Confessions of an escaped reel wrangler– a film festival founder/director hiding out "the day after"


James Koenig, a dear friend of Cinema Without Borders and director/founder of Scandinavian Film Festival, Los Angeles, not only knows how to run a great festival, but also has a wonderful sense of humor.  Here is how he looks back at 2011 Scandinavian Film Festival, Los Angeles. (CWB)

The wrung-out reel wrangler sits with eyes wide open like two reels of film without the slag taken up, sleep-deprived pupils reflecting nothing but a portrait-grabbing flash and a digital mugshot moment for an old western “Wanted” poster. “Wanted– dead or alive!”  Today I’m dead! There’s a camera rolling! Is it a documentary that looks like a drama or a drama that looks like a documentary? FILM FESTiVAL–  SFFLA, WGA, ASFLA, JK, ELMA, SWEA, VOSS, Pro-Suecia, SFI, DFI, NFI, SES, SAG, BAFT, AFTRA, aftra the festival, initial reaction, after, after, after. Is it really over?  Have we really just finished a dozen years of Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. and I’m not in a padded cell? 

I picture myself in restraints– amidst mounted movie posters and flyers and boxes of films– the deranged festival director with his spurs off, dangling over the edge, held back by only a small remnant strip of strapping tape!  I remember the woman who called at 10:30 the night before opening day and wanted each and every film explained in detail!  Well, there’s this mother who is addicted to heroine, and a guy with asbergers, and a woman with Alzheimers, and a man who just got out of prison, and naked men in saunas talking about their lives, and a documentary on storage of nuclear waste, a Lebanese/Swedish couple faking a pregnancy and explaining to grandpa why the baby is Chinese, flash-backs of war atrocities, and a coming of age film about a young girl who…. (WHY did I answer the phone?  Dinner is coming.  I’m tired.  I want to go to bed.)

A look flashed on my face like someone about to scream.   Then she queried in an annoying addendum “Do they have sub-titles?”  My countenance morphs into a polite smile  slightly like a moment from Steven King’s The Shinning as my brain retorts “NO LADY, no sub-titles, but we teach Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish for film goers in the lobby so you can follow along!”  But I only say politely “Oh, yes, m’am!  Everything is sub-titled.”  I can still hear her voice trailing off into the night “Well, I’ll try to come — but I have to do laundry, wash my hair. My place is a mess.  I was out of town over the holidays, and then I got a cold… it really hung on… I went to the doctor and he said it was viral, so I couldn’t take antibiotics, besides I’m allergic….   So, what’s your favorite??”

“Oh, different ones for different reasons, but you can look at the thumbnails on our web-site and even see trailers and decide for yourself.”  The call was mercifully interrupted by the door-bell signaling the delivery of nutrition.  A Spanish film title came to mind– “Thai me up!  Thai me down!  Is that short-listed?  All I know is they deliver and you can order on-line without talking to anybody!  A degree of clarity returns.  The prints are here– they’ve arrived from everywhere including other festivals and embassies, warehouses and across town, via N.Y., Dubai, Damascus, India, Argentina and Atlanta–  and tomorrow there will be people and films.  We’re rolling….

That’s all in the past– it’s morning.  The morning after the last day of our two weekend festival— the morning after every screening had a great audience– the morning after directors, and stars, and producers, and distributors, and film lovers, and people and publicists and producers converged for our annual residency of Nordic film in Southern California.  Today is the day after– and the first day of the countdown to the next festival. There’s a certain blurred delirium when you’ve stretched weeks of four or five hour nights into one with almost seven.  The anesthesia of exhaustion requires time in a recovery room before being transferred back to the floor.  It’s light outside– the sun has gone up on the first post-festival day! No, don’t open the curtains– too light!!

 “Easy…. coffee….strong… grinder…. noisy!  NO!  Don’t answer that phone!”  I want to keep the draperies closed– hide under the covers– remember sweet moments—forget others— purge murderous thoughts.  It will be an hour or two before I make my way to the computer to double check a print traffic order.  There are two prints that have to “get out of town” today to make it to their next eager audience somewhere on the globe.  Maybe if I make air-holes and pack a lunch I can ship myself to an exotic locale and escape!!!

