Wrapping up the 19th Year of SFFLA, according to James Koenig


It’s fascinating to look back to “year one” of SFFLA. One wanted to think “build it and they will come.” But it was hard to know for sure—“Would they?” It was a new venture—a big commitment—and an exciting challenge. There were excellent films, big heavy boxes of film—yes, film—arriving with movies from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden from all over the world—some from Scandinavia, but other from a film festival in Egypt, Korea, Spain, Germany, and France. There were a few tense moments at LAX in customs. Print traffic was hardly an illustration of “Cinema without Borders.” We were dealing with borders, and paper work, and customs declarations, and homeland security—or was that homeland “insecurity?” And each title represented reels and reels of film on spools. A normal feature film was about seven reels and weighed between 60-75 lbs. One time a reel popped off the machine and came apart. We cleared the expansive lobby of the Writers Guild Theater, and had film stretched from the booth to the back wall and by some miracle rewound the reel by hand.

For several years already we have not had a single film on film. They’re on hard-drives—DCP’s— which are much lighter. They are not, however, totally without their own set of problems. Especially when they’re “encrypted” and can’t be “ingested” into the projector/computer without a “key” or long numerical code—of many letters and numbers—generated half way across the world to allow a film to be played on certain dates in a time zone far away. SFFLA was the first festival at the Writers Guild when this technology was first being used. The KDMs or key codes were a nightmare for many film festivals. The Tribeca Film Festival in New York had an audience of 600 and the New York critics waiting for the premier of a Martin Scorsese film with the director in the house and the key code would simply not work and the screening had to be cancelled and audience sent home. That has fortunately never happened to us, but we’ve had a few close calls. One time one of the great projectionists at the Writers Guild Theater figured out that the long code needed an extra three letters or numbers indicating which language the subtitles were in. He solved the puzzle maybe 20 minutes before the screening.

Fast forward eighteen years to this year’s 19th Annual SFFLA– we now represent eight northern European countries— in addition to Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, we include Baltic neighbors—Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Our new slogan is “Top Films from the Top of Europe.” There has long been an association with the Scandinavian countries and the Baltic nations—from Hanseatic trade times, to present day inter-cooperation of film industries in the region. Baltic films are commonly part of major Nordic film festivals like the Nordische Film Tage in Luebeck, Germany. Germany is a major market for Nordic films. Unfortunately films that go from festivals to the neighborhood cinema are subject to the common practice of dubbing everything into German. I find that practice a mistake. Dubbing takes away the linguistic flavor of each language. I feel cheated if that flavor is missing.

Larger countries—like the United States—have such an unnecessary fear of subtitles. That’s changing, fortunately. The “little screen” has helped. We even see series television letting people speak their own language in episodes. The show “Fresh Off the Boat” had a whole plotline about the family switching to Chinese around the time of the lunar new year for the Grandmother. Suddenly the dinner table conversation was subtitled as the family competed to see who could go the longest without throwing in English words. With more and more languages represented in our wonderfully diverse American society, we are becoming more and more used to multiple languages. In the Scandinavian countries television programming includes many American shows. They are always in the original English language and subtitled in Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, Norwegian, or Swedish. That supports language learning in school and accounts for the vast number of people from those countries who speak English from an early age on.

The programming this year included incredibly imaginative film making in stories like Ruben Ostlund’s Oscar nominated film “The Square” and Joachim Trier’s film “Thelma.” Icelandic director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurösson’s “Under the Tree” wove an allegorical story of the unbelievable outcome of obsession. In a way Nordic film “came out” a bit this year with the same sex elements of “Thelma” and of “Tom of Finland.” Artist Touko Laksonen—aka Tom of Finland was an important figure in the evolution of LGBT rights. Early in his career he was subject to imprisonment for his homoerotic images. But his work thrived “underground” and finally “came out.” His story is finally linked to Los Angeles where he spent the later part of his life. It’s an important story of cultural history.

Altogether, the films represent both imagination and the imaginative sharing of untold personal, cultural, and national stories. From stories shared around a camp fire, to the fires of moving images projected on a screen its all about storytelling. We all need to tell and hear our stories. The Baltic films this year included the powerful “Chronicles of Melanie”, and Estonia’s “November.” Both films showed recent histories and the stories of a generation quickly dying off who endured deportations to Siberia, unbelievable suffering and inhumane treatment. The same was true of the festival’s closing film from Danish Director Nicolo Donato whose beautiful film “Across the Waters” told the 1943 story of a Jewish jazz musician and his wife and child’s flight to safety as Nazi occupiers started deportations. Danish neighbors helped more than 90% of Danish Jews survive deportation to concentration camps. There is a phrase ….” lest we forget.” Film helps us tell the stories that must be told “lest we forget” what happened, what can happen, and how the human spirit survives the worst of human—or inhuman—behavior.

And so, the storytelling goes on—coming to life on the screen, haunting our imaginations, inspiring us, reminding us of our own stories, and stirring us with images, imagination, ideas. Our unique stories in varied languages and from varied cultures all remind us of our common humanity. So, on to 2019 and a very special 20th Anniversary Scandinavian Film Festival L.A.


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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