A bored teenager dressed as a polar bear having his temperature checked on the subway in Thailand. Sick pigs at a fence somewhere between Denmark and Germany. A radical reeducation of young men under pink matriarchy. The body as a platform of traumatic experience. The joys and sorrows of growing up with an alcoholic mother. The selection of short films curated by the programmers of the Göteborg Film Festival is based around the theme section Focus: Disorder that explores the connections between order and disorder. Shorts from mostly young filmmakers from Thailand, Denmark, France, Finland and Norway also take a lighter look at some of the currently resonant social issues.
Disrupting the established order
The Göteborg Film Festival is a traditional event that showcases the latest European and international arthouse movies. As the largest event of its kind in Scandinavia, it puts a lot of focus on the industry program and market. As a result, there are very few special sidebar programs, much less parties for regular festivalgoers. Some festival atmosphere is present only in introductions prior to screenings or occasional debates with filmmakers. Focus: Disorder is one of the festival’s few original programs, which means it somewhat disrupts its order as well.
The section tackles issues around order and rules at the level of society, family and individuals, especially in light of our experience of the past few years. It explores the impact of the pandemic on the world and on cinema and asks how much order we actually need in our lives and what happens to those who consciously disturb it. Interestingly, it is Sweden of all places that is curious about this issue, a country that dealt with the pandemic with minimal restrictions. “We live in a time when many see order and structure as the answer to everything. At the same time, the last couple of years have, in a unique way, highlighted how order actually is maintained in different societies,” says creative director Jonas Holmberg about the idea behind the program.
The feature part of the program included films, such as Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021) by the Romanian director Radu Jude, Land of Dreams (2022) by the Iranian photographer Shirin Neshat, or the Taiwanese drama The Falls (2022) by Chung Mong-Hong. Since these films would likely be screened at the festival even without this section, we will turn our attention to the selected short films.
New reality of collective experience
Disorder Shorts poignantly opens with the film New Abnormal (2021) that both critically and humorously evaluates Thailand’s reaction to the pandemic. In carefully composed shots, it captures funny moments from everyday life in the time of Covid. For example, when you meet a friend in a public bathroom and have to shake their hand, even though you have just diligently yours. Then there’s a subway guard who takes temperature of a guy dressed up as a giant polar bear. But there are also darker undertones. A motorcyclist delivering food is hit by a car because he is trying to be in time for the curfew. A homeless man explains that the government is offering benefits for which you have to register online but he has no access to the internet. And finally, the government cynically issues regulations so that they are beneficial to itself.
Yet the film keeps things light throughout and all serious moments eventually turn into a joke that can be understood by citizens across the world. Most of all, Sorayos Prapapan’s film highlights the meaning of global collective experience we can all laugh at together after enough time has passed.
Borders between dreams and reality
The up-and-coming screenwriter and director Hilke Rönnfeldt, selected among the 2021 Berlinale Talents, was born in north Germany. With Danish and Icelandic background, she studied in Sweden and now lives in Copenhagen. She has been naturally crossing national borders her entire life and now focuses on one of them more closely. Fence (2021) involves an actual fence between north Germany and Denmark that was built to separate sick wild pigs from farm pigs. The controversial fence finds its way into the dreams of one of the film’s two protagonists. A strange dream forces Ebbu to think about real borders, borders of reality and relationship boundaries with her girlfriend.
Footage of the relationship, captured in a very sober, natural way, alternates with dreamlike, grimly poetic and even symbolic scenes featuring pigs, mud, fences and frozen landscape. The entire situation is very specific and, though the movie would like to speak to universal emotions, the 11-minute piece does not offer much space to immerse oneself in the story. Moreover, the story is narrated in very nuanced and ambivalent hints. So nuanced, in fact, that it is difficult to estimate their impact on the viewer.
Pink fascism as a messy reflection of patriarchy
The dark and ambiguous atmosphere of Fence is briskly replaced by the pink and didactic Hemale Education (2021). Young men in tight silver briefs, strict women in pink suits, just a few pieces of green peas a day, a donut as the ultimate punishment, and exercise, exercise, exercise. This extreme vision of a radical matriarchy by the young Norwegian filmmaker Frøydis Fossli Moe shows a disgusting dominance of one sex over another. It is extreme, absurd and torturous. However, it might not be so different from the oppression women commonly experience in the real world when they follow beauty standards and anxiously watch their weight or when they fear sexual harassment and watch their every move. Judging from interviews with the filmmaker, this at least seems to be the message the movie wanted to convey. There are more possibilities for interpretation and none of them is entirely satisfying. For example, pink fascism with broad smiles and sophisticated punishment feels like a very schematic reply to the commonly debated question, “What would it look like if women ruled the world?”
Inside a baroque chateau, we see rhythmically edited scenes of the same repetitive activities. The only story that has any kind of development is the platonic relationship of two young men that was the only thing providing some comfort. One of the men breaks down under the unbearable and absurd pressure, which makes the other one gradually sick as well.
What comes across in the movie is that the power of friendship and love is boundless and that fascism in all its forms is evil. Considering its color scheme and composition, the film is almost pedantically polished. While it may contain other messages, all of them are likely to be just as superficial and unrefined. As a result, the film can be viewed as a somewhat immature pseudo-feminist pose that revels in a provocatively sweet aesthetic but is unable to offer any meaningful reflection of the issues at hand.
