Snabba Cash on Netflix

I don’t have a lot of very insightful things to say about the recently released Netflix original series from Sweden, Snabba Cash, but it has enough things going for it that I think people should see it, and so I will offer up a few thoughts. 

Number one of these is that its focus is squarely on characters living the immigrant or sons/daughters of immigrants experience, and for the most part ethnically Swedish characters are secondary. The difference between Snabba Cash and the police procedurals and political dramas that normally make it to the west from Scandinavia was palpable, to my mind at least. Of course, in both instances, the immigrant community we’re exposed to is mostly that of criminals — though at least notably in Snabba Cash there is no “suspected terrorist” angle to any of that criminality.

While we can hope that there will be dramas where the immigrant experience is not portrayed primarily through the lens of crime — and I’m not across all aspects of Scandinavian film and TV output to know whether shows like this are available — what’s refreshing in Snabba Cash is that it feels like the characters are in charge of their portrayal, even if control of their destiny is still in the hands of the (mostly unseen) powers that be.

This subjectivity — in the postmodern, feminist sense of the world — is strengthened in large part by one of the most enjoyable aspects of Snabba Cash for me, and that is the way it was filmed. Much of the drama, if not all, is filmed with handheld cameras that rarely ever settle for longer than a few seconds. Occasionally the camera will take the first-person viewpoint, particularly effective in chase (or being chased) sequences. Of course these days handheld shots or the “shaky camera” are nothing new, NYPD Blue introduced them to tv audiences in the 90s and we’ve come to expect them in a whole host of shows and films. 

But Snabba Cash embraces the aesthetic to the point that it’s less an aesthetic choice as it is the only way this story could have been filmed, or more importantly the only way these characters could have been portrayed. They are constantly on the run, literally as well as figuratively, they’re as often in cars or motorbikes as they are in what feel like makeshift homes and hangouts, where playing a jittery first person shooter video game passes for relaxation. The filming style seems a very conscious nod to the cinéma vérité handheld ethos of the French New Wave rather than simply jumping on the bandwagon of what everyone else, from Hollywood hack to prestige TV showrunner, is doing.

The handheld camera is used together with extremely narrow depth of field camerawork so that often characters are isolated in focus even though surrounded closely by others. Seeing as they are seemingly in constant movement and flux, characters who are the focal point of a scene often go in and out of focus or the cameraperson is forced to play catch up. Again, this is part of the vérité aesthetic of appearing to capture unscripted and unrehearsed action, the camera the proverbial fly on the wall. Surely it adds to the hectic, unsettled nature of our characters, but it also helps signify that these are people on the margins, resigned to scraping to hold on to what they have, or hoping to escape but stuck in a drug-addled and dream-deferred haze. Nowadays everyone from your bokeh-obsessed Instagrammer to the NFL or UEFA with their “portrait mode” on-field cameras has rendered narrow depth-of-field cliché, but as with the handheld camerawork, Snabba Cash sticks at it so relentlessly that it feels less intentional and more natural.

The various plot arcs are not anything special it must be said, there’s a predictability to some of the plot outcomes that to my mind is more a lack of imagination on the part of the creators rather than it too being some statement about the trapped by circumstances aspect of these characters’ lives. In particular, the entire start-up entrepreneur who tries to lift herself out of her circumstances but can never quite leave her past behind — asking for million-dollar loans from her drug-dealing brother-in-law was never going to end well — felt very familiar and no amount of formal inventiveness or fresh points of view is going to overcome that. 

Along the same lines, the billionaire investor Tomas is straight out of central casting, a caricature of the eccentric founder type who stands on tables shouting “we’re fucking rich” and helicopters people in for meetings at remote locales where he is ostensibly taking part in a “silent retreat”. Likewise, we have no idea what the main character Leya’s start-up does aside from one quick pitch session full of buzzwords. For the show it was simply enough for us to know that well-dressed people who work out, drink champagne and dwell in Black Mirror-sterile glass-encased offices or homes represent ambition and leaving the past behind. 

So, Snabba Cash is a mixed bag. Nevertheless, despite the formulaic story and predictable arc, I found it refreshing and I’m glad I discovered it. 


