Jonathan Marlow: At the very beginning, how did you meet Arne Sucksdorff? How did
you decide to start working with him?
Stefan Jarl: Arne Sucksdorff made a film in India. Quite a good one, although not one of
his best. He decided not to edit the film in Stockholm. Instead, he went to the
countryside and rented a big, big house. I was born and raised close to that part of
Sweden, in the middle of the country. I had seen Det Stora äventyret (The Great
Adventure) when I was a little boy. It amazed me so much. So I took my bicycle when I
was sixteen years old, went out to his house, although it took me two hours to go there.
I knocked on the big, big door. He opened. I asked, Can I work with you? He said,
Yes. Several years later, I asked him, Why did you agree when you saw this young
boy arrive at your door, sweating from bicycling many miles? If you went out of your
way to see me, it must be something important! It was. I worked with him on a film he
was planning, Pojken i trädet (The Boy in the Tree). I don't like the film, really. I worked
with him as a very young boy, as a poor, poor member of the team. The following year,
he was going to make another film about deer. I kept working with him and, during this
time, he was asked to make a short film. He had a car from Volvo and they wanted a
film. He asked, Can you make this film for Volvo so I can get rid of it? So I had him
as a teacher and this little short as a film school.
The Boy in the Tree was completely a disaster so he left Sweden and went to Brazil. He
lived in Brazil and the United Nations asked him, Can't you start a film school there?
He said, Yes. He started the film school and he was also responsible for the new
wave during the 1970s among the Brazilian film directors. All the famous filmmakers in
Brazil are products of the film school there. He came back to Sweden [in the 1990s] as an
alcoholic, very destroyed, and died at 84 years old in Stockholm in 2001.
How did you come to direct They Call Us Misfits?
I asked Arne Sucksdorff to write a letter for the film school [in Stockholm] to make it
possible for me to attend. What he had written was too good, so I took away 90% and
kept what was left and added a false name. It helped. It was enough. However, it was
awful to be at film school so I said, together with a friend [Jan Lindqvist] that I met
there, Can't we make a film instead? We don't want to go here. We don't want to be
here. He agreed, so we started this film [They Call Us Misfits] which was the first part
of the Mods Trilogy. Later on, after being friends with all of these drug addicts, I made
the second one [A Decent Life] and the third one [The Social Contract], about the kids
of these drug addicts and what their fate will be. The first part was a very big,
tremendous success in Sweden, but the second one, which I made all myself, was a
much bigger success - the most successful documentary film in Swedish film history.
How did you find the subjects for the first film?
We were supposed to make some short films for TV, my friend [Jan] and I, at film school.
We met these guys in the street
This is in Stockholm?
Yes. When these short films were screened on TV, they didn't screen the whole film. They
removed scenes, cutting these guys from the street. So we decided that it was important
to make a full length film for the cinema. In the cinema, they can't cut scenes but,
instead, they stopped the whole film. The Prime Minster at that time, although he was
the head of the government, he was also the in charge of censorship. He saw the film
and said, What's up? Let this film free. That's why it became such a big discussion.
The newspapers would ask, Why did they stop the film? That's why it became a big
success, I guess.
Because of that reputation?
Yes. It was such a big debate.
Did it take a while for the first film to find distribution in Sweden?
Yeah, no one wanted the film. It was a pornographic distributor that got it into theaters. It
was screened as a porno film!
Only in the smaller theaters and
A lot of guys only in the theaters
Yes, that sort of thing! After two days, everyone understood this was not a porno film. It
had nothing to do with porno. Then the press wrote a lot about it and the young kids
came and no more porno men ever went into that cinema. That's how it started, actually.
Your later films represent a sort of a trilogy as well. Obviously, Threat, Jåvna: Reindeer
Herdsmen in the Year 2000 and Samernasland. In the US, mistakenly, we think of
Chernobyl as a disaster that primarily affected the former Soviet Union. It was not clear
that most of the radiation had landed in Sweden.
I don't think anyone in Sweden even believed that it was such a big disaster for the Sami
people until I made the film.
What really strikes me in Threat is that the people most affected by the pollution are
the folks that benefit least from the nuclear power plant. They have no use for
electricity and yet they suffer...
The strange thing is that we had an election. "Shall we have nuclear power plants or
not?" So we voted. Many Sami people voted for power plants because they thought, "If
they build them down here along Sweden's coast, we will be free from them up here."
They made tactical votes to get rid of all the Swedes and all their stupid technology and
then this Chernobyl power plant exploded in the Ukraine and the shit fell down on them.
In this country, the issue is very pertinent because the Bush administration is very keen
on trying to build more nuclear power plants. They have no sense of history. There is a
reason why we stopped building these things.
We very soon forget these things. Chernobyl is very soon forgotten.
