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Letters from Lockdown #8: Jakob Åsell

Rounding out this correspondence series, Jakob writes from Stockholm about his highlights of the year, from piglets in black and white to an Ivorian football protégé, and rejoices in the sense of solidarity the exercise has brought...

Dear friends and colleagues,

The Swedish author and Nobel Prize laureate Harry Martinson has famously been quoted calling the cinema “the chapel of those who are afraid of life”. There, under cover of darkness, one could escape reality and sink into other worlds. This definition of cinephilia as pure escapism from an outside world of potential risks and failures has, in moments of weakness, shaped my own thoughts on the life I have chosen to pursue as a film critic.

But reading your insights on the year in films and on our shared Berlinale experience, I realize that this pre-pandemic film festival week was by far the most life-affirming and social event of this past year. Our “escape” into the darkness of Kino International and CinemaxX Potsdamer Platz really energized the rest of this lonely year spent in isolation, sometimes in fear of most aspects that define normal life. I remember sitting close to all of you in a crowded theatre laughing at the magnificent cat performance in Hong Sang-soo's, low-key gem The Woman Who Ran, without spending a second thinking about if this experience could potentially expose us to a dangerous virus.

Since returing to Stockholm I have joined in Adina’s sadness towards how TV and laptop screens has become a poor stand-in for packed auditoriums. This short term nostalgia for the big screen experience might have influenced my picks for this year’s top five, as three of the films on my list spring from rare visits to the few open cinemas in Stockholm. Perhaps the heartfelt message about trying to make lemonade when life serves you lemons in the coming-of-age drama Babyteeth felt extra timely under the current circumstances. I remember hearing sobs from all around me in the theatre. Or maybe it was just a fine piece of emotional filmmaking – and a vivid directorial debut from Australian director Shannon Murphy.

Wanting to support my local, newly established independent cinema (Bio Capitol), I was lucky enough to catch a rare screening of another great directorial debut of 2020. British writer-director Rose Glass's stunning psychological horror film Saint Maud intertwines blind faith and mental illness with a fluid cinematic language that feels equally confident and destabilizing for the senses. The dialogue is mixed at the very tip of the speaker membranes as if the whole film is treacherously leaning in towards the screen. Truly spellbinding genre filmmaking.

Despite being grateful for catching a ticket to Chloé Zhao’s highly anticipated Nomadland during Stockholm Film Festival in November, the hundreds of empty seats in the 1950’s theatre, lit up by the cold blue and purple light of the Nevada and Arizona skies on screen, served as a reminder of how many people who were missing out on this experience. The subtle and moving score by Ludovico Einaudi echoed through the almost empty cinema and, just like Frances McDormand’s modern-day nomad Fern, I felt both at home and very far away from home.

Apart from these strange but memorable visits to the cinema, at home is where I have consumed most films this year, including the last two films on my list. Being an avid Hammarby supporter probably fueled my interest in Olof Berglind’s documentary The Beautiful Game about the often cynical politics of modern football. But regardless of your team colors, it is a great documentary that deserves a bigger audience. The film tells the moving story of how a 17-year-old Ivorian talent is thrown into a market where promising African players are exported for profit. And stuck in between greedy agents and club politics is a young boy who has left his family to pursue his biggest dream.

Less of an expected favorite was this year’s best documentary. Gunda, Victor Kossakovsky’s wordless, black-and-white essay about piglets, cows and a one-legged chicken really stole my heart away. In long, uncommented shots, Kossakovsky approaches the living conditions, social structures and tempo of a Norwegian farm like a Frederick Wiseman of agriculture. And the compositions are exquisite. 93 minutes of looking at animals that forces you to reflect on how it feels inside when the unnatural distance to nature is broken.

Reading all of your reflections on memorable films I hope that 2021 will be a year when we are all able to break another unnatural (social) distance and reunite in Berlin, Venice, Toronto or wherever. Film criticism can be a quite lonely career path so I am forever grateful for being granted the opportunity to write in conversation with all of you, dear friends. You improve both my life and my writing.

Until next time!