Stefan Jarl,
Environmental Filmmaker

Jerry White

Stefan Jarl is one of those rare filmmakers who deftly balances the local with the international, the abstract with the concrete. Although he’s well known for his nature films, he’s not just another dry documentarian; he has a sharp eye for the delicate and mysterious in the broad, sometimes foreboding (urban and rural) landscapes he photographs, landscape that he portrays as populated with real people who have complex problems. His whole career has been pointing a way towards a new model for political film making, one that is tightly to the landscape, to the small details of everyday life and the effects that geo-politics have on those details, and to the quest for a lyrical and painterly visual style.

If Jarl has spent a career trying to figure out a new model for political filmmaking, he’s pursued that project by trying to make sense of the effects that modernity, cultural, economic and technological, has had on the life of Scandinavia. We can see this interest, this obsession, really in the “two pieces” of Jarl’s oeuvre, his urban films and his nature films. Indeed, while that kind of consistency might at first look like a paradox, it’s actually consistent with the very essence of Jarl’s world view. Rural and urban spaces are not, in Jarl’s broadly-conceived humanist world-view, all that different; both are populated with people whose problems and beliefs need to be fully and clearly explained, and both are endowed with a kind of non-embodied power and beauty. Macro- and micro- analyses, along with close-ups and extreme long shots, long takes and montage, must co-exist. But despite the passion which with Jarl makes this mixture manifest with his stylistic choices, his films also evince a certain pessimism, an argument that much of modern life is out of balance, and needs to be examined and re-thought.

Jarl’s trilogy of films about urban Stockholm, dubbed the “Mods Trilogy,” makes for a good entry-point into this mixture of pessimism and engagement. These films focus primarily on Kenneth “Kenta” Gustafson and Gustav “Stoffe” Svensson, two “Mods”—working class hippies interested in little beyond the proverbial sex, drugs and rock’n roll—who we see grow up across 25 years. The films hover between fiction and documentary, and while they might at first seem to be related to Michael Apted’s 7 Up series, they are actually much closer to the “docu-fictions” that have become so popular on British TV over the last few years. And despite Jarl’s intimate approach, these films are very anti-romantic about the 1960s, showing the havoc that the decade’s liberated energy wreaked upon the underclass, a havoc whose consequences, as we see, could be felt decades later.

The first of these, They Call Us Misfits (“Dom kaller oss mods,” 1968, co-written and co-directed with Jan Lindkvist) is certainly informed by the giddy excitement of the late 1960s, but it there is also a drabness here, a kind of melancholy that is present in all of Jarl’s work. We are introduced to Kenta and Stoffe both through a series of talking-head interviews and through shots of them hanging around the streets of Stockholm; the opening images of the film are of these two misfits running through a pedestrian mall, the camera following along as they jump over benches and bump into annoyed passerby. These images neatly embody the restlessness and awkwardness that defines their lives, but they also convey a raw, kinetic energy that’s equally present, an energy that the film, or the trilogy for that matter, is never really able to re-capture. The interview material is mostly depressing; we hear of alcoholic parents, of lousy jobs, of a sense that there is really nothing out there waiting for them. Indeed, in an interview that will turn out to be prophetic (and that will be re-played in the third film, The Social Contract (“Det Sociala arvet,” 1993)), Kenta reflects upon how easy it is for young people to become alcoholics. Jarl asks him if he thinks he’ll make it, if he’ll avoid those kinds of traps, and he replies that he probably won’t. While there are moments of real rebellious energy, this is sequence that really sets the mood of the entire film, and the entire trilogy. These lives that Jarl is portraying are finally defined not by a sense of possibility, but of inevitability, of a sense that people are trapped in destinies that will, finally, destroy them.

And like the other two entries in the trilogy, They Call Us Misfits is quite dualistic formally. The film’s artificiality is not overwhelming, and is indeed easy to miss. Jarl draws upon plenty of ocumentary conventions, such as interviews and candid footage, and at times the film feels like a straightforward documentary portrait. But there are also many moments that depart from the arms-length attitude expected of such work. There are sequences that feature close-ups and extreme close-ups as Kenta and girlfriend make up and seem quite clearly headed towards sex, and sequences of discussions or confrontations that feel candid or spontaneous but which are also edited in a way that is basically identical to the strategies of narrative cinema. This first film of Jarl’s, then, signaled his interest not only in the fringes of society, but in a hybridized form, practice that was somewhere between fiction and documentary. Kenta and Stoffe are real people, but Jarl seems to have been attracted to this project because their lives could serve as a jumping off point for a engrossing story, and often draws upon a stagier, pre-verité version of documentary form.