Or Three Mile Island.
Yes, Three Mile Island. No one remembers.
You use a quote from [Friedrich] Engels, where the title of the film originates, "We
should not be too proud of man's victories over nature; for each such victory nature
takes revenge." You essentially take several different issues and show an
interconnectedness within the film, much like Adam Curtis's Pandora's Box. It seems
clear that people should relate to nature in this way. Now, twenty years later, people
continue to resist even the notion of global warming and so forth. Why do you think
that people are still resistant? Are they blinded by capitalism?
They are closed in their struggle for their lives. It's very easy to tell them lies when they
are working like hell. They think of their own economy and they prefer to live in their
own little world and leave the rest to the politicians to decide. It is a resistance against
what's going on more and more in Sweden and you can see it nowadays when the Green
Party is in power together with the Social Democrats, ruling the country together. That's
one little step. You can fool the people but not all the time.
The Swedish workers are engaged in politics but this European Union which we are a part
of means that more and more decisions are given away to the parliament in Brussels.
People feel that they have no value. They are worth nothing. If we go into an election, it
doesn't matter. They decide something else in Brussels anyway. It's that feeling that's
going around. That's why the French people voted against the constitution. People feel
more and more, in this globalized world, that they can't do anything. They think that it's
better to concern themselves with their own little lives until everything else is destroyed.
They give up. The young generation, my young kids, are in the resistance movement.
The young people are going the other direction so I feel optimistic about the future. Man
has always managed to survive.
But I think they always will.
You end Nature's Revenge with another quote - "Everything is possible." As pessimistic
as the film may be perceived, it ends optimistically...
They can't destroy the soul. The soul will always survive. Bush thinks that he can, with
weapons, get rid of Al Qaeda. It's impossible. You can't hunt them down. It's completely
impossible. The resistance against the modern world is there in the young generation.
I've been shooting my latest film in Palestine. Every little kid in the street that sees
what's going on will kill himself with a bomb going into the market. For every day he
witnesses what's going on, he grows stronger and stronger in his belief that he will do
something against the men in power. You can't, with weapons, solve the problems in
These are efforts in futility. When someone tries in this way to produce a certain result,
what they get in return is the opposite result.
They have to "eat their own shit." [laughs]
With The Girl From Auschwitz, you're dealing with occupied Palestine, specifically,
Cordelia Edvardson, someone who, I suppose, Israelis would like to think of as one of
their own. Instead, she's a free thinker and looks at the situation pragmatically rather
than defensively. How did you decide to make a film about her?
I read her over the years. She writes in the newspapers every week. She's also a very
good author. I read her autobiographic story which is translated into many languages. I
always wanted to make a movie about her. What was interesting for me about this
fourteen year old girl from Auschwitz was her way to survive by going inside and
locking the world out. She worked at the office...
She worked there with Josef Mengele. How was she selected for that role?
She went to the very dangerous female boss in the camp. Everyone was afraid of being
killed the next day because that's what was going on all of the time. Everyone waited for
the next day, "Will I be killed or not?" She went up to this boss and said, "I don't want
to be here. I want to be doing something else." That is so childish and yet it saved her.
The boss looked at her and said, "You can work with Mengele and make the protocol of
how many we will take to the fire this day." She was forced to worked there and put the
mark for every Jew that was taken away. They had different systems...
To her it was mathematics, it had nothing to do with people?
She was with Mengele when he chose the people to send to work or fire or gas. It was
awful. The thing for me about the film is that she looks at the situation in the Middle
East with these same autistic eyes, so to speak. She sees things that you and I don't
see. She has something else going on in her soul. She reacts. I've been with her so much
down there. When I saw something, she saw one hundred things. She's very good at
seeing, then reporting what she sees. You can't say to her, "Isn't that awful?" Or, "Write
about that instead." You can't do anything like that. She sees something, she writes it,
and they publish it in Sweden. It's a big debate going on all the time. "What the fuck is
she writing? You can't write like that!" She sees what she sees and the right-wing Jews
in Sweden hate her. If you are living in Israel, you have to defend Israel all the time.
Yes, but if the Israel government does the wrong thing? She writes that. Many others in
Sweden think she's a hero, of course.
In dealing with the wall, there's a great moment of graffiti in the film. It mentions the
Warsaw ghetto in comparison to Abu Dis ghetto.
"From ghetto to ghetto" is a very strong thing to write on the wall.
There seems little justification for what's happening. It's irrational behavior...
