Truth to tell: after a series of Bergman films focusing on dysfunctional relationships, from Scenes from a Marriage via From the Life of the Marionettes to Shame and The Passion of Anna, I was ready for a change, and as much as I like Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, I thought I could do without them for a film or two. Lucky for me, the next two instalments on our journey through Ingmar Bergman’s cinema were the two documentary films, Fårö Document (made throughout 1969 and first aired on Swedish television on 1 January 1970) and its follow-up Fårö Document 1979, which act as a welcome palate cleanser in Criterion’s box set.
While the two instalments of Fårö Document don’t feature the familiar faces, plots or psychological predicaments, there is nonetheless a definite Bergman vibe about them. Partly this may be down to Bergman’s actual voice, familiar from the credit sequence of each episode of Scenes from a Marriage, which leads through the films; partly it’s the cinematography by frequent Bergman collaborators Sven Nykvist and Arne Carlsson. Mostly, though, it’s the look and feel of the island of Fårö, familiar from so many of Bergman’s films. The bleak, austere beauty of Fårö is one of the stars of the two documentaries, which both follow the course of the year, showing the island both when it’s overrun by beach-worshipping tourists and when it’s harrowed by biting winter winds, so that even the most woolly of the sheep are shivering with the cold.
The other star of the show are the inhabitants of Fårö, which Bergman takes a compassionate, even affectionate look at. The narratorial voice isn’t devoid of the deadpan humour that Bergman often evinces, but by and large he doesn’t comment on the people he depicts, giving them the necessary space to talk about their lives. He doesn’t romanticise them and their often harsh existence either, but he makes himself something of an advocate for a community that, in their own words, often feel left behind, firstly by changing times, secondly by the Swedish state. Many of the social themes of both films are not unfamiliar even forty, fifty years later: small landholders and fishermen can no longer survive as the things they sell, the meat, wool and fish, are sold in larger amounts and much more cheaply by big corporations. (I wonder if the last ten, twenty years have made a difference in this respect and if the Fårö islanders have found a niche in more artisanal, small-scale trade.) The first of the two films leaves its viewers with an impression of a place that is doomed to a slow death; few of the islanders we’re introduced to (with a school bus-sized exception, more on which later) seem younger than 50, and most look decidedly older than that. Fårö Document 1979 is already more hopeful due to featuring more young people, suggesting that more islanders have found reasons to stay.
Not all of the vignettes of island life work are equally engaging. Some of the people Bergman interviews make a strong impression, not least the ones that the second film revisits ten years after first introducing them to the audience. There are scenes that are quietly heartbreaking, doubly so for being told by, or focusing on, people unused to sharing their lives with the camera, but there are also sequences that feel indulgent and go on for too long, and once or twice Bergman even slips into a slightly twee mode, such as when he introduces us to an elderly native of Fårö who late in his life discovered a talent for very middling poetry. (Perhaps the man’s poems are better enjoyed in the original Swedish.) Though the editing of the two films does make sure that if they do veer towards the sentimental, they are immediately grounded again, such as when we’re treated to sequences showing in great detail the slaughtering of a sheep (in the 1970 film) or a pig (in the sequence).
While I enjoyed Fårö Document more than its sequel, mostly since Fårö Document 1979 is the baggier of the two films at almost twice the length, some of my favourite scenes are the ones where the teenaged interviewees on a school bus (accompanied by supremely cheesy pop music, a touch that I dearly hope is meant to be ridiculous) are revisited ten years later, reflecting on their original statements, which mostly can be summarised as “Obviously I’m gonna get out of this place at the first opportunity – it’s boring and there is no work!” There’s a touch of Michael Apted’s Up series, not least when Bergman notes that he hopes to return to Fårö ten years later yet again, adding dryly: “I wonder if any of us will still be alive then.” I have to admit some regret that Bergman never returned to the subject as a filmmaker, even if he spent much of his life on Fårö and moved there permanently in 2004. In 1969 especially, Fårö seemed to be caught in a time bubble – I do wonder what the place looked like through Bergman’s eyes as he grew older, until his death in 2007, on Fårö.