“…I like seeing films that change my view of the universe by a degree or two. The kind of films that remind me who I love, how and why I love them. The kinds of films that show you another part of the world in the hope that you feel empathy with humanity as a whole. Films that present emotions and ideas. I hope this is one of those. ” -Ali Selim
A driving force behind my desire to write was a dearth of contemporary stories that felt tied to my own existence. Who wrote about small towns in the midwest without having the characters leave as soon as possible? Why were all religious people in movies either completely naeive or profoundly hypocritical?
By the time I left graduate school I was convinced that stories about people where I came from or that had similar experiences to mine were simply impossible to find in the current film world. Would I be able to make one someday? I hoped so, I still do. But I assumed I would have to return to my shelf of classic Hollywood stories to feel “at home” in the movies. As a member of the Film Independent, I was able to screen the nominees for the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards. I saw Bubble, Little Miss Sunshine, Half Nelson, and Thank You for Smoking, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Then I saw Sweet Land, and knew I was home.
Ali Selim, the film’s director, is a Minnesota native who won a Golden Lion at Cannes for an ad spot he did for the YMCA in 1991. Selim won an Indie Spirit Award for Sweet Land as his first feature (he’d previously been making around 100 commercials a year). He adapted the screenplay from the short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” by Minnesota writer Will Weaver. Selim’s father emigrated from Egypt to attend the University of Minnesota, and the director has said he though of his father when he read Weaver’s story and as he shaped the film.
The film was a true independent, made without studio interference or Hollywood stars in the leading roles. Indy Week reviewer Godfrey Cheshire said it “recalls the stoic classicism of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath… Yet it also summons up the elegant modernism of movies such as—the film that critics invariably point to—Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.” The film’s cinematography treats both the land and the female lead as objects of great beauty, to be admired and to give joy.
In a very real way, Sweet Land feels like home. A photo made of the young bride, Inge, is a centerpiece for the film and in doing so says something about the significance of the photographic image in collective memory. In fact, in the final moments of the film Inge and Olaf’s grown grandson, Lars (Stephen Pelinski) tells his young daughter, who asks how they will remember great grandma, that they have a photo. Sweet Land is about the past in the present. In the rural midwest, those things are deeply connected.
The setting is rural Minnesota, circa 1920. The plot revolves around a young woman from Germany, sent to marry an immigrant Norwegian farmer. When Inge (Elisabeth Reaser) arrives she speaks little English, and as she is German and the US is still considered “at war” with Germany, she is not allowed to marry Olaf (Tim Guinee), whom she is meeting for the first time. Out of place with the neighbors’ (played to quirky realistic effect by Alan Cumming and Alex Kingston) nine children, Inge sneaks over to Olaf’s. The two of them come to a shaky agreement to let Inge stay there, as long as Olaf sleeps in the barn. The Lutheran minister (John Heard), disapproves of Inge, of the two of them living together, of Inge’s phonograph and her dancing, and her making coffee that is “too black”.
The love story (the film bills itself as such in the opening credits)
between Inge and Olaf is sweet, charming. Not sappy or overdone. The larger metaphor of the relationship of people to the land is also a love story. Inge and Olaf’s prerequisite “happy falling in love” montage is a series of images of them working on the farm. They are “married” when they finish the harvest together. It’s a longstanding idea, that when you work the land, you earn your keep on it. The steward of the land has a claim, with the community of people who do the same. This is testified in Olaf’s relationship to his neighbors, especially in how he sticks up for Frandsen, and how the rest of the neighbors stick up for him. It’s nicely paralleled by a communist sympathizer whose ideas gain no traction because there is already a sense of working the land together.
Upon Olaf’s death (the middle “flashback” of the story), Inge (at this point played by Lois Smith, who looks exactly right as an elderly midwestern farmer’s wife) decides he must be buried on the property, not spend the night in some morgue or funeral home. So she, young Lars, and Frandsen bury him on the property. At the end of the film, grown Lars and his family do the same for her, coinciding with Lars’ decision not to sell the farm.
In the ubiquitous Gone With the Wind, Thomas Mitchell’s (himself
ubiquitous in 1939) Mr. O’Hara tells Scarlett that the land is the one thing that will endure. Americans have a strong connection to land despite the tumultuous and impossible to ignore injustices enacted for it. For better or worse, we are connected to it in our cultural psyche. Sweet Land purports a relationship with land that is somehow akin to relationship with God. “You believes God?” Inge asks. “Something makes the crops come up,” Olaf replies. Inge then picks a blade of grass and smells it. At the end of the film Inge tells the minister that she is married, she is a citizen (note the equation of belonging to Olaf and belonging to the land as an American). He replies they do not have the paperwork so she cannot be, it is not enough for her to believe in her heart she is. Inge asks again, “Do you believes God?” The minister nods in assent. In his heart, he believes.
In all accounts: the narrative, the technical formation, the characters, the ideology, and the carbon neutral independent filmmaking, Sweet Land is exactly the kind of movie I admire. It asks good questions, it quietly celebrates many things overlooked but of great value. It is a thing of beauty, a joy forever.