When I think back to that morning, I recall that for the first twenty minutes I just sat there feeling a little anxious, almost frightened. I remember that I sat and wondered if I had done anything wrong. Had I arrived late? No, I hadn't. Was it something I'd said at the beginning of the interview? Had I begun it with a sensitive or inappropriate subject? I recollect thinking along these lines.
Stefan Jarl sat in front of me amidst a chaotic jumble of posters, empty film reels, and randomly placed bits of furniture, spitting and hissing like an enraged cobra. In a little dark cutting room in Gamla Stan, Stockholm' s old quarter, he vented his accumulated rage towards the film industry like a volcano erupting.
When I had typed out the interview, I was worried that Jarl might not be willing to stand by all the vituperation and abuse that he had mouthed. Most interviewees are like that. It's one thing to say something in an interview, but it's quite another to acknowledge it in print. So it was with some trepidation that I sent him what I had written.
Jarl phoned me the next day.
"It's good, but you've toned it down in a few places. If you make it more caustic it would be more powerful and clear. "
I can remember smiling. Broadly.
That was in the spring of 1985, just after The Soul Is Greater than the World
(Själen är större än världen) had been shown at the International Film Festival in Berlin. It was my interview with Stefan Jarl, the first time that I had met him. But the impression I received then, that he was a crusty curmudgeon, is one which I have had confirmed for me on several subsequent occasions.
It might sound like a simplification, but setbacks and rebuffs are a driving force for Jarl. They give birth to both the rage which welled out of him at that interview and the struggle which has engaged him practically every day for the last 25 years. It is not without reason that he is described in one of Sweden' s most respected works of reference on the cinema as a film-maker "who is always at odds with the establishment". It began with the arguments about the censorship of They Call Us Misfits
(Dom kallar oss mods) and has continued ever since. From this opposition has arisen his cinematics and his aesthetics.
A part from a few unhappy months as project leader at the Swedish Film Institute, Jarl has never been tempted to be anything other than an independent film-maker. One thing that he learned in his initial conflicts with both the television and film industry was that you had to have complete control over the entire production, from the initial script to the completed film.
It was for that reason that Jarl, together with a few other film-makers, built up a sort of platform and tried to take control over their own means of expression: film. Film Centrum guaranteed non-commercial distribution; Folkets Bio enabled them to show their films at commercial cinemas; while a publication, Film & TV, ensured that the debate remained lively and prevented the powers-that-be from hiding behind their desks.
But the money earned from distribution was never sufficient to enable the production of new films to be started. Today, twenty years later, one has to admit that cracks are evident in the platform which guaranteed freedom of expression. More than 75 per cent of the films shown at the cinemas are American, all four Swedish TV channels are flooded with American television series and Folkets Bio (the People's Cinema) ha$, been rendered more or less harmless.
It is therefore interesting to observe that in France today the policy towards film and the arts is a consistent one which is similar in many respects: a resistance which is anti-imperialistic and struggles both for freedom of expression and the national culture. The decisive sive difference is that this time it led by a Minister of Culture. There was nobody with that kind of courage in Sweden, not even then.
Jarl's films are made in the European tradition of resistance and rebellion. They seek to achieve something over and above what is actually seen on the screen. They' are films that want to contribute towards change. They are fighting films; The audience should reflect on what they have seen. They should think: "Things can't go on like this", "I want to know more" or "I have to get involved in this". This is Jarl' s purpose and he will happily quote Strindberg to this effect: "Utility goes before Beauty."
Influencing others has been his aim throughout his active film career. But anyone who has seen films such as The Threat
(Hotet/Uhkkadus, Time Has No Name
(Tiden har inget namn) and Good People
(Goda människor) knows that there are scenes of quite breathtaking beauty, for Jarl is well aware of the terms on which he has to compete. If you want to reach people who are used to the high technical quality of' large American productions, then whatever you do has to be extremely well made. Another reason is clearly Jarl's relationship with the Graphic Arts.
I became tangibly aware of this in the spring of 1989 when I travelled with Jarl to Cinema du Reel, the documentary film festival in Paris, where Time Has No Name
(Tiden har inget namn) was to be shown. On the afternoon before the screening, Jarl took me with him on a tour of a number of art galleries and shops.
