Nordic Panorama can’t be the easiest festival to put together. Unlike most other festivals, Nordic Panorama travels annually between five host cities. I reckon the local partners and sponsors are more likely to forget about the festival when it only appears every fifth year but nonetheless I think this year’s edition, which took place in my hometown, Aarhus, Denmark, successfully managed to put together a complex and manifold programme. The local audience, however, was more or less not present at the festival which gives you a rather annoying feeling of being inside a documentary industry cubicle where everybody knows each other. I am not sure what the solution is but it’s really a shame that so few locals attended the festival.
Style in relation to political content is always a relevant question in documentary. At Nordic Panorama I saw two very different approaches to the issue: one was Andreas Koefoed’s Pig Country which was part of a project commissioned by the Farmer’s Cultural Fund. Perhaps this explains why the film is in no way critical towards its topic, namely the effects globalization has on the labour market and more specifically the economics of Danish pig farming. For many years pig farming was a golden business which led to ever expanding numbers of farmers – who perhaps in the name of greed just wanted to become bigger. A few years ago the problems started with, amongst other things, lower food prices and over recent years several big farmers have gone bankrupt. This is the perspective facing Koefoed’s protagonist, the farmer Jacob Vallø and an additional four generations as the farm is run by the entire family.
The film cleverly focuses on Jacob, who is a man of rather few words. Thus the film becomes a somewhat slowed-down and quiet depiction of a crisis, a down to earth depiction which mimics the nature of the characters in the film. When the bank near the end of the film agrees to extend Jacob’s credit thereby giving him more time to get his business on the right path, we hear a significant Danish word: “nå!”. It could be translated as something like “oh well” but with Jacob’s nature in mind and the rather accentuated way the word is said, we really feel Jacob’s relief in this scene. Koefoed’s choice of protagonist is a clever one. Jacob is in no way like the stereotypically boastful and greedy pig farmer who does not care about his animals but only about the bottom line. However, Koefoed does not romanticise things either. We do see Jacob killing a pig with an electric gun and leaving it to bleed and we see the industrial traits of modern day farming.
«the people in the fog, as mystical, eerie shadows walking towards us…»
While koefoeds chooses to deal with political issues by homing in on an individual as a human image of the political, Finnish director Elina Talvensaari chooses a more stylistically filmic approach. The FEDEORA jury, of which I was part, gave our award to Talvensaari and her film How to Pick Berries (Miten marjoja poimitaan) because it really manages to knit together important political aspects while maintaining a high filmic quality in a way that leaves reflection and decisions entirely up to the viewer. The reality is this: in recent years the Finnish berry-picking industry has begun to employ people from Thailand as pickers. The Thai people invest money in a plane ticket, a car and accommodation because they hear rumours of high paid picking jobs but often they leave Finland again empty handed or, even worse, in a lot of debt. Talvensaari has made the film with great attention to its sensual qualities. We see the people in the fog, as mystical, eerie shadows walking towards us. We don’t know who they are and what they want from us. Later we learn that they are picking berries and slowly the film’s perspectives become clearer to us as we hear short statements from the people involved. This is by no means a character-driven film. A lot of information is kept from us and this creates an effective tensioning as we long to find out what is going on. The aesthetics are very well done and supports the script’s sensual and mystical tones without leading our thoughts away from the political realities that are integral to the story.
Content-wise i think Nordic Panorama’s primary strength is that it mixes short films and documentary. The two kinds of films have a lot to learn from each other and they certainly seem to commingle in many ways. Take for instance Swedish director Lina Mannheimer’s debut The Contract (Kontraktet) which will leave you puzzled for several minutes. Is it fiction or is it real? Does anybody really live like that, you will wonder as you see a middle-aged French woman becoming the slave of the elderly widow of French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet. If you are familiar with Catherine RobbeGrillet’s sadomasochistic writings under the pseudonym Jean de Berg you will probably not be surprised – but I was not familiar with her work and thus taken by surprise in a very effective way when I realized that this film was in fact reality staged in a wonderfully elegant and baroque style.
We had a chance to meet with Elina Talvensaari who directed How to Pick Berries which was awarded the FEDEORA prize at Nordic Panorama 2011:
– How did you come up with the film aesthetics, it seems the film has this mystical tone – how come?
– That came very early in the process. We have Thai people coming to Finland and the Finnish people are afraid of them. The Thais are coming to this unknown planet. They are like aliens, they don’t know the culture and work and they are treated as aliens. So it was a guide line for us to have this everyday level and a science fiction level as we called it.
– People are either quite small or blurry in the film – why did you tone down the way people are seen in the film?
– We didn’t want to go into any characters. What the people are saying in the film is like a rumour going round and does not originate from a particular person. We chose to use only a few sentences from each person and often not show the person who is talking.
– Did you tell your characters about this choice beforehand?
– We said to the people we interviewed that they would not be main characters.
– The political content is not very dominating in the film – what were your thoughts on the balance between making a political film and making a more sensuous and almost mystical film?
– Of course I was interested in the political question and how you present these abstract things as globalisation and economy but I don’t like informational documentary so I wanted to try a different approach. To make a film about a social issue but still make it interesting as a film in itself.
– What is the benefit of doing a political film in this particular way?
– The first thing a film should be is a film. If I have a political message, I better write a message. I am more interested in just showing the issue’s existence and try to portray this as a film.
– How do you think your background in anthropology interferes with your filmmaking?
– Perhaps there are some working methods in common. Doing ethnographic field work is similar to do research for a documentary but documentary is not science – and I don’t live for many months with the Thai people in the Finnish forests. My anthropological background makes me think on a more structural level and think about what the big picture is. But I will still emphasise that what I do is film.