Some other thoughts:

  • A show like this represents one of the best things about Netflix, which is the amount of homegrown original programming that ends up being subtitled and shown on many if not all of Netflix’s international properties. Thus I can live in Japan and enjoy a Swedish drama subtitled in English.
  • Snabba Cash began as a series of novels by Jens Lapidus, which in turn spawned a trilogy of Swedish movies a decade ago starring Joel Kinnaman (the US version of The Killing, House of Cards). The Netflix series supposedly takes place 10 years after the story of those films. “snabba cash” incidentally translates to “easy money”, which is the title of a US remake that has been kicking around Warner Bros. for over ten years as a vehicle for Zac Efron.
  • Evin Ahmad, of Swedish and Kurdish origin, plays Leya, the start-up founder and single mother trying to leave her roots behind for a more successful life. I knew she looked familiar – it turns out she was in the Danish drama Rain which I watched last year. In Rain, she struck me as one-note, but here she really shines trying to juggle the disparate milieu Leya occupies. She’s also a published author: Her 2017 book One Day I Will Build a Castle of Money is “a flow of thoughts which sits perfectly on paper. A journey between words and places – between worlds and prejudices.” (Swedish magazine Fokus)
  • The series was shot last year, during the pandemic, in Stockholm, although I don’t remember the setting ever being referenced by characters as being Stockholm.
  • The title sequence features a Swedish rap song performed by the Swedish rappers 1.Cuz (Somalian-born) and Greekazo (born in Sweden but I believe of Greek heritage).

My Country, My Country: A personal recommendation

Poster for "My Country, My Country", film by Laura Poitras (2006)

With utter predictability, the recent Lancet study (.pdf file) proclaiming that America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq has resulted in nearly 655,000 Iraqi deaths, has now become a political football. Though certainly well-intentioned, this infallibly researched and thoroughly peer-reviewed study and the reaction it has engendered still shows that when it comes to death, torture, killing, suffering, and incomprehensible loss, most sides with something to say on the issue fall back on abstractions, on numbers bereft of anything but soulless data points. Just as war has been rendered by the aggressors as a video game of sorties and smart bombs, so too have the death tallies become the “top score” everyone is trying to best. Spinning the tallies this way and that only serves to highlight how far away we have removed ourselves from the incontrovertible fact that people — people, not statistics — are being killed.

Can not anyone anymore say simply, one death is one too many?

~

Next week PBS in America will be showing the film My Country, My Country as part of their P.O.V. series. It airs Wednesday, October 25, at 9 p.m. (check your local listings). I strongly urge anyone with access to the network to watch it, or to set the TIVO/DVD recorder/VCR to record it.

I’m going to recommend this film to you not because of its politics or because of its merits, but based solely on the person who made it. This is something I’m normally not wont to do, but here I will make an exception. That is because I know Laura Poitras, the person behind this film. She is a friend of mine. There are few people in my life I have more respect for than Laura. There are few people I know who embody the concepts of commitment and integrity with more clarity than Laura.

Laura spent eight months in Iraq (from June 2004 to February 2005), working by herself, to shoot and record the material for this film. To state the obvious, she did this at great personal risk not only to herself but to those Iraqis who agreed to let her into their lives, their homes, their stories. While on one hand this level of personal risk is simply unfathomable to me, on the other hand I’m not at all surprised. It is the Laura I know.

Explaining her reasons for going to Iraq and making this film, Laura says:

I risked my life to make this film because I felt that I had a certain skill set that could be brought to bear on understanding this war in terms of being able to tell the story of the war in images, through people. The news was never going to do it; the news would always be headlines about statistics and bombs going off, and I knew I could be patient and tell a story with the subtlety of things unfolding, which I believe has a greater impact in creating understanding. Hopefully, that’s one of the things the film accomplishes.

Laura Poitras and I were both students in the SFAI film department in the late 80’s/early 90’s. I didn’t know her at first, she having gotten there ahead of me, but she was one of those like myself who seemed to be at every film screening of the San Francisco Cinematheque or the PFA and therefore I took notice. I gathered from observation and from others that she was opinionated, didn’t mince words, took no prisoners. While that ultimately turned out not to be true, for she was always asking, What do you think?, she nevertheless cut such a forthright and assured figure. She intimidated the hell out of me.

We eventually did meet, become friends, and ended up collaborating on several levels, at school and at the Cinematheque. We had many intense discussions, and not a few differences of opinion. But I never stopped being in awe of her. In awe not of her opinions, but by the passion behind them; not of her actions, but by the clearness of purpose that informed them. I can’t even begin to quantify how much I learned from her.

The other day while cleaning out some boxes, I came across a copy of a note I had written to her while were both collaborating on a publication for the Cinematheque. There had been a disagreement about the cover design. I had to laugh at how inflamed we could get in those days about what now all these years later can only be seen as the most trivial of things.

For various reasons owing all to me I fell out of touch with Laura in recent years until earlier this year when another friend of mine passed on word about this film. It was a shot out of the blue. But then again, the trajectory her career has taken to bring her to this film is hardly surprising. That arc was already starting to be written back then, 15-plus years ago, and while the brainstorming and the opinions and the discussions were no doubt trivial, it is clear the passion, commitment, and integrity that defined her back then have not only remained, but grown and matured, giving us an artist who can tell us a story about that which can never be regarded as trivial.