Never mind!  I’m a survivor.  I’ve survived publicists and producers!  Derelects and distributors! We love them!  We hate them! We love them! We….  Lost sleep and lost prints!  If not meds, the caffeine is working.  I come into focus– today it will be the kind of focus Hollywood uses on an aging star’s close up– soft! It’s a day for “soft focus!”  If it were a Scandinavian film it would be a harsh focus that shows everything but the crew building a diving board on the deep end of a pock-mark as big as an olympic pool on the lead actress’s face. Call Max Factor!  Call auto-supply for body filler! Call her agent!  But wait– she’s so real.  We celebrate cellulite!  Cellulite on celluloid!  The aesthetics of European film allow one to age and even to have sex after 35– even the women! It’s a good thing! But clearly there’s no such thing as a pretty drunk.  We get that….

Easy–take a breath!  It’s the day after…..  It was a great success.  The audiences loved the films and got what they came for– well, except maybe the girl who came with an 8 x 10 glossy and expectation of discovery, or the bouncing boy baby-boomer who had lines that were older than the cool Nordic blonde he dreamed of meeting, or the journalist who wanted credentials but had never written anything except the copy for a phony business card.   But then there were the three young guys– high school seniors who had discovered the festival as sophomores and been coming ever since.  One was about to go to school and major in film.  Or the old couple who were festival regulars who saw nearly every film.  He turned 89 during the festival and she was only 84.  They had just gotten back from skiing in Mammoth.  And there was the distributor who was rep for one of the films, who just loved the atmosphere of the festival.  And the film writers, and the crew filming a spot for a Swedish television station.  And there’s veteran WGA head-projectionist Milt– whose father and grandfather were projectionists. And Don– working in the theater office, who just happens to have had leading roles in a number of films including his own that’s on cable. And the volunteer who had just come from doing voice-overs in Norwegian. This is Hollywood!  This is where film is a calling– whether you’re in the action or in the audience.  This is where people want to know what film makers in another part of the world are doing, thinking, feeling.  This is where people from other parts of the world would like to “make it,” “mark it”, sell it! 

The 12th annual Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. Jan 8, 9, 15, 16 rounded off a dozen years at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills this year, screening twenty three films including Nordic Oscar submissions, additional feature films, shorts, and documentaries.

The round-up is over.  Films have come and gone.  Hearts and minds have been stirred– or in some cases shaken!  It was amazing–  in the last relatively short period of time we’ve seen so many Nordic films released in the theaters here–the three films of the block-buster Millennium Trilogy, the Norwegian film APPLAUSE, and Hans Petter Moland’s A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN.”  TWO Nordic films were short-listed in contention for Academy Award “Best Foreign Language Film” nomination with one of those winning both a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination– Susanne Bier’s IN A BETTER WORLD.  We’ve been told again and again that the festival is helping to raise the profile of Nordic films in Hollywood.  We certainly hope so!  One thing is for sure– something’s working!

First day after– shell-shock!  By the second day after the festival there is the sweet realization that a lot of people have seen the work of a lot of excellent film makers because of one small festival that believes people should have the opportunity and that it’s a good thing to share the experience with both friends and anonymous fellow-travelers who gather in a darkened theater.  Call off the posse– there are no claim jumpers here!  Cinema truly has no borders– just many identities that lead to laying claim on our common humanity.

With sanity restored, resources corralled and sometimes even the claim of “gold discovered” I ride off into the sunset.  Call me a reel-wrangler!  Call me crazy!  Call me if you know a potential donor!  Tomorrow I’ll return to my other world of singing, and classical music, learning music, and teaching young performers.  For a time I’ll put aside sub-titles for the supertitles and translations of classical music– opera, songs, and trading in screenplays for libretti and song-texts.  You know, the two art forms cross paths a lot!  The first real “spaghetti western” was Puccini (and Belasco’s) Girl of the Golden West.

The lucky 13th edition of SFFLA is already on the horizon!  We’re ready to saddle up! Major supporters of the festival include ASFLA, ELMA, SWEA, and the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation. But we need more!  For a look-back at 12 years of SFFLA or to become a donor log-on to


About Author

James Koenig

ames Koenig is someone whose voice is heard in various arts arenas. He graduated from Northwestern University with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in voice continuing studies in Italy, Germany, and California. As a classical singer he has sung in opera and concert venues around the United States and in Europe. He also enjoys teaching, directing, and writing. He is the founder/director of the eighteen-year-old Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. He says “My life seems to be filled with translations, sub-titles, super-titles, and sub-texts!” As a writer he has written theatrical pieces, articles for Odyssey Classical Music Publications in the U.K., journalistic pieces for a variety of publications, and a novel, as well as choral and liturgical works. He has been a contributor to a number of film publications including Cinema Without Borders. He was decorated by the Finnish government as a Knight of the Order of the Finnish Lion for his musical and cultural contributions.

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