Sweden; a society of individuals. Erik Gandini’s latest documentary feature ‘The Swedish Theory of Love’ sets out to unravel the complex narrative of a country that has for the last 40 years endeavoured to become a society that champions the individual, putting independence before family ties. No longer would the outdated view of dependency on others for one’s own happiness be the driving force in one’s own life – if wives depend on their husbands for money, are they with their partner out of choice or necessity?
The film starts by introducing the ‘family of the future’ manifesto, a social programme set out in 1972 by politicians that would remove the dependence of individuals on family units, sidestep the need for a nuclear family and allow people to focus on personal happiness. Sadly all these years later, it seems that the programme has also created a Sweden in which people live alone and die alone, where families no longer take care of their elders and social activities are becoming more and more rare. The film continuously bounces from one extreme to another, both in theme, tone and delivery. We are shown a black and white version of Sweden where the goals set out 40 years ago are admirable but naive and the modern day reality is a lonely and isolated existence.
The film presents us with a 1970’s cartoonish vision of the future that blends optimism with a strange and eerie comedic tone, which is then followed by the starkly contrasting dystopian-like modern day reality. At one point we follow a pair of government officials, Annie and Luis, who must investigate the homes of persons suspected to have passed away without anybody knowing – this part of the narrative has the tone of a crime thriller, only in this story the two detectives try to piece together the death of a series of lonely isolated individuals. This existential crisis is discussed by experts, sociologists, fringe groups and emigrants (referring to the Swedish doctor no longer living in Sweden), but there is a distinct lack of voices from those that this crisis affects day-to-day.
At this point in the story we are again presented with two extremes of culture; on the one hand, Sweden, a cold, unhappy, autonomously focused society, and on the other hand Ethiopia, a poor, economically simple, yet joyful country. In this reality, Ethiopia, where family, community and togetherness are prioritised over all else, is the antithesis of Sweden. One of the graphics in the film shows a graph (the map of values) that tracks on one axis traditional values vs. secular-rational values and on the other survival values vs. self expression values. Sweden leans towards the top right of the graph, scoring high on secular-rational values and self expression, whereas Ethiopia leans towards traditional values and survival.
To bridge the culture shock, the aforementioned Swedish born Dr. Erichssen who now lives and operates in Ethiopia, is introduced. The doctor is a fascinating man who glues patients back together with whatever he can get his hands on –something he would never have been allowed to do in ‘First World’ country Sweden. It is here that the documentary starts to get away from its core interest and falls down a fair few interesting but irrelevant rabbit holes. Dr. Erichssen does bring an interesting perspective to the argument and his life seems truly worthy of a documentary, however, it doesn’t enlighten the audience nor give us any real insight to modern day Sweden.
Despite its tangents, The Swedish Theory of Love is a truly entertaining documentary that manages to condense a lot of information about a national problem into bite size form for the viewer. This is its strength and also, at times, its weakness. What is clear is that the film opens up a dialogue and takes a philosophical debate into the public eye. It entertains and educates and for that it should be commended.
However, overall the film fails to fully get to grips with its mammoth subject matter in a way that doesn’t feel derogative. With such a small pool of opinion and a tendency to exclude the people that experience day-to-day life in Sweden, we really only see this issue from an academic point of view. Yes, we do see the effects of loneliness and individualism in the form of ever increasing unreported deaths, however, the fact that this is not exclusive to Sweden is brushed over perhaps because it would undermine the narrative. We are only shown the extreme forms this lifestyle takes. When it comes to the portrayal of modern Swedish life and whether it’s better or worse for the social attitudes encouraged 40 years ago, the truth is most likely a mixed answer. That is not to say the film doesn’t point out some very important philosophical and real issues facing Sweden, it does however oversimplify them.
The Swedish Theory of Love is out June 24. Visit the DocHouse website for screening and ticket details.