We browsed for hours and Jarl bought a number of books on Picasso, Brueghel, Degas, van Gogh and photo-realism. That afternoon became for me an instructive lesson on impressionism. If I had preciously not understood its greatness, I did so then. I lost myself in, and fell in love with, Degas' painting s of ballerinas, while Jarl explained the purpose of art: "...next time you look at nature, maybe you'll say to yourself, My God how lovely it all is! Life is really worth living!"
I recalled a conversation I had a few weeks previously in the course of an interview with Jarl's cameraman and constant colleague, Per Källberg, wherein he related how Jarl, at the beginning of their collaboration, during the shooting of A Respectable Life
(Ett anständigt liv), defined his approach to the visual image: "Re dragged me round art exhibitions.
Much of it was all to do with light and treatment of light. We looked at van Gogh, Rembrandt, Roj Friberg and others whose images had a special expressiveness, while at the same time we were going round the town looking for junkies... "
All great art has opened the eyes of the public and caused them to perceive society and their surroundings in a new manner. Jarls is completely convinced of this. Re will happily quote another household deity, Walter Benjamin, in this context: "Art which begins to doubt its mission and ceases to be 'inseparable ductility' (Baudelaire), is forced to yield pride of place to novelty. "
Jarl does not see any contradiction between Art and Science; in the time of Leonardo da Vinci (his great idol) both were one. In those days da Vinci sat up at night dissecting bodies and drawing blood vessels and muscles so that he could make good drawings of people during the day time. That is where da Vinci touched upon the sort of ideal which one meets now and again in the documentary film-The Explorer.
But Stefan Jarl wants to take the role of art one stage further. It should not merely be useful in the sense of influencing people and causing the scales to fall from their eyes. It should also, he hopes, be able to alter the situation the production itself. Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht may well have been his forerunners, but these ideas are based on the experiences of his own early years, and were often paid for dearly. It is the terms of the production which govern all expression and it is vital to change them and gain control over them during the course of any film' s gestation.
It was also in Paris that I heard Jarl talk about expressiveness for the first time. It is not what an image looks like or how it was produced that is important, but what it expresses. This has also become part of Jarl's and Per Källberg's extremely idiosyncratic working method:
"Before every shoot, Stefan comes to me at a very early stage and talks a great deal and for a long time. It's mostly a philosophical discussion: what it should express as a whole, and what we should do in order to build it up to that point. It's extremely valuable, because even before shooting begins I know what atmosphere it is supposed to suggest. It's a prerequisite in order to understand it as a whole. "
During the actual takes, Jarl leaves Per Källberg pretty much to his own devices. When he knows that Källberg knows what the image is supposed to express, he rarely bothers even to look in the viewfinder. It is almost moving to listen to the cryptic dialogue between Stefan and Per during and after a take. It can sound like this:
"Was that good, Per? What do you think?"
To which Per will reply:
"Mmm, it was quite good".
This means nothing to an outsider of course.
But from the tone of his voice Jarl can immediately deduce what, if anything, was wrong and whether a retake is necessary. This is the fascinating and valuable fruit of many years' collaboration. It also shows the confidence they have in each other which was born of the profound relationship two people had towards the concept of the Image. "We just like the same kind of pictures, that's all", as Per laconically sums it all up.
Jarl contends that art is mostly about diligence: diligence and hard work. This is an attitude which he has evidently inherited from his father, baker and entrepreneur Håkan Jarl. Stefan of ten jokes about the way he would of ten conc1ude a day' s work (which of ten lasted 16 hours) with the word: "You never sleep so well as when you've done what you' re supposed to do".
Jarl is thus convinced that you ought to go to your place of work every day at eight in the morning and get down to work. This is necessary even if you sit day after day and wonder why you' re there. Inspiration certainly exists, but you'll waste it if you don't go to work. Jarl usually mentions the Stockholm author Stig Claesson as an example, a man who wrote 52 books, painted numerous pictures, and went to work every morning at eight. "All great works are produced by ready fists", as Goethe once said.
Art should also be difficult. Basically, art is a manifestation of how one complicates matters for oneself. Jarl will of ten say to Per Källberg: "We've got to make it much more complicated. Why are you filming that?! We'l1 do it completely differently or we'll come back here tomorrow. Or we'l1 do it when there are no assumptions being made!"
