By Jonathan Marlow
October 7, 2005 - 5:59 AM PDT
"One of the last great samurai who unyieldingly fights for ideals and convictions," Ingmar Bergman once said of Swedish documentary filmmaker Stefan Jarl. More recently, Jerry White wrote for the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, "Stefan Jarl is one of those rare filmmakers who deftly balances the local with the international, the abstract with the concrete."
As his most recent film, The Girl From Auschwitz screens at the Mill Valley Film Festival, Jonathan Marlow talks to him about his early work, global politics and working with Lukas Moodysson.
At the very beginning, how did you meet Arne Sucksdorff? How did you decide to start working with him?
Arne Sucksdorff made a film in India. Quite a good one, although not one of his best. He decided not to edit the film in Stockholm. Instead, he went to the countryside and rented a big, big house. I was born and raised close to that part of Sweden, in the middle of the country. I had seen Det Stora äventyret (The Great Adventure) when I was a little boy. It amazed me so much. So I took my bicycle when I was sixteen years old, went out to his house, although it took me two hours to go there. I knocked on the door. He opened. I asked, "Can I work with you?" He said, "Yes." Several years later, I asked him, "Why did you agree when you saw this young boy arrive at your door, sweating from bicycling many miles?" "If you went out of your way to see me, it must be something important!" It was. I worked with him on a film he was planning, Pojken i trädet (The Boy in the Tree). I don't like the film, really. I worked with him as a very young boy. The following year, he was going to make another film about deer. I kept working with him and, during this time, he was asked to make a short film. He had a car from Volvo and they wanted a film. He asked, "Can you make this film for Volvo so I can get rid of it?" So I had him as a teacher and this little short as a film school.
The Boy in the Tree was a complete financial disaster, leaving him more or less bankrupt, so he left Sweden and went to Brazil. He lived in Brazil and the United Nations asked him, "Can't you start a film school there?" He said, "Yes." He started the film school and he was also responsible for the "new wave" during the 1970s among the Brazilian film directors. All the famous filmmakers in Brazil are products of the film school there. He came back to Sweden [in the 1990s] as an alcoholic, very destroyed, and died at 84 years old in Stockholm in 2001.
How did you come to direct They Call Us Misfits?
I asked Arne Sucksdorff to write a letter for the film school [in Stockholm] to make it possible for me to attend. What he had written was too good, so I took away 90 percent and kept what was left and added a false name. It helped. It was enough. However, it was awful to be at film school, so I said, together with a friend [Jan Lindqvist] that I met there, "Can't we make a film instead? We don't want to go here. We don't want to be here." He agreed, so we started this film [They Call Us Misfits] which was the first part of the Mods Trilogy. Later on, after being friends with all of these drug addicts, I made the second one [A Decent Life] and the third one [The Social Contract], about the kids of these drug addicts and what their fate will be. The first part was a very big, tremendous success in Sweden, but the second one, which I made all myself, was a much bigger success - the most successful documentary film in Swedish film history.
How did you find the subjects for the first film?
We were supposed to make some short films for TV, my friend [Jan] and I, at film school. We met these guys in the street...
This is in Stockholm?
Yes. When these short films were screened on TV, they didn't screen the whole film. They removed scenes, cutting these guys from the street. So we decided that it was important to make a full length film for the cinema. In the cinema, they can't cut scenes but, instead, they stopped the whole film. Olof Palme was the head of the censorship department in Sweden at the time. He saw the film and said, "What's up? Let this film free." That's why it became such a big discussion. The newspapers would ask, "Why did they stop the film?" That's why it became a big success, I guess.
Because of that reputation?
Yes. It was such a big debate.
Did it take a while for the first film to find distribution in Sweden?
Yeah, no one wanted the film. It was a pornographic distributor that got it into theaters. It was screened as a porno film!
Only in the smaller theaters and...
A lot of guys only in the theaters...
Yes, that sort of thing! After two days, everyone understood this was not a porno film. It had nothing to do with porno. Then the press wrote a lot about it and the young kids came and no more porno men ever went into that cinema. That's how it started, actually.
Jåvna: Reindeer Herdsmen in the Year 2000
Your later films represent a sort of a trilogy as well. Obviously, Threat, Jåvna: Reindeer Herdsmen in the Year 2000 and Samernas land. In the US, mistakenly, we think of Chernobyl as a disaster that primarily affected the former Soviet Union. It was not clear that most of the radiation had landed in Sweden.
I don't think anyone in Sweden even believed that it was such a big disaster for the Sami people until I made the film.
What really strikes me in Threat is that the people most affected by the pollution are the folks that benefit least from the nuclear power plant. They have no use for electricity and yet they suffer...
The strange thing is that we had an election. "Shall we have nuclear power plants or not?" So we voted. Many Sami people voted for power plants because they thought, "If they build them down here along Sweden's coast, we will be free from them up here." They made tactical votes to get rid of all the Swedes and all their stupid technology and then this Chernobyl power plant exploded in the Ukraine and the shit fell down on them.
In this country, the issue is very pertinent because the Bush administration is very keen on trying to build more nuclear power plants. They have no sense of history. There is a reason why we stopped building these things.
We very soon forget these things. Chernobyl is very soon forgotten.
Or Three Mile Island.
Yes, Three Mile Island. No one remembers.
You use a quote from [Friedrich] Engels, where the title of the film originates, "We should not be too proud of man's victories over nature; for each such victory nature takes revenge." You essentially take several different issues and show an interconnectedness within the film, much like Adam Curtis's Pandora's Box. It seems clear that people should relate to nature in this way. Now, twenty years later, people continue to resist even the notion of global warming and so forth. Why do you think that people are still resistant? Are they blinded by capitalism?
They are closed in their struggle for their lives. It's very easy to tell them lies when they are working like hell. They think of their own economy and they prefer to live in their own little world and leave the rest to the politicians to decide. It is a resistance against what's going on more and more in Sweden and you can see it nowadays when the Green Party is in power together with the Social Democrats, ruling the country together. That's one little step. You can fool the people but not all the time.
The Swedish workers are engaged in politics but this European Union which we are a part of means that more and more decisions are given away to the parliament in Brussels. People feel that they have no value. They are worth nothing. If we go into an election, it doesn't matter. They decide something else in Brussels anyway. It's that feeling that's going around. That's why the French people voted against the constitution. People feel more and more, in this globalized world, that they can't do anything. They think that it's better to concern themselves with their own little lives until everything else is destroyed. They give up. The young generation, my young kids, are in the resistance movement. The young people are going the other direction so I feel optimistic about the future. Man has always managed to survive.
But I think they always will.
You end Nature's Revenge with another quote - "Everything is possible." As pessimistic as the film may be perceived, it ends optimistically...
They can't destroy the soul. The soul will always survive. Bush thinks that he can, with weapons, get rid of Al Qaeda. It's impossible. You can't hunt them down. It's completely impossible. The resistance against the modern world is there in the young generation. I've been shooting my latest film in Palestine. Every little kid in the street that sees what's going on will kill himself with a bomb going into the market. For every day he witnesses what's going on, he grows stronger and stronger in his belief that he will do something against the men in power. You can't, with weapons, solve the problems in Iraq.
These are efforts in futility. When someone tries in this way to produce a certain result, what they get in return is the opposite result.
They have to "eat their own shit." [laughs]
"It's very easy to tell them lies when they are working like hell.""History doesn't repeat itself that way."
back to past articles
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
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