Stefan Jarl is one of those rare filmmakers who deftly balances thelocal with the international, the abstract with the concrete. Although he'swell known for his nature films, he's not just another dry documentarian; hehas a sharp eye for the delicate and mysterious in the broad, sometimesforeboding (urban and rural) landscapes he photographs, landscape that heportrays as populated with real people who have complex problems. His wholecareer has been pointing away towards a new model for political film making,one that is tightly to the landscape, to the small details of everyday life andthe effects that geo-politics have on those details, and to the quest for alyrical and painterly visual style.
If Jarl has spent a career trying to figure out a new model for political filmmaking, he's pursued that project by trying to make sense of the effects that modernity, cultural, economic and technological, hashad on the life of Scandinavia. We can see this interest, this obsession,really in the "two pieces" of Jarl's oeuvre, his urban films and hisnature films. Indeed, while that kind of consistency might at first look like aparadox, it's actually consistent with the very essence of Jarl's world view.Rural and urban spaces are not, in Jarl's broadly-conceived humanistworld-view, all that different; both are populated with people whose problemsand beliefs need to be fully and dearly explained, and both are endowed with akind of non-embodied power and beauty. Macro- and micro- analyses, along withclose-ups and extreme long shots, long takes and montage, must coexist.But despite the passion which with Jarl makes this mixture manifest with hisstylistic choices, his films also evince a certain pessimism, an argument thatmuch of modern life is out of balance, and needs to be examined and re-thought.
Jarl's trilogy of films about urban Stockholm, dubbed the "Mods Trilogy,” makes for a good entry-point into this mixture of pessimism and engagement. These films focus primarily on Kenneth "Kenta” Gustafson and Gustav "Stoffe” Svensson, two "Mods”-working class hippies interested in little beyond the proverbial sex, drugs and rock'n roll-who we see grow up across 25 years. The films hover between fiction and documentary, and while they might at first seem to be related to Michael Apted's 7 Up
series, they are actually much closer to the "docu-fictions” that have become so popular on British TV over the last few years. And despite Jarl's intimate approach, these films are very anti-romantic about the 1960s, showing the havoc that the decade' s liberated energy wreaked upon the underclass, a havoc whose consequences, as we see, could be felt decades later.
The first of these, They Call Us Misfits
("Dom kallar oss mods,” 1968, co-written and co-directed with Jan Lindkvist) is certainly informed by the giddy excitement of the late 1960s, but it there is also a drabness here, a kind of melancholy that is present in all of Jarl's work. We are introduced to Kenta and Stoffe both through a series of talking-head interviews and through shots of men hanging around the streets of Stockholm; the opening images of the film are of these two misfits running through a pedestrian mall, the camera following along as they jump over benches and bump into annoyed passerby. These images neatly embody the restlessness and awardness that defines their lives, but may also convey a raw, kinetic energy that's equally present, an energy that the film, or the trilogy for that matter, is never really able to re-capture. The interview material is mostly depressing; we hear of alcoholic parents, of lousy jobs, of a sense mat mere is really nothing out there waiting for them. indeed, in an interview that will turn out to be prophetic (and that will be re-played in the third film, The Social Contract
("Det Sociala arvet,” 1993)), Kenta reflects upon how easy it is for young people to become alcoholics. Jarl asks him if he thinks he'll make it, if he'll avoidthose kinds of traps, and he replies that he probably won't. While there aremoments of real rebellious energy, this is sequence that really sets the moodof the entire film, and the entire trilogy. These lives that Jarl is portrayingare finally defined not by a sense of possibility, but of inevitability, of asense that people are trapped in destinies that will, finally, destroy them.
And like the other two entries in the trilogy, TheyCall Us Misfits
is quite dualistic formally. Thefilm's artificiality is not overwhelming, and is indeed easy to miss. Jarldraws upon plenty of documentary conventions, such as interviews and candidfootage, and at times the film feels like a straightforward documentaryportrait. But there are also many moments that depart from the arms-lengthattitude expected of such work. There are sequences that feature close-ups andextreme close-ups as Kenta and girlfriend make up and seem quite dearly headedtowards sex, and sequences of discussions or confrontations that feel candid orspontaneous but which are also edited in away that is basically identical tothe strategies of narrative cinema. This first film of Jarl's, then, signaledhis interest not only in the fringes of society, but in a hybridized form,practice that was somewhere between fiction and documentary. Kenta and Stoffeare real people, but Jarl seems to have been attracted to this project becausetheir lives could serve as a jumping off point for a engrossing story, andoften draws upon a stagier, pre-verité version of documentary form. Much the same is true of the other two films, made in1979 and 1993, respectively. A Decent Life
("EttAnständigt liv,” 1979) takes us in to a period when Kenta and Stoffe's livesare really starting to collapse. They have hooked up with women and started tohave kids, but they haven't lost that sense of hollowness, of lack, that we seein the spacey interviews that fill They Call Us Misfits.
