In his feature-length debut Ridge, the Swedish artist and director John Skoog returns to his birthplace Kvidinge, a small village of just under 2000 inhabitants in northern Scania, the southernmost region in Sweden. The film will premiere at CPH: DOX in Copenhagen, where Skoog now resides, and when the festival opens today Ridge will compete with 11 other films for the main festival prize DOX: AWARD.
As in several of the short films that Skoog has made since graduating from Städelschule in Frankfurt in 2012, Kvidinge and the surrounding area are both filming locations and elusive protagonists. We encounter Polish seasonal workers, holidaymakers, and lost young people – “fragments of life lived in the periphery,” according to the press release. But the film is not a straightforward narrative in a traditional sense, but rather consists of a series of narrative ellipses that are set against shifts of light and a growing sense of the rural Scanian landscape.
Skoog describes Ridge as an attempt to make a film “without hierarchies,” that instead “feels” like the environment in which it takes place. Everything in front of the camera is given equal weight, and none of the film’s parts – voices, images, sounds – are allowed to overshadow the others.
An important dimension of this is that Skoog often works with the same team, several of whom have grown up in Kvidinge, or are part of his family and circle of friends. In other cases, like the cinematographer Ita Zbroniec-Zajt, they have developed a deep affinity for the place after having worked with Skoog for several years. Out of this, a cinematic tone characterised by distinct framing, tracking shots through the landscape, and tentative twilight has emerged, where the title of Skoog’s first short, Late on Earth (2012), summarises the atmosphere that recurs in several of his films: an apocalyptic mood, or an endless wait for something you imagine will arrive.
Martin Grennberger: Your films have always lacked a straightforward narrative and have been more associative and non-linear. This is also the case for Ridge, shot in the region you come from, around rural Kvidinge in southern Sweden, and in which phenomena and encounters are even more loosely assembled than in your earlier work. How did the film come about?
John Skoog: What we tried to do in Ridge was create a film told in ellipses. But long before there was a script, we talked about: What does a film that is more like a topography feel like? Or like a map, a landscape. Not landscape as in scenery or “beautiful” backdrop. More as in that you as a viewer are standing in the topography, and the scenes from the film are places you can move between and link.
MG: Ridge lacks a traditional narrative, but there are narrative elements, such as voice fragments – a sort of elliptic speech – which recur in the film. How did you work with that?
JS: All these stories, the voice-over narratives… Agnieszka Glinska who helped me cut the film kept calling them “offs.” I didn’t get what she meant at first, but if I’ve understood correctly, voice-over is called voice-off in Poland, and that is a much better description of how voices should work in film. At least in ours, the voices are off and not over.
The stories themselves come from something I worked on quite a while back. I was invited to do a photography project in Kvidinge, the village closest to where I grew up in the countryside in Scania, which was celebrating its seven hundred year anniversary. I approached people using a conventional documentary style, but soon tired of the images; they turned out too polished, somehow. The stories became more important, which led to a project without images. I asked people to write down stories and only gave them three guidelines: it had to have to do with the place, be no longer than one page, and it had to be true. After a while I started walking around with a recorder instead, asking people to tell me their stories. This yielded an unexpected but fantastic thing, the oral tradition ended up permeating the project and gave it a wonderful character.
At the exhibition of the stories, we also had a reading. That evening, it became so clear to me that the portrait of the place I had tried to approach was being drawn in the space between the stories. Separately, they are everyday, short anecdotes – fragments of people’s lives and memories. But when you move between them as a reader, you notice the place, the underlying map. And that is cinematic.
I talked a lot with Anna Karisinska, with whom I wrote the script, about the search for that moment in a film when it opens up… an image becomes another, and you get a sense or a thought that you’re not quite sure where it comes from, which is very powerful. The greatest instances are when this happens by accident, like in an industry movie from Hollywood. That’s like striking gold. To construct your film in this way, that’s a completely different problem.
MG: In your early work, there already seems to be a connection between topography and oral tradition, which is expressed in certain formal preferences when it comes to camera shots, framing, and, not least, in a penchant for the dolly shot.
JS: Definitely! The other important topic is the relationship between the viewer and topography. It’s about freedom. And it’s about control. We have taken the liberty to make a film like this, but the freedom is more important when it comes to the viewer watching this type of film, this type of fiction. For that freedom to emerge, you need control: camera, sound, cropping, dolly. The dolly makes for very clear camera shots. The film becomes dynamic, a combination of what signals fiction – where the image and sound are tightly composed – and a situation that signals documentary, in which real people appear in front of the camera.
MG: Can we say something more about the relationship between the dolly and the landscape in Scania? This seems to be key to your work.
