Kristian A. Söderström’s feature directorial debut Videoman (Videomannen, 2018), enters the obsessive world of a VHS collector. When Ennio (Stefan Sauk), a Giallo obsessed VHS collector acquires a valuable title, his financial woes seem fixed, that is until it’s stolen. As he begins a desperate hunt for the mysterious thief, he meets fellow outsider and alcoholic Simone (Lena Nilsson), who loves all things ’80s. United by their nostalgia and broken dreams, the pair begin a romance that may just offer hope for the future.
Beneath the skin of this entertaining thriller are thematic undercurrents that offer relevant and incisive commentary on human nature. If the obsessive Ennio reminds us othat exuberance that comes with the commitment to an interest, then it creates an experience that’s imbued with a charm that will continue to feed our memory of the film. Yet in the tradition of the darker shades of storytelling, here is a narrative of the struggle faced by the outsiders of society that is neither optimistic nor cynical, but realistic in looking to life as a series of phases we must go through, for better or worse.
In conversation with PopMatters ahead of its World Premiere screenings at Arrow Video FrightFest 2018, Söderström discusses the therapeutic nature of the cinematic experience, embracing the struggles of his characters, and the sad fate of the type of non-commercial cinema he’s drawn to.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Taxi Driver (1976) was a big part of my growing up, but maybe that wasn’t why I wanted to start making movies. Barton Fink (1991) by the Cohen Brothers was a turning point, and at the same time I was discovering that there were people who actually work in film, and there was a school for it. So Barton Fink was a big inspiration in my wanting to make films.
Interviewing the filmmaking collective RKSS for Summer of 84 (2018) and asking whether their experiences as filmmakers have influenced the way they watch films as spectators, François Simard explained: “…often you start watching a film and then suddenly you see a camera movement and you’ll be: Oh, that was clever. I liked how he played it like this, how he expressed his emotion. Then you realise that you just jumped out of the film because you are overthinking. So I actually taught myself to do that and to just enjoy the film.” Would you agree that when you start making films, you have to readjust how you watch films as a spectator?
When I don’t like a film, I start watching it as a filmmaker, listening for the sound, looking at the shot and realising that people are around this situation, and they are trying to capture it. But when I like a film, I usually get sucked into it as I used to. So it’s those two thoughts, and then I also sometimes watch films just to see how these guys or girls do it; where I will love a film, and I just want to see how they achieved it. So that’s another thing when watching.
But I think I’m pretty good at not thinking of my filmmaking when I sit down to watch a film. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but sometimes I get sucked into it and don’t realise what they are doing [laughs] to me. And then I go back and watch it with another set of eyes.
This is one way in which we can compare cinema to human relationships, specifically how — when you connect with another person — time can seem to slow down, whereas with a lack of connection, the mind wanders. Further, the capacity to like a film, yet find it infuriating in moments only suggests that films are not dissimilar to the essence of the nature of their authors, and their interpersonal relationships.
Absolutely, and that’s an interesting thought. It’s not often I connect with people in that way that you’re saying, that I get immersed and time flies by. That’s a beautiful feeling when that happens. It’s easier when you’ve had a few pints, but then it’s not usually that exciting of a conversation; maybe. And again, it’s easier for me to get immersed in film in that way, and it happens more often than with people. I don’t know what that says about me and if I’m an introverted guy or…
It’s interesting how we can feel a deep connection to characters onscreen, or characters in storytelling more broadly, whereby re-encountering them has the feel of bumping into an old friend. And there are those characters that you feel for emotionally more than people in your everyday life.
Yeah, there are films that I like to watch for Christmas or Halloween because I want to be around these characters again, and it doesn’t have to be a holiday, but definitely, yes. It’s strange because it has a beginning and an end, but when you are in the middle of it, it still feels like they are alive. I don’t know if it’s an imagination thing that you can disconnect from reality and just get immersed in that way, but still, there are lots of people that are rooting for the bad guy.
I remember watching the British television series The Fall (2013-16), about a serial killer with my girlfriend. It was a great piece and my girlfriend was rooting for the bad guy at the end of the first season, and I was almost like: He’s such a bastard, how can you? [laughs] I don’t know, but that’s what’s so amazing about film, that you can care about a serial killer.
