On the fifth death anniversary of one of cinema’s greatest artist – Ingmar Bergman, Satyen K Bordoloi recollects his visit to the island of the master and believes than an ordinary man may not be an island but a genius can be.
Ingmar Bergman, arguably the world’s greatest cinematic and theatre artist, with five wives, 9 children and number of other relationships, had few constants in his life. Yet this man had a partner which, like in a good fairly tale or a bad romantic film, he fell in love at first sight and stayed loyal till his death, a relationship spanning 47 years.
That lover was not a person, but a place, Faro Island (read Fouro). And yet it occupied a ‘relationship’ space in his consciousness that was as intense as with a person. It became his muse, his workshop, a companion… and here even in its solitude he never felt alone though, by his own admission, he often felt lonely even in the hustle of the crowded Swedish capital, Stockholm.
Faro Island, and Bergman’s love of it and his living here in one of the most little inhabited islands in the world, makes me consider the man as an island concept. If a man is a genius, can he be an island?
Today, the island where he shot a major part of at least seven of his films has become a sort of pilgrimage to the lovers of his craft. Every summer, in July, jostling with the holiday revelers to this otherwise popular holiday location, are thousands of Bergman fans who come here from halfway across the world. There’s no distance these worshipers of cinema are not willing to traverse to see where the master lived and worked.
“Bergman had many wives, many children and now many foundations,” Linn Ullmann had naughtily quipped to us, a group of international journalists invited by the Swedish Film Institute to be a part of Bergman week in 2010, the yearly event that begun in 2004 in Faro Island and blessed by the master himself when he was alive.
Linn’s mother was not one of those ‘many wives’. Liv Ullmann did not need to be. A creative force no less bright than Bergman himself, their partnership began with Persona, where her powerful depiction as an actress consciously refusing to speak a word, catapulted her to international stardom.
The two lived on Faro Island, in a house in the south-east corner where the forest meets the sea for five years and Linn was born here. Their partnership was one of the most creative and divergent one the world of cinema has ever seen. She would not only act in many of his best films, but go on to assist him in writing scripts, and in the end direct two multiple award winning films based on scripts by Bergman (the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival nominated Faithless and Private Confessions).
Faro Island was not only a place that sheltered Bergman, but a person, a constant companion to Bergman through his life, someone who saw and understood, but never judged.
A Mysterious Benefactor
Linn Ulmann, despite the other 8 children of Ingmar Bergman, was the closest to him, metaphorically and intellectually. She is an established Norwegian writer and journalist. It isn’t surprising that destiny held her hand in casting the dice that would save Bergman’s memory in the island. A compassionate plea from her saved the Bergman property in Faro from being auctioned off to multiple bidders.
After her father’s death in 2007 and as per his will, the property was to be auctioned and the money divided among his children. Cineastes worldwide and the Swedish govt. were appalled at this prospect yet the government did not come forward to buy the property themselves. In an interview given to a Norwegian newspaper, Linn talked about how her father had wanted to make this place a residency for artists to come and create.
Unknown to her, this interview was read by a Norwegian archeologist and inventor, Hans Gude Gudesen who bought all the property in the auction in October 2009 and passed it on to Linn to manage. Today, Linn invites artists from across the world to come and stay here from anywhere between a week to three months, to write, make music, and create works of art. “Even those who have not even heard of Bergman or seen his films are welcome. The only condition being that they create,” Linn told the bunch of us.
The reclusive benefactor Hans Gude Gudesen was present at 2010’s ‘Bergman Week’ where the eight of us critics from eight different countries were invited to be a part of the celebration, but he stayed below the radar, sat at the back seats of screenings and lectures, and would leave before those who knew him, could point him out. In Bergman’s death, as in his life and cinema, mystery continues to surround him.
Liv Ullmann said of this man after a public lecture on the lsland, “In Norwegian 'Gude' is god, and he really acted like god.” She may not be wrong. For not only did he buy almost all of Bergman’s stuff from the auction, but also funded Linn for preserving most of them. When you visit Faro Island, you’ll see that Linn has done a fine job.