~

I don’t mean to imply that the Lancet study trivializes death. However, while the study should be applauded if it somehow helps America recover from the collective and wilful blind eye it has been turning, it has still unfortunately been played into a meaningless numbers game: overestimates, underestimates, How much is enough?, When does the number become too high?, or shudderingly, The toll will surely continue to rise.

Contrary to received wisdom, we mustn’t lose sight of the smaller picture. Therefore, I have a different tally to propose, infinitely simpler to comprehend, more difficult to abstract, and ultimately much more illuminating. One. As in one human being, one story. One by one, let us get back to something more basic, more concrete, more grounded in humanity than body counts and news tickers.

Laura’s film is one such attempt to stem the tide, to return to one person, one story. I hope you will make an effort to see it.

(There is a wealth of information about the film, how it was made, and why it was made, at PBS’s website for the film. There you will find a trailer for the film, interviews with Laura, a production journal, as well as an mp3 of the film’s haunting theme music (written for the film by world-renowned Iraqi singer and composer Kadhum Al Sahir), and a podcast of a conversation between Laura and George Packer, who wrote the original New Yorker piece that provided the inspiration for the film project.)

Pondering pretension in experimental film

Still from Michael Snow's Wavelenth

Still from Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia), 1971

In a post about photographers as filmmakers, photographer Alec Soth (Sleeping by the Mississippi, Niagara) wonders if his long-held “notion that photographers make poor filmmakers” is really true. But what caught my eye was his opening paragraph:

In college I was drawn to experimental filmmaking. I studied Stan Brakhage, Ernie Gehr, Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton. I made my own videos and super-8 films. But after awhile I saw this work as ponderous and pretentious. I rejected experimental filmmaking. I came to believe that the power of film was in conventional storytelling.

It’s not everyday one sees one’s old masters, both figurative and — in the case of Gehr — real, on a blog. At any rate, as someone who was also drawn to experimental filmmaking, and made his own super-8 and 16mm films at one time, I have some thoughts on Soth’s “rejection” of experimental film as “ponderous and pretentious,” as well as the larger issue about photographers turning to filmmaking.

Anyone who would recognize those filmmakers Soth mentioned (Brakhage, Frampton, Gehr, Snow, etc.) would also know that they are far from the end-all and be-all of experimental film, though I suppose they are easy targets if one is looking for pretension and ponderousness.

The late Brakhage is of course the doyen of the medium, even in death (he passed away in 2003), and an easy target on many counts, as I wrote about once before. And with over 400 films to his credit, lord knows there must be lots of ponderousness in that oeuvre (I’ve seen some of it myself). The others Soth mentioned (Frampton, Gehr, Snow) have long been grouped together under the rather off-putting rubric of “structural filmmakers” (at least they still were as of the late 80’s/early 90’s, when I — and I suspect Soth too — studied them). They (and a few others like Tony Conrad, Joyce Wieland, and George Landow) form a group of makers whose output has undoubtedly been more written and read about than actually seen, and therein lies part of the problem. Another part is that of course there was never a “school,” never a unified outlook or style, except in the pages of categorists and reductionists.

As a student hungry for this new-to-me medium, I couldn’t get enough of the films I was being shown in my classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, or separately (but also on campus) as part of the San Francisco Cinematheque‘s programming. But the thought of “structural film,” of sitting through those films, based on all I had read, filled me with dread. When I finally saw my first so-labeled “structural” film, which perhaps to this day remains the poster child for the genre, such as it is — Michael Snow’s Wavelength — I had to ask myself what I had been so afraid of.

Still from Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967)

I remember after a film screening of some sort, somebody had the crazy idea of projecting Wavelenth in the lecture hall. Perhaps they had grabbed it from the Art Institute’s library, or maybe someone had left it lying around the projectionist’s booth. After reading so much about this film, how important, how seminal it was, here was finally my chance to see it, I thought. Or perhaps I thought, okay, let’s get it over with. It must have been 10 p.m. by this point, not an ideal time for a 45 minute film of a progressive zoom shot of a somewhat empty New York City loft with nary a narrative action (or so I thought).

I was riveted. When it was over, only one of about three folks left in the auditorium (I think there had been only about 15 of us at the start anyway), I was floored. I had to of course check myself against those “Even though I don’t understand it, this is great” — or perhaps more correctly, “Because I don’t understand it, this is great” — reactions not uncommon to the overly earnest, bright-eyed art student I was in those days. But no, there was no doubt. I did understand it, in so far as anyone, naive or old-hand, could understand something that didn’t have a handed-on-a-silver-platter message, something that didn’t even exist in the pedestrian realm of messages and meanings, of moving (in the “arousing deep emotion” sense) narrative.

