Being a Human Person

 

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A revealing study of a famous Swedish film director.

 
Being a Human Person

 

If Fred Scott's documentary about Sweden's Roy Andersson is unlike any other biopic about a filmmaker it is due to the extraordinary character of Andersson himself. Scott's wholly acceptable yet unexceptional approach is the standard one for a work about a living director: substantial new interview footage with Andersson (he is now 77), extracts from his films, comments from friends and colleagues and the use of archive material to help in looking back. It's all ably done, but what makes Being a Human Person truly memorable stems from its revelation of just how different Andersson is from virtually any other filmmaker.

 

It was with Songs from the Second Floor (2000) that Andersson became a genuinely international name and in it he fully established his highly personal style characterised by its blend of humour and pathos treated through a series of set scenes or tableaux. However, as this documentary shows, his method is as individual as his style. Scott's film covers the period from the spring of 2017 to August 2019 so the main emphasis is on Andersson's latest work, About Endlessness, which is said to be his last even though at the close of this piece he claims to have a new idea in mind. What becomes clear here is that with any Roy Andersson film everything depends on him: he seeks out the players (often non-professionals), shoots the film tableau by tableau and then decides after that which of them give him a kick. If he doesn't get that reaction he reshoots or discards them. Only Andersson knows what he is after so it is vastly time-consuming even though everything is shot in his studio: About Endlessness took up three years which prompts a comparison with the lengthy processes that marked the work of Jacques Tati. Furthermore, by making films entirely to his own pattern, he reminds us too of another such individualist, our own Mike Leigh. Nevertheless, Andersson's methods as seen here put him in a category of his own.

 

The other outstanding feature of Being a Human Person is that it reveals Roy Andersson in all his psychological complexity, that being the root from which his creative blend of absurdist comedy and pathos has grown. The extent of the personal expression and the degree of his involvement in his films leads to a further comparison but one of a different kind, this time with the work of painters. There are references here to both Breughel and Goya, the latter being a special passion of Andersson's and a link with his own pessimism. His 1991 short film World of Glory shows people being taken away to be gassed and, when he looks back on human history, Andersson feels a sense of guilt and shame for what we have all allowed to happen. The only thing that can raise his spirits is his belief that art can at least help.

 

These are the aspects that make Being a Human Person special rather than what it tells us about the films themselves. Anyone seeking here an introduction to Andersson's work may well find the extracts somewhat baffling (in most cases brief clips don't really convey the flavour). Indeed, it is a work that will mean most to those already familiar with Andersson's films. When it comes to his personal life, an appearance by his daughter Sandra notwithstanding, we get little information beyond an impression that his work is pivotal. On the other hand, he never backs away from revealing his own vulnerability. We see at one point how his increased intake of alcohol became a threat to the continuation of filming About Endlessness. Such details align him with the characters in his film whose own vulnerability is a source of comedy as well as of pathos but who are viewed in a way that still leaves them with a certain dignity. We can be sure too that Andersson fully approves of Scott including in this documentary an interview with a man who agreed to appear in About Endlessness but who readily admits to having been completely baffled by A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) which he describes as being crazy. All told, this documentary shows Andersson as an extreme individualist in every respect. But we also have here a man who, however exasperating at times and however demanding, readily acknowledges the contributions of those who work on his films and who in turn are devoted to him.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Roy Andersson, Johan Carlsson, Pernilla Sandström, Martin Serner, Anders Hellström, Frida Ekstrand Elmström, Sandra Andersson, Ola Stensson, Kalle Boman.

 

Dir Fred Scott, Pro Mike Brett, Steve Jamison and Jo-Jo Ellison, Ph Fred Scott and Christopher Sadogal, Ed Michael Aaglund, Music Roger Goula.

 

Archer's Mark/Studio 24/Swedish Film Institute/Susan Films-Curzon Artificial Eye.
91 mins. UK. 2020. Rel: 16 October 2020. Available in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 15.