Can Norwegians be funny? This question was first addressed in the 1968 film The Man Who Couldn’t Laugh, which actually was pretty funny. Then, three decades of social-realist darkness followed, until 2001’s wonderful Elling. Elling’s star Per Christian Ellefsen was last seen in 1001 Grams, the latest film by that rare breed, a genuinely funny Norwegian director. That director, Bent Hamer, was present at the Icelandic premiere of his film.
“We started late in Norway,” he says. “We haven’t had any Bergmann or Lars Von Trier. There were a lot of very sad movies made, but things started changing in the ‘90s. Our reputation in Sweden seems to be permanently ruined, but Norwegian films have been doing better in Denmark in the last 20 years.”
Hamer himself studied filmmaking in Sweden.
“The Film Archives in Stockholm are amazing, you could watch two movies a day starting with Birth of a Nation. The Swedes got an early start with Victor Sjöström and it’s important to know about the history of the craft. The first film school in Norway was founded in 1979, we were one of the last countries in Europe to get one. I have always been surprised that not more emphasis is put on moving pictures, since they form such a big part of our reality.”
Bent’s latest film is about the Norwegian Metrology Service, which is responsible for ensuring that all weights and measurements are correct. Why, you might wonder, hasn’t someone made a movie about this before? And how did Bent Hamer come about it?
“I heard a radio program about the kilo and the metre, and that there are conventions that dictate their measurements. There is a certain poetry in that, the need to refer to something, but that these referrals are perhaps not the most important thing in life. But the Metrology service does exist and I love doing research, especially about subjects like this. There are all sorts of characters in these surroundings, but people are people wherever you look.”
Your film Kitchen Stories was also very poetic, about a man observing the kitchen behaviour of another….
“It is set in a period where the bookshelves of most women were full of guidebooks on homemaking, which told you everything from how to criticize another woman to how to make a happy family. If your mother-in-law came for a visit, she would first look at your kitchen to see if you were a proper woman. They also made five-week observational studies in how women moved in the kitchen, to make them as practical as possible. Of course, they would never move out of the laboratory, but in the film I decided to change this into field research on single men.
Can Norwegian men cook?
“Over 50 percent of marriages today end in divorce, so there has been a paradigm shift. The male has moved into the kitchen and proudly displays it, almost like a new car. People have also become much more interested in food. It was only in the ‘80s that we started getting good food in Norway.”
Your next film after, Factotum, was based on the works of legendary writer and alcoholic Charles Bukowski, starring Matt Damon. Was it particularly apt for a Norwegian to make a film about alcoholism?
“I wanted to make a movie about drinking and the power of drinking, the energy you need in order to do it and also the energy you need to get out of it. In Norway, we drink a lot on the weekend instead of distributing it throughout the week but this has been changing. You can find alcoholism everywhere, from Paris to New York. But the movie was mostly about being human, there is something very poetic and vulnerable about it.”
And then there was the film O’Horten, about train engineers and ski jumpers.
“That one is dedicated to my mother who wasn’t allowed to jump with the boys. During the years between the World Wars, women could be ski jumpers on indoor slopes in American shopping malls. They were almost like circus acts, and you can see pictures of them with their flashy helmets and cigarettes in their mouths.”
Your first film was Eggs. Was it hard to get it made?
“I got support for it from the beginning. If you have a very good idea, you will probably succeed, but you need a little bit of luck too. And I was lucky to get my movies out from the beginning. There are very many first time directors, fewer second time directors and very few after that. Capturing an atmosphere is the most difficult part of the job and what sets the real directors apart from the others. It’s not about being at the top of your class and in Norway there are sometimes been a reluctance to let the real characters get through.”
Any idea about your next project?
“I am my own producer so I am still going the books from my last film. But there were some abandoned ideas from the last movie. One is about the world champion of whistling, well, I guess he is down to number two now. I went to an old folks home to hear him whistle and it was very impressive. He said to me that this was nothing, I should have heard his father. I can see you are smiling now, so if I get enough positive responses, I might go forward with it.”
Pictured: Bent Hamer (right) with Icelandic director Ragnar Bragason.
The Stockfish Film Festival is currently ongoing at Bíó Paradís. But hurry, tomorrow’s the last day!