Swedish cinema sings on key at Way Out West fest

Posted by · 8:05 am · August 19th, 2013

GOTHENBURG, Sweden – Every film festival comes with its own set of perks and difficulties, but I’ve only been to one so far where my chief scheduling challenge has been squeezing a Public Enemy gig in between a screening and an interview, wading in wellingtons across muddy parkland, through a sea of lanky twentysomethings in impossibly skinny jeans and Doc Martens, to do so. (It’s still easier than traversing the Croisette in full flow, I’ll have you know.)

Or where the evening’s festivities have ended not at a midnight premiere or cocktail-suited industry party, but at a beery bolthole at 3am, watching the aptly named New York punk outfit Pissed Jeans tear the tiny stage a new one. Or, indeed, where you run into Alexander Skarsgard at the bar, and the off-duty star for once has nothing to promote but his love for Swedish electro-eccentrics The Knife. (Their daftly thrilling set later that evening, all boiler-suited dance troupes and disembodied vocals, more than justifies his enthusiasm.)

Such are the spontaneous charms of Sweden’s Way Out West festival, to which I was invited last week. A three-day music festival that was founded in 2007, Way Out West takes place every summer in Gothenburg’s sprawling, verdant Slottsskogen public park, and has swiftly become a destination festival for discerning music fans of all persuasions across Europe — this year’s something-for-everyone lineup ran the gamut from Alicia Keys to the Alabama Shakes to Cat Power to Kendrick Lamar. (Planned headliner Neil Young, sadly, was a last-minute dropout in a roster that’d have been enviable enough without his presence.)

It was in 2011, however, that the festival expanded to include a film programme — an unassuming but fast-growing sidebar intended to give Way Out West something of the fashionable dual-purpose appeal of its American near-namesake South By Southwest. It gives the festival a unique status among its European counterparts, and with screenings this year brought into the festival grounds — in the appealingly casual, Moroccan-styled Bedouin Cinema tent — as well as nearby local cinemas, music and the movies felt happily integrated, with cheerfully buzzed festivalgoers in rain-washed denim popping in for a screening and a breather between gigs.  

Svante Tidholm, the director of the festival’s film section, knows exactly what he’s aiming for. Smart, eager and suitably tattooed, he’s a journalist and filmmaker whose debut feature, the documentary “Dream World: The Biggest Brothel,” actually played South By Southwest in 2010. He’s realistic about his plans to cultivate the film lineup in future year, but still ambitious: “Awareness of the movies at the festival was higher than ever this year, and I want to build on that,” he says. “It’s never going to be a conventional film festival, and it’s for the public first. But the lineup will keep getting bigger and bolder; it’s a chance to show people things they’re not expecting.”

Tidholm showed both a keen eye for audience-pleasers and a cool experimental streak in this year’s selection of 36 features, plus a scattering of shorts. The lineup included the Scandinavian premieres of such established international festival hits as “Frances Ha,” “Behind the Candelabra” and “Before Midnight,” as well as an appropriately strong contingent of music-related documentaries, among them Shane Meadows’ Stone Roses tribute “Made in Stone” and the irrepressible US hit “20 Feet From Stardom.” The two best films I saw there, both Swedish-made, fell into that bracket: Håkan Lidbo’s “Ström At Folket,” a short, sharp history of Swedish dance music from ABBA through to Robyn, wittily structured like a DJ mix, and Ada Bligaard Søby’s “Petey and Ginger,” a sepia-melancholic tracing of personal narratives behind San Francisco band Thee Oh Sees.

It was as a showcase for local product, in fact, that the festival worked most effectively. Indeed, that goes for music as well as film: while global star headliners like Keys played predictably well-attended sets, no performer on the bill drew a bigger crowd than Gothenburg son Håkan Hellström, whose seemingly trend-averse brand of drive-time rock (to my ear, admittedly immune to his earnest-sounding Swedish lyrics, he sounded a little like a shaggier Bryan Adams) has made him such a generation-spanning icon in his homeland that a hit film adapted from his songbook, “Shed No Tears,” was released there earlier this summer. (Also drawing in the punters: 71-year-old folkie Rodriguez, whose recent revival via the Oscar-winning, Swedish-produced doc “Searching for Sugar Man” — a point of great pride in the industry — has made him something of a local hero by proxy. He’s not all yours any more, South Africa.)

The festival’s cinematic equivalent of Hellström, then, was “Easy Money 3,” the closing instalment of a down-and-dirty crime trilogy that has been vastly popular at home — and has made international inroads too. The first “Easy Money” film was made in 2010 and released Stateside last year by The Weinstein Company — using, incidentally, the same “Martin Scorsese Presents” banner that they’re trying this year on Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster.” It launched director Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House,” the upcoming Tom Hardy vehicle “Child 44”) and star Joel Kinnaman (TV’s “The Killing,” Terrence Malick’s upcoming “Knight of Cups”) on the international circuit, and is set to be remade by Warner Bros., with Zac Efron and producer Charles Roven (“The Dark Knight,” “Man of Steel”) attached.

