‘Politics has no place on my theatre stage’

Swedish theatre director Catta Neuding has long sung the virtues of private money in the cultural sector. She tells The Local why many of her colleagues see her as a norm-breaker.

'Politics has no place on my theatre stage'

In a recent debate entitled “Does culture suffer if it sells”, Catta Neuding questioned whether Swedish citizens should have to pay for plays that “no one goes to see”.

In 2012, she was head hunted to take charge of the outdoor theatre Fjäderholmsteatern, on the Fjäderholm island just 20 minutes from Stockholm harbour. She has since remained faithful to her belief that culture should be entertaining

“Entertaining in the best sense of the word. I wanted a broad repertoire,” Neuding tells The Local about setting to work to refresh the theatre. “Earlier it tended towards pantomime and while I didn’t want to deprive the theatre of its accessibility, I wanted to add an artful bent.”

She says there is still a lot of scepticism in Sweden toward private theatre, in large part due to how few such stages there are.

“I want people to have a good time, so it automatically becomes commercial. I don’t aim to create an artistic masterpiece with every performance.”

Neuding, who studied commedia dell’arte, has put together a summer repertoire including Selma Lagerlöf’s tale The Changeling (Bortbytingen) and August Strindberg’s Hemsöborna performed by clowns. She is no roaming saltimbanco, however, when it comes to the demands of running the show commercially. The long-term goal is to survive through ticket sales.

“We’re in the starting blocks, we’re not there yet. I spend a lot of time on marketing, and I have to focus on making sure it sells.”

Although she says politics has no place on her stage, she has a larger political goal with how she works.

“One of my aims is to create a climate where it’s OK to privately finance theatre,” she says.

While many artists shy way from the term commercialism, Neuding thinks theatre should be allowed to have as its ultimate goal to entertain and to fill its seats. She welcomes private involvement in the sector, but notes the Swedes are not in the habit of giving donations to the arts.

“In the US, in contrast, there is almost a social expectation that you contribute to society, including the arts.”

Sweden’s government is working to lift the 25-percent tax on charitable donations to sports and culture, explains Lars Anders Johansson, whom Neuding has drafted in to put together a one-day festival of visor – melodies that follow in the Swedish troubadour tradition. He is also a musician and culture sector analyst at the conservative think-tank Timbro.

“I’d like more of a debate about what state funding for culture should be used for,” he says. “Right now we just have some kind of tepid consensus that ‘culture is valuable’, which people interpret as keeping up payments to institutions that have always been supported.”

Johansson thinks there is a happy medium, where outfits that rely on state funding don’t try to lock horns with private actors. The risk otherwise, he says, is twofold. One, that cultural consumers end up with less variety to choose from, and two, that tax is in essence wasted because it goes to produce something that already exists as well as threatening private enterprise.

“It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Neuding and Johansson are both members of what has been nicknamed “The Red Wine Right”. It’s a spin-off to the oft-maligned term “The Red Wine Left”, which has described the often urban section of middle-class voters who cast their ballots in favour of a strong state and who often work in creative industries.

The Red Wine Right is less of a demographic sweep, but a small movement of people with right of centre views – ranging from conservative to libertarian – who meet up to discuss culture and the arts.

The spin-off term also serves to highlight what many right-leaning observers say is a dominance of leftwing views in the cultural sphere.

“If you’re a socialist, you tend to think that everything is political. A conservative person does not necessarily view their art as political,” says Johansson.

“So let’s say for argument’s sake that Sweden has a 50/50 left-right divide: One half would produce politicized art whereas the other half wouldn’t, which means that all politicized art would be leftwing.”

“Does culture have to question the status quo?” interjects Neuding. “I’m not interested in political theatre, I don’t think the stage is the right place to raise political questions.”

Johansson also says that the structure of how to get state funding is troublesome, in two ways. Firstly, it risks lending a helping hand to people who are good at filling out forms with no guarantee that they are equally skilled at their actual creative profession.

It secondly comes with caveats, such as outlining a gender equality plan. Many such goals, Johansson says, are “worthy causes in themselves” but end up drawing up very strict parametres for the contents of culture – a consensus censorship of sorts.

