Sweden’s ‘Goteborg Film Festival’ Keenly Conceptualizes the Notion of Isolation

Above image: Lisa Jespersen’s Persona Non Grata

What if you gave a film festival, and no one came?

Well, not actually no one. In fact, the annual Goteborg Film Festival, technically taking place January 29 – February 8 in the historic Swedish city of the same name, will have exactly two attendees. One will be sent to view the entire program in complete and total isolation at the Pater Noster (Lord’s Prayer) lighthouse in Hamneskär; another will take in the festival offerings in solitude in Goteborg’s renowned Draken Cinema.

As could be easily guessed these days, everyone else will attend the GFF entirely digitally – which is obviously in keeping with our current reality, at least until the coronavirus crisis can be decisively wrestled under control. And to further emphasize the themes of isolation (whilst also exhibiting the boundless possibilities of conceptualization), some films will be screened in the city’s now empty Scandinavium, an arena that usually plays host to major concerts and sporting events.

Launched in 1979 and now the largest film festival in Scandinavia, the physical version of GFF usually draws more than 100,000 visitors every year. It is also exalted for its wide-ranging internationalism, with entries from more than 80 countries in 2020. This year’s program, however, has been edited down to 50 films, but with notable premiere screenings each night.

Retained for 2021 is the Nordic Competition, with the Dragon Award for best Scandinavian film, netting the winner one million Swedish kronor (about $120,000 US) – the biggest prize in independent film, period.

In the lead up, we engaged GFF director Jonas Holmberg on what the particular challenges were of taking one of the world’s largest film festivals virtual.

(N.B. International streaming content can be accessed using a VPN device.)

Goteborg Film Festival 2020

Do you feel that the digital version of the Goteborg Film Festival will be able to fulfill the mission effectively?

I really believe so. Our mission is to support filmmakers and give meaningful film experiences to the audience, and I am very proud of this year’s program, full of the most interesting films from all over the world. We are presenting fewer films than in a normal year, to make it possible to give every film the love, care and attention it deserves. We want it to really feel like a festival, and not only a streaming service, with as much as possible of the excitement, festiveness and discussions that are central to a film festival.

Do you worry about the loss of the exchange of thoughts and ideas that come with a physical film festival?

This is one of the biggest challenges with a digital film festival. Normally, we present a vast seminar program and hundreds of Q&A’s after the screenings. The encounters between the filmmakers and the audience are of great importance, and we will try to translate these encounters to a digital environment through social media and a daily podcast with filmmakers as guests.

Frida Kempff’s Knocking

What will be some of the film highlights?

We will open the festival with Tove, Zaida Bergroth’s lovely biopic of Moomin creator Tove Jansson, and will close with Frida Kempff’s psychological thriller Knocking. In our Nordic Competition, some of the highlights are Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure and Lisa Jespersen’s Persona Non Grata, which will have its world premiere at the festival. Another interesting world premiere in our special focus program ”Social Distances” is Time to Pause, a film about how people all over the globe have responded to the pandemic, made by Alistair Morrison during lockdown. A great American film in the program is Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI.

You have created a very relevant  theme: The Isolated Cinema. How do you feel this will capture the mood and the challenges of producing a cultural event in this midst of these global pandemic conditions?

We have been reflecting a lot about how the pandemic has changed the way we watch films and experience films. It is a different emotional experience to watch films in isolation in your home. We wanted to experiment with this, and take the experience of so many people in lockdown to the extreme. Therefore we are inviting one person to watch all of the festival films on Pater Noster, a remote lighthouse island. The person will be in total isolation, without phone, computer or even a book. It will only be the one person, the sea, the sky and the festival films.

Zaida Bergroth’s Tove

How many venues in total will be arranged for the isolated cinema experience – and what are the venues?

In addition to the one person that will watch films on Pater Noster for one week, we will also screen films for one person in Draken, the main gala theatre of the festival. Here we will screen the films at the same time as the film is made available online, and when possible the filmmaker will be there to present the film. We are also screening films in the Scandinavium, a huge indoor arena that normally hosts concerts and hockey matches. These screenings are made in dialogue with the special experience it is to attend usually crowded environments that have turned empty during the pandemic.

How do you see the world of cinema, as well as the business of producing film festivals, as ending up once COVID has been gotten under control?

I think all macro trends point towards a growing importance of film festivals. Festivals are great in curating and creating events that bring attention to relevant films; and this is something that becomes more and more important in today’s film culture. 

Above images: Goteborg Film Festival 2020

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