Much the same is true of the other two films, made in 1979 and 1993, respectively. A Decent Life (“Ett Anständigt liv,” 1979) takes us into a period when Kenta and Stoffe’s lives are really starting to collapse. They have hooked up with women and started to have kids, but they haven’t lost that sense of hollowness, of lack, that we see in the spacey interviews that fill They Call Us Misfits. There are glimpses of hope in A Decent Life, like when Kenta takes his young son Patraic out to the countryside. But overall, they both seem overwhelmed by their lives. The trilogy’s sub-plot (so to speak) about Kenta’s mother, an alcoholic who killed her boyfriend and, towards the end of the film, is released from prison, is a good summary of this. As Kenta, his wife and his mother drive home from the prison, they each talk about what it was like to be in jail, what about the experience bothered them the most. The details of their respective periods of imprisonment are quite sketchy; they all treat jail time as an unpleasant but unsurprising part of the lives they lead. And again, all of this is rendered in a way that feels closely controlled, with exact, efficient editing and clear composition.

By the time of the making of the third film, The Social Contract, Kenta and Stoffe have gotten their lives only slightly more together. Stoffe, with whom Kenta has started to fall out of contact, has died of a heroin overdose. Over the course of the film we follow the business that Kenta tries to start with his wife, and which is eventually run into the ground. But in this final film of the trilogy Jarl shifts both his focus and his form a bit. He focuses quite a bit of the film on Kenta’s son Patraic, now 18 years old and trying to find some direction. Patraic seems much more together than his father ever was, neither losing himself on the margins nor foolishly trying to go full-on into the boom of the 1980s. And Jarl seems to keep his distance with Patraic a bit more than he did with members of his father’s generation. We follow him through interviews , exams, and preparations to do his military service, but these sequences unfold mostly in longish takes; they feel like a more straightforward documentary, Patraic seems less interested in letting the camera into his life than his father was (or Jarl seem less interested in taking the camera there).

But these other two films, like They Call Us Misfits, still move like tightly written, linear narrative; they tell the story of the development, struggles, and eventual quiet collapse of people who never had much of a chance at making good on the energy that seemed to be both inside of and all around them. They use the truth-value of documentary, the sense that this is real and therefore emotionally powerful, to make some sharp criticism about the way that Swedish society punishes outsiders. For Jarl, documentary and fiction are both tools to be used in the pursuit of art that is genuinely felt and realistic about the period it depicts.

Much the same can be said of his work about Scandinavia’s high north. Even though they are often referred to as “nature documentaries,” these films are just as are hybridized and committed as Jarl’s grittier Mods series. These documentaries also quite clearly informed by Arne Sucksdorff, Jarl’s mentor. Sucksdorff, who won an Oscar for his short film Rhythms of a City (“Människor i stad,” 1949) was well known for his passion for infusing lyrical landscape photography with social and political engagement. Jarl’s films about farming, such as Nature’s Revenge (“Naturens hämnd,” 1983) or Time Has No Name (“Tiden har inget namn,” 1989) are clearly indebted to Sucksdorff’s work. This is also true of Jarl’s films about the Sami people, such as Threat (“Hotet,” 1987) or the shorts Jåvna: Reindeer Herdsmen in the Year 2000 (“Jåvna: Renskötare år 2000,” 1991) and Samernas Land (1994). All of this work illustrates a kind of romanticism about the rural landscape that is utterly absent from the sober, sometimes brutal portraits of urban bohemia that we see in the Mods trilogy. But they are also invested with a sense of possibility, of a belief in an alternative to western materialism and nihilism. The Mods films are deeply pessimistic, but these nature documentaries, while dealing with such issues as the dangers of synthetic farming and the havoc that Chernobyl has wreaked, are actually quite optimistic and quite realistic about the fate of Europe’s underdeveloped, trans-national edges.

Nature’s Revenge is a lyrical, pastoral portrait of Sweden’s high north, but it is also an intervention in what Jarl clearly feels is a slow cultural collapse. It focuses on the introduction of synthetic methods to farming, and the havoc that they seem to wreak, or that the farmers Jarl interviews think they will soon be wreaking, on the natural cycles of growth and death. The opening images of the film are studies in opposites, but equally powerful; we see a helicopter drop an enormous amount of lime into a lake, making a huge splash and terrible noise (a voice over tells us that it’s to combat the heavy metals that have been found in the water), followed by some images of the farm that will form the core of the film. After that, we follow a young, bald boy as he walks with his father through the corridors of a hospital where he is being treated for prostate cancer. Jarl’s overall argument is that nature has certain patterns and methods, and that nature exacts revenge on those who tamper with them. This is indeed Romantic with a capital R, and of all his films, Nature’s Revenge is the one where Jarl is most investing nature with a consciousness, and wrestling with heavy, almost abstract questions of how humans can get along with this embodied, spiritually powerful nature. But in addition to this hard-core Romanticism, Jarl is also working out a complex, fairly detailed political analysis, the gist of which will pop up in all of his future nature films.

