Sometimes it seems like every Scandinavian film made since Ingmar Bergman retired is about children. In the eighties, I've probably seen a couple of dozen new films from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, and almost half of those have been primarily about children. In that time I've seen four Danish films, four Swedish films, a Norwegian film, and a Finnish film that took children as their main subject. (Plus an Icelandic one, which I guess should count, as well.) What could cause this seeming obsession? Do the Scandinavians really just make films about kids? Or are their films about children the only ones good enough to bother showing abroad? Or do US distributors feel their market will be more amenable to Nordic tots than sub-Arctic angst? Well, most of them are quite good, so I guess I shouldn't complain, but the phenomenon is still odd.
What brought this imbalance in subject matter to my attention was the first film I saw at the current AFI Film Festival. Seppan is yet another Swedish film about kids. Because it's set in the 1950's, and because the AFI Festival is not above just about any misrepresentation that will get people to come see their films, the program billed it as similar to My Life As a Dog. In actuality, other than the period, and a coincidental bit about Soviet satellites, there's no resemblance, either in subject matter or quality.
Seppan is about a group of children whose parents were World War II refugees who fled to Sweden. Temporarily settled in Seppan, a suburb of Stockholm, children from Finland, Russia, and Austria intermingle, in the process of becoming Swedish. The film traces about one year in the life of some of these children, focusing primarily on two girls on the verge of adolescence.
Perhaps "focusing" is a poor choice of words, though, because the film's major problem is focus. Seppan doesn't seem to have much of a point. Director/writer Agneta Fagerstrom-Olsson does not choose any central linchpin for her story. There are a few tragedies, some growing up, an unenthusiastic examination of the relationships of parents and children, a dalliance with a look at childhood friendship, and, finally, some episodes dealing with the cruelty of children. The whole seems more like a reminiscence without a point than a story. Seppan is moderately interesting in its parts, but never comes together into a whole.
Fagerstrom-Olsson deserves praise for some aspects of the film, however. The acting of the children is marvelously natural. The script has the feel of truth, though, alas, also the feel of irrelevancy. The photography (by John O. Olsson) is interesting and pretty in a gloomy, overcast way. Fagerstrom-Olsson definitely has the courage of her convictions, in her willingness to show children as they really are, rather than as we'd like them to be. But, in her attempts to avoid crowd-pleasing sellouts, she has failed to substitute anything to interest the audience, at all.
Seppan is not too likely to get much play outside of Scandinavia, except, perhaps, at film festivals. If it does, it certainly won't match the success of My Life As a Dog. The experience of watching Seppan is like hearing someone talk extemporaneously about their childhood. Unless one shares the experiences, or unless the experiences are extraordinary, or unless the teller is a master, childhood reminiscences are usually less than fascinating. Seppan fails on the latter two counts, so its potential interest for a viewer must be based on their childhood's relationship to Swedish post-WWII refugee camps.
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