Once again we catch a glimpse of the crusty curmudgeon. If it seems obvious to take a particular path, he will immediately put up a warning sign and intuitively go the other way.
This relationship with work which is demanding and difficult recurs natura1ly in Stefan Jarl's film. It is most apparent in The Soul Is Greater than the World
(Själen är större än världen), an immensely physical film about struggle in which The Contest and The Path are more important than The Goal.
It is similarly illustrated in Jarl's homage to the Scanian farmer in Time Has No Name
(Tiden har inget namn), which is introduced by some lines of Pier Paolo Pasolini: "There is no poetry other than that of true actions. "
I remember those first occasion s when I was present during the making of Good People
(Goda människor). I had never dreamt that shooting a film meant such hard work and such long days. There was no such thing as a lie-in unless you had worked until three in the morning the night before. And you often did.
Jarl will of ten say that he learned seven things from Ingmar Bergman. I don't know what the other six are, but the seventh is the great advantage, artistically speaking, of working with the same team from film to film. Since A Respectable Life
(Ett anständigt liv) (1979), cameraman Per Källberg, editor Annette Lykke Lundberg, musician and composer Ulf Dageby, and Per Carleson, dubbing mixer and mixer have been "the Gang of Four" surrounding director Stefan Jarl. With all of them he has developed a personal and . of ten wilful working method in which the key word is "trust".
A working method, or more correctly a basic ideological premise vis a vis the images sought at all stages of the gestation of a film, is what Jarl calls "the Neutral Position". It means that having shot the rushes on location, one sits in the cutting room and sees "anew" what the images express. This work is the most excruciating and the most destructive for one's self-esteem. To be forced to admit that the nordic light over this forest or that sea was in fact a flat and completely lifeless image. Then the self-critical questions arise: What was I actually thinking of out there? Am I completely devoid of talent? How on earth am I going to put all this together now?
It's all about the image having a life of its own. There in the cutting room, alongside those other images which will precede and follow it, the image expresses itself differently. n might possibly be completely appropriate when placed in its context, but more of ten, unfortunately, it is completely useless.
Jarl is just as unsparing of himself when the important and sensitive work with music and sound commences. Another element is added to the totality and new expressions arise. n is a continual filtering and distillation of impressions whereby with any luck, whatever makes it to the finish in one piece and is allotted its edited portion of the screen, is the closest to The Truth we can get. Perhaps this is what Jarl's guru and mentor Arne Sucksdorff (who was given an Oscar in 1949 for his short film Rhythm of A City
(Människor i stad) calls "the right balance between documentary and poetic truth" .
In is this complex truth, this compound description of reality, which Stefan Jarl is continually seeking in his images and forms. Re completely rejects the myth of Cinema Verite, partly because there is obviously no-one who has an objective relationship with an outer rea1ity. The very fact that the camera is placed in a particular location means that a choice has been made. Frederick Wiseman, the person most of ten associated with Cinéma Verité spends a year in the cutting room for each of his films. We may assume that any claims to objectivity are waived to some extent during this time. This is something he has never attempted to deny, by the way!
But the main reason for the rejection is that rea1ity is more complicated than the actual filming of an event. The farmer ploughing his field, the Sami (Lapp) slaughtering his reindeer, the junkie shooting up, or the solitary sportsman in the midst of his training-each of them in private expresses merely tiny fraction of reality. When presented in its context, in the times in which one lives, rea1ity becomes more like a prism. It is at this point that we encounter one of the most important cornerstones of Stefan Jarl's cinematics-montage.
Jarl contends that certain things are too trivial for film to describe, while we have seen other things so often that we have become blind. Rea1ity must be made visible once more. For example, an image may be of no value when it is the last in a sequence of three, but when placed between the other two, something appears which we did not see before. With the help of montage we can cause time to stand still, let things rip, dramatize rea1ity, and so make the invisible visible. And approach the Truth.
For me, one of the best examples of montage in Stefan Jarl's films is the first eighteen minutes of Nature's Revenge
(Naturens hämnd). During this time, simply by means of montage, we are introduced to the three levels of the film and become terribly aware of why little Peter is weeping at the very beginning.
