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Interview: Director Erik Gandini Explores Loneliness in Sweden in “The Swedish Theory of Love”

Beautifully framed and enthusiastically edited, The Swedish Theory of Love discusses, criticises, and presents the idea of loneliness in Sweden through love, family, and communal values.

By , 15 Dec 18 07:34 UTC
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Beautifully framed and enthusiastically edited, The Swedish Theory of Love discusses, criticises, and presents the idea of loneliness in Sweden through love, family, and communal values. The film talks about loneliness through unconventional topics such as artificial insemination, the elderly living alone, cases of people dying and only to be discovered years later, and a Swedish surgeon finding happiness in Ethiopia.

Sweden is well known for its welfare system. But while many other countries’ institutions of welfare state focuses on family units, Sweden’s welfare state focuses on the alliance between the state and autonomous individuals. This ideology is called Statist individualism. Coined by the historians Henrik Beggren and Lars Trägårdh, Statist individualism is the idea that a strong state and individual freedom are not mutually exclusive, and that with assistance from the welfare state, a person can freely choose to live their life the way they envision.

Part of the focus on the individual over the family unit comes from a manifesto written by a group of Social Democratic politicians in 1972: “The Family of The Future” (“Familjen i framtiden: en socialistisk familjepolitik”). The principle of the manifesto was simple: every individual is to be regarded as autonomous, and not as the appendage of a caretaker such as a husband, parent, or child. The idea is that no one should have to be forced to be in any relationships because of economic needs.

(Courtesy of The Swedish Theory of Love)

Now, after 40 years since its conception and implementation, Director Erik Gandini examines the problems that came out of this social system.  While modernity has brought Swedes more personal independence, Swedes lost the ability to connect with each other. The Swedish Theory of Love argues that this kind of independence is perhaps the root of all loneliness. Through the lenses of Director Erik Gandini, we see a somewhat melancholic and unusual side of Sweden.

Cinema Escapist writer Emily Hsiang sat down with Director Erik Gandini for an in-depth talk about The Swedish Theory of Love.

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What compelled you to make The Swedish Theory of Love?

The Swedish Theory of Love is about loneliness and about my own life. It’s about independence, it’s very central to Swedish values. It’s something I still have mixed feelings about. I am Italian-Swedish. My mother is Swedish and father is Italian, and I grew up in Italy. Later I moved to Sweden in my twenties.

When you have different countries — in my case Italy and Sweden — as life experiences, you can sort of see both countries from a sort of distance. When I came to Sweden it was something like a paradise to me, this is a really dramatic difference from the country where I grew up from. The opportunity to make me be independent, to  be able to make my own decisions, this made me really love Sweden. This film is based on a hypothesis on “how will we end up if we embrace the idea that the main goal in life is to be independent, autonomous individuals?”

In the movie, what was real and what was interpreted?

The documentary method implies you find real characters and stories. In the beginning of the film, professor Lars Trägårdh [a professor of History and Civil Society Studies] traced Swedish history by explaining why the idea of being free from other people, and what social democracy really set up as a goal is rooted in the Swedish idealism of being independent.

So everything you see from the lecture in the beginning of the film is true. The characters are true. The only reconstructed parts are the sperm donors, because in Denmark sperm donors have to be anonymous. The idea is as a woman you never have to meet or relate to the father of the child, so it has to be anonymous donors.

Everything else in the film — the people working in apartments, the surgeon, and others, are true.

However, when we talked about filmmaking, there is stylistically a way to use editing to express mood and feelings about situations. Of course there is a reason why we represent Sweden in this way. There are a lot of people who watch this movie and were really provoked, because this movie does not represent a Sweden that they recognize, and that usually clashes with the filmmaker’s idea. But of course when you question the idea of a whole society, and especially when you have a non-Swedish last name as mine, there were defensive attitudes.

There is something interesting about how psychologically, people react to looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing some things that maybe you don’t want to see. But I really think that is a role of mine as a filmmaker — that’s what I want to do. In many countries showing this film, like in Poland for example, people really try to use this film — this non-religious country of modernity where you have gay marriage — as a negative thing. I was very against [the political usage of] it of course, and you have to try to control how films are used.

In the end this film was financed by the Swedish Film Institute, and it was broadcasted on Swedish TV. It is still there. This film was made in Sweden, it was supported by Sweden and released in Sweden where it received reviews. So as long as a society has these interesting questions to ask itself, then it is a good thing.

