A couple of weeks ago, on January 28th, the Swedish national film award Guldbaggen was given to the best Swedish films of 2018. Even though one of the most critically acclaimed films last year was a genre film, another genre film caused a small stir in the Swedish pop culture debate, simply for its nomination.
The Swedish Guldbagge award – the Golden Scarab – is usually as dominated by arthouse films, dark dramas and the occasional feelgood movie as any other national film award. The award is the official Swedish film award overseen by the Swedish Film Institute (SFI) and as such it’s a bit more snobby than its American counterpart, the Academy Awards (the Oscars). Perhaps the Guldbagge jury has an even more narrow tradition of selecting award winners due to the extreme lack of genre films in Sweden, historically speaking. 2018 was a good year with its four genre entries in theatres (additionally, two ultra low budget independent films with limited distribution) and of the four, it seemed natural that the critically acclaimed Border was nominated for nine awards, out of 15 possible. Border was the festival’s grand winner, taking home six awards. Fair enough, it’s a great movie.
However, it was the nomination of The Unthinkable that caused controversy when the Guldbaggy jury announced the nominees a few weeks prior to the televised ceremony. Its nominations in the catories for visual effects and sound design were not questioned, but it was also nominated in the Best Film category. A medium budget disaster film, made by an independent production house, competing with politically correct documentaries, biopics and kitchen sink dramas? It’s practically unheard of in Sweden, not only because disaster films have not really existed until now in the land of IKEA and Volvo, but also because action movies, horror flicks and fantasy films in general are frowned upon by critics, institutions and award jurys, especially if the production is local. It speaks volumes that even though Border is a fantasy film, it is closer to the relative seriousness of Let the right one in than the campy Troll Hunter.
“It is strange, or rather insulting, that the turkey The Unthinkable is being considered [as one of last year’s best films]. Especially when Gabriela Pichler’s splendid Amateurs isn’t”, Hynek Pallas, a film academic, critic and journalist, writes in his blogg. Another academic and blogger, Martin Eriksson, said that the award “is embarrassing itself” by nominating The Unthinkable.
The film was met with mostly negative reviews, averaging a score of 2.57 of 5 in 10 newspapers and websites that reviewed it. When the film premiered in June 2018, nobody really thought the film would compete at the highest level in Sweden, simply due to its genre. And – let it be said – the two critics who disagreed with the nomination did not get to dominate the buzz around the nominations. Still, they are symptoms of something that is typical of Sweden; contempt for entertaining genre films. This is shown in funding, in reviews and in educational institutions.
If you ask the average movie goer if Sweden ever produced a great horror film, the answer will probably be “one”. That film is most likely to be Let the right one in, although if you are a hardcore horror fan, you might name Wither or The Visitors (the latter being a horror comedy for the entire family). A comment such as “Swedish horror films sucks” is common in film forums online, even in horror forums where the fans should know better, but the fact is that that point of view is also believed to be held by the cultural elite. Ask genre film makers in Sweden if they are met with open arms by SFI, regional funding associations or film schools, and they will shake their heads in discontent. The same basically applies to fantasy and science fiction as well. One exception is children’s TV and films, in particular a handful of movies based on Astrid Lindgren‘s books, but beyond her influence, major genre entries are few and far between, and increasingly only made by independent producers. Granted, every country in Scandinavia produce very few genre films (we’re not counting comedies or cop films) but the way contempt is displayed in Sweden is almost tangible and it doesn’t seem to change. What is worse is that the same notion has been adopted by audiences, which do not flock to cinemas or demand TV stations to produce horror or fantasy drama.
Sweden, this must change.
Sweden, along with Denmark, has been the leading film nation in the Nordic region for a long time, but has grown stale. Few innovations are made. Norway changed its way of distributing publics funds and already had a horror wave (both occured in the 00s and 2010s), something Sweden never had. Norway has also recently produced several cinematic blockbusters, often rooted in topics of national and historical interest. Sweden has produced very few, if any, blockbusters and if they are made, they tend to be comedies or dramas that doesn’t really stand out from the less popular movies, in terms of production or genre or ambition. For a creative industry it may be hard to see, or difficult to admit, that it has failed when the umpteenth cop movie does well on home video, cable and over-air TV. Even creative industries should move with the times, and one tested and tried strategy is to focus on genre films. People simply like them, and there is no defeat in making movies that people like. There is no law of nature that dictates that a small country must fund only snobbish art movies. This is where genre films come in. Like the rest of the Nordic region, Sweden has vast content resources in its history, its mythology and in modern fiction. Why not a grim, dark movie about the tomte – the farm gnome – he was originally a nasty character, not the sweet little old man he’s portrayed as on postcards. Forest creatures, Viking beliefs and ancient superstition is sitting right there, ready to be filmed. Sweden has the special effects know-how to make it happen, and if they don’t, Norway is its closest neighbour (hello, Gimpville!).
It has been said that Swedes are so rational and effective and science-focused that mythology, faith and superstition have no place in Swedish culture, broadly speaking. Swedes don’t believe in monsters, and so they choose not to make movies about them, because, after all, the mere idea of monsters is just silly, isn’t it? Wether monsters are real or silly or not, is not the point. SFI’s money people should know that movies are not always literal; they are symbolic. It doesn’t matter that the subject isn’t “real enough”. It seems that it’s fine if the fantasy is for children or chained to the kitchen sink, but that is a gross underestimation of the largest part of the audience; normal film fans and the average movie goer. Just look at how popular big action, fantasy and sci-fi films are in that demographic. Maybe Sweden won’t be able to compete with James Bond or Marvel franchises, but evidently it is not the genres that is the problem, but the lack of homegrown films in those genres. Swedish writers and directors are kept in a bad loop if they are never allowed to try the fantastic, and that will preserve Sweden in the dark ages, genre-wise. Swedes are very fast in comparing their local movies to American and European counterparts, and that is unfair, since local talent have very few opportunities to train in a relatively cheap genre such as horror, or even in expensive blockbuster genre movies. Again, looking at Norway, Roar Uthaug went from Cold Prey to The Wave and then to Tomb Raider. Directors need to prove themselves, not just in TV commercials in order to qualify for medium range comedies for middle aged women (yes, that’s a genre in Sweden), but for audiences. Nobody remembers a comedy director anyway.
Eriksson and Pallas are two examples of the Swedish condescending attitude towards genre films, in particular horror and fantasy. That’s why not even Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Let the right one in, The Snowman) could finance one of the most well known Swedish fantasy books, Brothers Lionheart, written by the country’s most sure-fire author, Astrid Lindgren. He is currently filming… wait for it… the 14th installment of The Jönsson Gang. You guessed it – a silly comedy. They work in Sweden, because, as we know, stupid burglars are for real.