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The French have their ennui, the Spanish their tristeza, we Americans our obesity. But the Scandinavian nations, if this year’s Silverdocs documentary film festival is any indication, suffer from their own, particularly exportable brand of misery.
In Sweden, it’s misär. In Denmark, elendighed. In Finland, kurjuus.
For one of its most exciting marquee programs, Silverdocs has this year united these various melancholies under the banner Nordic Angst.
On the one hand, this is pretty fucking peculiar, given that the handful of Scandinavian cultural attachés contacted by the Washington City Paper expressed not angst but bland optimism.
“I’ve been very blessed from angst-filled moments,” said Gabriella Augustsson, public-affairs counselor at the Embassy of Sweden. “My parents are still happily married and brought up three kids.”
“You probably heard that we are called the happiest people in the world,” said a cultural advisor at the Embassy of Denmark.
On the other hand, excepting rays of pop sunshine like ABBA and the Cardigans, most of the Nordic culture that’s made it to our shores has been nothing short of soul-crushing. We’re programmed early—by Hamlet in high school, by Ingmar Bergman films in college—to think of Scandinavia as the world’s biggest exporter of gloom. The recent success here of the witchy Swedish electronica act Fever Ray and the sorrowful, paranoid thrillers of the late Stieg Larsson only buttresses the stereotype. Even the films of Danish auteur Lars von Trier—whose Dogme 95 movement explicitly rejected Bergmanesque aesthetics—have taken a turn for the apocalyptic of late.
All of which seems to buck the facts: To judge by various standard-of-living indexes, lots of people in these Northern nations are pretty happy.
Sky Sitney, Silverdocs’ artistic director, says the Scandinavian slate came together when organizers recognized a pattern of minimalistic, ground-level films of unexpected emotional heft. And the Nordic Angst appellation is slightly tongue-in-cheek; the films have both heavy and humorous moments. “We definitely meant it in a playful way—poignant is not depressing,” Sitney says. “When you look at each film individually, there’s a lot more than angst going on. It’s not wallowing in that despair—it’s trying to transcend it.”
In fact, when Sitney met the directors behind the frequently morose Finnish film The Living Room of the Nation, she was surprised: “They’re unbelievably fabulous,” she says. “They’re not angsty.”
So let’s accept these Scandinavians, contradictions and all—and let’s embrace their Nordic angst as our own. The dour Finns with their makeshift saunas (Steam of Life)! The deadpan Danes who hope to subvert Kim Jong-Il through subtle comedy (The Red Chapel)! The austere Swedes whose Peruvian ethnography feels ever so slightly contrived (Familia)!
Which leaves us with just one question: Ska du ha lite smör med dina popcorn, eller?
—Jonathan L. Fischer and Ted Scheinman
Films show at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring and Discovery HD Theater, 1 Discovery Place, Silver Spring. Most screenings are $10; for schedules and prices visit silverdocs.com.
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