A few stats to get us started: over the past five years, the Nordic Council Film Prize has seen 6 films by a female director and 19 films by a male director amongst its nominees. In the preceding five years, the figures were 4 and 21 respectively. Progress in the film industry is still lagging in countries we regard as role models in gender equality.
The prize emphasises the importance of artistic qualities, something which has traditionally favoured dramas doing well also in film festivals. This year is no exception and the nominated films have all been introduced at major international arenas: Cannes, Locarno, Venice, Tokyo and the Sundance Film Festival. The directors represent a new generation of creators: this year’s nominees are their respective directors’ second or third feature film. Indeed, as many as four of them have now been nominated for a second time, but the prize has not yet to go their way.
Public support for film culture is strong in the Nordic countries. The high standards of Nordic film are a trait which is also reflected in this competition year after year. Perhaps we can speculate on the winner anyway: isn’t this part of the fun of these awards after all?
Out of the five nominees, the weakest performances are those from Sweden and Iceland. Directed by Rúnar Rúnarsson, the Icelandic film Echo (Bergmál) differs in its structure to the other nominees and it is made up of disconnected episodes. A cross-section of Icelandic society and mentality on the back of some quite dark humour provided a few insightful spells, but the challenge of its episodic format is the lack of a great story and a patchy unfolding.
Charter by Swedish director Amanda Kernell tells the story of a desperate Alice, fighting for the custody of her children, who she takes on a trip to the Canary Islands unbeknownst to her ex. The film is quite competently made, but it is a fairly typical drama about the pains of parenthood nor does it succeed in elevating its subject matter from an individual to a universal level. In her debut film Sami Blood (Saamelaisveri), Kernell has dealt powerfully with the long-silenced history of the Sámi people and Charter’s small-scale family narrative can’t but feel a minor work in comparison.
The Danish drama Uncle (Onkel) directed by first-time nominee Frelle Petersen could surprise and stand out from the crowd. In this laconic film, Kris’s days are marked by a routine that is split between taking care of her farm and taking care of her elderly uncle. Other people’s attempts to spur the young woman into pursuing her new dreams come to nothing. As the main character, Kris is intentionally alienating and the film narrative finds its premise in the repetition and subtle variation of everyday situations, which is a more familiar device for an art film than for a drama destined for broad appeal. As much as it left me with a feeling of frustration, Uncle still got stuck in my mind and the stubborn Kris slowly began to grow on me. Selfless love and true independence irrespective of others are depicted in the film in an unconventional way.
The Finnish nominee, J-P Valkeapää‘s third feature-length film Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja) stands out thanks to its eye-catching visuals and bold, contemporary portrayal of sexuality. A widowed father starts to come to terms with his grief during the sadomasochistic sessions of a melancholic dominatrix. Works categorised as so-called genre films (horror, suspense, fantasy, sci-fi) or which exploit their imagery have often failed to win awards: the most recent film falling into this category is probably Lars von Trier’s Antichrist from 2009. However, there is a growing number of skilled genre creators in the Nordic countries and Dogs would be a fresh choice that could also inspire boldness in future juries: the Nordic Council Film Prize doesn’t have to be a drama award.
Yet, I’m betting on Norway’s outstandingly good nominee as the winner, having already scooped more Amanda Awards in its home country than any other work has ever done. Directed by Dag Johan Haugerud, Beware of Children (Barn) is a 2-hour and 37-minute dialogue-driven drama about the aftermath of a fatal school bullying incident, in which clashes are caused by differences in political ideologies. The complex narrative is constructed with extreme precision and without unnecessary dramatisation. The film’s lengthy running time is not used to exhaust the viewer, who is instead drawn in by its well-written dialogue and thoughtfully dosed humour. Even though the film gives space to different perspectives, they are not placed all on the same level: we can choose empathy and respect for every human being.
The author is the curator of the Love & Anarchy Film Festival and specialises in Nordic cinema.