Goteborg Film Festival 2021: Helen M Jerome ‘visits’ Goteborg Film Festival 2021 and is so impressed, she’s hoping to go in person next year…
Obviously I was thrilled to attend Goteborg Film Festival for the first time, yet disappointed not to have experienced the entire fortnight from a remote lighthouse in Sweden (unlike the lucky and entirely deserving festival prizewinner). However, I did manage to simulate the isolated experience by keeping all the windows open and not talking to any of my neighbours for two weeks (no change there, then). It was my first Nordic film festival and hopefully won’t be the last as – despite all the wrangling over rights and permissions unexpectedly removing over half the films to online viewers outside Scandinavia – the quality was incredibly high. There’s also a unique intensity to watching an entire festival in solitude, hunched over a laptop and focusing entirely on subtitled features. Before plunging into the reviews, I’d also like to pay tribute to whoever selects the documentaries for Goteborg, as every single one hit home – even those daunting titles that nudged over two hours, one almost three hours in duration.
The splashy opening feature film, Tove, directed by Zaida Bergroth, is a biopic of Moomins creator Tove Jansson, from her wartime youth, sketching in a Helsinki bomb shelter, and constantly trying to please her famous sculptor father, right through her creative breakthroughs and romantic entanglements. Alma Pöysti is fabulous as Tove, all upturned nose and buoyant optimism in the face of setbacks, and Shanti Roney (familiar to Nordic Noir fans from the Arne Dahl series) is her initial, devoted beau Atos, before Tove’s sexuality reveals itself, first as she falls for theatre director, Vivica and later Tuulikki. In fact, “I believe life is a wonderful adventure; one should explore all its twists and turns,” is a neat quote that could also act as the movie’s strap line. The Moomins themselves are fairly peripheral to the first half of the film, but become more important and lucrative as Tove herself gains in confidence, and even though some of her more grown-up endeavours inevitably take a back seat, it’s hard to find fault in this faithful rendition of the Finnish author’s life.
Probably my favourite feature from Goteborg was Persona Non Grata from Lisa Jespersen, which is also, rather remarkably, her debut. Treading a fine line between comic farce and dark family drama, this Danish film also builds beautifully towards the climax of a wedding party, with all the inbuilt, set-piece tensions you’d expect. The casting and writing and locations are superb, and the plot delivers throughout. The premise is the return of an outsider to her family’s rural farm, having fled the claustrophobia and bullying of her childhood and youth for the city. It should be a happy homecoming, but returning writer Laura instead finds that her brother’s fiancée is the very same bully who tormented her, and there are also shades of Great Expectations when we hear her parents admit that she’s outgrown their understanding and experience. So it’s back to being a fish out of water all over again. As well as a fabulous fight mid-wedding reception, some awkward dinner sequences, and a hint of revenge, Jespersen never lets the plot drift into expected clichés or neat endings and shows herself as a director to watch.
I’m pretty sure that Liborio, from Nino Martinez Sosa, is the first film I’ve seen from the Dominican Republic, and I’m hoping there’s more to come from this debutant director. Visually there’s much of the Terrence Malick or even Werner Herzog here in the battle of one man and his fervent followers against colonial opposition, surrounded by lush jungle and caves. Chiarascuro lighting, sometimes woozy handheld filming, and scenes of Christian zeal in conversion and exorcism converge to give a feeling of drowsy intoxication and there’s a strong central performance by Vicente Santos in the title role to hold it all together.
On a superficially much lighter note, La Veronica appears to be a fluffy look at self-obsessed, flashy footballer’s wife Veronica and her addiction to social media. She’ll do whatever it takes to get more followers and be ‘liked’. But suddenly this Chilean film from Leonardo Medel takes a much, much darker turn as we explore unseen passages of her life through flashbacks, and question how her offspring might have really perished. Smooth sailing in her online existence hides a progressively unhinged reality and as the film plays out, Medel may be asking bigger questions about what we are doing in our own dual lives.
There’s a mood of sultry summer and untapped, unspoken passion throughout David Bonneville’s beautiful, Portuguese drama, The Last Bath (above). About to shut herself away for good, nun Josefina has to look after her almost feral teenage nephew, Alexandre, when her father dies. If she doesn’t step up he might end up lost in the care system, and we feel her tortured examination of lifelong vocation versus guilty familial duty. He is so untethered and uncared for that she actually bathes him (hence the title), and yet this is only the beginning of a complex relationship in which both resent yet ultimately depend on the other. Something rather intangible and magical in this.