But naturally one also thinks of the "paradise of commodities" sequence in A Respectable Life
where we cut from the utter squalor of the social outcasts to the long fingers of upper class ladies in the fashionable food market in Östermalm. The editing revea1s a link, a truth: the consumer society is unveiled.
More subtly, in Time Has No Name,
from the weary footsteps and the toiling of the last farmer we cut to the dead seal on the cliff. This is happening right now, at this very moment. The two together signify something about our times. New links, new truths. Complex rea1ity is made visible.
It is in this tireless hunt for the Truth that I believe Stefan Jarl's films reach out to me and touch me. I must confess that I feel the greatest admiration and respect for this passion, this endurance which Jarl indefatigably carries with him after all these years. What is right and what is wrong is written somewhere as though on Moses' tablets of stone; that is one of the principal driving forces in Jarl's film-making.
I recall that once when I was interviewing Bo Widerberg (another one of Jarl' s household gods by the way) I asked him what that much abused word "morality" meant for him. Instantly, without a trace of hesitation or doubt, he replied: "Everything. it´s the be-all and end-all for me." For him, morality meant reverence for life, never harming anyone else.
Morality is almost synonymous with Stefan Jarl's films. They are born of a deep compassion for life which has been violated, whether it be a junkie jabbing his last hypodermic needle into the crook of his arm, a two year old boy suffering from cancer, a poisoned lake, Sami suddenly finding the fallout from Chernobyl landing all around them, or a lonely Scanian farmer whose way of
life is disappearing With both self-irony and seriousness in his voice, Jarl usually simplifies it all by saying: "All my
films are about the same thing, they are all 'films of
In his incomplete film Transform Sweden
(Förvandla Sverige), Stefan Jarl brings his criticism of
civilization to a head and says: "We are occupied by a foreign power." He has returned to this idea of
society as a prison in all his subsequent films, but probably never more definitively, darkly and resignedly in Transform Sweden.
Even in Nature
that intensely dark scrutiny of
mankind's self-appointed role as the gardeners of
nature, we can glimpse a ray of light.
This compassion is the outstanding impulse which overshadows the films of
Stefan Jarl. It is that which "determines" that a film which is completely impossible from the commercial point of view, such as Time Has No Name,
can come into being, and it is that which motivates him to complete, with practically no money, a 35-minute-long portrait of a twelve year old Sami boy in his short film Jåvna.
The act of
actually completing these films is also a means of
acknowledging rather than suppressing this impulse. The sense of
compassion is kept alive. But Jarl also emphasizes the importance of
never confusing the immediate and measurable success of
a work of
art with that which is so much more vital: its lasting value. Art is eternal and perhaps in the year 2050 someone will see The Threat
and think to himself: "So that was how the Sami and their culture were obliterated! " Or consider the value of Time Has No Name
when the very last farmer is no more.
In this context it is natural to consider another of
Stefan Jarl' s major sources of
inspiration, the painter Pieter Brueghel: "I have always wanted my
films to have the same effect as his paintings. Re managed to make great art from his allegorical comments on contemporary life. I can sit and look at his painting s for any length of
time. Without Brueghel we would not know as much as we do today about life in the sixteenth century."
It is my
hope that some time in the future we shall be able to look back on the cinematics of Robert Flaherty, Joris Ivens, Santiago Alvarez, Arne Sucksdorff, Peter Weiss, Eric M. Nilsson and, last but not least, Stefan Jarl (to place him within a tradition and a context) and there see images which give us a great deal of
knowledge about our brief period on earth during the latter half of the twentieth century.
And I am utterly convinced that Stefan Jarl's films, not only sociologically, but also anthropologically and ecologically, will then be indispensable testimony and a vital contribution to the research work of
Film journalist and author of
the book Rebel
in reality-Stefan Jarl and His Films.
(Rebell i verkligheten-Stefan Jarl och hans filmer) Filmkonst nr 7/Filmbiblioteket nr 1-1991
Stefan Jarl, född 18 mars 1941, dokumentärfilmare och filmregissör. Stefan Jarl är känd för att göra filmer med ett socialt engagemang. Stefan Jarl