Christof Wehmeier, who appeared in season one of the icebound police thriller Trapped (showing on SBS), says movies from Sweden and Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland in this year’s Scandinavian Film Festival have much in common even though their voices are distinct.

“People say the Finns and Icelanders have a kind of sarcastic humour, the Danes and the Swedes have their own mentality but what stands out if you compare Nordic films with the rest of the world’s is they portray daily life in a unique, believable way,” says Wehmeier, who promotes Icelandic cinema internationally.

“Many of these films have been re-made [in the US] with more drama or whatever but you would never see [the Scandinavian] take on things – the way they flesh out the characters.”

Opening night is a case in point: Wildland is a dark, character-driven thriller starring one of the pioneers of the current wave of Nordic drama, Sidse Babett Knudsen, who as the fictional first female Prime Minister of Denmark steered the series Borgen through three seasons. In Wildland she is the steely matriarch of a criminal family who welcomes into the fold her lost young niece whose drug-addicted mother has died. It’s reminiscent in its setup of David Michod’s breakthrough Australian drama Animal Kingdom, starring Jacki Weaver, with Knudsen charismatic as the leader of a criminal syndicate who is doing the best for her family.

“That was one of the things that I loved about the script… there are morals, and there is violence… the whole thing is just a little bit off, that’s what really attracted me to the project,” Knudsen says.

Knudsen also stars in another drawcard Danish movie premiering at the festival: complex female-oriented drama The Exception. This time she plays a vulnerable woman working for a human rights organisation who is bullied by her work colleagues, played by Danica Curcic (Out Stealing Horses) and Amanda Collin (Raised by Wolves).  Slowly the pack mentality which encouraged the bullying breaks down, revealing the difficulties each faces in their personal lives.

“People are saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re playing the victim now, that’s new’, but I loved that part,” Knudsen says.

From Iceland this year the director of Rams (2015) – a film about feuding brothers on the land made into an Australian version starring Sam Neill – returns with the festival’s centrepiece, The County, a David and Goliath story about a dairy farmer’s wife who takes on local corruption. Like Rams, which was given a more comedic treatment in Australia compared with the bleaker original, the film captures the rhythms of characters going about their daily life in a remote Icelandic valley.

“You always get a high dose of drama, and in the middle, you have some funny scenes, like life itself,” says Wehmeier, who lives just outside Reykjavik. “We are unique in the way we capture that and I really like that combination – you can laugh and you can cry, it’s so real, it’s so genuine.”

Scandinavian cinema shows no hesitancy in casting women in lead roles and Agnes Joy, Iceland’s entry in the Academy Awards, is the intimate story of a mother in her early 50s locked in a bitter inter-generational struggle with her daughter.

“It’s a beautiful film and you really can sense that during the shooting of the film, all of the actors loved their time doing it,” Wehmeier says.  “It’s feel-good and did quite well at the box office and it’s so believable, a beautiful story.”

In the festival’s Special Presentation feature, Tigers, from Sweden, we dive into the high-pressure world of professional sport, following a gifted footballer, Martin (Erik Enge), who at 16 is bought by one of Italy’s most prestigious clubs, Inter Milan. Based on the autobiography of Swedish footballer Martin Bengtsson (who retired from football at 19), it shows the impact of a young man’s exposure to the dark side of player commodification.

And in a timely reminder that while Nordic noir is relatively new, our fascination with Swedish cinema is not, the festival will close with the 1971 Swedish, Oscar-nominated historical drama The Emigrants, starring Max von Sydow, who died last year, and Liv Ullmann. Based on the book Upon A Good Land, the epic film – more than three hours long – follows a Swedish farming family who move to America to start a new life.

“I saw that many years ago and I was glued to the screen, there were so many memorable scenes and I think it is still a classic,” Wehmeier says.

The 2021 Scandinavian Film Festival runs from July 13 until August 4 at Palace Nova Eastend cinemas.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.