Everything in Bergman’s house has been restored. Bergman’s personal theatre was up and running and all of us were delighted to sit in the theatre where Bergman saw one film everyday and watch the current crop of Swedish cinema here. A tapestry depicting his 1975 film The Magic Flute, which had a world premiere for islanders in this little theatre, hangs nostalgically on the right.
A seat where Bergman used to sit has been left empty in his memory. As the lights went out and we sat watching the film, I could almost feel Bergman sitting on that now empty sofa, hands placed thoughtfully on his chin.
Bergman and Beyond
Today, Bergman has also become an excuse for greater things. “We are not just here to polish his monuments,” Pia Lundberg of the Swedish Film Institute who has been actively involved with the event for years, told me. Every year they invite many aspiring filmmakers to present short films which are screened here. So far, participation has mostly been from Sweden and a few European countries, but with time she hopes people from across the world would send their films.
Besides public lectures and screening of new and old Swedish films, the event also provides the perfect excuse for different kinds of people working in different segments of the entertainment industry in the country and abroad, to come together under the summer sun of Faro which barely sets for three hours a day in July, and talk about things cinematic.
The number and variety of people making this Bergman pilgrimage also make for an interesting profile. People have voluntarily descended from as far as Chile and China. Obviously the Norwegian inventor is not the only Bergman admirer. Why do they come? Perhaps to find out why Bergman made the kind of films he did. Perhaps to find out how an island can so influence an artist that both would end up leaving an imprint on the other. Unless you make a trip to the haven that Sweden and Faro is, you’ll perhaps never truly know.
Sweden, India and Satyajit Ray
The social security in Sweden is typical of a developed nation, with a bit guaranteed for almost every individual in the country, unlike say in India where millions live on the fringes without even the basic necessities promised by their democracy reaching them. There are hardly any homeless in Sweden.
Thus Swedes, like Ingmar Bergman and his films, can afford existential angst. In contrast, for most Indians the angst is of their very existence against despicable odds. India, hence, will perhaps never have a Bergman, and Sweden will never have a Satyajit Ray, a Ritwik Ghatak, a Bimal Roy, or Jahnu Barua. At least, not yet.
The new projectionist in Bergman’s personal theatre in 2010 had told me that he had seen Ray’s films in Bergman’s vast collection. A lady from the Swedish Film Institute informed me that Bergman has been an admirer of both Ray and Ghatak. Ray, of course, adored Bergman.
Though you will not find a single sign board on the island besides a tombstone in the corner of the local church with the name 'Ingmar Bergman', to those who have seen his films, Bergman still lives in this island. In one south-east corner of the island he built the house where Persona was shot. Another old house that was burnt in the climax of Shame exists in a renovated form in the north-western part of Farp . These and many other spectacular details enlighten anyone who takes a four hour 'Bergman Tour' organized during the Bergman week.
The house he shot Persona in was bought by a local man and still exists in another part of the island. The owners however, hate intrusion and you can do nothing but stare at it longingly from a distance wishing you could walk around inside.
Faro with a permanent population of 533 people (2010 figures) is a popular holiday destination for Swedes, with the summer population rising up to 15,000. Revelers frolic through the white sands of the pristine beaches, cycle through the empty lanes in the island that invariably lead to the sea, get a tan on the beach, walk through dense pine forests any time of night or day as the sun hangs overhead 20 hours a day, drink and make merry on the small coral reef on the island. Yet, besides the hardcore Bergman fan, not many know this was the island Bergman lived and worked in. Even now, as when Bergman was alive, the residents fiercely protect the privacy of its most celebrated resident, a fact which Bergman was ever grateful for. Ask any local about Bergman, and they simply shrug.
When Bergman died today, exactly five years back in 2007, people expected this love affair between a man and an island to end. However, thanks ironically to a few 'Norwegians' – Liv, Linn and Hans - and a host of dedicated Swedes from the many foundations in Bergman’s name, the love affairs of a cinematic artist with his island is on its way to become a legend.
Someone should make a film on this strange love affair. They could call it A Genius IS An Island.
Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.