Do you think loneliness and misery is a universal thing across poor and rich countries?

If you think about it, it’s like the whole world is moving towards modernity, and Sweden is the most modern country in the world in a sense that, the whole world is following this pattern [of increasing individualism and secularism]. That is the reason why I added the story about the doctor with his wife in Ethiopia [the film follows a Swedish surgeon in Ethiopia, also featured in the film The Rebel Surgeon].

People have the dream of migration, and in 2016 there was a huge flow of migrants to Europe. Many were looking to go to the North, to go to Sweden and Scandinavia, because of all the mythology surrounding it. Of course, that could be because of the benefits you get here. So the idea that someone was doing the journey in the opposite direction, like Doctor Erichsen, was interesting for me. Because if I were to say life in Ethiopia was better, we all know that’s unreasonable.

Baumanit’s idea was interesting for me because he basically says, yes, the modern, wealthy comfortable life of Scandinavia, and the West generally speaking, offers you this very attractive life where we can socialize by your own terms. You don’t have to depend on people and to be exposed to this constant friction of negotiation, re-negotiation, argument.

Poorer people are forced to relate to each other. What makes Sweden, or you could say, Western countries, unique is that you have the freedom to be free from other people. Baumanit’s reflection is that relating to each other is like a muscle that you have to keep using. What happens if you stop using this muscle? Suddenly people who are not exactly like us becomes annoying. We start to have this inability to relating to people. Yes, having a comfortable life is very attractive, it’s hard not to embrace it. But we’re also losing this dependence that forces us to interact with others.

It’s unreasonable to make people give up on comfort — do you think there’s anyway to work around that?

What intrigues me is can you have interdependence in comfort. I thought it’s interesting that the Swedish model that started as a political movement in the 70s, is almost like a collective mentality: “Let’s together free us from each other”. Let’s create institutions so young people can move away from home in early age. Let’s create a pension system so the elderly won’t have to depend on their children. Let’s create a system that two people never have to depend on each other unless it’s free choice. That’s a great idea, and that’s the Swedish theory of love.

The only thing I think is reasonable, is this idea that you should always be self sufficient. Personally I want to recognize my need for other people. To recognize your own weakness and your own need for other people. You can do that in a wealthy situation too.

(Courtesy of The Swedish Theory of Love)

As someone witnessing the social program happening in the 70s and living now in 2010s, do you see the difference in society between then and now?

I was born in the late 60s and I wasn’t even living in Sweden. But here in Sweden, it really is a fantastic idea. Where relationships are a choice, where everyone isn’t dependent on each other. They all make sense with the context of progress, of modernity. No one at that time could know that a wave of neoliberalistic individualism would come. No one would know the world would have such a celebration of the ego as we had. Especially since after the 80s.

So I don’t think people at the time wanted to create the society of lonely, narcissistic, completely egoistic people. To defend it, when it works here, the family structure is really fantastic. Yes there is a high level of divorce, but there is also a strong acceptance of re-marrying with children. We call it a star family, because it’s spread out. When it works, it works perfectly.

But when people get old, elderly people in Sweden, as well as Western Europe, are really suffering from loneliness. Young people are good at socializing. Young people can use social media and can find events to go to. What if you don’t understand technology that organizes events? What if you’re sick, or depressed, or don’t have the energy to go out? Then you need to have a network of people around you. And if you don’t have a network developed, that’s a problem. One of the women in the film said: “In Sweden, you cannot cry on someone’s shoulder, you can fill our form”. That’s the essence of individuals relying on the State. You rely on this system. And that is not interpersonal, or warm, or with care.  

It’s ironic, I had a screening of The Swedish Theory of Love once at this cultural center in the suburbs of Stockholm. The audience are mostly young, non-Europeans. A lot of them are Syrians born here or immigrants. When they watched the film the reaction was like: “Can we help these people?” They told me that they’re so used to hearing that they’re the problem in Sweden. For the first time, we see a film where the problem in the film is Swedish Whiteness. I also experienced the same thing in Egypt and Mexico. A lot of people see that maybe Sweden does has its own problems.

How do you represent the subjects realistically in your film?

