Ingmar Bergman lived on the tiny Swedish island of Fårö for much of his life. He said in an interview that he had a romantic notion to live on an island. But over the years it became indispensable for him. On Fårö ‘everything assumes its proper proportions. One lives in spontaneous natural contact with an element – the sea”. As his celebrity grew the media disproportionately elevated his everyday life: a bad mood, a relationship, a film all get commented in the press. But, he said “if I let out a yell on Faro – which it would never occur to me to do – at most a crow might fly up! And that’s its precise, proper degree of importance. And this gives me a feeling of security”.
Fårö became his home for the rest of his life, living in a small house complete with a tiny cinema room where he could project films (as depicted fictionally in Liv Ullman’s Faithless).
In 1969 he made Fårö Dokument with regular cinematographer Sven Nyqvist. Initially intended to be about sheep breeding (!), his first documentary quickly broadened to become a portrait of the island and its people. He observed that the ordinary people – the farmers, teachers, post workers, librarians, young people, pensioners and priests – all had far greater hardships in their everyday lives than those living in cities on the mainland.
The 58 minute film has a simple structure, interspersing colour footage of the island with interviews with the inhabitants, shot in grainy black-and-white with an Arriflex camera. Bergman is an engaging interviewer and the islanders are happy to tell him anecdotes, reminiscences, tales of their hardships and their thoughts on the future. One woman describes the lengthy saga of when she broke her leg. With no doctor on the island she only sought medical help after her legs hadn’t healed after two months; eventually her legs were amputated. We meet a four month old baby, and her farmer parents happy in their community.
Community bonds are strong, but lack of money is a common theme. Although many have a strong affection for their island home, most lament the changes – the closing post office, the decline of fishing. When he interviews school kids, some want to stay, but many see their future on the mainland where there are more opportunities.
The colour footage shows some of the beauty of the island, often a desolate beauty of woodlands, pebble beaches and snow, but also ferries, abandoned farmhouses, and village life. Footage from the sheep documentary remains, particularly in two memorable sequences.
We see a sheep being slaughtered, the camera close up, fascinated by the blood being drained, hide removed, fat trimmed and entrails eviscerated in a gory matter-of-fact manner. The camera pulls in so close that we often can’t see the entire animal – Ingmar Bergman was renowned for his actors close-ups, he clearly brought that aesthetic to this documentary!
We also see a lambing sequence of seemingly endless sheep giving birth: some with difficulty, a couple stillborn, many just dropping out – and we see their first tentative steps in the world. That sequence becomes almost hypnotic. The silence is remarkable and there’s not a human in sight; you really get a sense of the remoteness of this island.
In the end, there’s a short voiceover where Bergman notes that social democracy has let down the islanders, who lack a voice to protest. They have been left behind, and Bergman explains that he made the documentary to show their lives and give them a voice.
Ten years later, Bergman made a second documentary, an update and sequel. Fårö Dokument 1979 is almost twice the length and has a much wider scope, even if the subject matter is similar.
This second film shows us a year on the island, from winter to winter. Whilst the first film had a rigorous structure (island footage – interview – island footage – interview, etc), the second is more fluid and the two components are blended. This is mostly because the interviews take place as part of the action, rather than in the more formalistic settings of the first film. The film has a stronger connection to nature – we start with a peaceful winter tracking shot of a beautiful wide coastal view. Then we see the depths of winter with storms, high winds, horizontal rain and snow drifts. We track the four seasons, and we also have a greater sense of wildlife, of forests and plants. And somehow the islanders are an integral part of the islands nature and elements, rather than somehow suffering because of them.
This elemental approach makes the film more expansive. We’re more aware of the passage of time, and of the fragile constancy of the rural way of life.
We also see a cottage roof being thatched; this is clearly an important community event. Everybody lends a hand, with the old men in charge proudly demonstrating their craftsmanship, guiding the younger islanders. We’re shown where the sedge grass grows, how the natural folds in the grass stalks let rainwater run off and keep the roof breathable. The roof construction takes a full day, and is followed by a community meal and music. The connection and reliance on nature is clear.
There are echoes of the previous film. Instead of a sheep, this time we see the slaughter of a pig in fascinating, gruesome detail. It’s presented with a matter-of-fact simplicity, each of the four men have their role, with the eldest overseeing, even though his practical abilities have faded with age.
The second film has a stronger sense of the time. This is partly because of its chronological structure, passing through the four seasons. It’s also because we are made aware of the mortality of the islanders. A woman who we met in the first documentary is now old and frail with illness in the second; the farm has been passed onto her willing son and his partner, the new generation who appreciate the simple island life.
We meet a farmer, and part-time poet, physically struggling to gather his sheep into a trailer by himself, his body weakened by diabetes. And we see an island funeral, of one of the farmers who we had met earlier in the film.
Both films are soundtracked by silence, the sounds of nature and a occasional folk music. And in both films rock and pop music is an intrusion from the mainland, either as an emblem of the island’s teenagers longing to escape, or literally in 1979 with the summer tourist invasion. The latter film explores the uneasy relationship that the islanders have with tourism. Detached, loud and brash, they are a world away from the life of the islanders, but they are a welcome source of income. Perhaps there are too many visitors this year, but in truth for all the reliance on nature, tourism is probably the true lifeblood of the island.
In 1969 some of the island’s teenagers predicted their future, whether they would remain on Faro where there’s ‘nothing to do’ and ‘no jobs’ or depart to the Gottland or the mainland. In 1979, Bergman tracked down some of these individuals, now in their twenties, some had stayed but many had indeed departed. The ending of the second film is much more optimistic than the first. It’s not that the islanders are portrayed as better off, their lot hasn’t improved much and there’s still an appeal to the authorities to support them. But the island’s youth are proud of their home, and fewer of them seem destined to leave.
On the surface, the two documentaries don’t seem very ‘Bergmanesque’. There is no angst or symbolism. The filming is simple and honest. But we see the island through his eyes. Bergman loved Faro, and made it his home. Apparently he loved to chat with everyday people, with an interest and genuine curiosity that won their trust. And the islanders treated him as one of their own, even though his professional life would have been unimaginable to many of them. Bergman’s love and respect for the people and the island comes across strongly.
In the voiceover, Bergman announces that his next Fårö documentary will be ten years later, in 1989, caveated sardonically by ‘I wonder if any of us will still be alive then’. Of course, by then Bergman had virtually retired from directing (he would have a small comeback with Saraband and made some TV dramas) and there was no Fårödokument 1989. What we’re left with is a fascinating couple of time capsules, very different from Bergman’s usual films, that depict his love and fascination for the island that was his adopted home for the rest of his life.