Consider one sequence that starts with a talking-head interview of a farmer, who explains how synthetic fertilizer can often lead to major problems with moldy wheat. He then announces that he’s going to do an experiment, and sure enough, the wheat that was grown with the artificial fertilizer turns out moldy and disgusting, while the organically grown crops are just as dry and grainy as they should be. The farmer concludes the sequence by saying that fungal poisons will be the issue of the 1980s (this was all shot in 1982). It’s easy to chuckle at this from 2001, knowing that the 80s saw much different problems than fungal poisoning (such as nuclear poisoning, which Jarl would take up a few years later, in his Chernobyl films). But what impresses about this sequence is that Jarl is as invested in the macro—the great landscape shots, talk of nature’s role as adversary or friend—as he is in the micro—arguments about the economics of various kinds of fertilizer. Jarl obviously cares passionately about the grandeur of wilderness, but he is aware that people live in that wilderness too, people who do work and have economic problems and who resist easy, Romantic abstraction.

While it has an English title that makes it sound really dull, Jarl’s 1989 film Time Has No Name: A Contribution to Research in Anthropology is a similarly dualistic portrait of farm life. An older couple is at the core of this work, one who Jarl invests with a kind of metaphorical importance; there are no young people where they live. Indeed, during one of the interviews the old man mentions that they have no more schools there, and that all the children have to go to the city to be educated. But less than a country of old people, Jarl’s argument is that this high north is another, much poorer nation: not quite a Swedish Third World, but almost. The old man actually mentions that the place is like an underdeveloped country, especially since they took the railroad out. And that’s perhaps the most telling line in the film; the turning point for this region, and probably for a great deal of rural Sweden, came when they were essentially cut off from the rest of the country. Jarl invested this kind of separation with a positive sense in his 1987 film Threat, where he is arguing that the high north is a place that has developed separately from “European” values, and that until the intrusion of the Chernobyl disaster it was one of the continent’s last true wilderness areas. But in Time Has No Name that wilderness ideal seems exhausted and infused with melancholia.

This is not to imply that Jarl’s later films are entirely positive about Sweden’s fringes; Threat, for instance, is in some ways quite grim, and is also the work that began Jarl’s interest in Chernobyl and its effects on the Sami people. That film opens with text explaining that Chernobyl exploded in 1986 and sent enormous amounts of poison into Scandinavia. The opening images are of animals and trains, with Jarl’s voiceover saying that the presence of the train is the only remnant of European modernity up here; this is Europe’s last wilderness, he asserts. By the time the film is over Jarl will have reversed this assessment, wondering if there are any real wilderness areas after Chernobyl, so wide-ranging are the effects of its explosion. Time Has No Name posited the idea that wilderness was slowly dying, growing old and not long for this world, like the two farmers at its core. But Threat sees the disappearance of the wilderness in a much harsher light; in these Sami regions, the wilderness and the ways of life organic with it seemed to be doing fine, not dying out at all, until it was effectively murdered by the sudden intrusion of Europe’s hideous modernity. And Jarl is also returning to the analysis of Nature’s Revenge, that there is a serious price to be paid for failing to follow the natural cycles of this landscape. During an interview, one of the Sami reindeer herders describes how the reindeer used to go down to the forest and they used to follow them, but after Chernobyl they have to make the cesium levels of various locations, and not the instincts of the animals or the years of traditional knowledge and nomadic patterns, the primary determinant of how to live. This turn towards artificiality can only have negative repercussions. But if Nature’s Revenge was trying to re-make the Romantic nature film along more politically engaged lines, then Threat is trying to re-make the political film along more lyrical, non-narrative lines. The ostensible purpose of the film is to explain the effect that Chernobyl was having on the regions where the benefits of nuclear power (or, for that matter, power of any kind) have been felt the least, but it is sprinkled with images of tremendous visual impact, such as reindeer running along the sunset-lit hills, or of the snow-covered mountains as a voice over tells us that we’re actually in Norway now, as if it matters, as if these hills, or these people, or this radiation poisoning, could recognize anything as trivial as the borders between states (indeed, that spirit of trans-nationalism is central to all of Jarl’s Sami/Chernobyl films).1

The questions that surround the survival of seemingly anachronistic lifestyles are highly political ones, and it is a historical defect of the European Left that it has tended to view such matters with skepticism, effectively ceding them to a traditionalist and often nationalist Right. I see Jarl’s nature films as a corrective to this tendency, an attempt to convince a European public that these questions are not just a product of backwards, mushy sentimentality, but are instead essential to a full realization of democratic principles. They are, then, quite distinct from the indigenous media practices that were beginning to gain prominence as Jarl was making his Sami/Chernobyl films.2 These Sami films are clearly made by an outsider about a culture that is deeply foreign to him and which he perhaps approaches with a zeal and passion available only to such an outsider. But they make an important political argument, vividly showing that Europe is a complex entity whose fringes are still trying to interpret and come to grips with modernity. Indeed, they interrogate the very idea of “European culture,” and which, by virtue of their free movement across national borders, show us just how little the inhabitants of the high north are effected by some of the most basic assumptions in which Europeans base their identities.

