A boy slumps into a plaid jacket in the passenger seat of his father’s car — his face bathed in gray winter light. The windshield reveals low-slung modern buildings and dark evergreens.
It could be a scene lifted straight from Seattle. Instead it’s the opening of “On Your Lips,” a short film from Finland exploring the thrilling tension and awkward hilarity of adolescent desire.
Part of the “Nordic Lights Film Festival” at the SIFF Film Center
next weekend and just one cinematic example of the cultural kinship between the Pacific Northwest and some of the world’s northernmost cultures.
“I was raised and grew up in Sweden and I have to say of all of the places I’ve been to and visited in the U.S., Seattle feels the most Nordic to me,” says Stina Cowan of the Nordic Heritage Museum, who collaborated with the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) to put on Nordic Lights and who defines Nordic countries as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland.
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The many Scandinavian immigrants (and their descendants) who populate the Pacific Northwest help create a natural interest in Nordic Lights. And, of course, our shared winter gloom — which Cowen calls weather for a “movie mindset” — sets a familiar tone, but this year’s Nordic Lights lineup reveals other connections as well.
“The political orientation of the Northwest is exceptional in the United States, but it’s more of a fit with the (liberal) nature of Scandinavian politics,” says Andrew Nestingen, a professor of Scandinavian studies at the University of Washington, “The perspective of these films is interesting and challenging, but also aesthetically and culturally familiar to a local audience.”
He recommends “Ash,” about the aftermath of southern Iceland’s 2010 volcanic eruption, “Call Girl” about prostitution in 1970s Sweden and “Open Up to Me” about the experiences of a transgendered woman in Finland.
From Ingmar Bergman to Lars von Trier (a contemporary Danish filmmaker who actually set his 2009 “Antichrist” in Seattle and the forests of Washington) and even “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” (the original Swedish version) there’s much in Nordic films to appeal to Seattle audiences.
Human stories often play out against landscapes both dreary and magnificent, dark themes are balanced with resilient hope, and subtle sarcasm reveals important emotional truths.
But perhaps the greatest strength of this year’s Nordic Lights program is that it showcases a new generation of lesser-known filmmakers whose work challenges stereotypes about Nordic countries and the cinema they produce.
“Scandinavia is changing a lot; it’s becoming a more multicultural society,” says Nestingen. “There are a lot of young filmmakers coming up from diverse backgrounds.”
To get a sense of this new, multicultural sensibility he has a few recommendations: “Inuk, ” a film that features nonprofessional Inuit actors from Greenland, the “Sámi Shorts” film series by and about the indigenous people in the farthest reaches of Northern Europe, and “A Hijacking” about a Danish cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean (he suggests it as a kind of Scandinavian companion to “Captain Phillips”).
I’d also add a plug for “Coffee Time” by Swedish filmmaker Maria Fredriksson, playing as part of the “Nordic Shorts” program. This short documentary features a group of elderly women discussing their sex lives over coffee in an old-fashioned parlor glowing softly with delicate white china.
The frank humor grabbed me immediately, but the final moments left me surprisingly moved by what was revealed about love, loneliness, pride and regret — themes so relatable it was easy to forget that I was reading subtitles.
Now, if it had just been puddles outside the parlor window — instead of snow — it would have felt just like home.
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SeaStute