James Koenig, director and founder of Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. talks about the 16th edition of the festival


The 16th Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. (SFFLA) continues on January 24, 25 and to learn more about the festival we had an interview with festival director and founder James Koenig.

James 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 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 2015 Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. It seems that you have pushed back the dates for the festival, any particular reason?
James Koenig: It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the 16th edition of SFFLA!  What a journey— when we began the dates were more as they are now.  At one point we went earlier because it was useful to Oscar campaigns.  Then there was a whole juggling of awards show dates— and our dates adjusted a bit.  There are many considerations— even as mundane as theater availability.  Now we’re “after” nomination voting but right at the time of announcements.  In the end, our goal has been to be during “winter film season” leading up to awards.  But the focus isn’t on “awards” it’s on wonderful films and film makers— or as we say “top films from the top of Europe.”

BT:  How many countries have been covered in 2015?  Any new film makers- will be introduced this year?
JK: The grouping of countries is multifaceted in and of itself— we are a Scandinavian film festival showing Nordic films— with a wonderful add-on of Baltic neighbors.  Even the nomenclature “Scandinavian” needs definition as to whether you mean it to define a “cultural, political” grouping or geography.  If we went strictly by geography, we’d be talking the Scandinavian Peninsula— which would leave out Iceland and Finland.  But Iceland is a Viking settlement.  Finland, while being a unique culture is a culture that politically went back and forth between Swedish rule and Russian rule as an Arch Duchy.  Today, Finland is a strong part of the Scandinavian alliance of nations.  So we started off dealing with five countries— and now we deal with Baltic neighbors, we deal with as many as eight.  When we added the Baltic Expo@SFFLA former Danish Consul General Martin Kofod wrote to me that he was very pleased that we were including the Baltic countries in the festival.  He said he thought it was more important than ever to affirm the tie of the Baltic countries to the west.  Just last week NPR reported that Lithuanian citizens were being instructed on “what to do” if Russia invades.  Putin is unstable and unpredictable.  Estonia is a first cousin of the Finns both culturally and linguistically.  Latvia and Lithuania have many Swedes and is much closer to geographic Scandinavia than Iceland.  So how does one determine?  Former Head of the Norwegian Film Institute Jan Erik Holst has written a book called “Stork flying over pinewood— Nordic -Baltic Film Cooperation 1989-2014.”   There’s the old saying “Form follows function.”  Maybe we should say “Film follows function.”  Certainly borders and distances are diminished in the electronic world.  During Soviet occupation the light and hope of freedom was kept alive in the arts, including film.  There is much cooperation today, as Jan Erik Holst’s book chronicles.  And I think we are all challenged to celebrate “identity” without becoming victims of the pitfalls of “nationalism” carried to the extreme.  And Scandinavian/Baltic co-operation has long had a precedence since even before the Hanseatic League bolstered trade and cooperation along Baltic Seaports. 

BT:  Are there any Scandinavian Box Office hits among films screened at the festival? Any major award winner?
JK: There are many Box Office hits on our program— films that have done really well “back home.”  Even our little “kid-flick” Antboy II is a popular continuation of the filmic version of a series of children’s books.  (The books will soon be out in English. And the first Antboy— which SFFLA premiered last year— has already had some success in the English language remake, and Antboy II’s English version in being made at this very moment.  All of the Oscar submissions of both Nordic and Baltic films have enjoyed success in their home countries. A wonderful film from Finnish director Dome Karukoski called HEART OF A LION has won a number of awards.  It is a wonderful film about a Neo-Nazi guy who falls in love with a woman and then learns that she has a bi-racial child from a previous relationship.  As it is said “A little child shall lead them….”  It’s a wonderful story of the redemptive power of love. Peter Franzen is brilliant in the leading role.  (Franzen who has been seen many times by SFFLA audiences both as actor and as of last year as Director is presently working on a new English language film with Sean Penn.)  Our opening night film— from iconic Swedish Director Roy Andersson “A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH CONTEMPLATING EXISTENCE” won Best Film at the 2014 Venice Film Festival.

BT:  Will there be any filmmaker guest attending the festival and Q&As?
JK: Roy Andersson has been a guest of SFFLA— but not this year.   We had a wonderful Q & A after HEART OF A LION with Director Dome Karukoski, Writer/Producer Aleksi Bardy, and actor Jasper Paakkonen (umlauts on both a’s and o)   The same director/producer team is working on a film about the artist called “Tom of Finland” whose male homoerotic drawings were very much a part of the evolution to gay pride and liberation.  The artist lived out his days here in Los Angeles in Silverlake.  His work has “come out of the closet” and has been displayed in major exhibitions in Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, Paris, San Francisco among other places.  We will screen a wonderful adaptation of Strindberg’s MISS JULIE from director Mikael Berg— placed in a Great Gatsby/Downton Abbey-esque 1920’s setting.

BT:  Are there any US or Los Angeles premiers among the films screened at the festival?
JK: We premiered  ANTBOY I and now ANTBOY II at SFFLA!  We will be the North American premier of our closing film from Danish Director Ole Christian Madsen— ITSI BITSI about the 60’s rock scene in Denmark and the legendary band Steppeulvene.

BT:  How can international cinema fans attend the festival?
JK: International cinema aficionados are really missing a great opportunity is they “don’t” attend the festival.  Just go to www.sffla.net for a complete listing of films and to buy tickets

BT:  Every year we have the same question as every year that you continue to have this festival happen you prove that magics are true! 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 2015– your 15th Anniversary year!?
JK: 2015 is our 16th anniversary year!  Fund raising is the yearly challenge of the festival— and we’ve made it for 16th years.  We value highly our individual and corporate donors—  Some major sponsors include the parent organization of the festival, the American Scandinavian Foundation of Los Angeles,  the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation,  along with ELMA (European Languages and Movies in America), and SWEA (Swedish Women’s Educational Association), and various Nordic and Baltic Consulates and the Danish Embassy.  And the “little guys” make this festival happen as well.  That’s my cue for saying “You can still become a donor via the www.sffla.net website.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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