These kinds of concerns are entirely consistent with the Mods films, which are portraits of Europe’s outsiders, people somehow left out of Scandinavia’s idealistic social democratic dream. Kenta and Stoffe aren’t non-Europeans in quite the same way that Jarl is arguing the Sami are, but Jarl is using them, in a way that is very similar to how he is using the people in his high north documentaries, to show how a full understanding of a place, an environment, depends on an understanding of the people who exist on its fringes.

Indeed, while Jarl is generally understood to be a “nature filmmaker,” I think that’s an over-simplification; I’d suggest that calling Jarl an “environmental filmmaker” is much more exact.3 Such an appellation may suggest a certain non-urban focus, but that’s a stereotype. Jarl has always made films about environments, both urban and rural, showing them to be highly complex, fluid entities, always formed by forces that are both human and supra-human, by forces ranging from economic policies to the seasonal migration of massive numbers of reindeer, and, in the case of the Chernobyl documentaries, the potentially horrific ways that the two can effect one another. Stefan Jarl’s cinema is about making these seemingly mismatched elements fit together, about insisting that only examination and reconciliation of the everyday and the systematic will bring about any kind of meaningful understanding of the world in which we live.



1. Jarl’s shorts about the impact of Chernobyl on the Sami people, 1991’s Jåvna: Reindeer Hunter in the Year 2000 and 1994’s Samernas Land, are also fundamentally political films, although also have a very painterly and Romantic sensibility. Jåvna takes up the question of whether the will be reindeer hunters in the year 2000, whether an early-adolescent boy named Jåvna, who forms the core of the film, will be able to maintain the way of life that has survived generations. Like he did in the portrait Time Has No Name, he plunges his camera right into the business of herding, giving his viewer visceral close-ups and medium-shots of herds of reindeer rumbling by, or of herders making their special cuts on the deers’ ear (a technique we also see in Threat). Samernas Land has many of these kinds of sequences as well, and is more non-narrative and meditative than Jåvna, and less explicitly political as well (as befits its 13-minute length; Jåvna is 35 minutes).

2. I’m thinking here of artists such as Inuit videomaker Zack Kunuk or Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, who have used documentary or semi-documentary forms to preserve and participate in the revival of traditional cultural practices. Much the same could be said, though, of the British “Workshop Movement” or similar efforts in North America that sought to train (often urban-based) people in the basics of film making so they could document their own lives. This kind of work is very much about putting cameras into the hands of people who have traditionally been the object of ethnographic discourse. This is not really what’s going on in Jarl’s cinema; his films, while invested with a very real radicalism, do not reverse or even upset the subject-object relationship traditional to most documentary in the same way.

3. Thank you to Documentary Box co-editor Sarah Teasley for suggesting this appellation.

Jerry White is a Killam Doctoral Fellow in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta, Canada.


Stefan Jarl

Born in 1941. Learned his craft from Swedish filmmakers such as documentarist Arne Sucksdorff and fiction filmmaker Bo Widerberg. Also active politically, and worked with filmmaker Lukas Moodysson to rally to the cause of an independent Palestine. His films have shown at festivals all over the world, and in 1993 he received, with Sucksdorff, a special Silver Medallion at the Telluride Film Festival.



1968 They Call Us Misfits (Dom Kallar oss mods)
1976 Musikfilmen (Vi har vår egen sång—Musikfilmen)
1979 A Decent Life (Ett Anständigt liv)
1983 Nature’s Revenge (Naturens hämnd)
1984 One of Us (En av oss)
1985 The Soul is Greater than the World (Själen är större än världen)
1987 Threat (Hotet)
1989 Time Has No Name (Tiden har inget namn)
1990 Good People (Goda människor)
1991 Jåvna: Reindeer Herdsman in the Year 2000 (Jåvna: Renskötare år 2000)
1993 The Social Contract (Det Sociala arvet)
1994 Samernas Land
1997 Nature’s Warrior (Jag är din krigare)
1998 Life At Any Price (Liv till varje pris)
2000 De Hemlösa (“The Homeless”)
2000 Från Sverige i tiden (“From Sweden on Time”)