Josef Fares in timely take on violence

Josef Fares's film Leo, which premieres on Friday, is a timely exploration of how we react to violence. But, says Charlotte West, the script is not all it could be.

There are certain times in a guy’s life when everything changes – and turning thirty is one of them. And life changes dramatically for Leo, the protagonist of Swedish director Josef Fares’ new film, on the evening of his thirtieth birthday.

Leo premieres in Sweden on Friday, 30th November, although three screenings during the Stockholm Film Festival earlier this month also offered viewers a sneak peak. This drama is a far cry from Fares’ previous films, which include comedies such as Jalla! Jalla! (2000) and Kopps (2003).

On the way home from his birthday party, Leo – played by actor Leonard Terfelt – and his girlfriend Amanda are the victims of random violence. When Leo wakes up in the hospital, he finds out that Amanda hasn’t survived the attack.

The film follows him as his life spins out of control and he becomes consumed with revenge. His friends Shahab (played by Shahab Salehi) and Josef (played by Fares himself in his debut as an actor) are drawn into Leo’s downward spiral. The three men ultimately end up paying a higher price for their loyalty than any one them could have anticipated.

Fares has said he wants the film “to ask what it is to be a man.”

“What does it mean, to be a loyal friend? Is it – as I think many young people feel – that in such an extreme situation as this, to stand by him and kill for him?”

Leo tackles the question of unprovoked violence and how society programmes us – and men in particular – to respond. “It is, as the father says in the movie ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’ On a purely intellectual level, Leo understands this…He knows that revenge won’t help him. But he is unable to follow his intellect…Revenge chases him, eats him up from the inside out,” said Fares.

The final movie is a collaborative effort between Fares, Terfelt and Salehi and the real-life friendship between the three men permeates the script. “When I say that this film has been a collaboration, I really mean it. When I had written three, four pages, I sat down with Leonard and Shahab and asked, ‘What do you guys think about this?’” Fares said.

“I wanted to create a realistic tone as possible…That’s one of the reasons we use our real names,” Fares said.

Leo is much darker than its predecessors. Fares saw Leo as a chance to do something different after his first three feature films, although he said that the script became much more serious than he had originally intended.

Fares’ previous movies are quite lighthearted, focusing on comedic value as much as on social commentary. Jalla! Jalla! tells the story of an arranged marriage that was not meant to be, while the police officers in Kopps stay in business by committing petty crimes in their small town. His 2005 film, Zozo, is a bit more serious, follows a Lebanese boy from war-ravaged Beruit to his new life in Sweden, very much like Fares’ own story.

The personal chemistry between the actors in Leo is fantastic, but in the second half of the movie, the storyline starts to crumble. Fares himself said that at some point the script began to take on a life of its own; the end result is a plot with several gaps. This may be because the audience is drawn into Leo’s world, seeing events through his eyes, but you are left with a feeling of unsettling incredulity.

The movies captures the zeitgeist, however, with anti-violence rallies held in major Swedish cities last month after a brutal assault that resulted in the death of a 16-year-old boy. It’s an interesting exploration of violence and how we react to it. As a social commentary, Leo succeeds, but the cinematographic experience leaves a bit to be desired.


How a Swedish film festival is offering a nurse downtime during pandemic

A front-line Swedish nurse is getting some Covid downtime with a week of private screenings of the Gothenburg film festival, in a former lighthouse off the country's west coast.

How a Swedish film festival is offering a nurse downtime during pandemic
Competition winner Lisa Enroth.

More than 12,000 candidates from 45 countries applied to watch the festival's films in almost near isolation on an island 400 kilometres (250 miles) from Stockholm.

The prize is a week viewing as many of the festival's 70 premieres as they like in a hotel in the former Pater Noster Lighthouse. But they will be in isolation and will have no access to their own computer or laptop.

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The bright-red lighthouse, built on a tiny island off Sweden's west coast in 1868, is surrounded by a scattering of squat, red buildings originally built to house the lighthouse keeper's family. It can only be reached by boat or helicopter, depending on the weather.

After a series of interviews and tests, festival organisers chose emergency nurse and film buff Lisa Enroth for the prize, in keeping with the 2021 festival's theme, Social Distances.

Before boarding a small speedboat out to the island on the clear, chill winter's morning, Enroth said she had applied not only out of her love for the cinema, but also to seek respite from her hectic work as an emergency nurse during the pandemic.

“It has been hectic, so it's a nice opportunity just to be able to land and to reflect over the year,” she said.

Months working amid Covid crisis

Sweden, which has taken a light-touch approach to the pandemic compared to its neighbours, has been facing a stronger than expected second wave of the virus. So far, more than 11,500 people have died from Covid-19 across the country.

Enroth works in the emergency ward of a hospital in Skovde in central Sweden. Since the start of the pandemic, her hospital's work caring for virus patients on top of their regular workload has been intense.

Lisa Enroth on her way to the remote festival location. Photo: AFP

“We had a lot of Covid cases during this year and every patient that has been admitted to the hospital has been passing through the emergency ward,” she told journalists.

The organisers said they were surprised by the numbers of applicants for the prize but were confident they had chosen the right candidate — not only for her love of cinema.

“She has also dedicated this past year in the frontline against the Covid-19 pandemic,” the festival's creative director Jonas Holmberg said to AFP.

“That's also one of the reasons we chose her”. 

Isolated screenings

Boarding the boat dressed in a thick survival suit, Enroth sped over the calm, icy waters, jumping off in the island's tiny harbour and disappearing into her lodgings.

A screen has been set up in the lantern room at the top of the windswept island's lighthouse, offering a 360-degree view of the sea and coastline around.

Another wide screen has been set up in one of the island's buildings.

Enroth will also have a tablet and headphones if she wants to watch films elsewhere on the island, which measures just 250 metres by 150 metres.

With only one other person staying permanently on the island — a safety precaution — Enroth's only contact with the outside world will be through her video diary about the films she has viewed.

The festival's films will be shown online and two venues in Gothenburg itself will allow screenings for just one person at a time.

Holmberg, the festival's creative director, said he hoped events like these would maintain interest in the industry at a time when many screens are closed because of pandemic restrictions.

“We are longing so much to come back to the cinemas and in the meantime we have to be creative and do the things that we can to create discussion,” he told journalists.