Stefan Jarl: "They can't destroy the soul"

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By Jonathan Marlow

"It's very easy to tell them lies when they are working like hell."

"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...

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