for Tribune: Postcard from Faro

The wild does not have words.
The unwritten pages spread themselves out in all directions!

– Tomas Tranströmer,
From March 1979

Many young directors dream of the day when their work will be projected on the vast screen of the Grand Théâtre Lumière in Cannes, others of red-carpet premieres at the Odeon Leicester Square, or at the Egyptian in Los Angeles. But in terms of exquisitely exalted and exclusive cineastic prestige, few environments can match a whitewashed former pig-barn in the hamlet of Dämba, down in a southern corner of Fårö, a windswept Swedish island out in the middle of the Baltic Sea – next stop east, Estonia.

For over three decades this was the private cinema of Ingmar Bergman, who lived nearby and who twice daily screened prints of films new and old, of all types and genres flown in at his request. Bergman – a near-mythical colossus of 20th century theatre and cinema who won three Oscars over the course of his wildly prolific six-decade career (The Seventh Seal, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander, Wild Strawberries) – died in 2007, and nowadays his nameless “kinematograf” is only used for one week each year. This is ‘Bergman Week’ (Bergmanvecken), held just after the midsummer-night celebrations which are a very big deal all over the European Union’s third-largest country.

This year’s Bergman Week (BW) included five screenings at Dämba: the master’s own Persona (1966) and Through A Glass Darkly (1961), plus three more recent films introduced by their own directors: Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005), Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) and top prize winner at January’s Gothenberg Film Festival, Chilean drama Dog Flesh by Fernando Guzzoni.

Tickets were on public sale for each of the screenings, at the princely sum of 250 Swedish crowns (kronor) – a whisper under £25 at current rates. A trifling sum to any hardcore Bergman fan, of course, for whom the Dämba cinema will have a unique, near-sacramental quality (before the 35mm projector was installed, Bergman used the space as the mini-studio for Scenes From a Marriage‘s interiors) for all its humble agricultural origins and present-day Scandi cosiness.

settling in for a screening at Bergman's cinema. Observe the MAGIC FLUTE tapestry, left.

With one wall dominated by a 1975 tapestry inspired by Bergman’s Magic Flute TV movie, it contains 15 well-padded armchairs of the kind one might expect to find in granny’s parlour, one of them permanently reserved for the former patron. A strategically-positioned piece of A4 proclaims SITT EJ HÄR – which I presumed meant the somewhat metaphysical “he sits here!”, before I was informed that it’s actually the more prosaic “don’t sit here!”

Nestling just behind the notice is a small cushion which presumably once supported the lower back of the lanky auteur, a dark-grey woollen cover indicating its provenance: the permanent human population of Fårö may nowadays number barely 500 in the winter-months, but four-legged islanders are in much greater abundance. Gotland sheep, which originated on the much larger island of that name immediately to Fårö’s south, are a breed that date back to the Viking era when livestock plundered from deepest Russia were bred with local varieties. The result is a sheep which aficionados praise as “bright, active and friendly… inquisitive and attractive… easy to lamb, prolific, milky and very motherly” with a “calm, friendly disposition”.

a Gotland sheep on "Bergman's island"

Gotlands are to be found all over Fårö’s 44 square miles (bigger than Manhattan), wandering freely across the smaller roads, and one can easily imagine their presence forming part of the spell cast upon Bergman when he came here, aged 42, to make Through A Glass Darkly. He made six further movies here, including Shame, Persona and two documentaries – simply entitled Fårödokument 1969 and Fårödokument 1979 – and relocated permanently from Stockholm in the late 1960s.

Seclusion and privacy were pretty much guaranteed – well into the 1990s, Fårö (as well as a northern portion of Gotland) was forbidden to foreigners because it hosted Swedish coastal artillery division KA3. Even Bergman acolyte Andrei Tarkovsky found his access barred, the Russian maestro shooting his final picture The Sacrifice (1986) – in collaboration with Bergman’s longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist (regarded by some as the real genius of that particular duo) – on a different bit of Swedish coastline, selected for its Fårö-like qualities.

These days Fårö welcomes international visitors with open arms, not just during Bergman Week (which celebrated its 10th edition this year) as a vital component of its struggling economy. There is now just one shop, but no post-office, no school – a decline illustrated on before-and-after maps in the newly-refurbished Bergman Center museum located just a few hundred yards from the graveyard where the great man lies under a typically simple stone (alongside the last of his fives wives, Ingrid – no, not, the Casablanca legend…)

the author relaxes outside Sudersand's cinema

But the hundreds of summer visitors do at least have cinema to amuse them in the evenings – and they don’t have to trek all the way down to Dämba. The magnificently old-school Sudersand biografen is another converted barn, this one a glorious affair of rust-hued clapboard nestling in a semi-secluded garden-type setting. As the story goes, in 1953 farmer Arthur Norman’s last cow died and he decided to diversify. He’d never actually been to a cinema himself so rang his sister in Stockholm and asked her what a movie palace should look like: hence the red velvet, curved-back seats.

Like its similarly lo-fi sister down in Dämba, Sudersandsbion always been a Bergman Week venue – sprightly octogenarian Harriet Andersson was on hand to introduce Sawdust and Tinsel (1957) this year. Since 2011, however, it’s been revitalised under the enterprisingly ambitious ownership of local thirtysomethings Fia Matsson and Ulf Slotte, who have installed digital projection as well as 35mm. From July into August has a ‘regular’ programme that includes decidedly un-Bergmanish offerings: this summer’s fare includes The Internship, Man of Steel, The Wolverine, The Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim. Then again, judging by Bergman’s own VHS collection – including Anger Management, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb and The Blues Brothers – perhaps on Pacific Rim nights, when Jaegers battle Kaiju, a front-row seat should be kept reserved, complete with that little grey Gotland cushion.

Neil Young
3rd July 2013
written for Tribune magazine
Sudersand photo by Andrei Kartashov