I can't say it better myself. I absolutely agree. It's awful. It's an awful solution for a
human problem. So many billions of dollars, much of them coming from America, to build
this unoccupied territory. It has already destroyed so very much. The worst thing of it all
is that Jerusalem is the town of so many religions. Soon, this year, the wall will be ready,
and it will make Jerusalem only the capital of the Jews. The other two religions have to
go away. All of the historic building styles belong to the Muslims, but they are taking
them. They are taking everything. They're building it from the north a little bit and then it
comes from the south a little bit. He's very clever, this man, [Ariel] Sharon. Very, very
clever. He takes away 20,000 people from Gaza but he's building houses for 35,000 in the
West Bank so that they can move from the Gaza Strip to very beautiful buildings in the
West Bank. Then they close the wall. So what can the Arabs do? The Muslims will
never come to their great holy place. We were up there; it made you feel very close to
what happened 2000, 3000 years ago. If I were a Muslim, I would immediately become a
terrorist when this wall is closed.
America, in it's own way, is a cancer upon the world. As the world's largest consumer of
resources, the world's largest polluter - how do we deal with these individual issues
when this seems to sweep everything else aside. Obviously, you don't feel it's hopeless.
No, because there are very strong forces against it. Bush will never catch China. China is
1.3 billion people. The Americans are 300 million. Such a big country with such a great
history as China. What's happened with Mao Zedong and the years up until the present
is nothing compared to that great, great history of this culture. The language, for
instance, is the same as 5000 years ago. They still can read everything that the old
philosophers have written.
Mr. Rumsfeld said that China has too many weapons and that the country can be a threat
to Asia. How stupid can that guy be? How can he challenge China? Everything you
have on, your clothes and my clothes, are made in China. Every company in Sweden and
the European Union moves to China now because there are cheap workers there. That
means China will get more and more and more power.
In fifteen years, China will be the only superpower in the world. America is not a
superpower anymore. Of course, Bush is without history, relying on the Bible every day.
With that stupid book in mind, perhaps he can put some nuclear bombs in China. It's
completely impossible to destroy China. It will never happen. If he starts a war against
China, China will kill us all.
In that sense, I'm not afraid of the future, because America, as you said, could be called
the cancer of the world now on many levels. This western thing going on now, where
Bush gives tax deductions to the wealthiest people. We've never had so many rich
people ever in the world like now here in America. The ten most rich people have as
much money as the whole economy of Africa. It's unbelievable. This way of life, this
lifestyle, it can't go on. It must crash. Many societies like that before in history, like the
Romans and so on, have been destroyed. China wants more and more to be Western, to
open their borders and be more and more democratic. But they will do it their way. We
can't do it the Bush way. It doesn't work like that because they have to solve the
modern problems while taking care of their old culture, the old tradition and so on. It's a
slow, slow way against democracy.
If Rumsfeld doesn't understand that, then fuck him. Rumsfeld will soon die, although there
will be new guys that will repeat his message. It's dangerous to deal with China in that
way. Even Nixon was a more intelligent guy when he tried to deal with China, actually.
Do you see the policies of, not just this administration, but of the last thirty years as
protectionist measures for America to hold on to its place for as long as possible, even
an admission that it can't last much longer?
Yes, it's like that. I completely agree. It's some kind of isolation over here. When I come
with my cell phone, it doesn't work here. When I come with my DVDs, you can't use
them here because you have another system which is technically worse. It's very much
like an island. Why not connect to the rest of the world? The rest of the world tries to
connect to the rest of the world, but here it's the other way around.
Here in San Francisco, it's essentially a city-state - an island unto itself, separate from
the rest of the country. We connect to the rest of the world, but the country around us
You are an open part of the country. Very close to Asia. It takes nine hours to go to
Asia, but it takes thirteen hours to go to Europe, so that must mean something. In
history, it means a lot, with the ships going to Asia from these ports.
How did you connect to Lukas Moodysson to make Terrorister?
Together, we have written many political things in the newspapers in Sweden. I, as an old
guy, and he, from the young generation - which impressed the audience in Sweden that
two guys like that could come together and write about the Middle East and what they
are doing in Sweden with young kids, which they called terrorists. The young people are
not permitted to express themselves. The government immediately, when they criticize, call
them terrorists. They put them in jail and things like that. Lucas wanted to make a film
about these kids and I wanted to make a documentary. This film, which I think is a very
good one, is about the people who went to jail after the big riot in Gothenburg where
they tried to stop Bush's plane coming down and things like that. It was a big riot. The
kids destroyed the whole inner city.
How is the situation now different than, say, 1968 when you started filmmaking?
It's a little bit the same now going on, but history doesn't repeat itself that way. The
society was much more powerful then when they all weren't so afraid of what was
happening. Now it's much more difficult because society, during the years from the 1960s,
started to protect themselves against new generations doing the same things. My kids
are very, very leftist but now they meet such a tough society and the government has
so many means of stopping them, with the secret police and so on. One way is to call
them terrorists; another way is to put them in prison. There are so many levels.