Dispatch from Tromso Film Fest: ‘Johansen Brothers’ and the Paradox of Belonging

Powered by his love of film, Rahul Desai braves the teeth-chattering Norwegian cold to write about all he’s watching at TIFF
Dispatch from Tromso Film Fest: ‘Johansen Brothers’ and the Paradox of Belonging

The two most popular features of this year’s ‘Films from the North’ sidebar at the Tromsø International Film Festival are spiritual siblings in terms of their reading of Arctic society. Their timelines are separated by 80 years, but the central conflict – of rural men resigned to the inevitability of tradition while the women break away – is eerily similar. The Icelandic film, A Letter from Helga, is a love story between a married woman and a married man on a remote island. It’s set in the 1940s, but the village is so detached from the mainland – so bereft of time and tide – that it’s hard to tell. A shared fondness for literature shapes this tragic romance, but it’s the man who struggles to take the leap of faith and start a new life with her. He’s a farmhand who learns to regret being rooted to his land. The film processes his inability to think beyond his barn and family; he’s unable to articulate it despite being a compulsive reader. It’s an unspoken, deeply entrenched internal conflict. Trude Ottersen’s tender documentary, Johansen Brothers, sheds a little more light on the gendered awakenings of the North. By patiently following the life of a Nordic family in a remote fjord village, the filmmaker proves that sometimes living is the only kind of storytelling.

The setting is Krakrøhamn, a once-populous village now down to a princely total of 25 inhabitants, 24 of whom are men. The women have left for non-greener pastures like Oslo, Bergen and Tromsø. The only one left is the 70-year-old matriarch of the Johansen family, Kjellrun, who runs a farm with her husband and five 40-something adult sons (which means that the family forms nearly 30% of the village population). The two daughters have moved away. Of the five sons who’ve refused to leave the crowded nest, the documentary focuses on the two that best symbolise the duality of roots. 

There’s Jan Ivar, the fisherman who can’t imagine a life beyond his family home. This is his cocoon, his safe space. He guts fish in the day and plays computer games at night. Given there is almost nobody his age on the island, his best friend is an old man whose idea of a good time is having Jan Ivar photograph the tombstones of the local cemetery so that he can win debates about who died when. Jan Ivar’s latest dream is to get a driving license. He wants to be a little more “self-sufficient”. 

Dispatch from Tromso Film Fest: ‘Johansen Brothers’ and the Paradox of Belonging
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And there’s Idar, the family’s restless goat farmer who has now started longing for some companionship. He considers goats more interesting than the humans he lives with. He creates a dating profile, while keeping this ‘secret’ from his brothers and parents. Idar can’t wait to leave, but he also can’t do it alone. He needs a solid reason – like a suitable girlfriend – to fly the coop. The family senses he’s up to something, but they let him do his thing. From the looks of it, this isn’t the first time Idar has willed himself to fall in love. The mother is almost confident that he won’t succeed. The father remarks that bringing a ‘modern Norwegian woman’ into the house will be beneficial to nobody. Idar is from a different generation like his brother, so the umbilical cord that once soothed him is now strangling him. But there are no overly dramatic scenes that suggest this. It’s just there, like subtext hanging in the air and descending on an island that is running out of text. 

Given her choice of subject, there was always the danger of the Tromsø-based Trude Ottersen observing the Johansens through a patronising urban lens. This tends to happen when cityfolk seek country-specific stories — the ‘village bumpkin’ tone often seeps into the narrative. But Ottersen does it the right way.  There’s affection as well as a respectful distance in the way her documentary chronicles the family. The quirky soundtrack, for instance, does well to tread the thin line between smiling with and smiling at people. Her voiceover, too, is sparse and not too introspective; she lets the shots and her chemistry with the family in their space do the talking. She never pretends to have all-consuming access to the family either. You can sense the timeless nature of their lifestyle, but you can also sense that this is a crucial period for the two men who strive to be more than just sons and brothers in contrasting ways. You don’t have to explicitly see their important moments – like a goodbye, a crisis, or a return – to understand the poignance of it. If anything, it’s more moving like that. The invisible life-must-go-on mood is disarming but also unnerving. 

The biggest triumph of this slice-of-life theme is that the viewer is confronted with the fullness of the “genre”. At first, we think Idar is the hero and this is his breaking-free story. We root for him against a family that knows no better. But then it becomes obvious that there is no ‘against’ here. Loneliness is both the hero and the villain. Idar’s decision to leave is admirable but does not exist in isolation; it has an impact on Jan Ivar, who has nobody left to share his thoughts and company with. The line from The Lunchbox (2013) comes to mind: “I think we forget things if there is nobody to tell them”. This explains Jan’s hobby of photographing the tombstones. It isn’t for his friend but for himself: a way of ensuring that the villagers themselves are remembered even if their lives are long forgotten. 

One can almost detect that Jan Ivar is struggling to tackle alien feelings like regret and resentment. Ditto for Idar and feelings like attachment. There are little moments in the documentary that conveys the family’s fraught relationship with expression – as if they are suddenly experiencing emotions but don’t know how to show them after living on the fringes of civilization for so long. Like when Idar blushes at a gift shop while buying jewellery for a ‘potential girlfriend’ – he is so unconditioned to romantic attachment that he is nearly married to her in his head. Or when he is heartbroken later, as he chokes up while speaking to a friend, but can’t seem to understand his own sadness. Or when there’s a death in the family, but nobody is crying at the funeral; they all seem perfectly normal but also lost, at odds with the pressure of public mourning. Or like when Jan Evar keeps repeating that “there’s no point moping about” after he’s the one left with the responsibility of growing the family farm. 

None of them are willing to reveal themselves, but in doing so, they reveal a life where blooming is a consequence of both breaking and maintaining old traditions. To its credit, the documentary doesn’t glorify one at the cost of the other. Which is why the feel-goodness of how it ends is a rarity in modern storytelling. People move on, people stay back, and graveyards become the engraved memories of life. 

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