“We spend a lot of time in Sweden making sure culture doesn’t offend anyone,” Johansson says.

Ann Törnkvist

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Editor’s Note: The Local’s Swede of the week is someone in the news who – for good or ill – has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Swede of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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New wave of Swedish and Danish film rolls into Cannes

A new generation of Scandinavian filmmakers is making waves, following in the footsteps of Ingmar Bergman, Lars von Trier and the Dogme movement, with three directors in competition at Cannes this year.

New wave of Swedish and Danish film rolls into Cannes

Swedish cult director Ruben Ostlund, who won the 2017 Palme d’Or for “The Square”, is back with “Triangle of Sadness”.

He is joined by two other films from rising stars with immigrant backgrounds: “Boy from Heaven”, by Sweden’s Tarik Saleh and Danish-Iranian Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider”.

Scandinavian films have been a fixture at the Cannes Film Festival over the years.

Denmark’s Bille August is one of a handful to win the Palme d’Or twice and Von Trier won the top prize in 2000 for “Dancer in the Dark”, while Bergman was the first-ever recipient of an honorary Palme in 1997 for his body of work.

Nordic filmmakers often “push the limits of cinematographic language,” said Claus Christensen, editor of Danish film magazine Ekko.

“It’s entertainment, but (the goal is) also to challenge the audience. The director has the freedom to explore whatever his artistic vision is,” he told AFP.

Abbasi, 40, is making his second appearance at Cannes, after winning the newcomer’s Un Certain Regard section in 2018 with “Border”, an eccentric troll-fantasy film about a border guard.

His new film “Holy Spider” is the gritty story of a serial killer “cleansing” the Iranian holy city of Mashhad of street prostitutes.

“You can’t pigeonhole him. When you think you have him, he’s a shapeshifter and does something else,” his producer Jacob Jarek told AFP.

Abbasi recently finished filming episodes for the upcoming post-apocalyptic HBO series “The Last of Us”, based on the video game of the same name. That versatility defines others from his generation, said Jarek.

Swedish actress Eva Melander and Danish-Iranian director Ali Abbasi pose as they arrive for the closing ceremony of the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival in 2018. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP

Immigrant perspectives

The previous wave of Danish filmmakers, such as von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, won international acclaim with the Dogme movement, which set strict filmmaking rules aimed at ensuring realism in their films.

But the new generation is “more willing to work with genre, to mix genres: to do comedy and lighter stuff mixed with dark stuff,” said Jarek.

Both Abbasi’s and Saleh’s films draw heavily on their immigrant backgrounds.

Abbasi left Tehran for Sweden in 2002, while Saleh was born in Stockholm to a Swedish mother and Egyptian father.

Saleh’s background was essential to making “Boy from Heaven”, he told AFP.

“I think there’s a reason a lot of directors, historically, have immigrant backgrounds, like (Francis Ford) Coppola and Milos Forman,” the 50-year-old said.

“You’re positioned on the inside and outside of something. In a way, that’s the director’s role… to see both the similarities and the differences.”

Tarik Saleh accepts the World Cinema: Dramatic Grand Jury Prize for his movie “The Nile Hilton Incident” during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival/AFP

Hidden world

“Boy from Heaven” is a dark thriller set in Cairo that follows a poor boy granted a scholarship to the prestigious Al-Azhar University, who finds himself drawn into a brutal power struggle between Egypt’s religious and political elite.

Being an outsider was crucial, Saleh said.  “No one has ever gone into (Al-Azhar University) with a camera before. (An Egyptian filmmaker) would go to prison if they did,” he told AFP.

A former graffiti artist, Saleh grew up with a filmmaker father and worked in his film studio before attending art school in Alexandria.

In addition to directing episodes of “Westworld” and “Ray Donovan”, his 2017 film “The Nile Hilton Incident”, also set in Cairo, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.

Meanwhile, Ostlund, the doyen of the trio with six features under his belt, is bringing his first English-language film to Cannes.

“Triangle of Sadness” is a satire about passengers on a luxury cruise who end up stranded on a deserted island, lampooning the fashion world and ultra-rich, with a scathing criticism of society’s focus on beauty.

By AFP’s Pia Ohlin and Camille Bas-Wohlert