By Suzan E. Hagström
Full of enthusiasm on joining the House of Sweden in San Diego, California, five years ago, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea to put the nonprofit educational organization on the map.
Let’s have an Ingmar Bergman film festival, I suggested. Let’s show his films nonstop – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Let’s sell vodka 24-7, too. Such a fundraiser would not only finance numerous scholarships and cultural events, I reasoned, but would also make the House of Sweden famous around the world.
It might be a little ambitious to show movies for an entire week the first time, I acknowledged excitedly, but that should be the long-term goal. We could limit the inaugural event to a weekend, starting Friday afternoon and ending in the wee hours of Monday morning. I volunteered to apply for corporate and government grants to help launch my brainstorm.
Alas! My brilliant idea was not to see the light of day. The House of Sweden, which is part of a “mini United Nations” in San Diego’s beautiful Balboa Park, does not have a liquor license. Only once a year are the city’s international cottages allowed to sell alcohol, and that occurs during the park’s “December Nights” open house which kicks off San Diego’s Christmas season.
Given I am a neophyte to Bergman, I fell into mildly disgruntled disappointment rather than utter despair. Without complaining I continued to fulfill my duties as the House of Sweden’s recording secretary.
A glimmer of hope emerged early this year when the city of San Diego required the international cottages to expand their hours to help commemorate Balboa Park’s centennial. The House of Sweden was obligated to be open an entire week before its annual Midsummer celebration on June 21. While the house’s officers proposed various cultural activities for each day of the week – such as reading Pippi Longstocking stories to children – I saw a chance to revive my idea, which had been so quickly and cruelly extinguished five years ago.
Although the “mini” Ingmar Bergman film festival was only a shadow of my original grand plan for a movie marathon accompanied by a 24-hour vodka bar, I welcomed the low key, “under the radar” start.
I also welcomed the likelihood that no one would attend a film festival set for Monday June 15 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. That way no one would discover that I am woefully ignorant. I wouldn’t have to admit publicly that I didn’t understand the few Bergman films I had viewed while earning my two bachelor’s degrees at the University of California Berkeley.
Despite my expectation of an empty house with empty chairs, I publicized what I deemed an historic event: the House of Sweden’s very first “mini” Ingmar Bergman film festival. I prepared by asking cultural experts and House of Sweden members which Bergman films were their favorites and which movies would be less intimidating for beginners.
By seeking such advice, I was admitting that I am a Bergman lightweight. However, one has to start somewhere; after all, infants crawl before they stand upright and walk. I thought of this project, my first “mini” film festival, as “Baby Bergman.” I realized I was taking a “negative” – my own feelings of intellectual inadequacy about the Bergman genre – and making a “positive” – creating a learning opportunity for myself. How un-Bergman-like, I thought. I should have been ashamed that I wasn’t becoming depressed.
Based on the results of my informal survey, I decided to show a lighter side of Bergman – “Smiles of a Summer Night” – with a decidedly deeper and heavier work – “Autumn Sonata.” Such a sampling would placate two audiences, serious film connoisseurs and Bergman novices.
To accommodate special requests – in the remote chance that someone knowledgeable would show up – I checked out other films, including a collection of documentaries, from San Diego’s Public Library.
To my pleasant surprise, on Monday June 15, people did show up. Granted, there were a homeless man sleeping on the House of Sweden’s veranda when I arrived and dozens of tourists wandering aimlessly through the park’s campus of international cottages – all oblivious to the special event. But to my astonishment, several individuals came in response to my publicity about the House of Sweden’s first “mini” Ingmar Bergman film festival.
The first customer, Eva Lantz, a Swede who lives in San Diego, arrived about 11:30 a.m. However, she and I became so engaged in discussing our respective connections to Sweden with other visitors, it was nearly impossible to start a film.
About an hour later when Donna Swing, a La Mesa resident, arrived with her two out-of-town guests, we agreed on a short documentary: a 2002 interview with Bergman when he was 84 years old.
We enjoyed watching Bergman take charge by directing the cameraman and interviewing the interviewer. Bergman’s comments, made in Swedish with English subtitles – “Aren’t you going to have a camera on him? ...I would prefer to question you” – made us laugh.
The artist Bergman is highly acclaimed for exposing on film his personal demons, which include a preoccupation with death, sexual relations and the quest for and loss of religious faith – what colleague Woody Allen calls “the battlefield of the soul.”
The conversationalist Bergman is light and bright, charismatic and funny, surprisingly accessible even while discussing the reality, darkness and foibles of the human condition.
Later in the afternoon, after more visitors arrived to the House of Sweden, I showed another interview with Bergman, conducted in English in 1970, when he was 52 years old at the pinnacle of his career.
Like other visitors at the film festival, Joan McNamara said she learned something new. Although she has seen some of his films, she said, she knows little about Bergman. McNamara, who happens to be taking a world religion class at San Diego Community College, said she was especially interested to hear Bergman talk about how his concept of God changed.
Personally, it was refreshing for me to hear Bergman equate making movies with doing any other job, such as making furniture.
I can relate to his approach to work because it’s similar to what I experience with almost anything I do, including writing. “It’s always the first time (with each film). I’m always trying, and I’m trying again. ...I always have the same difficulties... I couldn’t express what I wanted to express.”
With that, please remain posted for details about the House of Sweden’s second “mini” Ingmar Bergman film festival in 2016
Writer Suzan E. Hagström