JS: The construction for a dolly is so beautiful, the tracks require a completely flat surface. Building a dolly in a studio is quite easy, I imagine. But when you’re doing it in a field or forest, or just on a dirt road… we joked that it looked like art history, this straight stretch, this line through the landscape. We dreamed of leaving them behind, like bridges to nowhere.
MG: Through your intervention, these lines through the landscape, you produce the meaning of the place…
JS: The important thing is the proximity to the place. This knowledge of it, which most the team had. Some have grown up in Kvidinge, while others, like the cinematographer Ita Zbroniec-Zajt, know the place very well after having worked with me for almost a decade. Basically, everything in Ridge is shot in an area of a few square kilometres. You could walk to all the locations, perhaps not in seventy-one minutes, the length of the film, but in a day. I think that’s in the film, you sense this as you watch it. We filmed in a couple of other locations, but the only one still in the film is the ferry in the first scene when everyone is asleep. And that is more like a spaceship anyway.
MG: In a brief description, the film is characterised as an encounter between human, animal, and machine. Your brother Aron’s character begins with a meditation on the behavioural patterns of cows that ends with him being the only one left with the animals at what seems to be the end of the world. What does that mean?
JS: It’s a bad idea to try to explain what you think things are about, at least in this type of work, but I’ll do it anyway. We talked about topography, and as you move over it, watching the film, a network of people, places, machines, and animals is created. In that network, it is impossible to get rid of any of the parts; they are all needed in order for the others to exist. That is, there is no longer a hierarchy. Instead of telling the story of this condition we find ourselves in, the film tries to perform it by not differentiating between the landscape, machines, animals, and people. They have the same hierarchy in front of the camera. The camera is equally engaged. In combination with not letting any of the cinematic components – narrative, image, sound, characters, montage – dominate the others, we have tried to let the parts of the network have equal worth. So, the plot of the film is this network, and instead of narrating it, the film tries to be it. And yes, the world is coming to an end.
MG: Another important component is how you work with light. You often calibrate it so that it approximates a kind of haunted lyricism, emerging daybreak, nocturnal light, rarely very bright, rarely in clear daylight. What are the qualities of light that you want to access when you work out your landscape?
JS: It’s a light to wait for. Ita and I decided early on that we wanted to get away from the tradition of northern European arthouse cinema, where everything tends to be a greyish blue. We wanted to work with the saturated colours that come from shooting in the specific light you mentioned. Waiting for light is very special. Everyone in the team knows, this is it! They all become very concentrated in front of and behind the camera. It creates a charge that I think is difficult to reproduce. And then of course, you eventually lose the light and can’t keep filming forever, and can’t play around in the editing. When the light is gone, you can’t shoot anymore. I think this is something that comes across in the films.
MG: You have always moved between cinema and art spaces, and showed your films in expanded spatial arrangements and installations. You have exhibited at Moderna Museet, Pilar Corrias in London and in april you will participate in an exhibition at Foundation Cartier in Paris. How do you regard the relationship between the two?
JS: People bring such different expectations to a movie theatre or a white cube, and that my films have been allowed to exist in both spaces is something I am very grateful for. Art spaces are unconstrained in a way that is fantastic. When the films are shown there, there is an opportunity to break them up and send them in new directions through installation. A so-called short film is not worth much at all in the world of cinema. The main reason you make one is to climb to a position in which you get to make a feature-length film. I’ve never understood that. I have never learned or agreed to that hierarchy.
MG: You also had a long relationship to Richard Vogel, an idiosyncratic artist who was one of the first to work with video in Sweden. You made a film, Nosferatu (2017) in relation to the collections of videos left after his death, and also curated a show of his work at Johan Berggren Gallery in Malmö. How would you say that you have incorporated Vogel’s work into your own?
JS: Speaking of trying to bring someone into the art world, I suppose I’m a villain, albeit an unsuccessful one. Richard died on 1 April, of all days, and I think he’s smiling somewhere, knowing that was the day he passed. It was necessary for me to honour him and his work. His position, his resistance, and his “NO” still feel very relevant today. To talk about Richard and his amazing video works, photographs, texts, and work as an art teacher would take too long. Perhaps it’s better to refer to the dossier on Richard Vogel that I produced with the journal Filmögon. There aren’t any of the printed ones left, but I think they’ve posted it all online.
MG: If we’re going try to bring this to a close, what would you say if we were to look at your new film through the lens of what you have been doing this past decade? What do you see?
JS: That’s an impossible question to answer. But a very legitimate one. It really feels like a summation, which I suppose it is somehow. Ridge was supposed to have happened for several years, but exhibitions have gotten in the way of making this film, and it has been a little difficult to say no to other work. But I feel an incredible freedom when it comes to the future, what comes next. This feels like a conclusion, in a way. If I can make only one feature film, this was the one.