The Fifteenth Anniversary Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. comes to the Writers Guild Theater, Beverly Hills over two weekends: January 18-19, 25-26, 2014. The yearly showcase of Nordic films and filmmakers, launched in 2000, screens the year’s Scandinavian films submitted to the Academy as nominees for Best Foreign-Language Film as well as other current feature, documentary, and short films.
James Koenig is someone whose voice is heard in various arts arenas. He graduated from Northwestern University with bachelors and masters 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 fifteen 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.
Bijan Tehrani: Please tell us about the 2014 Scandinavian Film Festival L.A.
James Koenig: We’re quite excited about this year’s festival— our 15th Anniversary SFFLA. (In the beginning we called the First Festival Take 1 Then our challenge was to make it to “Take 5”— one for each of the Scandinavian countries–
BT: How many countries have been covered in 2014? Any new film makers–
JK: Well, from the beginning we’ve had “the Fab 5”– Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. This year, however, we represent 8 countries. That doesn’t mean the Scandinavian countries have been marauding around the North Atlantic and Baltic in a nouveau Viking conquest. We’ve just become “nosey neighbors!” We have some “Hanseatic Happenings” at the festival with a German/Norwegian co-production ZWEI LEBEN (Two Lives) starring Liv Ullmann (which happens to be the German Oscar entry), and we have Baltic Film Expo@SFFLA three films from Latvia and Lithuania and Estonia. Northern European countries have often taken to the seas with a cargo of culture, commerce, and collaboration. And we know that while good fences make good neighbors, cinema knows no borders.
BT: What about new film makers? Any discoveries?
JK: Discovery is really part of programming. Discovery has been one of the great joys of doing the festival. In the beginning we’d see some short– and a few years later that film maker would have a feature film selected as an Oscar submission. This year we have several films that are debut feature films, including the Swedish Oscar entry this year, Gabriela Pichler’s EAT, SLEEP, DIE. Our opening night film ANTBOY is a feature debut. Another interesting development we’ve seen over the years of the festival is on-screen talent finding an additional role “behind the camera” or writing a screen play. SFFLA audiences know the wonderful Finnish acting “couple” Peter Franzen and Irina Bjorklund. This year we screen Peter’s excellent feature film debut as a director and writer with his moving autobiographical “ABOVE DARK WATERS.” Peter is also finding some excellent American projects like his co-starring role in in a Pierre Morel-directed spy thriller “The Gunman” with Sean Penn and Javier Bardem. As I told someone– “They are in good company.” In addition to acting Irina has been enjoying success in her singing career both in Finland, and France, where they now reside, and in America. We have new filmmakers and quite a few women directors this year. It’s interesting to see Swedish Director William Olsson expanding involvements in both Swedish and American film. We’ll screen his film RELIANCE. I’m also really pleased to bring our audience Danish Director Billie August’s first film in Danish in 25 years. He has, of course, been busy with many international film projects. And he won “triple crown”– Oscar, Palme d’or, and Golden Globe in 1987 for “Pelle the Conqueror.” His new film is an historical drama MARIA KROYER. a fascinating woman who was married to one of Denmark’s greatest painters, whose life changes drastically after he became ill and ultimately mentally unstable. It was while they were on vacation in Sicily that she met Swedish composer Hugo Alfven and fell passionately in love with him. For the rest you have to see the move.
BT: Sounds very interesting—-
JK: We have a very different and much less complicated take on human nature and “horse sense” in the Icelandic Oscar submission OF HORSES AND MEN. It’s a most unusual and beautifully shot film that I jokingly say will be bought for an American remake called “Coitus at the O.K. Corral.
BT: Your festival always shows a number of the Scandinavian films entered in the Oscar race– is this year the same?
JK: In fact we will be screening all five of the Nordic Oscar submissions, plus the Latvian, and Lithuanian Oscar submission. (Along with last year’s Estonian entry) And, as it happens– the Norwegian/German co-production ZWEI LEBEN that we are screening in conjunction with the Goethe Institute is the German Oscar contender. So that makes eight Oscar films submitted for consideration in the “Best Foreign Language Film” category. We were happy to see the Danish Oscar submission THE HUNT nominated for a Golden Globe. We introduced the film last year at the festival and will screen it again on Jan 19.
BT: Are there any US or Los Angeles premiers among the films screened at the festival.
JK: Premiers are often a requirement to compete in large festivals like Palm Springs or Sundance. We have purposely been a non-competitive festival so far because we want the work to be showcased on an equal footing. Nevertheless, we often premier films at SFFLA. Our opening night film is a U.S. premier of a delightful Danish Super-Hero “kid-flick” for kids of all ages called “ANTBOY” a superhero movie that takes its hero, who happens to be 12, seriously, along with the idea that friendship gives you superpowers. Based on a popular Danish series of children’s books, the film was discovered and “picked up” at the Toronto Film Festival and even the trailer got rave reviews. With this film we definitely show that Northern European films aren’t all somber. We’ve joked in the past that there are many Nordic films for which you don’t need to have your shrink on speed-dial. I should add that I find it interesting that many of the films this year– like the beautiful Lithuanian documentary CONVERSATIONS ON SERIOUS TOPICS from Giedre Beinoriute or the Latvian MOTHER I LOVE YOU from Janis Nords, and the Finnish Oscar entry THE DISCIPLE from Director Ulrika Bengts and, of course Lukas Moodysson’s WE ARE THE BEST deal with the difficulties and joys of growing up — coming of age, as it were. We have several films from Middle-Eastern/Scandinavian immigrants. Kurdish/Norwegian Director Hisham Zaman’s BEFORE SNOWFALL is a most unusual road film– more of a journey film– about family, love, dignity and honor.
BT: How can international cinema fans attend the festival?
JK: SFFLA has a wonderful international/ global audience. It is also a savvy audience of inquisitive explorers, film lovers, and industry professionals. The conversation in the theater lobby– the networking– is always fascinating. And, of course, they’ll mingle with guests directors and on-screen talent.
BT: Putting together Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. is a hard work and fruit of your love for cinema. What organizations have supported you to make this festival happen again in 2014– your 15th Anniversary year!?
JK: The parent organization of the SFFLA is the American Scandinavian Foundation of Los Angeles. We are also exceedingly grateful to the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation, ELMA (European Languages and Movies in America Foundation), SWEA (Swedish Women’s Educational Association), the Nordic and Baltic Consulates, Embassies, and national film organizations, as well as the various organizations, individuals and businesses that support the initiative. We are great believers in the whole concept of cinema as a great marker of individual and cultural identity while exposing and illuminating our common humanity. We want to annually share a great menu of films from the top of Europe with Los Angeles film lovers, explorers of all ages, students, and film makers– our version of getting to know the world through “cinema cultural exchange.”