Filmmaker Stefan Jarl is known for his Mods Trilogy and his documentaries on the relationship between man and nature. But there is also something else in his work: an interest in labour. People work in his films. Stefan Jarl pays tribute to the creative, all-round work in a time when capitalism makes this a privilege for the few. On April 8 in Varberg, he was awarded the 2017 Lenin Award. Here is my speech to the laureate.
MANY YEARS AGO, I worked at Årsta wholesale trade. We loaded fruits and vegetables on pallets for delivery to the stores.
One day we had a film team visit from the TV news. The customs staff were on a strike. The import of fruits and vegetables was blocked. No bananas, oranges and other necessities of life would be let into the country. Starvation was at the door.
The film team was there to document the approaching disaster.
But down at the warehouse everything was as usual. Twelve expeditors moved around lifting boxes of fruits and vegetables. There was no shortage of anything.
What did the film team do then?
One of the storage areas was empty for cleaning. It would be flushed clean with the high-pressure hose. The film team set up the camera there. The reporter pointed and told the TV viewers that there were no fruits and vegetables.
Much of what is called news distribution is in fact industrial mass production of preconceived notions. The bias is already there when the film team is sent out. The reporter’s task is to deliver the ordered item on time.
This is especially true when it comes to politically flammable subjects. When the aircraft carriers start moving, it is wise to turn off the TV. No weapon is as effective as the moving image in the mobilization of wars.
Stefan Jarl works in a different tradition.
“Making the world visible, that’s what all art is about,” he says in the interview book compiled by Cyril Hellman (Stefan Jarl. Swedish photographers and filmmakers, Orosdi-Back 2010). A surveillance camera continuously records everything that the lens captures, but it does not make visible. “Reality can only be portrayed through creative processing.”
For many years, my father was a teacher at an art school. He had a motto that he used to tell the students: “A good painting is not the sum of the additions but the measure of what you refrained from.”
The same goes for filming. Hours of raw film should be cut down to a span measured in minutes.
In the editing room, it sometimes happens that what the camera captured differs from what the filmmaker intended to capture. Then you have to detach yourself, says Stefan Jarl. It’s about “producing the film that the material says you filmed. Regardless of what you think you’ve done.”
That’s how he is different from the producer of preconceived notions.
I have seen most of his films in recent months. Some of them I remembered since before, others were new to me.
I discovered something in them that I hadn’t noticed before.
In Capital, Karl Marx describes how the machine in the capitalist factory becomes a means of exploitation and impoverishment of the worker. A similar impoverishment is going on in agriculture, he points out. Not only the farm workers but also the soil is exploited. Industrial capitalism interferes with the exchange of substances between man and nature. Capitalism grows and develops “by simultaneously destroying the sources of all wealth: the earth and the worker”.
The relationship between man and nature is a theme in several of Stefan Jarl’s films. He makes the disrupted exchange of substances visible and warns us of the consequences. The forest companies come roaring in with their machines and chemicals among deer and beetles, and the silent fallout from a wrecked nuclear power plant disrupts the Sami relationship with reindeer, fish and mountain nature.
Less noted is something else: his interest in labour.
Stefan Jarl’s filming begins in a misguided revolt against wage slavery. The two Mods Kenta and Stoffe mock the men who are on their way to their jobs: “The little workers, the little workers, are a funny sight to see” they sing. But immediately repents: “Ah, that was silly”, Stoffe says.
In the next film in the Mods Trilogy, Kenta is working in the woods, and in the last, Stefan Jarl follows how Kenta is renovating the house he moved to in the countryside. With the professional worker’s obvious skill, the old Mod cuts lengths of wallpaper and attaches them to the wall.
Nothing is hurriedly flickering past. The filmmaker wants to make something visible.
In the same way in the meeting with the Sami and with the old farmers out on the plain. People work in Stefan Jarl’s films. It’s unusual. In the noble culture and the entertainment industry, labour is usually absent. We see love entanglements and policemen moving around but we rarely get to know how the working life is lived.
Stefan Jarl thought of The Hostelry as a tribute to a defamed countryside. It is also a tribute to the creative work; the creative processing of what nature can provide.
Labour also plays a prominent part in the feature films. The boy in Good People watches the father who potters about in the house. He wants to help but Dad tells him to go outside and play.
It is a scene from Stefan Jarl’s own childhood. He watched his father the baker working. He wanted to help and be part of the substance exchange with nature. With the same look, he now portrays labour in his films.
The warehouse job in Årsta was also an art. There was no automation in the loading of the pallets. Each order required creative processing. It was important to remember the location of the goods along the entire line and plan the pallets so that delicate boxes of grapes and tomatoes ended up on top. You have to know the tricks and shortcuts, trust the help of the truck drivers and never hesitate. We worked on a piece rate.
Today, the warehouse worker is a human robot controlled and monitored by GPS and computer systems. An automatic voice in a headset tells you exactly what to do at any moment during the workday. If you stand still and talk to a friend for five minutes, the supervisor can come running and wonder what you are doing.
The situation is similar in many places. Work is depleted, creative processing disappears, and man becomes an exchangeable component of a profit-maximizing machinery.
This also applies to films. Stefan Jarl has worked hard to create material preconditions for films that make things visible. With Folkets Bio there are openings, but the stupidizing industry continues to grow. The most viewed documentary today is the reality show. Bullying on TV, Stefan Jarl calls it. First, “abuse entertainment” at home in the living room, then Pär Nuder can speak Big Brother language and call the senior citizens a “meat mountain”.
The more jobs that are depleted, the more miraculous the remaining creative work becomes. Painters, artists and elite athletes appear as superhumans with divine virtues.
But Stefan Jarl demystifies them, makes people of them. He follows the discus thrower Ricky Bruch and a hardworking man emerges, just as thorough and serious in his preparations as the reindeer herders up the mountain and the innkeeper at The Hostelry.
He portrays colleague Bo Widerberg and actor Thommy Berggren, and it once again revolves around the work. The craft, the creative processing.
In a scene in the movie about Widerberg, Thommy Berggren tells the story of how he, badly hung over, falls asleep, when he sits in Ingmar Bergman’s room to talk about a role in the film The Silence. It could be any job interview. Such stories circulate everywhere people work.
The laughter produced by the stupidizing industry is something else. We laugh from the top down.
Thommy Berggren is rooting around in his interior to portray Erik XIV at the theatre. What does he find? No divine inspiration but a line from the street in Gothenburg:
– Are you standing around smiling, you bastard?
– The whole thing, the whole approach, he says, is wrung out of my class.
Stefan Jarl does the same processing. That’s why it sometimes gets complicated with the higher powers that sit on the money and distribution channels. They Call Us Misfits premiered at a porn cinema. Decency was not allowed to air on TV during the election campaign.
It’s a good grade, I told Stefan. Now he gets another one.
We are the ones to say thanks.