As a filmmaker, my experience is that every reality you get access to when you’re filming, for the people who are part of this reality, everything is normal. So for example, for the security guards at Guantanamo Bay their job is normal. Every community embraces a sense of normality, which makes people forget about how they can be perceived from the outside. When you get access to that reality, it’s an opportunity to understand each other.

Your film’s statement is that individualism doesn’t lead to happiness, but the world stated that Scandinavian countries are ranked high in happiness, but at the same time are also ranked high in suicide rate. How does that fit together?

If you look at the numbers, they’re all interesting. Because on one other hand Sweden was ranked number 4 in consumption of antidepressants.

One of the things that inspired me to make this film was statistics. For example Sweden has the highest amount of single-member households in the world — 47% of the households in Sweden are single-member households. The average of Europe is around 30%. There was also a survey done by the Red Cross — this institution that works with war — that showed 40% of all adults in Sweden were feeling lonely and ashamed of loneliness. This is such a huge number.

The film for me is not necessarily a portrayal of the presence. It’s more of a “what if”. What if we continue living this way? What if we continue embracing independence as the most important value in our life? But again I’m not a statistician or academic. I think we, as Swedes, we’re trained to deal with loneliness better.

I was researching about pets dogs in Sweden, because so many people here now have pets. They have to work, so they have to leave their dogs at home. And there are training courses for the dogs when you leave them home alone. There are also rules that you can only leave the dog at home for a maximum of 6 hours. If you leave the dog home for over 6 hours, then it’s illegal. So what about humans? What’s the limit, for how long can you leave a person? And there’s no limit for that.

(Courtesy of The Swedish Theory of Love)

You came across this topic because you were studying statistics. Was this something you were always interested in?

Yes. it’s a first time I did a film with a topic that I wasn’t too sure about. Compared to when I made other films, let’s say about Berlusconi in Italy, or political topics which I had strong opinions about, or Guantanamo Bay, or consumption — I’m against overconsumption — it’s easy to say things about them.

For this topic [on Swedish loneliness] I have more of a mixed feeling. Because I am part of this lifestyle completely. I have worries about this topic, I have discussions with my family and friends, and it’s something I keep coming back to. When I do research, it’s like journalism. I rely on facts, on statistics. But in the end I’m not following rules. I’m not trying to be impartial or accurate. Documentary is not that. Documentary is personal, subjective. In my opinion, the more you have personal, strong feelings, or even more opinions about the topic, makes the film better.

There’s an expression for that, and it’s called creative documentary. I think people misunderstood what documentaries are. Some people think documentaries are a development from journalistic tradition. It’s actually much more creative and artistic. You are more in tune with your feelings and how you want to express a topic.

I really liked the themes and topics the film focuses on. How did you come across these themes?

I picked something that’s more like conversations I would have with myself. How should I live my life? Should I live this life of independence, should I value social life more than work?

In Sweden it’s very easy to focus on your job. This world value map showed that for self realization, you yourself is the product of your life. The whole society is pushed to that. There’s also enormous opportunities. People thinks the US is an individualistic country, but Sweden is way up there. In the US there is still strong family value, you can see that in politics and it’s so central. I remember Hillary Clinton’s campaign has images of couples from all sorts different American landscape, even gay couples. And the message was: When families are strong, America is strong.

In Sweden, the equivalent of that would be, when individuals are strong, Sweden is strong. It’s easy to see why and the great benefits of independence. It’s modernity at its best. The choice of characters in the film is such that everyone in the film is struggling in their own way. Because we didn’t want to shoot this perfect person and claim that this is how we should all live.

Do you keep up with the characters?

I do actually. I made a 1 hour documentary about the doctor. It’s called The Rebel Surgeon, it’s about him and his wife. Because he’s an interesting character. It’s a completely different film because it’s only about him and his work.

Are you working on any new projects?

I have been working on a film about work. This is more about what will happen when we don’t have to work anymore. I don’t think we’re ready for that yet, so it’ll be very interesting to deal with that when the day comes. With automation and AI becoming more and more common, what are we going to do?

Our identities are so connected to our profession. We identify with them so much. So we just started on that. It’s also from a sociological perspective of the meaning of life. But it’s really looking into the future in how we will deal with life when there are no work left.


The Swedish Theory of Love –Directed by Erik Gandini. First released January 2016. Running time 90 minutes. 

Topics: Interviews, Sweden

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