“There’s so much here that’s left unsaid – their home lives, their aspirations, their resentment toward a system that ignores them – that should have been explored in more detail.”

by Josh Stillman

Don’t go into Under Gottsunda, the new film from Swedish director and author Viktor Johansson, expecting much to happen. This isn’t traditional narrative storytelling so much as an impressionist sketch of a place and some of its wayward inhabitants.

Gottsunda is a poor, ethnically diverse district in the Swedish city of Uppsala. Nearly half of its residents are immigrants, many of whom live in housing projects, and it is frequently subject to streaks of vandalism and car burnings. In 2013, Johansson was working as a teacher at a social project called Gottsunda Stories, which gave the area’s underprivileged youth the opportunity to tell their own stories, in contrast to the media’s version of events. His work there spawned the film, which is a loosely fictionalized retelling of their accounts.

Under Gottsunda
Written & Directed by
Viktor Johansson
Release Date
December 2014
Josh’s Grade: C-

Presented in a way that blurs the line between documentary and fiction – think Larry Clark’s Kids, but without the rampant sex and drug use – Under Gottsunda follows a number of subcultures that have sprouted on the fringes of the district’s society. There are the devotees of a self-defense technique called Systema, who practice in parking lots and empty fields; rappers and poets, spitting verses on the sidelines of soccer games; displaced Palestinian emigrants, fashioning homemade slingshots in back alleys. A unifying thread is that very few of them are of Swedish descent; but more importantly, they all seek to escape from the frustration and boredom of poor, suburban malaise.

This, as far as I can tell, is Johansson’s first feature film. And as with many first-time directors, his affection for the subject matter exceeds his technical ability. The characters are indeed interesting and worthy of the attention he gives them. However, he makes some unusual stylistic decisions that work to the film’s detriment. First, he fails to provide anyone’s name. I suppose this was meant to suggest that the situation is universal, or that they are part of a faceless underbelly, but it’s a better idea in theory than in practice. The effect is that it’s all very impersonal; we are unable to develop substantial relationships with the people on screen (to put it more simply, we want to know who they are). Besides, the whole point is that these are in fact living, breathing humans with their own stories to tell. Giving them names, and allowing them to speak to the camera – instead of solely in voice-over – humanizes them, forces us to acknowledge their personhood.

Moreover, his use of slow motion – which, when used appropriately, can bestow a surreal, dreamlike quality on the action – is excessive. He seems enamored of it, applying it indiscriminately to virtually every shot. The documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, which came out earlier this year and centers on a similar subculture, made haunting, and sparing, use of the technology. In Under Gottsunda, it’s so pervasive that the effect is lost.

I’m also perplexed by his decision to make this a fiction film, as this is a premise that begs for documentary treatment. Had Johansson made a true documentary, instead of the avant garde hybrid that it is, he could have painted a much more intimate picture of the lives of these kids, perhaps made things more cohesive. There’s so much here that’s left unsaid – their home lives, their aspirations, their resentment toward a system that ignores them – that should have been explored in more detail. A documentary, featuring real people explaining themselves in their own words, would have shed much more light on the situation at hand.

This kind of unblinking social realism is nothing new in fiction films. It’s been done before in the aforementioned Kids, and more recently in Fish Tank, both of which portrayed the corrosive effects of disadvantaged and directionless youth. Those films, though, gave us better-developed characters, and a semblance of a narrative – something, anything to hold our attention. Under Gottsunda, in contrast, is as aimless as the young people it claims to represent, a story in search of someone to tell it.