Rain splattered, wind swept, and sporting bulky lavender bicycle helmet is not really the image I would ideally have been sporting while making my entrance into the lobby at the SIFF Film Center, where I was to attend the opening reception for the 3rd annual Nordic Lights Film Festival, but so I pranced in anyway. Catered by SWEA Seattle and curated by Stina Cowan with the Nordic Heritage Museum, I felt quite the fish out of water as I munched on yummy Nordic delights and sipped at champagne, all the while receiving blatant stares from what appeared to be elderly couples, a few young intellectuals, and one or two families complete with college-aged daughter, the majority of patrons all quite apparently of Nordic heritage.
Despite my feelings of discomfort, I set forth to observe, noticing the jumbled diegetic soundtrack consisting of various Nordic accents and words, warm greetings, and friendly introductory exchanges. About halfway through the reception, it began to dawn on me: this was a real, tight knit community I had stumbled upon, and these people, united by a common heritage, were here to celebrate and learn more about their culture. I suddenly felt even more out of place, lacking in myself Nordic heritage, but still, I was determined.
I was relieved when I found Stina, who reassured me: the festival’s goal was merely to celebrate contemporary Nordic film, and so was free of any over arching theme but was complete with films from each Scandinavian country and covering an array of genres, illuminating concepts stretching, as Stina put it, from “very light to very dark.” True to her coordination, the festival’s opening film was independent documentary When the Pepper Blossoms and covered a little known piece of Swedish history, the emigration of hundreds of working-class Swedes to Brazil where they were promised comforts and prosperity.
Premiering in the US to a nearly sold out house, the film opens on a grainy old black and white portrait of a group of young 1909 Swedish emigrants right before the commencement of their voyage. The film then dives immediately into a close up of an old man’s face in interview, cutting back and forth between his face and old black and white footage of early 20th century Swedish mining conditions as the man recapped the grotesque situation of the time, including malnutrition, improper clothing and gear, and scant wages.
As the film progressed, I realized the film embodied Stina’s described continuum, at one point showing in another tight interview a woman of the second generation bending over to read a letter written by her parents, a letter describing the golden promises that led these young Swedish workers into taking their wives on a migration across the world. The hand held camera is relentless on this shot, slightly shaky but determinedly lingering on the woman’s face while tears fell uncontrollably from her eyes, forcing the viewer to feel with her the all-consuming hope of her parents juxtaposed with the harsh reality unfolding later in the documentary, the sickness and death resulting from the journey itself and later, the social mayhem and deaths resulting from a lax in proper infrastructure.
Heart-wrenching though this tale was, the most compelling aspect I found was the persistence of the Swedes in maintaining their culture, a persistence living on before my very eyes as I looked around at my fellow patrons. The second and even third generation Swedes interviewed by the filmmakers were all fluent in their native tongues, despite many never having laid eyes on Sweden itself, and the Brazilian Swedes had embedded into their up and coming communities Swedish knitting practices, dancing, and cuisine. This deep cutting love for their culture was illustrated remarkably in another capturing moment featuring two elder women in another interview where a tape player is brought out. As they push the play button, the viewer literally sees the watery blue eyes of these women fuddle up and travel back in time, a small smile playing across their lips as they relive moments from their youth affiliated with the music emanating from the recorder.
Topping the evening, both Anna Wessman and Nilsmagnus Skold, the filmmakers themselves, were in attendance at the event. Their introduction upon the film’s closing credits was surreal, every single patron remaining rooted to their seats, eager to question, comment upon, and discuss the film, embedding even further my night’s lesson: community ties do still exist, and even more, they exist through culture, night’s like the opening night of the Nordic Lights Film Festival 2012 happening both by and for the beautiful and cultural art of cinema.
– Dalyce Lazaris