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SCANDINAVIAN FILM FEST TAKES PLACE IN BEVERLY HILLS
by Susan Stroh

The 6th Annual Scandinavian Film Festival took place January 14-16 at the Writers Guild of America Theatre in Beverly Hills. In that intimate setting, one could immerse oneself – not only in the best thirteen films founder Jim Koenig could find from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland – but in the culture of Nordic countries and their filmmakers. You could even chow down in the lobby’s café with tasty, Scandinavian food.

The festival, like most Scandinavians, is unpretentious but serious about the work. And the work this year was splendid. The Academy Award entries were strong and thought provoking. Very popular with this year’s audience was As It Is In Heaven, the Swedish entry for an Oscar, written and directed by Kay Pollak. It has a tight script, strong performances and inspired directing. The joy and angst characters felt breaking out from religious, artistic and emotional oppression was met with audience delight and catharsis.

Another festival favorite was The Five Obstructions, a satirical and fascinating look at filmmaking from Danish directors Jorgen Leth and Lars Von Trier. Other Oscar candidates – Hawaii Oslo by Norwegian director Eric Poppe, Cold Light, by Icelandic director Hilmar Oddsson and Producing Adults by Finnish director Alexsi Salmenpera – are all engaging films.

Also meeting with high praise was The Dognail Clipper, adapted from beloved Finnish author Veikko Huovinen's book and directed by Markku Polonen. The film stars Peter Franzen, who was recently nominated for the Finnish equivalent of an Oscar, the “Jussi.”

He plays a soldier, brain damaged by a shot through the head, who wanders the Northern Karelian countryside near the Russian border of Finland in 1949 seeking work. There he is met with the compassion, kindness and humor so typical of Finnish people in the countryside. In a transcendent performance by Peter Franzen, he rises above his handicap, becoming an almost beatific figure.

Franzen was present to talk to the audience after the screening. Although he has the looks of a leading-man, he said, “Since Theater Academy my goal has been to play whacky and challenging people – embodying their truth. Truth, is the cornerstone of art.”

Another extraordinary talent from Finland present at the festival was Irina Bjorklund, who won a Jussi for her remarkable performance in Me and Morrison. Although only thirty-one, she claims starring roles in over thirty feature films and nearly as many theater and television credits, acting in five languages: English, Finnish, Swedish, French and now Russian.

In Mika Kaurismaki’s road movie, Honey Baby, she plays a Russian dancer escaping Hades with a burned-out American rock-‘n’-roll singer played by Henry Thomas. When they join a Russian circus in the countryside, she dances with a python slithering on her body. But this is typical of this actress’ courage. She also agreed to be covered with bees for another scene in the film. Bjorklund said, “In the forty minutes that the bees covered my body, I lay there listening to them buzz with an amazing, beautiful feeling and could only think, I love you, I love you, I love you.”

This closeness to nature plays an important role in many Nordic films. Natural settings are often used to counterpoint complex urban scenes and issues. Nature not only manifests in superb cinematography but also in the naturalness of performances. One cannot help but think Scandinavian filmmakers and actors have benefited by having lived and trained far away from Hollywood.

The training, experience and integrity of Scandinavian actors is remarkable. Although their media lately is intent on creating a Scandinavian star system, most actors seem content to quietly accrue a large body of work, while being paid modestly.

Scandinavian Film Festival founder Jim Koenig explains why he brought the festival to Beverly Hills. “My aim was to create a film festival in a small enough venue where the viewer can focus on the films one cannot always find in big festivals. I also wanted it to be a cultural event that is well placed in a city where film business gets done. When I hear about the networking that happens at the festival – the distribution deals, partnerships forming and people getting work – I am very happy.”

For more information about the Scandinavian Film Festival go to: www.asfla.org.


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