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Bringing Nordic film and culture to Southern California

It’s  January, it’s Award Season in Hollywood and the time of year to head over to the Writers Guild of America Theater to see what Nordic film has been up to lately.

JimKoenig2010_croppedFor being such a thoughtful man, pausing often to think before finishing a sentence, Festival Director Jim Koenig sure gets a lot said during a one-hour interview.

Not surprisingly really: Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. has been around for 11 years and Koenig has a wealth of stories to share about all the fun and frustration that comes with organizing an event involving contributions from five different countries, all the while juggling demands from capricious film companies and larger festivals with more clout.

The Scandinavian Film Festival L. A. takes place in January during prime time Award Season and, with a few exceptions, Academy submissions from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden respectively are screened.

Koenig is certainly pleased they can offer the Nordic Oscar submissions to the L.A. audience, but, he emphasizes, it’s by no means all the festival is about. He talks passionately about the two film-packed weekends in January as an opportunity for people to come together and share the visions of Nordic filmmakers, and about film as a tool for understanding other cultures, other worlds.

Only by looking outward, he says, by recognizing other peoples’ realities, can we get to that what brings us all together, to our common humanity.

He loves the big lobby at the Writers Guild of America Theater where people can meet, have a drink and grab something to eat while waiting for the next screening:
– Nothing makes me more happy then when I see a table full of people in the lobby, arguing about a film: ‘I love that,’ they say, or ‘Oh that was terrible, how could they put that forward as anything?’

Jim Koenig’s introduction to Scandinavian culture came largely through music. In his other, non-film life, he’s a classical singer, and through extensive traveling and performing in the Nordic countries the culture he became immersed in started to grow on him.

A screening of Liv Ullman’s directorial debut, Sofie, in the early 1990s, turned out to be an eye-opener.  Koenig found the movie quite good, but when asking when it would open in the United States the answer was that it wouldn’t: it didn’t have North American distribution.

– I thought, ‘we need a film festival,’ Koenig recalls. And it shouldn’t be a random screening of a couple of films on a university campus where you get a handful of people in the audience. It should be something useful, something that showcases and celebrates the work of Nordic filmmakers, and that returns each year. Roughly ten percent of all European films come out of the Nordic countries.  That’s a lot.  And the quality is high.  People here want to see what’s happening in Nordic film and we offer them the opportunity to do just that.

The Writers Guild of America Theater, strategically placed in the epicenter of the local film industry, became his venue of choice and right from the start the audience showed up.

Funding arrived too, although the initial response from representatives for the Nordic countries  (in those days, all Nordic countries had official representation in Los Angeles) varied considerably.

In the first year, after reading program acknowledgements that listed only Danish, Finnish, and Norwegian contributions, someone came up to Koenig, loaded for bear, and asked why Sweden had been left out.
–    I really didn’t want to, replied Koenig. They left us out.

On the first request he had been told that ‘there really isn’t much interest in film in Sweden.’  That same year Sweden had an Oscar nomination for “Under Solen.” The following year the Swedish Consulate reconsidered its initial analysis of the Swedish film industry and supported the festival until its closure in 2009.

Koenig regrets its disappearance. In general, and even more so in these economically volatile times, the continuous funding of the festival is a challenge, he says. With many of the Nordic institutions now located on the east coast funding seems to have a harder time finding its way to this part of the country, while funding from sources in Europe has become scarce. In order to keep the festival going, he would like to see increasing local support—private, organizational, and corporate.

Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. is in its 12th year and forging ahead. It’s one of the oldest International film festivals in Southern California and when Koenig is told by other festival heads that the SFFLA inspired them, he feels that he has accomplished part of his mission of establishing and encouraging “cinema cultural exchange.”

Did you think when you first started the festival that it would still be around 12 years on?
– It wasn’t like getting married thinking I can always get a divorce. It was more like ‘I want this thing to happen. It should be happening. Doggone it, I am going to make it happen.’ And we did. And then I thought, well if we make it to five years, it’s one for each country. Then we made it to the 10th anniversary and I’m not in a padded cell.

No, Jim Koenig looks rather relaxed when talking about the upcoming 12th festival, even though there’s still quite a bit of work to do. Some of the Swedish films that will be screened include the Oscar submission, “Simple Simon” (I rymden finns inga känslor”), directed by Andreas Öhman, Joseph Fares’ “Balls” (Farsan) and Håkan Liu’s “Miss Kicki.”

The rest of the festival program will be finalized within the next few weeks and no matter what, the audience can expect the festival to provide a large and wide open window to some of the most recent Nordic films. Whether they were the best or not very good at all, well, that’s up for discussion. Just like the Festival Director wants it.

Text: Ingegerd Landström

Foto: Kerstin Alm, www.kerstinalm.com

Previously published in SWEA Christmas Fair Magazine, December 2010

The Swedish Film Festival L.A. 2012 takes place on January 7-8 and 14-15 at the Writers Guild of America Theater, 135 S Doheny Dr. in Beverly Hills.

For tickets and more information, please go to www. scandinavianfilmfestivalla.com

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