Faroe Islands: Dreams by the Sea

(2017; director: Sakaris Stórá; writer: Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs; language: Faroese; co-production with Denmark; original title: Dreymar við havið)

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Dreams by the Sea is the first ever truly Faroese feature film, shot entirely on location with predominantly local talent. It tells a simple story of adolescence in the isolated island territory. Teenage Ester (Juliet Nattestad), like Disney’s Belle and many other village girls before her, wants much more than her provincial life. When rebellious Ragna (Helena Heðinsdóttir) with her dysfunctional family moves to the island, Ester is instantly attracted and a friendship develops. Each provides what the other lacks – excitement for Ester, and stability for Ragna. Together, they dream of leaving the island and taking on the world.

Although culturally and linguistically discrete, the Faroe Islands are not currently a country in their own right (they’re an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark), meaning they don’t fit the criteria I set myself of watching a film from every UN-recognised soverign nation-state. But those criteria are mainly set for expediency, and I’m not going to pass up the chance to include films from self-governing nations only a referendum away from independence. Well, at least not when they cross my path, like when Dreams by the Sea turned up in my local film festival.

The film centres on 16-year-old Ester, bored by her mundane life in a small Faroese village by the ocean. Her mother, like all the mothers in the village, is an enthusiastic knitter (the film features plenty of examples of the gorgeous Faroese patterned jumpers made famous to foreigners through the Danish TV-series The Killing). Her father leads Sunday School prayer sessions and tinkers with model planes. Her former best friend landed a modelling contract and moved away, and Ester is sick with envy, stuck on the island with her boring life: “it’s like everything is set in stone, nothing ever changes.”

Enter Ragna, who instantly stands out with her thick black eyeliner and surly attitude. Ester is instantly drawn to Ragna’s difference and apparent independence, and starts following her around the island – to her work in a kiosk, and to her home in “the Shed”, the cheapest ramshackle accommodation on the island. Ragna is initially a bit weirded out, asking “are you stalking me?”, but eventually she accepts Ester’s friendship.

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It becomes clear that Ragna’s independence and tough exterior has been formed over years of neglect by her alcoholic, unemployed and hard-partying mother (who is played with surprising pathos by an actress whose name I can’t find anywhere). For the naive Ester, even this is exciting new territory, and she enthusiastically embraces the world of alcohol and lack of parental oversight that Ragna is visibly tiring of. Ragna, on the other hand, longs for a stable father figure like Ester’s.

Although both discuss wanting to leave the island and make a life of their own, there is a difference in what each girl wants to leave behind. What Ester sees as freedom in Ragna’s life is its own form of confinement, with Ragna forced into caring for her mother and younger brother, and is less exciting than wearing and mundane in its own way. Each girl exoticises the other, Ester with a naked hunger and Ragna with a more mature, subdued wistfulness. As it turns out, Ragna does leave the island at the end of the film, but not under happy circumstances, nor her own steam. Her mother almost dies of an overdose, and Ragna is forced to seek other solutions for care of her younger brother, with her own future uncertain. Meanwhile Ester is left in her boring, stable, protected life, hopefully a little wiser as to where the grass is greener.

The film is entirely in Faroese, filmed on the island of Sandoy (population 1200) with a Faroese director, scriptwriter, stars and the majority of the crew, and has been celebrated as the start of a film industry in the islands. And it’s an astonishingly competent start, particularly given that only the editor (Amalie Westerlin Tjellesen) and the cinematographer (Virginie Surdej) had ever worked on a feature film before (both women, something you seldom see in e.g. Hollywood productions). The leads are excellent, with Helena Heðinsdóttir giving a mature and layered performance as Ragna and Juliet Nattestad offering one of the most honest portrayals of unabashed adolescent desire I have seen from a female perspective.

Some reviews have criticised the film’s pacing, with extended shots and sequences focusing on fairly mundane day to day interactions. While I agree that the film didn’t reach the level of drama that it perhaps aspired to, I don’t think that the pacing was a problem. Shot largely in a realist style, it is the everyday – both Ragna’s and Ester’s – that is the focus of the film. (One notable realist departure is that mobile phones are not to be seen. While I can understand the desire for a ‘timeless’ film that won’t be dated by incorporation of fast-evolving technology, this did seem a bit jarring given the ubiquity of phones in teen culture.)

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In my view, the editing supports the cinematography, which is one of the strengths of the film. Together, they let scenes breathe, so the viewer can soak into the atmosphere – both physical and psychological. The opening shot is like a watercolour of grey clouds with land, green, barely visible. The viewer is instantly struck by the beauty of the place, but also a sense of having reached the end of civilisation. An early close-up on Ester’s mother’s hands, knitting, confirms this. Wide frames of beautiful but washed-out island scenery reinforce the sense of isolation while close ups and point of view shots put us in Ester’s head and emphasizes the intimacy between the girls.

