Using cellphones and selfie sticks, two high school girls document their declining provincial town in the loosely knit dramedy “Amateurs,” winner of the best Nordic film in Göteborg. As in her prizewinning feature debut “Eat Sleep Die,” Swedish helmer Gabriela Pichler mixes social commentary and poignant humor and makes engaging use of affecting, non-pro performers. Setting the action against a backdrop of globalization and the evolving multicultural makeup of Europe, Pichler and co-screenwriter Jonas Hassen Khemeri (the acclaimed Swedish novelist and influential editorial writer) provocatively question the nature of images and the people who create them as well as assumptions made by Nordic Swedes about fellow citizens of color. Further fest travel is assured for this energetic sophomore film that takes as a given the changing face (and faces) of Sweden.
Teens Aida (Zahraa Aldoujaili) and Dana (Yara Aliadotter) live in the fictional hamlet of Lafors, once known for its textile factory and tannery, but now sadly in need of an economic boost. When the town council learns that Lafors is under consideration as a site for the low-priced German retail chain Superbilly, councilor Musse (Fredrik Dahl), whose mother is Tamil, is put in charge of updating the town’s image to make it as alluring as possible. Lacking the necessary budget for a slick commercial, Musse pitches the project to the local high school kids and the idea captures the fancy of Aida and Dana.
Although the council fails to deem any of the high school efforts acceptable, that doesn’t stop Aida and Dana, who continue to film their homes and surroundings. Tough, athletic tomboy Aida, who is of Iraqi heritage, lives with her cleaning-lady aunt (Shada Ismaeel) and cousins. She interviews her aunt while she performs her nightly chores scrubbing the council office. As with “Eat Sleep Die,” Pichler takes time to show the working class at work, making visible what is normally invisible on screen.
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Plump musician Dana, too, has foreign parentage. Her mother (Persin Abdulrahman) is a once-prominent, now exiled Turkish journalist who sells cakes at Lafors’ venerable bakery; and her genial, supportive stepfather (Boban Petrovski) hails from former Yugoslavia. One of the film’s best scenes further deepens Pichler’s exploration of working class lives: During a dinner at Dana’s house, Aida’s aunt tries to explain to Dana’s mother her fears about Aida’s confrontational nature and her feeling that speaking truth to power is a luxury that only the well-off can afford.
As the time for the Superbilly representatives’ visit inches ever closer, Musse winds up with sponsorship from a local construction company to fund a more conventional Lafors promo shot by Roland (Jan Cruseman), an experienced Stockholm documaker. His clichéd aesthetic vision (shots of beautiful nature without people; quaint, brightly painted fishing huts; rolling green fields and scenic bridges) contrasts with the down-and-dirty footage shot by Dana and Aida, who ask various residents how a cheap goods superstore would affect their lives and businesses.
Pichler takes questions of representation even further when Roland makes a presentation at the high school about filmmaking and moral conscience, using one of his prizewinning documentaries shot in a foreign country as an example, and Aida asks if he had permission to show the people suffering and naked. But perhaps even more thought-provoking is when the construction company rep objects to the articulate but very Indian-looking Musse as the on-camera spokesperson for Lafors.
The empathetic, naturalistic visuals of Pichler and her “Eat Sleep Die” cinematographer and co-editor Johan Lundborg capture the strong sense of community in a place like Lafors, from the rodeo-like atmosphere of the opening moments to evenings of karaoke and bowling at the local pub to the finale at the burg’s one and only cinema. Particularly moving is Musse’s relationship with his now-senile mother who has forgotten all her Swedish and can only speak Tamil, a language which, in the interests of assimilation, she never taught her children. Although the noisy ups and downs of Aida and Dana’s friendship and adventures weights the film in their direction, the sensitive depiction of Musse’s relationship with his mother makes him the quiet heart of the film.