and setting in real life.
I’ll be back in time to catch the second weekend. I may visit a remote fishing village during summertime in Iceland in Heartstone and possibly join a 12-year-old as she drives up north in Finland to find her father in Little Wing.
My biggest disappointment is that Norway’s The King’s Choice (Kongens nei) is not being screened at the festival. I am very happy that The King’s Choice will be at the festival after all and I’ll be able to see it. Barnevakten, a Norwegian website that gives advice about media and children, recommends the movie for kids 9 years and older (though they warn that some scenes could be somewhat disturbing to kids on the younger side). Though the movie would have been a good opportunity for my kids to learn more about Norwegian history, it turns out the screening is too late on a school night. I’ll keep an eye out for it on Netflix.