In dark Seattle winter, Nordic films hit close to home


The films of the Nordic Lights Festival next weekend at SIFF are a testament to our cultural kinship with Scandinavia.

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. The short is 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 US, Seattle feels the most Nordic to me,” says Stina Cowan of the Nordic Heritage Museum, who collaborated with the Seattle International Film Festival to put on Nordic Lights and who defines “Nordic” countries as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland.

The many Scandinavian immigrants (and their descendents) that populate the Pacific Northwest help create a natural interest in Nordic Film. 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 line-up reveal 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.”

In "A Hijacking," a Danish cargo ship is heading for harbor when it is hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.In “A Hijacking,” a Danish cargo ship is heading for harbor when it is hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.

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 transgender woman in Finland to politically-minded movie goers.

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 resilience, 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 non-professional 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 high-jacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean (he suggests it as a kind of Scandinavian companion to “Captain Phillips”)

"Coffee Time" is playing during "Nordic Shorts" program on January 18. (Photo courtesy of Nordic Heritage Museum)“Coffee Time” is playing during “Nordic Shorts” program on January 18. (Photo courtesy of Nordic Heritage Museum)

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 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.

The “Nordic Lights Film Festival” runs Friday-Sunday, January 17-19 at the SIFF Film Center at Seattle Center. Details here.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at