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Venice Biennale Cinema 2013

Reenacting the Real for the Sake of Drama and Dialogue
By Eva Novrup Redvall

The Reunion
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"The Reunion" (Anna Odell)

When one starts watching Anna Odell's The Reunion (Återträffen) there is a feeling that this might be yet another drama inspired by Thomas Vinterberg's Danish dogma film The Celebration (Festen). We are at a high school reunion in Sweden, where classmates who graduated from the 9th grade 20 years ago have gotten together. The plan is to party and remember the good old times. However, one person has a different agenda. She wants to confront her classmates with the fact that she felt bullied throughout her school years. When she gets up to make her speech, the party turns into quite a different event, since she insists on this being an evening for dialogue and reflection rather than a mindless celebration of the wonderful times when they were the best class in the world.

The main set-up of The Reunion contains plenty of conflict and convincingly creates a sense of being in the middle of a tense social situation where anything might happen. After a while it turns out that this is not the only story of the film. This is not at all like The Celebration. The Reunion turns out to be a complex construction, which blurs the boundaries between fiction and documentary in an intelligent and emotionally engaging way.

One of the reasons for this is that the person making the speech is Anna Odell playing herself, while actors are portraying her former classmates as she imagines how they would be today. The back story for the film is that she was planning to make a speech at her class reunion, when she suddenly discovered that the reunion had already taken place with her the only person not invited. This led to the idea of fictionalizing what this reunion might have been like, had she given her speech as she planned.

The Reunion
space.
"The Reunion" (Anna Odell)

While the first part of the film works very well as a condensed drama, the film really takes off when the fictionalized reunion is used as the back drop for the second part of the film. Anna Odell contacts her former classmates to show them her view of a reunion in which she would have presented her perception of being part of the class. Again, actors are playing the parts of the classmates, but the situations and conversations are apparently based on the real life research and encounters, showing a great reluctance among her former classmates to meet and deal with the past.

Part of the explanation for this reluctance is that Anna Odell is now a known artist in Sweden. She sparked controversy with the art installation Unknown, woman 2009-349701, where she enacted a psychotic episode on a bridge in Stockholm and was later convicted on charges of violent resistance and fraudulent practice. People seem to be uncertain of what she might be up to this time around. Another reason for the hardships of arranging to meet is of course that it is never pleasant to have one's self-understanding challenged and it is easier to avoid uncomfortable conversations about the past than dealing with the fact that one's actions have consequences from an early age and that some people are marked for life by what people did — or did not do — during those glorious school days.

At one point in the film Anna Odell talks to a former classmate who is quite shocked by her memory of him as one of the worst bullies in the class. It turns out that this is apparently the first time they actually talked to each other in spite of spending nine years in the same classrooms. The Reunion has many powerful moments like these with a strong emotional resonance, while constantly challenging the viewer with the clever mix of fiction and reality.

One has the sense of being part of a process of investigating a theme, which marks many art installations, while cinematic works often have a greater sense of closeness to them. The Reunion creates the feeling of going along on a highly personal investigation of an important and universal topic, but at the same time one always feels the presence of a strong filmmaking voice keeping the exploration both interesting and entertaining. It is a film that raises many big questions, ranging from the nature and consequences of bullying as well as the complicated nature of group dynamics to questions about filmmaking as a tool for provoking action or change and the ethics related to dealing with real people and events on the big screen.

The Reunion was awarded the FIPRESCI prize for best debut feature in the sections Orrizonti and International Critics' Week at the 70th Venice Film Festival. One can only hope that the film will have a long and prosperous international life and that Anna Odell will consider making more films and not only art installations in the years to come.

Eva Novrup Redvall
© FIPRESCI 2013

Eva Novrup Redvall is a film critic for the Danish daily newspaper Information, www.information.dk. She holds a PhD in Film and Media Studies from the University of Copenhagen and currently has two English books in press: Writing and Producing Television Drama in Denmark: From The Kingdom to The Killing (Palgrave Macmillan) and Danish Directors 3: Dialogues on the New Danish Documentary Cinema (co-authored with Mette Hjort and Ib Bondebjerg, Intellect Press).

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bullet. High School Group
bullet. A Family Disaster
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