If the franchise is a pretty hot property in Hollywood, you can imagine the level of buzz around “Easy Money 3” at home, where Way Out West hosted its world premiere to a crowd of festivalgoers that queued around the block for a seat. Series producer Fredrik Wikström also chose the festival to unveil “Easy Money 2” last year, and had no hesitation about returning. “It was extremely successful last year,” he tells me. “When you’ve got the public stood in line, it’s a good way both to get the buzz going and to give something to the hardcore fans. These are some of the few Swedish films these days that people will actually go to see in the cinema, so it feels right to let them see it first.”

The first two played a few select festival dates — including Toronto and London — but Wikström thinks they’re better suited to a public- and youth-oriented occasion than the more rigorous demands of the international festival circuit. He admits reviews have been better abroad than they were at home — “It was the same with the ‘Dragon Tattoo’ films… Swedish critics are harder on their own” — and doesn’t expect that to change with the third when it opens locally on August 30.

Nor, indeed, does he expect the selection committee charged with selection the country’s annual Best Foreign Language Film Oscar candidate to favor them. “With the first film, the Weinsteins were very keen for us to be the Oscar submission for Sweden, but it wasn’t to be,” he shrugs, noting that the committee has a habit of overlooking the country’s biggest international successes, “Let the Right One In” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” among them.

Perhaps the other top local attraction in the festival’s film lineup will be more to the Oscar selectors’ liking. Also given its first public screening at Way Out West, “Waltz For Monica” tied neatly into the musical atmosphere of the weekend: a biopic of Monica Zetterlund, a Swedish jazz singer who enjoyed massive local success in the 1960s and died tragically in a fire in 2005, it stars pixie-ish indie-folk star Edda Magnason (in her film debut) in the lead. I was unable to see the film, as a subtitled print was not yet ready, but got a taste of Magnason’s presence in the role at the festival’s film industry party hours after the premiere: dressed in character, she performed a bewitching live set of Swedish-translated jazz standards (including “Take Five”) in a dusky, mellow voice that recalled Astrud Gilberto and Dusty Springfield. I’m excited to see how it all plays on screen. 

“Waltz For Monica” producer Lena Rehnborg — whose previous credits include “Let the Right One In” — has a rock-band background herself, which drew her to Way Out West as the place to debut the film. “I’m so into music myself, and Monica has such an enduring legacy, so I thought this would be the perfect crowd for it — but I wasn’t aware there’d be such a fuss!” she enthused. “There was at least a 100-meter queue of people that didn’t get in. Which is a shame for them, but great for us.”

The film opens next month in Sweden, but Rehnberg has high hopes for its international prospects — even if Zetterlund remains a little-known figure outside her homeland. “Apparently it does travel,” she says cheerily. “We’ve sold it to seven or eight countries already, including France, Australia and Japan. We weren’t prepared for that.”

Rehnberg knows from experience not to underestimate the international market; “Let the Right One In,” she tells me, played far better abroad than it did at home. “It was a great surprise, since in Sweden, the target audience wasn’t clear, and it was hard to market,” she says. “Swedish films are usually so difficult to market abroad – it’s such a small language, and such a specific culture. It’s so difficult to survive as an independent producer in Sweden. I have to focus on films with broad appeal, otherwise I’ll disappear. But let’s not make excuses. When we have crappy films, no one sees them. A good film is a good film: it’s as simple as that. And as hard as that, sometimes.”

After the warm reception for “Waltz For Monica” at Way Out West, she seems confident that she has a good one. Meanwhile, Jessica Ask, head of production at Gothenburg-based regional film fund Film i Väst — a busy company whose projects range from Scandi smashes like “A Royal Affair” and “The Hunt” to British co-productions “Diana,” “The Woman in Black” and upcoming Nicole Kidman vehicle “Before I Go To Sleep” — agrees that the festival is becoming an increasingly useful platform for the local industry — connecting it to a public that is sometimes reticent when it comes to local fare, with Swedish films currently taking between 22 and 25% of the country’s box office.

“It’s important to generate a lot of good publicity here directly among the public,” she says. “If you can generate excitement about a film here, that translates to good word of mouth ahead of a more traditional theatrical premiere.”

Way Out West is a film festival that, however small, is gesturing toward a less rigidly defined multi-media future, taking tastemaking duties out of the critics’ hands. Who gets it, then? That’ll surely depend on the festival, but here it’s a coolly coiffed, Cheap Monday-clad crowd, capable of flipping receptively from an Angel Haze gig to a Steven Soderbergh film (or, indeed, a Scandi-crime blockbuster) with all the fluidity of switching tracks on an MP3 player. I look forward to seeing what’s in the mix next year.   

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