Where I did feel that the film faltered a little was the writing. Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs is a respected Faroese writer, with some young adult publications under her belt, so I don’t doubt she knows what she’s doing. But the story of a sheltered girl idolising and forming an intense friendship with a tougher peer with problems of her own is far from a new one, and it made it difficult to watch Dreams by the Sea without comparing it to texts that have done a little bit more with the idea (e.g. Jacqueline Wilson’s children’s novel Bad Girls or Metin Hüseyin’s film adaptation of Meera Syal’s Anita and Me).

A key issue is that there weren’t really any consequences for the characters as a result of the central friendship, unlike in e.g. Bad Girls and Anita and Me. Ragna’s mother’s overdose was not causally related (as far as I could tell) to their friendship, and I’m not sure if Ester did learn anything from Ragna’s experiences – when she looks longingly at Ragna leaving the island for the last time, is it her friend she misses or does she still wish she was in Ragna’s place? Ragna  just gets yet another opportunity for stability snatched from her.

Nor did the film really develop the implied sexual tension between the leads. The camera’s framing of Ragna, coupled with Juliet Nattestad’s Ester looking at her like she wants to eat her with her eyes, added a level of ambiguity as to what it is Ester desires from her. The two were also fairly physical in their affection, and were often filmed in intimate settings. But here again I’m not sure if there actually was a lesbian subtext or if I was looking for it based on other films, such as Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love) or Heavenly Creatures, which also feature a stifled brunette becoming enamoured with a less supervised blonde and the attractions of a life beyond their unglamorous environs.

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Like these two films, Dreams by the Sea includes a scene where the intimate and insular relationship between the girls is disrupted by a heterosexual experiment (which is also the only overtly sexual encounter in each film), where the young man is aligned with the parochial context the protagonists want to flee, and is therefore explicitly or implicitly found wanting. In the case of Dreams by the Sea, despite the visual beauty of a tryst by mirror-like lagoons in the blue-grey Nordic twilight, the boys involved are the local louts whose main topic of conversation is who had the biggest ram last year.

And yet Dreams by the Sea neither goes all in on the lesbianism, as in Fucking Åmål, where their newfound romantic relationship makes the boring town survivable for the protagonists, nor does it hint as strongly at lesbian desire as Heavenly Creatures, where it is a component of a dangerously intense relationship that results in violence. Both of these other films link a desire for something different with homosexual desire, and pursue the consequences of both to a point of significant change in the protagonist’s character and situation. In Dreams by the Sea, neither the nature nor the consequences of the two girls’ desire for one another is fully developed, which lessens its dramatic impact and makes me wonder what the lesbian subtext was doing there (if I didn’t imagine it in the first place).

On the other hand, a familiar and generic story with broad appeal is perhaps a good canvas for the first Faroese feature film, that is perhaps more about the country itself than Ester and Ragna. The two girls do work as handy symbols of the contradictions of Faroese life – insular, parochial and dull, or a haven of sorts for those at odds with the mainland. This universality seems to be what director Stórá is going for; in his words:

“We all know either an Ester or a Ragna. They represent much of what we see in lots of people. They represent different sides of the Faroe Islands, and if we don’t recognise them, then it’s because we have been them ourselves.”

And, perhaps overt lesbianism is a bit much to expect from the first feature film in the Faroes, a highly Christian country that has traditionally not looked too favourably on homosexuals (although things are apparently changing).

Narrative discussions aside, one of the central pleasures the film offers for an international audience is the detailed portrayal of an isolated environment and culture. The gorgeous green islands against the salt-bleached colours of the cottages, and the cold grey and steel-blue of the sea and sky. The cry of the gulls and the gossip in knitting circles. The unusual amount of freckles, a legacy perhaps of the Celtic ancestry many Faroese have.

Director Stórá filmed in his hometown on Sandoy, promising a degree of authenticity that comes with familiarity. At a Q&A after the festival screening, the director said that the film offers a fairly honest portrayal of the island, particularly with regard to high degree of religiosity and the role that Christianity plays in the village. Even alcoholism and neglect, while not always discussed, are apparently not uncommon on the islands. However, Stórá joked that people sensibly never believe him when he claims that mobile phones haven’t made it to the Faroes.

And it wasn’t only foreign audiences that enjoyed seeing the Faroes on film. According to Stórá, Faroese are among the top consumers of films (per capita) in the Nordic region, but had never had a Faroese feature to watch. Dreams by the Sea apparently sold more tickets at home than Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Based on the talent displayed in this first feature, I certainly hope for many more. Hopefully the recently established Faroese Film Institute will help the local industry to ride the momentum of Dreams by the Sea‘s achievements.

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Comoros: Kwassa Kwassa

(2015; director: Tuan Andrew Nguyen; writer: Tuan Andrew Nguyen/SUPERFLEX; language: Comoronian; production of Denmark and Vietnam)

Comprising a series of islands in the Indian Ocean, between Mozambique and Madagascar, Comoros is one of the smallest (and poorest) African nations. It is also a country I despaired of ever finding a film from. Diaspora film-makers such as Hachimiya Ahamada (Ashes of Dreams, The Ylang-Ylang Residence) and Ouméma Mamadali (Baco) have pioneered film-making in the country, but these are difficult to find (especially with English subtitles) now that their debut on the festival circuit is past. So when I saw Kwassa Kwassa listed in my local film festival, I thought – well, close enough. Kwassa Kwassa fails almost all the criteria I have for this blog: it’s a short film (19 mins), a documentary, and produced entirely by foreigners – helmed by Vietnamese director Nguyen and Danish art collective SUPERFLEX. And yet I include it here because it is perhaps the only film I will ever get to see that is filmed in and about Comoros.

