My Delightful, Non-Depressing Scandinavian Film Festival

As a Kid, I Took a Crazy Leap Off a Roof. As an Adult, I Took an Even Crazier Leap Into Nordic Cinema.

When I was in the first grade, I so believed in the moving images I saw in cartoons that I once jumped off the top of our garage with an open umbrella as my parachute. Fortunately, it was onto a pile of sand and I didn’t break anything. Fifteen years ago, I started a Scandinavian Film Festival in Los Angeles, and, as a veteran of leaps of faith, I found the experience to be strangely familiar. I didn’t know if it would work but believed it would. Fortunately, this time, I was right.

My European heritage is German and Swiss, but, a few decades ago, through friendships and my work in music, I began to take an interest in the Nordic countries. I was also becoming more and more aware of a lot of excellent Nordic filmmaking, something I’d enjoyed since my high school days, when I would sneak off to the other side of Indianapolis to an art-house theater that offered exotic, erotic, neurotic worlds with subtitles. When I moved to the West Coast, I became involved in the American Scandinavian Foundation of Los Angeles, and I was invited to a screening of Liv Ullmann’s directorial debut film, Sophie, about an ill-fated marriage between a Jewish Dane and a non-Jewish Dane. I loved the movie, but I learned it did not have a North American distributor. I thought, “How many excellent films are out there that we never get to see?” This planted the seed of a film festival.

There had never been a Scandinavian film festival in Los Angeles. I had only been to random screenings of Nordic films at larger festivals or on college campuses with a scant crowd—where it was usually a re-screening of a classic Ingmar Bergman film. I wanted a festival that would be not just visible but also useful—for the showcasing of work by northern European filmmakers, for networking, and for cultural exchange.

Last year’s festival welcomed the cast of the Oscar-nominated Norwegian film Kon Tiki.

Last year’s festival welcomed the cast of the Oscar-nominated Norwegian film Kon-Tiki.

I mapped out a plan to share the films and cover expenses. I became a crusader with a tin cup. We found a home for the festival at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, and prospects looked positive for paying the rent. I also began learning about permissions, distributors, publicists, and hype. We were swamped by requests for press credentials, most of them from people who had never written anything but wanted to crash the party. But I like to think we managed it with integrity, treating everyone well. On that first opening night, in 1999, I had some of the same feeling as when I jumped from the garage roof with the parachute. Then we were rolling: northern lights, camera, action! The theater was full. It was clear that Hollywood was interested in Nordic film.

This year is the 15th anniversary of the Scandinavian Film Festival L.A., which is taking place on January 18, 19, 25, and 26. Each year the festival has grown, and we screen the “best” of current cinema from each country. We’ve seen these films get quite a few Oscar nominations in one category or another. But for me, it’s not really about the race for King Oscar—it’s about sharing the work of filmmakers from another part of the world. In the celebration of ethnicity, identity, and community, we must not form a circle with our backs turned on the world but, rather, face outward and expand our circle. I believe our annual residency of Nordic film in Hollywood helps expand that circle.

A still from Kurdish-Norwegian director Hisham Zaman’s Before Snowfall, an unusual road movie about family, love, dignity, and honor.

A still from Kurdish-Norwegian director Hisham Zaman’s Before Snowfall, an unusual road movie about family, love, dignity, and honor.

People tend to think of the Nordic countries as homogeneous, but that is no longer the case. With immigration to the north, there are new questions, new opportunities—and new eyes. One of these new figures on the scene is Hisham Zaman, a wonderful young Norwegian director who is of Kurdish origin. The stories of many contemporary Scandinavian films concern migration, identity, clashes, and victimization, such as a critically acclaimed Swedish film about a teenage Russian girl being trafficked for prostitution in Stockholm. These films ask the age-old questions about belonging, about what comprises the definition of “nationality.” In Nordic folklore, awful trolls hide under bridges to scare people, but if you call the troll by name it goes away, and you get across the bridge. Film allows us to confront difficult issues, even demons, and call them by name.

Not that our films are all dark. There are certainly some somber and serious Nordic films, but there’s also plenty of romance and history, like A Royal Affair, or adventure, like Kon-Tiki. Both of these were Oscar-nominated films last year. We also have comedies. This year’s opening-night film is a delightful Danish flick in the superhero genre, called Antboy (a still from the film is pictured at the beginning of the piece), and it’s good for kids and adults.

Part of our audience is made up of people with a connection to Nordic countries, but at least two-thirds are L.A. film lovers and industry professionals. This is a film-savvy town. Some people come back year after year, and others walk in the door and experience something new. One writer called Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. “the place where Nordic film winters in Southern California.” I like that. This year, we’re also diversifying into Baltic film with Baltic Film Expo@SFFLA, and we have a German/Norwegian co-production, Two Lives, which is Germany’s Oscar candidate.

One of my favorite aspects of the festival is seeing talent develop. We’ve sometimes screened a short film from a director who, a few years later, has a major feature film. I also love seeing the audience reaction. One night, we screened a Finnish film about a boy who was sent away to the safety of the Swedish countryside during World War II. It inspired an older gentleman who was a regular at the festival to come up to me. “That’s my story,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “I was one of those kids. Thank you.”

James Koenig is the founder and director of the Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. Learn more and purchase tickets at www.sffla.net.

The Connecting Los Angeles series is supported by a grant from the California Community Foundation.
Primary Editor: T.A. Frank. Secondary Editor: Becca MacLaren.
*Photos courtesy of James Koenig.

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