A few words on artists who become directors, bullying and a must-see Swedish movie
Do directors who have a background as artists make movies that are different from directors who previously have worked as, let’s say musicians, psychologists, shop managers or nurses? When you watch a movie, can you tell if it was made by a former artist?
I can’t. But there is something about the artist profession that gives it a certain aura of mystery. I get the impression that artists are a step higher in the status hierarchy than directors. A film directed by a former artist is expected to be more than just a film among others. It’s “art”.
Personally I’ve never been able to tell the difference. It’s true that Steve McQueen comes from the art world and it’s true that he (or his cinematographer) has an eye for the visual language, as shown in 12 Years a Slave. But there are many other directors with no previous career as artists who are obsessed with the visuals nevertheless.
Art installation or movie?
In any case, we’ve now got a Swedish equivalent of Steve McQueen – a director, who people insist on labelling as an “artist”. Her name is Anna Odell and she recently won the Swedish film award Guldbaggen for her debut movie The Reunion. In her case I’m afraid the label has been hold against her on occasions. While the movie mostly has received praise from the movie critics, I’ve also seen people questioning why her film has been nominated in the first place, arguing that her movie isn’t a real “movie”, but an art installation.
I don’t agree with this view at all. The Reunion was one out of three Swedish movies from 2013 that I genuinely loved (the other two being Lisa Langseth’s Hotell and Lukas Moodysson’s We are the Best! I would recommend you to see them all if you ever get the chance, though it’s pretty unlikely if you live outside of Sweden – it appears to me that they’re mostly screened at film festivals.)
This is a film about bullying, but seen through the eyes of the grown-up. The first half of the film is a pretty straight forward story, taking place at a class reunion, where the director Anna Odell, playing a character also named Anna Odell, is one of the participants. In a scene that reminds of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, she confronts everyone who treated her badly. She refuses to let sleeping dogs lie and doesn’t give a damned if this breaks the festive mood. She wants to say her truth, no matter what. This first half of the film alone is very good, but it’s in the second half that the movie really takes off, becoming truly inventive and interesting. It turns out that the class event never took place. This is Anna Odell’s imagination or day dream of what would have happened had she been there. Because in reality never received any invitation to the class reunion. Instead she contacts her old classmates, showing them the film she has made about the imagined party, inquiring what they feel about it.
There’s a documentary feel to the whole thing, not the least because of Anna Odell’s usage of herself in the film. But it’s not – all the classmates, both at the initial reunion party and the ones that are confronted in the second half, are played by actors. However – as far as I’ve understood it – it’s “based on a true story”. The real Anna Odell has been in contact with people who bullied her at school. And some of the script is based on real conversations that have taken place.
Is Anna a bully?
In Sweden there has been a debate about the film. After the initial raving reviews, there was a backlash, where some have accused Anna Odell for “bullying” her old classmates by doing this film. As a moviemaker and an artist, she’s in a stronger position, and therefor it’s “wrong” of her to take her revenge.
Well, I call this [insert suitable strong word]. Firstly: if you’ve been bullied at school you’re perfectly entitled to call people out about this and share your story, tell the world how it was. The fact that it was twenty years ago doesn’t change this a bit. Secondly: The film does more than just point out certain people as bullies. It doesn’t demonize those particular persons; it highlights a problem that we talk about far too rarely considering how common it is. It’s impossible to watch this film without starting to think back at your own school time.
I was never what I would call “bullied”, at the most I was teased, but not worse than that I could deal with it. However I was very lonely as a young teenager and when I left junior high school at 15, I rejoiced at never ever having to meet my class again in my entire life. There have been class reunions but I haven’t attended a single one. But what made me uncomfortable wasn’t my own situation back in those days. I thought about a girl in my class, who was very short, a little chubby and had a very bright voice. The boys in the class used to call her names. Sometimes they put her in one of the huge dust bins in the corridor and she was too short to get out of it by herself. They forced her into a locker to see if she fit in.
Those are horrible actions. And I think of myself. Where was I? What did I do? Did I protest? Did I turn them in, get help from a teacher? Did I comfort her, support her, stand up for her? I can’t recall that I did a thing more than hiding in my corner, staying as far away from my class as possible. Thinking back at it I’m not sure how guilty I should feel about myself. Had I done more I would probably have become a victim myself. But the movie definitely got me thinking.
A film about us
The Reunion is not just a film about Anna Odell confronting her old class with the help of actors. It’s a film about all of us. Even if we never have bullied anyone or been the victim of bullying, we’ve had it in our neighbourhood. We still have. It’s everywhere and sadly not only in schools. It’s not something you “grow out of”. There are fully grown-up people who bully their colleagues in working places. The same old mechanics at work, over again. And we should fight it and have the courage to confront it, wherever and whenever it appears
The Reunion is not an art installation. It’s a film, just a little more intelligent and unconventional than most films you see. Anna Odell is not an artist. Maybe she used to be, but I know her now as a film maker, a writer, director and actor. And I hope she’ll stick to this trade from now on.
The Reunion (Återträffen, Anna Odell, SWE 2013) My rating: 4,5/5