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Carl Olsson / PHOTO: Sebastian Penja

CPH:DOX competition candidate Carl Olsson on Vintersaga

The ode to Swedish melancholy produced by Sweden’s Ginestra Film in co-production with Denmark’s Final Cut for Real, is world premiering March 19 in Copenhagen.

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With his third documentary feature, Swedish-born Carl Olsson refines his stylised tableaux filmmaking-style, successfully displayed in his earlier films Patromonium (2019) and Meanwhile on Earth (2020). He invites the viewer to a visual promenade through Sweden and the country’s bittersweet melancholy, inspired by the 1984 eponymous song by Ted Ström. Through 24 main scenes described by Olsson as “his personal interpretations of the 24 stanzas of Ström’s ‘Vintersaga’, he offers a nuanced, touching and often humorous portrayal of individuals of different age, class and origin, set against a bitter cold winter.

The film was produced by Ginestra Film’s Antonio Russo Merenda (Sabaya, The Deminer) in co-production with Anne Köhncke of Final Cut for Real (Patrimonium, The Act of Killing), Film i Väst, Filmpool Nord, in association with Sweden’s Momento Film, SVT, DR, NRK and Yle, with support among others from Nordisk Film & TV Fond.

Vintersaga is world premiering in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX’s main DOX:AWARD competition section.


CPH:DOX competition candidate Carl Olsson on Vintersaga

Vintersaga / PHOTO: Ginestra Film

We spoke to Carl Olsson.

Firstly, you seem to have developed a very personal style, reminiscent of Roy Andersson, Ulrich Seidl works, using scenes, tableaux shots in which people are defined within the space they are in. What attracts you to this particular style?

Carl Olsson: I’ve worked this way since film school. Over the last 10 years, I’ve been developing a technique around the construction of the image or the framing, which is linked to how we look at the human, the characters and the world in general. I strive to create an anthropological way of looking at the characters. My theory is that you can construct the image in a way that the room becomes a strict form, and by putting human beings against this setting, they stand out.

In a way, it’s a reference to the black box theatre stage. I work with the classic one-point perspective. Then when the human being enters this stage or room, that person becomes something that we can study. This allows us to look at the characters from an anthropological perspective, less as a singular character with a personal story, but as a human being, part of a bigger ensemble.

When I prepare a film, the form is the starting point, the core of my artistic research. Then I research in which way I can use the form to look at the world around us.

Could you go back to the very inception of your film - how Ted Ström’s 1984 song Vintersaga became the source of inspiration for your film, both in form and content?
CO: Three or four years ago, I started thinking about this song, how and why it appeals to me and I realised that the fragmented structure of the song is what makes it strong and personal for me, as it is similar to the way I work with the cinematic language. The lyrics describe situations that occur in specific places in Sweden during winter time, but there isn’t a general narrative. The song provides loose pieces, fragments, and I have to mentally put them together myself. This is why perhaps it can be so personal and different for each person who listens to the song.

This is the way I wanted to work with Vintersaga and film in general. Each stanza of the song is like a free structure where the audience is able to connect the dots as they wish.

The overall theme is melancholia. How would you describe this feeling and Swedish melancholy?
I was inspired by Belarusian journalist and author Svetlana Aleksijevitj [2015 Nobel Prize for Literature winner] whose polyphonic work often focuses on people’s suffering, and the complexity of loving to suffer, which could be a definition of melancholy. I believe there are cultural correlations between Russian and Scandinavian sense of melancholia. It’s not necessarily a sad feeling - there is sadness in it, but it can also be romantic. In Northern European culture, we tend to see the positive in suffering and in difficult situations in life.

The rigour of your filmic work - both in style and narration - with 1-1.5minutes scenes capturing different emotions (longing, sorrow, love, loneliness, friendship, playfulness, even boredom) echoes the rigour and power of poetry. Could you take us through your technique: how you defined and wrote each scene, selected the characters, and how you worked with the characters, notably with their dialogues - flirting with fiction methods?
CO: It’s a large question! Usually the stanzas of the song were place-specific. One stanza for instance is set in Gothenburg, describing a football practice. My relation to this setting is that I myself played football as a kid (although my memories are not of pleasure but of freezing on the football pitch). In any case, my personal memory turned into the outset for this scene. It started therefore with the location, a football field in Gothenburg. Once I have the setting, I look for the characters to fill the space.

I usually do sketches, of how a scene could look like, and then I go to that location with my cinematographer, to prepare the image, to see how the scene would look with the light etc.

You do borrow a lot from the fiction world, as you find the location, then the characters…
Yes everything is very planned and written…except the dialogue, although I do discuss a lot with the participants about what will happen, and the setting is usually a natural place for them to be in. I usually prepare the frame, then let the camera roll, usually from a fixed camera and in one take. We just wait for ‘gifts’, for the magic to happen. A take can be around 30 minutes to film a scene that ends up on screen as a 1-minute sequence.


CPH:DOX competition candidate Carl Olsson on Vintersaga

Vintersaga / PHOTO: Ginestra Film

Although the dialogues aren’t scripted, they do have in common a sort of triviality. A lot of people just talk about the weather, small everyday things…
Yes. I didn’t want them to talk about something important - definitely not stuff that is too personal. I like loose statements, such as the weather, the types of discussions you hear on a public transport. That’s also the way the song was written. I think Ted likes those everyday situations as well, filled with characters who aren’t normally in the centre of attention.

In your casting, were you careful of respecting diversity in terms of genre, social class, ethnicity?
Finding the right location was key but also finding the right persons and put them together. I wanted for the film to represent Sweden in all its nuances. Making it diverse also helped make the film more general, so that the people embody Swedes in general.

Why did you decide to go back to some characters who are in more than one scene?
CO: I made rules for myself and the editor Sofie Steenberger. There are 24 stanzas and 24 main scenes in the film and I wanted all of them in the film. We could not cut a scene out. We had to use everything, but I gave ourselves the possibility to go back to some characters one time, and also a third time in a portrait. But we weren't allowed to go back to the same framing.

The film is based on a song and music plays a major role here. Who was your composer and how did you work with him?

CO: The idea from the beginning was to involve songwriter and composer Ted Ström himself. I needed his approval to adapt his song into a film, and I knew he had composed music for film before. So I asked him if he would be interested to also work on the score. He said yes if he could collaborate with his sons Albin and Johan. So they composed the music.

In all my films, I usually try to underline the humour with music. Here I wanted to go in another direction, use the music to strengthen the melancholy.

What were the biggest challenges?
The casting. We had 55 characters in total. It was a lot of work.

What does it mean to be at CPH:DOX’s main competition?
I actually live in Copenhagen although I tend to work both in Denmark and Sweden. As I went to the Danish film school, much of the team from the film is Danish. It will be very special to show the film to the audience and share this with the team.

What else are you working on? I believe you have a new project for Final Cut for Real who co-produced this film, Meanwhile on Earth and produced your film Patrimonium?
CO: I’ m working on various projects including Final Cut for Real’s Men on Boat, which is about sailors longing and loneliness. Then I have a short film that I will do in Estonia-Tartu and I’m writing a new project which focuses on being misplaced in civilization.