There are glimpses of hope in A Decent Life,
like when Kenta takes his young son Patric out to the countryside.But overall, they both seem overwhelmed by their lives. The trilogy's sub-plot(so to speak) about Kenta's mother, an alcoholic who killed her boyfriend and,towards the end of the film, is released from prison, is a good summary ofthis. As Kenta, his wife and his mother drive horme from the prison, they eachtalk about what it was like to be in jail, what about the experience botheredthem the most. The details of their respective periods of imprisonment arequite sketchy; they all treat jail time as an unpleasant but unsurprising partof the lives they lead. And again, all of this is rendered in away that feelsclosely controlled, with exact, efficient editing and dear composition.By the time of the making of the third film, The Social Contract,
Kenta and Stoffe have gotten their lives onlyslightly more together. Stoffe, with whom Kenta has started to fall out ofcontact, has died of a heroin overdose. Over the course of the film we followthe business that Kenta tries to start with his wife, and which is eventuallyrun into the ground. But in this final film of the trilogy Jarl shifts both hisfocus and his form a bit. He focuses quite a bit of the film on Kenta's sonPatric, now 18 years old and trying to find some direction. Patric seems muchmore together than his father ever was, neither losing himself on the marginsnor foolishly trying to go full-on into the boom of the 1980s. And Jarl seemsto keep his distance with Patric a bit more than he did with members of hisfather's generation. We follow him through interviews, exams, and preparationsto do his military service, but these sequences unfold mostly in longish takes;they feel like a more straightforward documentary, Patric seems less interestedin letting the camera into his life than his father was (or Jarl seem lessinterested in taking the camera there).
But these other two films, like They Call Us Misfits,
still move like tightly written, linear narrative;they tell the story of the development, struggles, and eventual quiet collapseof people who never had much of a chance at making good on the energy .thatseemed to be both inside of and all around them. They use the truth-value ofdocumentary, the sense that this is real and therefore emotionally powerful, tomake some sharp criticism about the way that Swedish society punishesoutsiders. For Jarl, documentary and fiction are both tools to be used in thepursuit of art that is genuinely felt and realistic about the period itdepicts.
Much the same can be said of his work aboutScandinavia's high north. Even though they are often referred to as "naturedocumentaries,” these films are just as are hybridized and committed as Jarl'sgrittier Mods series. These documentaries also quite clearly informed by ArneSucksdorff, Jarl's mentor. Sucksdorff, who won an Oscar for his short film Rhythmsof a City
("Människor i stad,” 1949) was well knownfor his passion for infusing lyrical landscape photography with social andpolitical engagement. Jarl's films about farming, such as Nature's Revenge
("Naturens hämnd," 1983) or Time Has
("Tiden har inget namn,”1989) are clearly indebted to Sucksdorffs work. This is also true of Jarl'sfilms about the Sami people, such as Threat
("Hotet,” 1987) or the shorts Jåvna: Reindeer Herdsmen in theYear 2000
("Jåvna: Renskötare år 2000,” 1991) and SamernasLand
(1994). All of this work illustrates a kind ofromanticism about the rural lands cape that is utterly absent from the sober,sometimes brutal portraits of urban bohemia that we see in the Mods trilogy.But they are also invested with a sense of possibility, of a belief in analternative to western materialism and nihilism. The Mods films are deeplypessimistic, but these nature documentaries, while dealing with such issues asthe dangers of synthetic farming and the havoc that Chernobyl has wreaked, areactually quite optimistic and quite realistic about the fate of Europe'sunderdeveloped, trans-national edges.Nature's Revenge
is alyrical, pastoral portrait of Sweden’s high north, but it is also anintervention in what Jarl clearly feels is a slow cultural collapse. It focuseson the introduction of synthetic methods to farming, and the havoc that theyseem to wreak, or that the farmers Jarl interviews think they will soon bewreaking, on the natural cycles of growth and death. The opening images of thefilm are studies in opposites, but equally powerful; we see a helicopter dropan enormous amount of lime into a lake, making a huge splash and terrible noise(a voice over tells us that it's to combat the heavy metals that have beenfound in the water), followed by some images of the farm that will form thecore of the film. After that, we follow a young, bald boy as he walks with hisfather through the corridors of a hospital where he is being treated forprostate cancer. Jarl's overall argument is that nature has certain patternsand methods, and that nature exacts revenge on those who tamper with them. Thisis indeed Romantic with a capital R, and of all his films, Nature's Revenge
is the one where Jarl is most investing nature with a consciousness,and wrestling with heavy, almost abstract questions of how humans can get alongwith this embodied, spiritually powerful nature. But in addition to thishard-core Romanticism, Jarl is also working out a complex, fairly detailed politicalanalysis, the gist of which will pop up in all of his future nature films.
