Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 22, 2014 3:15 pm 
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A Swedish film about idle ghetto youth

It's summer and somebody is setting fire to cars in Gottsunda, a housing project outside the city of Upsala, Sweden, the country's fourth largest, usually known for its university. So begins Viktor Johansson's impressionistic ramble, a blend of documentary and fiction vignettes of aimless youth, which blends beautiful images, often shot in the twilight, with haunting, twinkly music by Andean Runner and enhanced by the sound design of Fredrik Hedlund. This film came after riots in Husby, which spread over Stockholm and across the country, and agitated the dispossessed population in Gottsunda.

Reportedly the film began with a workshop called Gottsunda Stories with Johansson as the teacher, designed to enable teenagers to talk freely about their lives, with a view to showing a side mainstream media misses. We see two pretty, tattooed girls sniffing glue and a Macedonian man supposedly coaching his daughter in the art of self defense (it looks a bit half-hearted). Boys in camouflage outfits work over and over on DIY martial arts moves, which are admittedly dangerous: one twists his spine and goes temporarily numb. A muscular young black man fashions hip hop style rhymes in English. A pair of boys of Arab descent wearing kufiyyas around their necks talk about Gaza and their sympathy for the Palestinians. They fashion large slingshots using bits of stolen bike tires, perhaps to use in their own intifada. Nearly everyone has a "longboard" skateboard. A few have bikes or makeshift motorcycles. A group of dark-skinned girls in black and white outfits practice synchronized song-and-dance hip hop moves in a parking lot in front of a big reflective puddle.

Some, like the last, are plainly beautiful images, and there are regular returns to boys playing in the dusk with flares. So what initially may feel like practice for Larry Clark's Kids (written by Harmony Korine) or Korine's Gummo, a story of idle teens up to no good (but crucially without the sex), or might partake of the vague menace of Korine's Trash Humpers begins after a while not to seem like "banlieue" kids at all, their anger a bit numbed by boredom, their danger aestheticized. Some of the comparisons that have been mentioned by admirers of this film, like Gus Van Sant's Elephant and Paranoid Park or Clio Barnard's The Selfish Giant, seem a stretch. Johansson may aspire to the poetry of Tim Sutton's Pavilion, and at moments achieves it. This has more the desultory quality of Harmony Korine; except that these kids are outsiders in origin and lack the advantage of good schools, fancy toys, or plans.

Subcultures spring up like mushrooms, somebody says, but this may be pushing it a bit. The film does not delve deep enough to see anything like fully formed subcultures. Symbolically, though, a couple of boys dive into a well, as if going under ground, and others skate under a small overpass, suggesting a secret life, perhaps nether regions where mushrooms might flourish.

Besides the use of light, the delicate music and the thoughtful sound design, the editing cuts back and forth and uses voiceover of kids on screen doing something else to create an effect that is loose and perhaps a bit disorienting. But if this is the banlieue in the French sense, the troubled urban ghettos of Paris or other big cities, it can't quite bear comparison with the numerous strong films about banlieue life out of France, such as Matthieu Kasovitz's Hate/La haine. A French website lists 61 films about the "banlieue" or "cité." Many of these tend to the actioner style, but there are more day-to-day views of ghetto youth such as Ain't Scared/Regarde-moi. The fact that the multiple-Cannes and César-winning French director Abdellatif Kechiche first became known for a banlieue-set film, Games of Love and Chance (L'Esquive), shows that the competition in this field out of Gaul is pretty stiff. But as Sweden's beginning in the field, Under Gottsunda is worth watching. A more menacing picture of underclass youth from Sweden is Ruben Östlund's 2011 film Play. Johansson is working more closely with the community and with more limited means, and he has collected some good material.

Under Gottsunda, 73 mins., in Swedish, had its DVD premiere 19 September 2014 . Watched online for this review at the invitation of the filmmaker 22 November 2014.


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