P. Stuart Robinson (1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
Rebecca Figenschau’s short drama-film Elephant Skin (2015) received its international premiere and a warm reception at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) this week, but why is this the only new Norwegian film being shown here? It’s been a bumper harvest for Norwegian film this year. More of these works should be making it onto the international festival circuit. So what’s going wrong?
Elephant Skin («Elefanthud») is a crisply executed and surprisingly complex drama, given the constraints of the shorter format. It was featured in KVIFF’s Future Frames programme. Launched last year, this is a great venue for promising young filmmakers. Ten European ‘directors to watch’ are selected, and there’s been a Norwegian featured both times so far.
Last year it was Bird Hearts («Fuglehjerter»), from 2014, the extraordinary debut of another promising young talent, Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel (who happens to be the grandson of Ingmar Bergman). It won the prize for best Norwegian film at this year’s short-film festival in Grimstad. Interestingly, Figenschau is a graduate of the same school as Tøndel: Westerdals – Oslo School of Arts, Communication, and Technology.
Such success-stories indicate that there’s some solid Czech interest in Norwegian cinema. This is confirmed by the abiding appreciation of Norwegian ‘classics.’ Bård Breien’s crazy caper of a black comedy, The Art of Negative Thinking («Kunsten å tenke negativt»), from 2006, was reshown this year as part of the People Next Door programme, which focuses on the theme of living with physical disabilities. The film played to packed houses and uproarious laughter and applause. Its appeal to Czech audiences seems largely undiminished, nine years after it won the KVIFF award for best director.
The problem of the weak Norwegian presence is therefore almost certainly more of a targeting problem than a reception problem. There’s an appetite for Norwegian film here. Is the Norwegian film industry simply not taking this festival seriously enough, putting all its eggs in one basket by pitching its product to Cannes and the like?
Karlovy Vary may seem off the beaten track but, when all’s said and done, it is an A-list festival. It’s also Central Europe’s premiere film-industry event. This is a potential shop-window for Norwegian talent that is certainly not to be sneezed at!
At least there was one new Norwegian film to enjoy. Elephant Skin is only Figenschau’s third film, and it shows all the signs of an auteur who is more than ready to make the transition to the longer format. Indeed, the work has the weight and density of a full-length feature.
We are introduced to Johanne and her 6-year-old son, already on the road, in flight, essentially. It soon becomes clear that she has just left her man – the boy’s father – and they are heading for a ramshackle country house belonging to her parents. What she hasn’t counted on is the arrival of her father to stay there with them.
The scene is set for the development of a complex conflict dynamic – rooted in the history of father and daughter – made all the more unpredictable for being played out partly through the very different ways they relate to the boy. It’s a very good premise for a feature film. There’s so much going on at once – from the boy’s separation from his father to the grandfather’s patriarchal pretentions mingled with loneliness.
Figenschau has also laid a great foundation visually. The film is expertly shot, playing on the shabby charm of the house in the woods, as well as the atmosphere of uncertainty evoked by the wildness of the geographical setting. It all serves to resonate with and enhance the visual storytelling.
For a short film there is a little too much going on, however. The story is resolved in a sensible way but the viewer may be left with a still underdeveloped sense of the characters and their emotional trajectories through the action, despite some very good acting performances. At times the central father-daughter conflict seemed contrived and unconvincing. This, I believe, is a consequence of the requirements of pacing, the conflict having to develop, express and ‘resolve’ itself within the requisite time.
All the same this is an impressive international debut. You would almost wish it could function as the first draft for a longer version. The most important elements are in place: a good story and a terrific cast. Nicolay Kofler, in particular, who played the part of the boy, was outstanding. It is rare to see a child actor deliver a performance as convincing as this one.
Here on the international stage are some promising new talents, at any rate, acquitting themselves with some verve and style. Message to Norway: Don’t hide your lights under a bushel! To quote an immortal line from more than one very good film and, of course, a classic work of literature: ‘Please, Sir! Can I have some more?’