Consider one sequence that starts with a talking-headinterview of a farmer, who explains how synthetic fertilizer can often lead tomajor problems with moldy wheat. He then announces that he's going to do anexperiment, and sure enough, the wheat that was grown with the artificialfertilizer turns out moldy and disgusting, while the organically grown cropsare just as dry and grainy as they should be. The farmer concludes the sequenceby saying that fungal poisons will be the issue of the 1980s (this was all shotin 1982). It’s easy to chuckled at this from 2001, knowing that the 80s sawmuch different problems than fungal poisoning (such as nuclear poisoning, whichJarl would take up a few years later, in his Chernobyl films). But whatimpresses about this sequence is that Jarl is as invested in the macro-thegreat landscape shots, talk of nature's role as adversary or friend-as he is inthe micro arguments about the economics of various kinds of fertilizer. Jarlobviously cares passionately about the grandeur of wilderness, but he is awarethat people live in that wilderness too, people who do, work and have economicproblems and who resist easy, Romantic abstraction.
While it has an English title that makes it sound really dull,Jarl's 1989 film Time Has
to Research inAnthropology
is a similarly dualistic portrait offarm life. An older couple is at the core of this work, one who Jarl investswith a kind of metaphorical importance; there are no young people where theylive. Indeed, during one of the interviews the old man mentions that they haveno more schools there, and that all the children have to go to the city to beeducated. But less than a country of old people, Jarl's argument is that thishigh north is another, much poorer nation: not quite a Swedish Third World, butalmost. The old man actually mentions that the place is like an underdevelopedcountry, especially since they took the railroad out. And that's perhaps themost telling line in the film; the turning point for this region, and probablyfor a great deal of rural Sweden, came when they were essentially cut off fromthe rest of the country. Jarl invested this kind of separation with a positivesense in his 1987 film Threat,
where he isarguing that the high north is a place that has developed separately from"European” values, and that until the intrusion of the Chernobyl disaster itwas one of the continent's last true wilderness areas. But in Time Has NoName
that wilderness ideal seems exhausted andinfused with melancholia.
This is not to imply that Jarl's later films areentirely positive about Sweden's fringes; Threat,
for instance, is in some ways quite grim, and is also the work thatbegan Jarl's interest in Chernobyl and its effects on the Sami people. Thatfilm opens with text explaining that Chernobyl exploded in 1986 and sentenormous amounts of poison into Scandinavia. The opening images are of animalsand trains, with Jarl's voiceover saying that the presence of the train is theonly remnant of European modernity up here; this is Europe's last wilderness,he asserts. By the time the film is over Jarl will have reversed thisassessment, wondering if there are any real wilderness areas after Chernobyl,so wide-ranging are the effects of its explosion. Time Has No Name
positedthe idea that wilderness was slowly dying, growing old and not long for thisworld, like the two farmers at its core. But Threat
sees the disappearance of the wilderness in a much harsher light; inthese Sami regions, the wilderness and the ways of life organic with it seemedto be doing fine, not dying out at all, until it was effectively murdered bythe sudden intrusion of Europe's hideous modernity. And Jarl is also returningto the analysis of Nature's Revenge,
that thereis a serious price to be paid for failing to follow the natural cycles of thislandscape. During an interview, one of the Sami reindeer herders describes howthe reindeer used to go down to the forest and they used to follow them, butafter Chernobyl they have to make the cesium levels of various locations, andnot the instincts of the animals or the years of traditional knowledge andnomadic patterns, the primary determinant of how to live. This turn towardsartificiality can only have negative repercussions. But if Nature's Revenge
was trying to re-make the Romantic nature film along morepolitically engaged lines, then Threat
is tryingto re-make the political film along more lyrical, non-narrative lines. Theostensible purpose of the film is to explain the effect that Chernobyl washaving on the regions where the benefits of nuclear power (or, for that matter,power of any kind) have been felt the least, but it is sprinkled with images oftremendous visual impact, such as reindeer running along the sunset-lit hills,or of the snow-covered mountains as a voiceover tells us that we're actually inNorway now, as if it matters, as if these hills, or these people, or thisradiation poisoning, could recognize anything as trivial as the borders betweenstates (indeed, that spirit of transnationalism is central to all of Jarl'sSami/Chernobyl films).l
