Mattias Nohrborg has been Sweden’s leading independent film distributor for more than 30 years. He remembers guiding Bill Forsyth around 30 years ago, when Local Hero and Gregory’s Girl were released in Sweden.
He’s also part of B-Reel, one of Sweden’s biggest production companies with offices in Stockholm, London, Los Angeles, New York, and Berlin. In their preview theatre on the third floor of the company’s smart Sodermalm townhouse, we’re watching the rushes of their latest work. Gentleman, based on a Swedish bestseller, is part love story, part international thriller and, truthfully, it looks fantastic. Michael Marciman’s epic sweeps through chic 1940s bars, lonely midnight assignations, gunplay and period rave-ups, with the confidence of a Once Upon A Time in America or The Godfather. With over 120 days of shooting in Sweden and Europe, the production is one of the largest undertaken in Swedish film. And maybe we will never see it.
British people love Nordicnoir and Scandicinema: we watch Wallander, shudder at Let the Right One In, warm to Search for Sugarman, and marvel at Noomi Rapace’s bodyart in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but this is only a small proportion of the dramas and documentaries produced in Sweden. A country of enthusiastic Anglophiles – on my short visit I’ve discovered it’s quite possible to watch class warrior Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances on Swedish TV at 8am – it rather pains them that after gorging on Volvos on wet roads in episodes of Wallander, Scots don’t seem to seek out the rest of Sweden’s cinematic smorgasbord. Could it be the shadow of Ingmar Bergman? Or the possibility that a country with enlightened social democracy, outstanding automotive industry, and the Nobel Prize might be a little smug? “We are certainly not self-satisfied,” retorts filmmaker Fredrik Edfeldt. “If anything, I think a lot of Swedish films speak about personal and social unease. We realise that we are not perfect.”
The Swedish showcase at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival offers a window on the diversity of Swedish cinema, which rarely gets beyond local shores. There’s an opportunity to see Michael Marcimain’s first film, Call Girl, inspired by a brothel scandal of the late 1970s. Marcimain made no secret that the film was inspired by real-life events, and stirred a debate in Sweden after he portrayed the former prime minister Olof Palme buying sex from an underaged girl. Palme’s son reported the film to the Swedish Chancellor of Justice for “gross defamation of character”, but it also won international festival awards, as well as several Gulbagges – Sweden’s equivalent of the Baftas.
Thirty years after his assassination, Palme remains an open wound for in the collective Swedish consciousness, and even in the handpicked Edinburgh selection, he’s a recurrent theme, possibly because the current generation of Swedish filmmakers were children when his murder sent seismic shockwaves through Sweden’s model utopian society. In 2012, B-Reel’s Palme, a documentary directed and written by Maud Nycander and Kristina Lindström covering Palme’s life and controversies, became the biggest-grossing movie in the country. It has also had enthusiastic sales all over Europe. Only one country has shown no interest. “In the UK we had talks with BBC Four,” reports Nohrborg. “But they haven’t taken it so far.”
Yet Scandic documentaries have been attracting a lot of attention in recent years, from small-scale projects to such big hits as the recent Oscar nominee Searching for Sugar Man, the story of a forgotten American musician unaware that he was a superstar in South Africa, helmed by Swedish journalist Malik Bendjelloul. Beautifully structured, and charmingly retold, it was a successful booking in British cinemas, yet there’s still a certain wariness about Swedes bearing films.
Belleville Baby is Mia Engberg’s artful account of her student love affair with a French gangster, who abruptly left her. Equally abruptly he phones back into her life 20 years later, and in a series of calls it emerges that he has been in prison for the last 20 years. “I loved your smile,” she says wistfully in the film. “Ah, they got smashed early on. I have gold teeth now,” he replies.
It’s a remarkable feature which nudges viewers about the subjective nature of memory. Mia and Vincent offer their differing recollections, using a mixture of archive, home movie, and footage shot on Vincent’s camera phone – yet although it’s been critically acclaimed, Engberg also met resistance internationally. “One sales agent said: ‘I love your film! It is a great piece of art but we cannot work with it. We do not know how to describe it. Is it a cinema film? Is it a TV film?’ So they didn’t take it,” she recalls. The one thing she isn’t up against, however, is the innate sexism that affects women directors in other countries. Like many nations, Sweden is highly aware of a lack of female film-makers, but unlike many, it is doing something about it with a public initiative that aims to have as many female directors as men by 2015.
“I don’t expect my film to be seen, except at film festivals,” shrugs Mans Mansson, director of Roland Hassel. Hassel was a hugely popular detective series in Sweden during the 1980s, starring a stoic Swedish actor, Lars-Erik Berenett, who never managed to shed this identity after the series was cancelled in the 1990s.
Mansson used his own money to buy up the rights to the show, and make his own Hassel, shot on VHS to mirror the 1980s murky video, and presented Hassel investigating the murder of Olof Palme. It’s a bit of an arthouse prank; nobody really thinks that the mystery can be solved, and maybe nobody really cares, and the ones that do would probably never accept an end to it. “I wanted to say something about the domination of detective shows like Wallander and Beck on Swedish television,” says Mansson. A rough equivalent would be picking up The Sweeney 30 years on and getting Regan to investigate the death of Diana Princess of Wales, although it might not generate the same level of outrage as Mansson has encountered.
“The fans of Hassel have said that I have ruined the purity of the show,” he says, looking far from unhappy. Arguably, Mansson has merely distilled the essence of the original; women were never an important part of the macho Hassel world, and in Mansson’s version he has deliberately made sure they never appear on screen. Apparently even Berenett is now uncomfortable with this deadpan mickey take. “He was OK when he signed up, but I don’t think he realised what I was going to do. Now he doesn’t like me so much.”
Comedies can be a tricky international traveller. “You’re always nervous to screen internationally because you never know what will get lost in translation,’’ says Patrik Eklund, who needn’t have worried: last year his idiosyncratic comedy Flikka was a hit at the EIFF, and although he’s unable to come to the festival this year – “I have agreed to go north where my family live to celebrate the longest day” – he has sent Syndroma, a short which rather confirms him as a singular Swedish Coen Brother.
Swedish film, with a home audience of ten million and a total Scandinavian audience of 20 million, turns out around 15 films a year, and like Scottish filmmakers, there’s a struggle to stay afloat. But it is obviously alive and well, and capable of affecting viewers a fair way from Stockholm. All they need, according to Nohrborg, is a sign from the UK that, after Borgen and The Killing, we might be open to try other genres, which is why there’s keen interest in Channel Four’s screening of the French series The Returned in a primetime slot. “If it proves it can get an audience,” says Nohrberg with a slight smile, “then maybe it means you are ready to let the right one in.”
• The Edinburgh International Film Festival is screening the following films from Sweden: Belleville Baby, Cineworld, today and Filmhouse, 29 June; Call Girl, Cineworld, Thursday; Roland Hassel, Filmhouse, today; Sanctuary, Cineworld, tomorrow and 28 June; Shorts from Sweden: The Hidden Reverse, Filmhouse, tomorrow; Sir Arne’s Treasure, Filmhouse, 30 June; Up & Away, Cineworld, 26 and 29 June. www.edfilmfest.org.uk