Harrowing manifesto against oppression
The genre diversity of the set is proven by the audiovisual work Scum Mutation (2020) by OV, a hybrid artist from France, that could easily be shown in a gallery space. This experimental animated documentary uses the expressive language of contemporary art to examine the issue of posttraumatic stress disorder, as well as personal and collective trauma. It is a desperate, aggressive and empowering cry against all forms of oppression, a thoroughly radical manifesto against the suffering of body and soul. And it is also an extremely unpleasant assault on all our senses.
Using a variety of devices, Scum Mutation tries to bring the viewer closer to understanding the topic and experience of PTSD. An over-the-top audiovisual collage layers audio recordings on top of one another, capturing sounds from protest events and arrests of protestors, subtitles on the screen include insensitive quotes from police officers, as well as encouraging manifestos of multiple men and women. The visuals keep on spewing and modifying what looks like remotely anthropomorphic mutated and tortured human shells. The camera takes on the movement and target sights from game consoles and, with an ever-louder noise-industrial score, intensifies the physical pain of the viewer experience.
Works employing the moving image medium and issues surrounding trauma have been a common occurrence at art galleries lately, which goes hand in hand with the progressive left-leaning discourse that promotes this kind of topics, even if this effort can feel misguided at times. However, there are few audiovisual works that are so inherently radical, uncompromising and gut-wrenchingly honest. That is why Scum Mutation can be a powerful experience for viewers, no matter their leanings.
Intersection of obedience
A moment of visual calm is provided by The Human Torch (2022), a film by the Finnish director Risto-Pekka Blom that uses the bare minimum of film devices. This static six-minute film captures a crosswalk at night, in a lazy Finnish small town. It follows obedient locals who wait for the light to turn green even though the road is completely empty.
This symbolic single-shot movie uses a simple intersection to launch a complex exploration of our perception of (unwritten) rules of politeness and civility. It points out that rules can sometimes be blindly followed, justifiably broken or ignored entirely. Mainly though, the film gives voice to that familiar feeling of frustration when we feel like rules don’t apply to everybody. The Human Torch touches on the issue of migrants living next to locals and outlines the development of some disturbing and even hateful ideas. Yet in the end, it may turn out that the biggest danger and disturbance might be our own doing.
One drunk girl to another
The set concludes with the vibrant movie Gym Party (2021) that follows the tradition of fine Scandinavian coming-of-age stories. The Danish filmmaker Sif Lina Lambæk has twenty-five minutes to play out a complex story about growing up with alcohol, magic realism, teenage angst and euphoric party vibes.
First parties, first love, first vomit onto one’s lap. Growing up can be very difficult as it is. Sally goes through the joys of puberty with the added stress of having an alcoholic mother. She definitely doesn’t want to end up like her. Yet to stay sober around other partying teenagers is a superhuman task for the 15-year-old (or for anybody else). Facing pressure from a charming boy and cheap alcohol, Sally really starts changing into her mother. The motif of mother/daughter swapping bodies – well known from several versions of Freaky Friday (1976, 1995 and 2003) – is more of a symbol in this case but it engages much darker issues than just being unhappy with one’s life.
Lambæk works very well with the young actors who deliver very natural performances. The viewer feels like she’s at the awkward local disco with them. However, Charlotte Fich does not do so well. First as the drunk mother and then as intoxicated Sally, she is too heavy-handed on the dance floor and water downs the film’s power.
Creative distance or naiveté?
Global pandemic, dysfunctional relationships, gender inequality, posttraumatic disorder, breaking of rules and the impact of addiction. And there’s more: humor, poetry, confident aesthetic and sincere engagement. The Disorder Shorts section holds up a mirror to the world with its own set of rules. It is not merely a generic list of burning issues but a fairly precise examination of the modes and intensity of social critique. For some, the defense mechanism against going insane is humor. Some people introspectively plunge into their own world. Some might test various sneaky ways to point out the issue, but they suck at it and end up offending somebody in the process. And others desperately shout and raise the alarm. Overall, the movies capture different individual and social reactions to crisis and different possibilities of its cinematic representation. Just like societies, filmmakers don’t always get it right. Everybody has their own perspective that they are trying to convey. Some are able to communicate their ideas more clearly than others; sometimes, their distance is more akin to naiveté and immaturity, but their ideas are never sloppy.
Above all, Disorder Shorts and the entire section show that there are filmmakers who are not afraid to address very current topics, which is something that, up until recently, Czech filmmakers were hesitant to do. Creative efforts to reflect complex issues on the go are valuable and the occasional misstep or technical glitch can be easily overlooked. Festival programmers also prove that it is possible to put together a set of short films about current problems without taking it all too seriously. (Pay attention, fine art curators.)
Directed by: Sorayos Prapapan, 15 minutes, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, 2021
Directed by: Hilke Rönnfeldt, 12 minutes, Denmark, 2021
Directed by: Frøydis Fossli Moe, 18 minutes, Norway, 2021
Directed by: Ov, 10 minutes, France, 2021
The Human Torch
Directed by: Risto-Pekka Blom, 6 minutes, Finland, 2022
Directed by: Sif Lina Lambæk, 26 minutes, Denmark, 2021