The film opens with a boat alone in a blue sea, and a voice that says (in Comoronian): “you will listen to our voice, our voice will take you to the edge of Europe, and beyond. Two islands, same people, one European, and one not…”

‘Kwassa kwassa’ is the local word for the small open fishing boats used to ferry passengers from the Union of Comoros islands to Mayotte, a French territory in the Comoros archipelago and the farthest outpost of the European Union. The journey from Anjouan (where the film takes place) to Mayotte is only 70km, and yet this span of sea is the border between Africa and Europe, and (according to the film, at least) between penury and wealth, between despair and a future. Although only a short journey between two Comoronian islands, it is a journey forbidden by migration law and thus fraught with danger. The film states that more than 10,000 people have died trying to cross.

Against this background, the film focuses on the Anjouan-based makers of the kwassa kwassa boats. Exquisitely detailed montages of the boat-building process are overlaid with narration (by Soumette Ahmed – a local, one hopes?) detailing the geopolitical situation (historical and present), the dangers faced on the crossing and the reasons for attempting it, as well as ruminating on the mythical and incongruous nature of borders, nations, and Europe itself.

An art-film at heart, Kwassa Kwassa is beautifully shot. Detailed close-ups and snappy editing render the messy labour of manually crafting the fiberglass vessels into a work of art, simultaneously showing up the boat-makers’ craft and helping the viewer to experience the process on a tactile level. I was captivated. Also stunning are the aerial shots of Anjouan and the surrounding ocean, both visually effective and a testament to the artistic potential of drone-based camerawork. The clear turquoise of the Indian Ocean as it nears the shore, the glittering indigo of the deep open sea, and the run-down concrete bunkers of the settlement on Anjouan, studded with green explosions of palms.

However, I was less taken with how the film delivered its political and philosophical content – a desperately relevant challenge to conceptions of what and who is ‘Europe’ and the material violence necessary to uphold the demarcation between European and Other. But I felt that the film, in exploring the short and deadly journey between ‘African’ Anjouan and ‘European’ Mayotte, got that message across vividly without the slightly hammy disembodied whisper of the narrator pointing this out, or recounting the myth of Zeus and Europa (the point that Europa herself was an immigrant carried across the Mediterranean was also made, perhaps better, in Elfriede Jelinek’s The Supplicants).

For me, the comparison with the myth was a distraction, and served to focus the film on Europe and its aura of hope and security, bolstered further by the narrator’s description of Mayotte as “a sleeping beauty surrounded by thorns”. Both of these metaphors draw on a European fabular lexicon and make Mayotte out to be a prize, without dwelling on the stories and contexts of Anjouans who are willing to risk everything to claim it. For the film-makers, apparently, kwassa kwassa are not merely a literal means of conducting a dangerous and life-altering journey, they are also symbols of “a carrier of dreams of reaching a better life on the other shore”.

I would have preferred a little less symbol and a bit more detail about the lives of the non-Europeans – the Comoronians and others (the film shows a Vietnamese family also making the journey in the kwassa kwassa), and perhaps the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that have prompted them to take to the boats. Hints are dropped: there have apparently been 20+ coups in Comoros since independence from the French (many, according to the film, orchestrated by the French government); and poverty and injustice – “you can’t eat identity, but identity will always eat you, like the ocean”.

Nor do we get much insight into the motivations of the passeurs – those who ‘traffick’ the emigrants to Mayotte. Are they exploiting their desperate passengers, or are their charges fair compensation for the risks involved? If they have the capability to take themselves to Mayotte, why don’t they remain? And what indeed happens to those passengers that make it to Mayotte? I understand that as a short art film these details might have distracted from the concentrated motifs and parable that the film is going for, but I can’t help wondering if a film more grounded in the lives of the people it depicts would have provided more nuance and insight.

Despite these qualms the film is still powerful, partly through its shared intelligibility with the horrors currently unfolding on the shores of mainland Europe – a comparison the film makes overtly. Effective also is the stunning cinematography, and the contrast between the beauty of the Indian Ocean and its deadly potential. But really, the power is in the harrowing journey the passengers must undergo, and the film wisely gives its last few minutes over to this. The emigrants board the boat and it sets off. The only sound is the waves, the passengers are silent, intent. And then we see the boat alone, white and bullet shaped, on a dark blue sea.

In conclusion, though visually stunning, philosophically it’s an elevated and unsubtle film, with a European focus and little detail about the lives of everyday Comorians.  However, as an example of the incongruous violence that colonialism and current inequalities entail it is a powerful film, and one that makes me want to learn more about what leads a country to divide itself so harshly.