The questions that surround the survival of seeminglyanachronistic lifestyles are highly political ones, and it is a historicaldefect of the European Left that it has tended to view such matters withscepticism, effectively ceding them to a traditionalist and often nationalistRight. I see Jarl's nature films as a corrective to this tendency, an attemptto convince a European public that these questions are not just a product ofbackwards, mushy sentimentality, but are instead essential to a fullrealization of democratic principles. They are, then, quite distinct from theindigenous media practices that were beginning to gain prominence as Jarl wasmaking his Sami/Chernobyl films.2
These Sami films are clearly madeby an outsider about a culture that is deeply foreign to him and which heperhaps approaches with a zeal and passion available only to such an outsider.But they make an important political argument, vividly showing that Europe is acomplex entity whose fringes are still trying to interpret and come to gripswith modernity. indeed, they interrogate the very idea of "European culture,"and which, by virtue of their free movement across national borders, show usjust how little the inhabitants of the high north are effected by some of themost basic assumptions in which Europeans base their identities.
These kinds of concerns are entirely consistent with theMods films, which are portraits of Europe's outsiders, people somehow left outof Scandinavia's idealistic social democratic dream. Kenta and Stoffe aren'tnon-Europeans in quite the same way that Jarl is arguing the Sami are, but Jarlis using them, in a way that is very similar to how he is using the people inhis high north documentaries, to show how a full understanding of a place, anenvironment, depends on an understanding of the people who exist on itsfringes.
Indeed, while Jarl is generally understood to be a"nature filmmaker,” I think that's an over-simplification; I'd suggest thatcalling Jarl an "environmental filmmaker" is much more exact.3
Such al1 appellation may suggest a certain non urban focus, but that's astereotype. Jarl has always made films about environments, both urban andrural, showing them to be highly complex, fluid entities, always formed byforces that are both human and supra-human, by forces ranging from economicpolicies to the seasonal migration of massive numbers of reindeer, and, in thecase of the Chernobyl documentaries, the potentially horrific ways that the twocan effect one another. Stefan Jarl's cinema is about making these seeminglymismatched elements fit together, about insisting that only examination andreconciliation of the everyday and the systematic will bring about any kind ofmeaningful understanding of the world in which we live.Footnotes:
1. Jarl's shorts about the impact of Chernobyl on the Sami people,1991's Jåvna: Reindeer Hunter
in the Year2000
and 1994's Samernas Land,
are also fundamentally political films, although also have a verypainterly and Romantic sensibility. Jåvna
takesup the question of whether the will be reindeer hunters in the year 2000,whether an early-adolescent boy named Jåvna, who forms the core of the film,will be able to maintain the way of life that has survived generations. Like hedid in the portrait Time Has No Name,
he plungeshis camera right into the business of herding, giving his viewer visceraldose-ups and medium-shots of herds of reindeer rumbling by, or of herdersmaking their special cuts on the deers' ear (a technique we also see in Threat).Samernas Land
has many of these kinds of sequencesas well, and is more non-narrative and meditative than Jåvna,
and less explicitly political as well (as befits its 13-minutelength; Jåvna
is 35 minutes).
2. I'm thinking here of artists such as lnuit video maker Zack Kunukor Maori film maker Merata Mita, who have used documentary or semi-documentaryforms to preserve and participate in the revival of traditional culturalpractices. Much the same could be said, though, of the British
"Workshop Movement" or similar efforts in North Americathat sought to train (often urban-based) people in the basics of film making sothey could document their own lives. This kind of work is very much aboutputting cameras into the hands of people who have traditionally been the objectof ethnographic discourse. This is not really what's going on in Jarl's cinema;his films, while invested with a very real radicalism, do not reverse or evenupset the subject -object relationship traditional to most documentary in thesame way.
3. Thank you. to Documentary Box
co-editor Sarah Teasley for suggesting this appellation./Jerry WhiteJerry White is a Killam Doctoral Fellow in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta, Canada.
Stefan Jarl, född 18 mars 1941, dokumentärfilmare och filmregissör. Stefan Jarl är känd för att göra filmer med ett socialt engagemang. Stefan Jarl