Published Sep 17, 2015Back in 2009, when Swedish director Hanna Sköld took out a loan from the bank to shoot her first feature, Nasty Old People, she took a non-traditional approach to the release platform. The film was released on torrent website the Pirate Bay and accepted donations as a form of payment. Members of the community helped put together subtitles in multiple languages, giving the film broader accessibility to different regions. In addition to being well-received by a different demographic, this format established a built-in community of support, with participants arranging screenings in their hometowns at free film festivals with a similarly donation-based structures. This propensity for thwarting convention is evident in her highly accomplished and oft-disturbing follow-up feature, Granny's Dancing on the Table.
Where Scandinavian cinema frequently features men fleeing into the wild to escape the socially imposed constraints of society (a society built by them and for them, oddly enough), Sköld's variation on the subgenre has a decidedly female perspective. Young Eini (Blanka Engström) lives in the forest with her oppressive and abusive father (Lennart Jähkel), sheepishly recoiling from his brutal hand in silence when not escaping to their storage space to parse correspondence sent between her grandmother and her great aunt.
This premise sets up a secondary narrative within the limited understanding of Eini's imagination. It's represented by rudimentary stop-motion animation, detailing the experiences of her grandmother and great aunt — from what she pieces together from the letters — with a childlike simplicity that similarly replicates the washed out greys and technologically limited environment that Eini has been raised in. The juxtaposition of this animation imagery and Eini's soft youthful voiceover with the events that occur — which involve rape, brutality and insanity — are heart-wrenching and distressing, ultimately representing the psychological state and ideological breakdown of our protagonist's repressed, socially limited world experiences.
Stepping back, this sub-narrative starts out with two women fleeing wartime atrocity to find refuge in the Swedish forest. Whereas the traditional Scandinavian narrative about escape outlines men discovering themselves in nature, Sköld's variation features two sisters trying to escape only to wind up being controlled by an abusive man using the limited social influence of nature — the lack of judging eyes — to impose his religiously and egocentric sense of superiority and entitlement onto others. Though one of the women escapes to America, leaving her sister with an illegitimate child (Eini's father, Richard), finding empowerment in detached sexual exploration, the overriding notion of woman as perpetual object of subjugation — something that men need to control — is consistent in both storylines.
This gender duality, considering the extra-textual knowledge of male cinematic tropes, does raise an intriguing question: If society and wilderness are both male-dominated spheres, where does a woman escape to? Something else intriguing about Sköld's wildly creative and entirely immersive treatise on the notion of escape is how it demonstrates the innate strength of imagination and independence, no matter how deeply embedded in the imagination it may be.
Eini, despite being raised with only the influence of an abusive, mentally ill man and a great aunt driven mad by her situation, believes in something better. And Sköld, in crafting a rather blunt and uncompromising work of stark honesty, isn't interested in patronizing her audience by injecting a glib assertion that everything Eini imagines is a real possibility. Even if Eini is to escape this cycle of abuse and control — an exaggerated metaphor for real life — where can she go and how will she ultimately interact with a contextually civilized society? Realistically, her unconventional behaviour and belief structure would be problematic, thus reigniting the cycle of social conditioning.
Granny's Dancing on the Table is a thought-provoking work that doesn't pull any punches. It's intelligent, impeccably assembled and paced and has the socio-cultural vitality that most films lack. Sköld is saying something important about the process of socialization and how we approach engaging others in our own quest for meaning and purpose. And it really isn't pretty.