Cinema is a place where we can shed our social concerns of conforming and what is morally acceptable; a playground where we get to explore the darker shades of ourselves, as well as those darker aspects of sympathy. This, however, ties into the Jungian concept of the shadow complex, which cinema acts as a confrontational rather than a repressive medium in allowing us to acknowledge our darker selves, albeit safely.
Definitely, and you see somebody smashing an office that you would like to sometimes do, but you never do. It’s of course a release of feelings as well that you can’t express because you would be in jail or whatever.
Storytelling is often structured around convenience that we are deprived of in reality. What we are discussing is a liberation that comes through the imagination, which can be equally frustrating as we have a limited authorial control over our own lives, and the world around us.
I love a film called Naked (1993) by Mike Leigh, and David Thewlis’s character is saying so many things that it could have been me saying that. Still I can’t say them [laughs], not everything, but a few things, and stuff like that can almost inspire, where you think: I have to put my foot down here in this relationship, it’s now time. You can almost become inspired, not to commit murder, but maybe to put your foot down or say a forbidden truth, and so they can be therapeutic in a way too.
The characters in Videoman are flawed and they are not living ideal existences, nor are they particularly happy. They have their dreams, yet reality proves harsh and unsympathetic towards them. As a film it encompasses a lot of what we have spoken about up until now regarding characters. Is this an intentional interest of yours to look at stories and characters within this context, and does that drive you as a storyteller?
This is a starting point and it was definitely important. I’m interested in characters that are trying to deal with reality because I’m always trying to do that myself. Of course, in this film it’s a lot about escaping reality and that’s their way of dealing with, or trying to cope with it. I’m not so much interested in James Bond or guys that have already made it when you start the film. It’s more about the struggle to cope with the reality contra; the way we would like reality to be.
I recall hearing Lauren Bacall say how one can’t be happy, only content because unhappiness is a looming reality. That Ennio’s happiness and success, having run the most successful videostore in Sweden, was thwarted by a changing world echoes this point. As individuals, we can only ever be content because we are forced to live our lives in phases, as the world around us and our circumstances undergo constant change. One of the questions the film asks is whether we can deal with change on our own, or do we need someone to accompany us on that journey?
We live in a culture right now where there are a lot of self-help books and I read a lot about all of these books, and I have friends reading them for different issues. It’s tough, but I think you definitely can if you have the right determination. You can change yourself, and of course it’s much easier if you have a companion trying to push you, and who can maybe take the same journey.
So again, it’s perhaps that you need someone just a little, at least one person you can reveal yourself to in order to cope. Of course, there are strong people that can do it anyways, but for me, I need to have that conversation with someone.
The mind is perhaps like Plato’s notion of the cave, where our thoughts, obsessions and perspective seem rational, whereas in truth we’re susceptible to impulsive and misguided irrationality. As people there’s a need to embrace a rational discussion that therein allows us to leave our mind’s cave.
On one level Videoman narratively looks to the pursuit of a better level of mental or emotional health. And then, as we become more self-aware and place our own feelings aside, comes the realisation that we are social creatures who impact those around us.
Yeah, they have to come out of their cave, and her cave is her home and his cave is his cellar. It’s their escapist thing and then it’s the cold outside. The main character Ennio is so stuck inside himself and he has a huge ego [laughs], and that’s why he’s always angry because he’s not getting any feedback any longer. In his dreams he would probably be a movie star or something like that, and be looked upon, but he’s not.
Simone, on the other hand, is putting her attention outside of herself. I think it’s a combination of him making her look inside of herself, while she’s making him look a little bit more outside of himself. They’re not the perfect match, but at least they’re helping each other to see a broader perspective by, in your words, getting out of their caves.
To your credit, you have retained the personal of VHS collecting, not diminishing it in order to appeal to a broader audience. While film is a business, you hold true to artistic integrity, inviting the audience into this world to experience something that was very personal to so many at a specific moment in time.
The sad thing is that maybe a lot of the films that I love are not bestsellers, and I still really need to make those kinds of films. I couldn’t do The Meg (2018), but of course I have been thinking a lot about that, and again, it’s about the characters.
If I were to have made this more commercial, then maybe the characters would be stereotypes and [the story] would be less about the film collecting, and more about the chase and the thriller elements. But yeah, it was so many different elements that I wanted to get into the film, and some people feel like it’s too many things, but that’s what I love in films as well. So I try to have a tone that if it’s right, you can have many different things in one film and make it feel united.
The World Premiere of Videoman played on the Discovery Screen at Arrow Video FrightFest 2018.