What keeps running but never gets anywhere? This riddle is posed on a number of occasions during writer-director Jonas Selber Augustsén’s head-scratcher of a debut feature. Gym-goers may answer slogging away on a treadmill but the principle could just as easily be applied to a film which is wickedly odd from start to finish. The overarching sense of stasis created by an immobile camera should not suggest that we remain in the same place, but the movement here is more cerebral than literal. Sure to distinguish festival circuit audiences for and against as clearly as the black and white of its monochrome images, The Garbage Helicopter is a beguiling, bemusing Nordic offering.
The film sees siblings Enesa (Jessica Szoppe), Baki (Christopher Burjanski) and Saska (Daniel Szoppe) on a quest to return a clock to their grandmother who lives over a thousand kilometres away. Myriad detours and mishaps along the way include running over a cow, an impromptu Saab vs. Volvo drag race, a Holocaust exhibition, being stopped by armed art thieves, and visiting the world’s biggest cheese slicer, drawing pin and what ignominiously used to be the largest chair but is burned as a result of being one-upped by a place in Germany (the shame). Various elements here point to a loss of Swedish cultural identity and language, including the sister’s frequent refrain of “We do speak Swedish,” when interlocutors initially address them in English.
As well as draining the screen of colour, Augustsén’s actors share pallid, emotionless gazes and facial expressions and dialogue is voiced with a similarly lifeless monotony. Although relentless in its morose tone, the deadpan expressions and delivery do give rise to moments of unexpected hilarity. Episodic in structure thanks to long takes, each scene is spliced together with a black screen marking a clear break for a moment’s reflection before moving on elsewhere. One can almost imagine Augustsén taking to the film stock with a pair of scissors. When he does relent with a slow camera pan it almost feel like we’re flying but the best is saved till last when empty picture frames soar into focus.
Much time is spent wondering what on earth is actually going on but perseverance does pay dividends. As barmy as its title suggests, The Garbage Helicopter keeps running and gets somewhere, it’s just hard to say what and where that is. Some will see a quirky charm in that lack of definition and others will be infuriated. Its oddity is a double-edged sword that makes it superb festival fare but in all likelihood too alienating for success elsewhere. One thing is for certain, though, you’ll never look at crosswords and speed cameras the same again.
International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from 27 January to 7 February. Follow our coverage here. The Garbage Helicopter is also available to stream via Festival Scope’s IFFR Live here.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens