The New World in an Astrachan apple tree

LAND ahoy, Kristina (Lisa Carlehed) and Karl Oskar (Gustaf Skarsgård) with three of their children, after a gruelling passage between Sweden and America in the 19th century, in a scene from The Emigrants. Photograph courtesy

WHILE XENOPHOBIA MAY be one of the central discourses to the world we currently occupy, it is always coupled with the horror of being a stranger, trying to make good, in a strange land. Erik Poppe’s version of The Emigrants, a film which first saw light of day in 1971, based on a novel published in 1949, traces the life-changing paths chosen by the people who made us who we are today. Whoever we are. You can see it on this year’s European Film Festival; designed to be hybrid, it offers limited screenings and online access in Johannesburg and Cape Town, between 13 and 23 October, Mbabane between 21 and 23 October and Maseru, between 28 and 30 October.

This film has the makings of a classic. It is a tale which doesn’t pull punches on the vulgarity of judgmental proponents of religion and how they leap to devilish conclusions at any slight digression from their norm, or the crudeness of colonialist thoughtlessness, as it is one thread through with metaphors pertaining to the Mary Madgalene story, in a context of everyday-ness. Not unlike the fabric of the writing of Nikos Kazantzakis.

Kristina (Lisa Carlehed) is married to Karl Oskar (Gustaf Skarsgård) and they have a whole bunch of tousle-headed offspring. They’re agrarian folk of Sweden, unlettered, Lutheran in their church-going values, working the land at the whims of the weather, fate or God, whatever they deem it to be. They’re also dirt poor and the land is harsh and mostly unforgiving. When the American dream raises its head as an option for them, it’s terrifying. But real.

And it remains terrifying through their own losses and their own difficult rending of ties. But as the title of this film indicates, emigrate they do, with the knowledge that this is goodbye forever to the place they called home. It’s a tale which takes this growing family through the ignominy of blind religious fervour, hate and bias, the threat of loss and the loss of roots, and it does feel like a boiler-plate tale of the New World.

However, it is in the nature of the filmography, a beautifully simple script and strong and convincing performance, particularly on the part of Carlehed herself, that this work takes on epic proportions and holds them. It’s a piece that evokes Matthys Boshoff’s beautiful 2019 film Die Verhaal van Racheltjie de Beer as it touches on the kind of characters crafted by Gunter Grass in The Tin Drum, where dental hygiene and gynaecological awareness, to say nothing of birth control, are at best rudimentary. But ultimately, it is a story about putting down new roots, even under the most difficult of circumstances; and the Astrachan apple is wound niftily through it, like a poetic refrain, never allowing you to forget the bittersweetness of roots.

  • The Emigrants is directed by Erik Poppe and features a cast headed by Goran Aliskanovic, Jesper Arin, Feihong Basigu, Díana Bermudez, Lena-Pia Bernhardsson, Kicki Bramberg, Iulian Burciu, Lisa Carlehed, Tymon Carter, Paul Cimpoieru, Emma Comstedt, Stefan Cronwall, Emelie Dahlskog, Hartvig Dimbodius, Ellen Elvung, Kajsa Ericsson, Hannes Fohlin, Vincent Folkesson, Caspian Fornänger, Duncan Green, Ester Gunnarsson, Vidia Gustafsson, Pedram Hajigholi, Noah Härling, Sofia Helin, Stig Henrik Hoff, Fredrik Hoyer, Peter Järn, Moa Johansson, Christian Kinell, Laurence Kinlan, Harald Knutsen-Öy, Vidar Knutsen-Öy, Stig Krogstad, Kim Lantz, Kerstin Linden, Rasmus Lindgren, Tove Lo, Mari Loewen, James Longshore, Ola Normelli, Iulia Poptean, Nova Salmi-Wikander, Owen Crow Shoe, Mikkel Bratt Silset, Erwin Simsensohn, Alexandru Simion, Gustaf Skarsgård, Clas Göran Söllgård, Eric Stern, Lena Strömdahl and Adrian Taheri. Written by Anna Bache-Wiig and Siv Rajendram Eliassen based on the novel by Vilhelm Mobert, it is produced by Fredrik Wikström and features creative input by Johan Söderqvist (music), John Christian Rosenlund (cinematography), Einar Egeland (editing), Jeanette Klintberg and Maggie Widstrand (casting), Karl Júlíusson (production design) and Louize Nissen (costumes). In Swedish with English subtitles, it is part of the 9th European Film Festival South Africa, screening in Johannesburg, Cape Town and online, 13-23 October 2022; and Mbabane at the Alliance Française, 21-23 October and Maseru at the Alliance Française, 28-30 October.

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