Background to my current film

I am making a documentary for Swedish National Television, with possible participation of Denmark´s, Norway´s and Finland´s TV as well, about art in places where the freedom of speach and expression is limited. Let me first talk about the background.

It began with a documentary film I did, together with Erik Pauser, about a year and a half ago, following a series of events in Sweden of January 2004.

To briefly explain: I was the official director of the arts program surrounding a large conference on genocide, organised by the Swedish government. One of the shows that I had curated became brutally attacked when the Israeli ambassador at the opening destroyed the installation made by the Israeli-Swedish artist Dror Feiler.

This resulted in turn that the Israeli prime minister Arel Sharon wen out and praised the ambassador for heroic behaviour against anti-semitism, at the same time as the Swedish government strongly defending the piece as a work of art in a country of free speach and expression.
To cut a long story short, a diplomatic crisis ensued between the countries, it became the headline news in more than 140 countries.
I was right in the middle of it, and received both threat mails from various places over the world, as well as official support from the PEN society, the UN, and many other organisations. Evertyhing around me was crazy and I was in the middle of an international rift between two countries, as well as an ensuing seed of debate here and there in many countries, on Freedom of Expression.

After having finished the film "Snow white and the Ambassador - who´s afraid of the arts?", which became the end-result of the whole debacle, for myself at least, it was shown in festivals in different parts of the world, and received very differently depending on where it was screened. I started getting more and more interested in what constituted these differences.
The film was for instance shown at IDFA in Amsterdarm shortly after Theo van Gogh was murdered, and the screening of the film made people compare the two incidents in a way that was strange but interesting. It seemed that a lot of people, who might not like an individual work of art, nevertheless have a very strong emotion about its right to exist, and the author to be allowed to express himself.
Whereas at a screening in China, it hardly had any impact at all. "What else is new?"or "Of course you can´t win", were a few of the comments. It seemed to me that perhaps I have been taking the elements of free expression a little too much for granted.

When Swedish Television asked me to make another hour-long film and choose a subject that somehow could be linked to the first film, I was confused, to say the least. I asked them if it would be ok that I travelled in countries where it seemed to me, no matter what the authorities of that country said, that there was a very limited and unpredictable space for artists to exsist in, and they agreed. I also wanted to explore the history in the west of the same matter, and started working with the Guernica´s history, along with various " incidents" around artist´s actions and works, throughout the last century.

The countries involved in the documentary I am making are, so far: China, White Russia (Belarus), Egypt, Cuba and Indonesia. The aim is to follow a few artist´s daily life, the community they may exist in, the obstacles and solutions the refer to in order to present their work, and, of course, the work itself. I am also interested to hear their views about freedom of expression and difficulties they may have encountered, as well as thought on the future of the societies they live in. I have just begun working on this film, and the ideas for it could certainly be a lot clearer. But I do believe in a process of being open to what I find through interviews, and I have so far only travelled to Egypt with the documentary. This was very interesting. Next up for me is to travel to China and to Belarus. But so far I have already gotten some great material.

I am sure that the film I am making will be about art, and artists. And I am sure it will be about voices expressing views about what, and if, art has a function whatsoever, in a dialogue towards changing situations. I hope, with no presumptions at all, that my interviews will be dialogue and personal reflections from people that I find interesting. I also want to take the opportuntity to say, as I have with everybody else involved, that I will not edit or involve anything in our conversation that the artist has not approved of.

Stockholm, October 8, 2005

Thomas Nordanstad