Narrative. It was perhaps here that Snow’s film, and many other ostensibly similar films I would soon see, like Gehr’s Still, Brakhage’s The Text of Light, James Benning’s 9/1/75, or Warhol’s Empire, had its biggest surprise: There is plenty of narrative to go around. Naturally it isn’t the “conventional storytelling” in which Soth thinks the power of film lies, but the naked, raw narrative that comes to the surface once the superficial trappings of plots, the glib expressiveness of actors and actresses, the melodrama of soundtracks, get left behind. Perhaps better to call it imagination, rather than narrative. Like much of what I love about photography, that non-moving — in the still sense — medium. The frame seemingly holds nothing, just the bare smidgen of life, of events, of stories, and yet it holds everything we need to create a story. There is nothing else we need to see. A good photograph, anyway. A good film, too.

That’s not to say that these media are the same, which is perhaps why Soth has difficulty finding photographers who have been able to make the transition to film. But I have another idea as well. Soth lists out an array of photographers who have tried to “cross over,” and an impressive amount of films. But looking over Soth’s list, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the reason he came to to his conclusions about photographers making poor filmmakers is that he is limiting himself mainly to established, famous photographers. While I don’t want to make a blanket statement, I have to wonder how many of these films would have ever been made had not the makers already enjoyed some sort of cachet as established photographers. Certainly they had access to circles of funding and support, and some certainty about distribution (or at least a trip around the film festival circuit). It’s not to say they weren’t interested in the medium, in its possibilities, but with some exceptions (notably Robert Frank) it seems more like dabbling, a desire perhaps to see their photos move (in both senses), rather than a full committment to the medium itself.

One film I would recommend to Soth is one that he probably saw during his brief involvement with experimental film: Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971). While there are many Frampton films one could recommend, this film is perhaps most appropriate for the discussion here.

Though Frampton was primarily known as a filmmaker, it was photography that he first turned to when he moved to New York in 1958 as a young man, and he would continue to photograph throughout his life, as evidenced by this exhibit held the year after his death in 1984. In (nostalgia), Frampton uses twelve photo prints from his earlier career, and one by one these photos are placed on a hotplate, and after some time they begin to curl up and burn. On the soundtrack, the narrator (who is actually not Frampton but rather the above-mentioned Michael Snow) talks in the first person about each image, when and where it was taken, the circumstances surrounding the photo or the people in the photo, the memories it engenders. But there’s a catch: the image and sound tracks are deliberately “out of synch.” As we see a photo slowly burn and wither away, the narration we are listening to is actually about the next photo, the one coming up.

The film is brilliantly constructed, the commentary giving us a preview of what is coming ahead, the better to implant that narrative, and to make us feel as if we took the photo we now see burning up before our eyes. And yet, we cannot simply be content in our nostalgia, because while seeing one thing, we are forced by the narration to contend with that which we have yet to see. This is of course much of the raison d’être of these sorts of films, to jar us from our conditioned ways of seeing, to pull the conventional rug out from under us. Yet one doesn’t have to enjoy (nostalgia), or other films in this vein, only on this subversive level.

When I think back on this film, what I remember most is the image of these photo prints slowly curling and then burning up, inexorably, beautifully. Each new photo brought another chance to watch these still photos move. One of the photos we see is of someone (it may be artist Carl Andre but I’m not sure) posing with their head in an empty picture frame, while outside of the inner frame the person has got a hold of a metronome. It’s as if the photograph wasn’t enough to freeze that metronome in motion, it had to be done from the inside. The film as a whole acts in that way, making us think we are ticking back and forth between past and future, but in reality we are in neither.

Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia) film still, 1971

Once at a screening of Austrian filmmaker Kurt Kren‘s films, films which have often been lumped in with others mentioned here, a friend of a friend hadn’t sat through 30 seconds of the first film of the program before he yelped “Oh shit!” and bolted for the door. In a milieu that engenders a lot of quick exits, that was by far the quickest escape I had ever seen.

Escapist fare, I can concede, most of experimental films are not, if your idea of escape is to check your imagination at the door. I always looked at them from the opposite perspective. Bombarded by conventional propaganda at seemingly every turn, cinema both popcorn and arthouse ruled by a beginning, middle, and end structure (sans Godard, who mixed them up, to frankly ponderous results), it was these films, stripped bare yet unlimited in their capacity to inspire exploration, that were my escape.