A miracle at work: Mannen fra Snåsa («Doing Good»)

TIFF 2016: You might be hoping for miracles or just dying to see them discredited. Either way you’ll be disappointed by Margreth Olin’s Mannen fra Snåsa («Doing Good»). Yet there is a miracle at work here.

Maybe it’s time to rethink that old Hollywood cliché and stock-in-trade, the ‘feel-good’ movie. We could take back this concept and re-imagine it as (you’ll never guess!) a force for good, instead of what passes for good in Hollywood – a kind of platitudinous moral oblivion. Margreth Olin’s latest documentary, Mannen fra Snåsa («Doing Good») has in any case given us a good start.

So to hell with the anodyne sedative! The Prozac romance! Troubled times like ours call for bold measures and this, in a way, is the biggest challenge we homo sapiens will ever face, to find a way to do a little good in this treacherous little existence of ours. However feeble it might look in the greater scheme of things, we can still embrace human goodness wherever we find it, gingerly fan the flickering flame and keep those lanterns burning. God willing, the goodness might even grow – at least for a time – like a warm fire to offer comfort to the darkest night.

Olin had excellent personal reasons for her ‘new direction.’ In recent work she’s played the role of a whistleblower on avoidable human suffering, highlighting the sorry fate of some of the children of repatriated asylum-seekers for example. The problem with such worthy projects is the need, as a documentarist, to bear witness to that suffering. As she acknowledge quite explicitly in her ‘film talk’ session at this year’s Tromsø International Film Festival, Olin had reached a critical juncture, a personal crisis even.

She needed a change of focus, at least for a while. She sought respite from the misery and turned her attention to what is good – certainly a worthy if elusive subject of study. The result was the work premiered at the same festival, a kind of portrait of Joralf Gjerstad, now approaching 90 years of age, a man who’s devoted much of his life to putting his reputed healing touch at the disposal of those most in need.

Was this an ill-advised choice of subject-matter? Most Norwegians, and especially ‘the chattering classes,’ are already more than well acquainted with the man and his story – or so they believe. Many who have read about him in the tabloids, or watched him on TV, might well feel his public exposure has long since exceeded the point of over-saturation. The craze, such as it was, is evidently past its sell-by date. Sadly, naïve fascination is doomed to dissolve, without much ceremony, into the natural scepticism, which is never too far below the surface.

Some older readers might still recall the Uri Geller escapade of the 1970s. His miraculous spoon-bending exploits – so assiduously televised – turned him into an international household name, but the collective wonder soon waned – even before the exposure of the ‘magic’ as an ingenious fraud. The ‘telekinetic Emperor’ was found after all to have no clothes, and any of us who, with hindsight, had been a little slow to discover this shocking, yet embarrassingly obvious truth, are bound to feel slightly ashamed. No wonder yesterday’s superman turned charlatan now seems a man best forgotten. Is there a ‘Uri-Geller effect’ in force here, which makes this the wrong film at the wrong time, or at least one doomed to labour against the popular cultural grain?

Well, the thing about a really good filmmaker is she can provide a fresh perspective on all that is most familiar and even uninteresting, all that we have previously taken for granted. Yes, we might be resistant to a new perspective on the man from Snåsa and it might take a remarkable feat of filmmaking to overcome such resistance. I’m happy to report, however, that Olin’s Mannen fra Snåsa is just such a feat. It’s a film that offers another view, an impetus to think again. It finds something universal and genuinely moving in a theme we might too quickly have dismissed as no more than banal.

You can see the attraction of the case for a filmmaker. There is considerable dispute about the healing powers claimed by this otherwise unassuming and unprepossessing ‘Ola Nordmann.’ The documentarist enters the fray – the fractious mire – as the avowed servant of truth, armed with the prejudice, if not the conviction, that ‘the camera never lies.’

She might thus be expected to play a kind of trump-card in a game of truth already in progress between sceptics and believers. In a way the film fulfils its promise – but not in the way expected. It beats a path to a deeper truth than the one so hotly and fruitlessly disputed in the media. Perhaps it’s the only truth in a case like this we can reasonably hope to find. It may also, in the end, be the only truth worth knowing. As Jagger (and Richards) put it so eloquently:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
You just might find
You get what you need

If it matters (as I believe it does) for we humans to feel understood, then the man himself may well feel himself a winner in this particular truth-game. For the film’s unexpected virtue lies in cutting through all the controversy circling interminably around the question of what, if anything, faith healing really means, and instead gives us a proper, non-judgemental look at the man himself.

Just who is the man from Snåsa? This is actually a much more interesting question than what he may or may not have done on some physical-somatic plane to the bodies of his patients or disciples. It also leads naturally to another fascinating question: given who he is, how does he engage with the troubled souls who arrive on his doorstep seeking help?

I expect the film to be criticised by some for pulling its punches, for sidestepping the issues and ignoring the critics, but Olin clearly overlooked such avenues of inquiry because she had decided, from the outset, to take another view. She chose to paint a portrait, employing the richest cinematic palette at her disposal, of the man himself, and to paint him in his natural element, that is, meeting and ‘working’ with people in the hope of lightening their burden, be it physical or psychological.

The product makes for compelling viewing, revealing vistas of human vulnerability and feeling more commonly hidden beneath the polite interface of conventional, normalised interactions. Such revelations can make us uncomfortable and moved by turns. Most importantly they capture what is arguably the most important object of documentation, the quintessentially human. To paraphrase the words of Gjerstad in the movie, the beauty of nature is out there to capture, as obvious as it is lovely, be it a flower or a sunset. The beauty of humanity, on the other hand, is something much more intangible. For all its subtlety and invisibility, however, the intrinsically human at its best is as lovely in its own way as the most spectacular wonders of nature.

A young girl living with chronic pain meets the man from Snåsa. He knows he can help her and she is ready to believe. By virtue of the discrete ministrations of the filmmaker, we witness the love and the joy of that moment, and of the genuine relief from pain she experiences. What do we really know about what happened? Well, we know what is most important to know, that it was good.

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