As they do at the opening of any star-studded film festival, photographers scrambled for position, training their lenses on the spot where audience members would alight. But when the first — and only — guest of honor arrived, she was clad not in a tuxedo or sparkly gown, but in jeans and an orange puffer jacket (designer unknown). There was no red carpet beneath her feet, only bare frozen ground. And instead of sauntering into a plush cinema buzzing with celebrities, she climbed into a speedboat and zipped off across the frigid water to a tiny island where she would settle in for the first premiere.
As festivals around the world grapple with the pandemic, the Goteborg Film Festival, which opened in Sweden’s second largest city on Jan. 29, hasn’t so much accepted social distancing as escalated it. Over the course of the coming week, it will hold screenings in two urban venues for just one festival attendee. And it has also sent a single viewer to a tiny, barren island in the North Atlantic to watch the 70 films in competition — alone.
Some festivals, like Venice’s in September, have faced the pandemic as diminished versions of their normally glitzy selves, with alternately seated theaters and mandatory temperature checks. Others, like Sundance and the Berlinale, now pushed until March 2021, have gone entirely digital, offering streaming access to films and other events. Some organizers are postponing their festivals, crossing their fingers that further down the line pandemic regulations will allow for a more usual festival experience: On Jan. 27, the Cannes festival announced that it would take place in July, rather than its customary May.
But at Goteborg, the Nordic countries’ most important festival, organizers have made an unusual virtue of necessity. “So many people who have been home alone, unable to meet friends or family, have turned to cinema for company and comfort,” said the festival’s artistic director, Jonas Holmberg. “We wanted to experiment with that, to isolate that feeling, and take it to the extreme. So we thought, ‘Why don’t we isolate the person on a small island with nothing but films?’”
As the only country in Europe to resist a formal lockdown, Sweden has followed its own path through the pandemic, neither recommending mask use nor shutting down schools until December, when a disproportionately high mortality rate from the disease forced it to change strategy.
But much of the country has complied with guidelines issued by the government, and after months of even voluntary social distancing and lockdowns, a wintry week alone on an island with only movies for company might seem the last thing most people would need. Yet when an evocative online video announced the contest, over 12,000 people applied for the solo experience. On Jan. 19, the festival selected Lisa Enroth, a 41-year-old emergency nurse from the town of Skovde, in southern Sweden, as the winner.
Like health care workers everywhere, Enroth has found the past several months stressful. “Every day at the hospital we’ve been dealing with so much,” she said. “With all the patients, and all the new protocols, I’ve never felt so unisolated in my life.”
So when she saw the video’s call for applications, she didn’t hesitate. “Alone in nature, on an island? Plus movies? I was like, ‘Yes, I need this.’”
The hospital agreed to give Enroth time off (“My boss is a movie buff,” she explained) and on Jan. 30, a boat brought her to Hamneskar, a rocky outcrop some 25 miles from Goteborg that was nicknamed Pater Noster by sailors who would recite the Lord’s Prayer as they neared its treacherous waters. There, she took up residence in the former keeper’s cottage that sits aside the island’s cast-iron lighthouse, and settled in for the movie marathon.
During her time on Pater Noster, Enroth will have access to the 70 films screening at the festival, which include the Finnish Oscar contender “Tove,” Thomas Vinterberg’s acclaimed “Another Round” and the Goteborg native Ninja Thyberg’s “Pleasure,” all of which are competing for best Nordic film. International films in competition include Emma Dante’s “The Macaluso Sisters,” set in Sicily, and Charlène Favier’s “Slalom,” about elite downhill skiers abused by their coach. There is also a separate section, called Social Distances, featuring films created in response to the pandemic, and one called Lockdown Cinema for short films made in quarantine.
Streamed through the festival’s website and available to the public, all of the films have scheduled premiere times online. But a handful of viewers are also having their own unusually isolated encounters with them. Coinciding with each online premiere, the films will also screen at Goteborg’s Draken movie theater (capacity 708) and the Scandinavium arena (whose 12,000 seats normally host concert goers or hockey fans) for a single viewer who has won a seat through a raffle.
At each venue a red carpet leads the viewer to the assigned seat. And although popcorn is not available, other enjoyments may be. “In some cases,” hints the festival director Holmberg, “it may be possible the filmmaker will be there to present the film.”
By staging one-person viewings in iconic locations, Holmberg hopes to preserve some of the sense of occasion that an in-person festival generates. But here again, the festival organizers are experimenting. “We want to see, how does being alone affect the film experience? What happens when you’re doing nothing besides watching the film?” he said.
Although she will post a daily video diary on a dedicated page of the festival website, Enroth has agreed to eschew all other forms of communication and entertainment — no phone, no books — during her time on Pater Noster. She said that she wasn’t worried about getting lonely, but didn’t rule out the possibility she may “start talking to the furniture.” And, like Holmberg, she was also interested to see how her week on the island changes the experience of watching films. “The first day, it’s just ‘Oh, I’m alone, watching a movie.’ But a few days in, I might be like, ‘OK, these people are my only company. What if I hate them?’” she said.
But for the self-professed science fiction fan (her favorite movie is “The Never Ending Story”), even that will be a welcome escape. “I love watching movies, because it makes me let go of work and everything else that’s going on right now,” Enroth said. “It’ll be great to be surrounded by someone else’s reality.”