Poised between drama and documentary, Li Dongmei’s epic debut feature, Mama, is set across a mere seven days back in the 1990s in China, but feels as if could almost be from a century ago. Focusing on the immediate family of young Xiaoxian, who lives in a multi-generational household far away from the buzz of town life, yet connected by extended family, this builds up a picture of the inevitability of life and death and fate with painstaking detail and seems almost shot in real time. Try not to read too many synopses and just relax into being immersed in this world for two and a half hours.
Rivieting and harrowing, Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s documentary drama, Conference, revisits the night in 2002 when Chechen terrorists took over Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre and hundreds of their hostages died. Consumed by survivor’s guilt, one of those who escaped, Natalia, returns to confront that evening by holding a memorial – which she has to call a ‘conference’ – back in the theatre. She can’t come to terms with it and move on until she’s achieved this, even though she’s hurting those around her in the process, like her bitter daughter. We hear from her fellow survivors, each affected in a visceral way, as they recount and relive their horror from that night 17 years earlier, getting the unique details of what they endured and witnessed. You can hear a pin drop as they replay each minute with their individual accounts. Is it cathartic or inflicting more pain? Natalia won’t back down as she says: “Fear is our strongest sin.” It feels remarkable that this has actually been dramatised here, yet as Tverdovsky also directed the jaw-dropping Zoology, nothing seems off-limits for this admirably ambitious director.
Anna Hildur’s clever documentary A Song Called Hate looks at the journey of a “damn good pop” group called Hatari, who treat rebellion as a normal way to grow up and inspire the generation below them along the way. And what a journey it is, as they make their way to the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest as the official Icelandic entry. Deliberately outrageous and provocative in their BDSM outfits and lyrics, they may have started as a bit of a joke amongst friends, but prove themselves to be sharp and political. With the finals taking place in Tel Aviv, the anti-capitalist chums realise they’ll be taking their burst of outrage to Israel. But how will they overcome the strictures of the contest, manage to visit Hebron and even mention the topic of occupation? This being Iceland, all the kids love the group, and their Prime Minister is also right behind their freedom of expression. In fact, it’s a good piece of art for our times, quips one of them, “because it makes everyone unhappy”.
One of the breakthrough hits of the festival season has undoubtedly been Another Round, from Thomas Vinterberg, about a group of teacher friends who decide to maintain a level of drunkenness 24/7. It does get darker, but its main thrust is comedic. The flipside of this is Maciej Kalymon’s documentary In The Fog/ In I Dimman, which follows a group of individuals around Malmo in the daze of their alcoholic affliction. Everything is slowed right down to show the effect of their drinking, even as the camera is non-judgemental. But every single one of them seems like an accident waiting to happen, even though many are (just about) functioning alcoholics. With a mainly natural soundtrack and occasional breakthroughs of music, notably Black’s hit Wonderful Life (perhaps ironic here), this is inevitably a poetic film essay on the utter gridlock and repetition of their dependency – and their lives.
Also in a daze is Andrea Segre’s Venice-based documentary, Molecules, about the usually bustling tourist city under paralysis during the pandemic. A clash of poignantly personal memories – as Segre was in the middle of a separate film about his late father – with a portrait of noise turned to silence along every part of the canal. Will Venetians decide to stick or twist as their beloved home is abandoned? His camera explores extreme high tides and unexpected revelations of low tides in a quietly elegant film of desolation, stillness and self-examination.
More deliberately autobiographical is Iranian director Firouzeh Khosrovani’s remarkable documentary Radiograph of a Family. A snapshot of a time when her parents were pulled in different directions, this is carefully stitched together with rich, grainy archive, one key interior recreated and revisited, and many pictures from their album, when Khosrovani was a mere observer, a child with no agency, just another face in a fading family photo. The opening mood is more joyful and upbeat as her radiographer father travels in swinging, modern Europe, courting her mother, before they decide to return to Tehran for their daughter’s birth. His secular values and her increasing religious fervour become symbols of a changing nation, their fissure happening just as the Shah is deposed and the revolution overturns everything. As the camera keeps moving forward, and we share the director’s precise point of view, the picture gets more complex and nuanced, where other filmmakers might choose to simplify.
Finally, the longest, but possibly most satisfying documentary – running at just under three hours – is Mon Amour. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it before. The director, David Teboul is still coming to terms with his own very profound grief and loss after his partner’s death. And his way of exploring this bereavement and the abiding love still hanging over him is to travel up to remote Siberia. Here he interviews a handful of people themselves cast adrift post-Soviet Union break-up, yet still able to articulate their past and present loves better than Teboul feels able. Almost a meditation on loss, it also touches on guilt in the silences and emptiness. Lots of alcohol swims around their sometimes violent, often passionate memories. Filmed in stark close-ups of their faces, punctuated by long, slow pans across arctic scenes and abandoned landscapes, this is a truly epic, incredibly moving documentary.
Check out more about the Goteborg Film Festival 2021 at their website.