Way out west (Sight & Sound)

At first glance it’s hard to see why Trollhättan is described as a pioneer town. Not a sprig of tumbleweed adorns its well-ordered roads or plentiful roundabouts. But this quiet town of 70,000 in south-west Sweden, whose proudest asset until recently was its Saab factory, has for the last five years been at the forefront of Sweden’s film renaissance, a place that has spawned Lukas Moodysson and Josef Fares and attracted Lars von Trier and in his wake Björk, Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall and Joaquin Phoenix, amongst others. Ten years ago virtually all Sweden’s film production took place on the east coast in Stockholm but today between 15 and 20 features are shot in Trollhättan every year – over half the country’s annual production – including such international hits as Together, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville. In the spring von Trier is due to return to make Mandalay.

Trollywood, as the area has inevitably become known, is not a popular name with the industry’s pioneers. Moodysson, whose Show me Love, Together and Lilya 4-ever were all made here, hates the term and clearly sees Trollhättan as the antithesis of everything Hollywood represents. There is nothing glamorous about the film-making going on in the main production base of Trollhättan or the surrounding towns – Uddevalla, Vänersborg and Lysekil. The functional offices of Film i Väst (Film in the West), the organisation that runs the industry here, are in an estate surrounded by rundown reminders of the town’s industrial past. Film i Väst has two studios with a third under construction, rented out without equipment to keep down costs, but many directors prefer to film on location. Larger productions find spaces of their own – Dogville used a Saab warehouse and Manderlay will probably be shot in a silo.

There is something incongruous about the idea of Bacall and Kidman sitting in their caravans in the shadow of such industrial behemoths. But Trollhättan seems constantly to throw up engaging incongruity – like the story of Bacall stopping at a shop called Bogarts, to ask if she could use the Ladies. In such a small town the stars feel able to let down their guard. On both of von Trier’s movies, cast and crew stayed in the low key Ronnums Manor House in the village of Värgon, going out riding together, dining as a group – and ‘living like a big family’, according to staff. The stars received no special treatment, and Kidman is said to have enjoyed socialising with the crew and the absence of autograph hunters.

Film i Väst is the brainchild of former secondary-school teacher Thomas Eskilsson, who in the early 1990s was researching cultural policies for the regional government. He founded the organisation in 1992 as a film-resource centre, to support short and documentary films-makers and to diversify the region’s economy. The turning point came in 1996 at a meeting of Sweden’s major producers where Eskilsson unveiled his vision of setting up a film-production centre at Trollhättan. At a time when the Swedish film world was suffused by defeatism and living off the memory of Bergman, his speech was met with laughter.

But two people in the audience were more receptive: Peter Aalbaek Jensen, von Trier’s partner, at the small Danish company of Zentropa, and Lars Jönsson, MD of Swedish independent producer Memfis. They later visited the proposed site. ‘It was the middle of winter, all the industry was in decay and it looked like hell,’ Jönsson recalls. But in the spirit of pioneers they both signed up, Jönsson for two features and Aalbaek Jensen for the next von Trier film, later to become Dancer in the Dark.

Jönsson had been impressed by one of the students at the Stockholm film school. Lukas Moodysson, a poet who published his first collection at 17, had a reputation as a troublemaker. He told Jönsson he wasn’t sure if he wanted to make movies and the producer responded by getting him to write scripts. Jönsson turned down the first three and persuaded Moodysson to make the short film Talk before deciding he was ready for a feature. It was a year long struggle to get funding – the Swedish Film Institute turned them down and they eventually won SFI backing only via a roundabout route. But Show me Love (1998), which charts the funny but painful love story of two teenage girls in a boring Swedish town, became the fifth Film i Väst film to be shot and the first to be released.

The film’s success surprised everyone. Nearly 900,000 Swedes from a population of 9 million turned out to see it and it was a hit in Norway, Finland, Holland, Russia and Switzerland. It took the pressure off Eskilsson following press speculation that the regional film centres would make films no one would want to watch. What followed – Moodysson’s Together (2000), Josef Fares’ Jalla! Jalla! (2001), Reza Parsa’s Before the Storm (2001), and the Palme d’Or and Best Actress awards for Dancer in the Dark (2000) – continued the trend Show me Love had started.

Film i Väst’s influential role has led some to assume it’s a production company rather than a canny film financier. The organisation has no committees and Eskilsson alone decides what to support from the scripts he is sent. He firmly rejects the idea of some Swedish analysts that Film i Väst should turn to English-language films, pointing out that, ‘We would be of less interest in the international market than American movies with bigger budgets. So making films with a national flavour is the right way to go.’

The organisation will provide up to a third of a film’s budget on the understanding that at least 150 per cent of its investment is spent in the local area and that 60 per cent of the workforce is recruited locally. In practice Eskilsson admits that if a small film can’t meet the 150 per cent target he lets it go because a larger production may spend 600 per cent. On big co-productions like Dogville it is often impossible to reach the local workforce target but in this case Eskilsson accepted 40 per cent. He also increases the investment available to a production company with each subsequent feature, a reward for loyalty that has helped sustain successful relationships with Memfis, Zentropa and Illusion Films.

Last year Film i Väst’s income was €7.7 million, around half from regional government, a quarter from a combination of Europe, the local councils and the SFI, and a quarter from self-generated income. It’s unlikely that UK Film Council chairman Sir Alan Parker would countenance such a policy of subsidy. Parker’s vague aspiration to make Britain a ‘film hub’ in the global market leaves little active role for regional film production, as pointed out by Alex Cox (S&S January 2003). Those trying to kickstart production in UK regions entitled to European funding, such as film consultant Colin Pons in South Yorkshire, look longingly at the Film i Väst model.

Film i Väst’s success – and that of Filmpool Nord, a smaller production centre in the far north, has created problems for the Swedish Film Institute. Deputy director general Peter Hald, says Trollywood’s pulling power means that the SFI’s Stockholm studios are empty for much of the year. He also worries about seeing “the same old streets�? of Trollhättan in film after film. But these are small gripes: ‘On the whole Film i Väst has brought more finance into Swedish film production. The regional authorities have provided money that film simply didn’t have before. And it has brought new funding from Europe.’

What Hald is less likely to acknowledge is that the emergence of the regional centres has changed the kind of movies being made. The SFI’s initial reluctance to support Show me Love illustrates how conservative a centrally based film institution can be. By contrast, Film i Väst’s championing of young iconoclastic directors helped to shake up the stale post-Bergman atmosphere in the Swedish industry and to create what is now recognised as a renaissance. In a British context where every Young Adam has to fight for resources while a seemingly endless procession of predictable comedies and nostalgia pieces rolls of the production line – think The Heart of Me, Calendar Girls, Love Actually – the Swedish model must seem enticing. Perhaps the British film industry should be sent to Coventry.

This piece appeared in Sight & Sound in January 2004

By | 2017-09-26T18:02:56+00:00 August 12th, 2017|Culture, Foreign reportage|0 Comments