It is summer here in Sweden, vacation time. Everyone is off work and united in a collective longing to escape time that is controlled and predictable. At first, one is unaccustomed to being free, how to behave with time that is free and governed only by meals. Yet after a few days, I at least, begin to readjust and enjoy all thoughts that are allowed space and time. I often stare out into nothingness and my children complain that I take too long to answer a question.

It is August and it feels like fall already. We’re sitting in the kitchen, eating strawberries.


What does

a film

taste like?

© Altofilm AB all rights reserved

During the Swedish summer,

commissioning editor Tove

Torbiörnsson took a

moment to reflect on what

formatting does to the ways

in which we shape reality.


The last ones for this summer. A friend describes a text she has read about how the European Union defines this beautiful fruit. It turns out that there have been many paragraphs written in the attempt to precisely define what a strawberry is. They try to classify and define it by its size. But in these long descriptions in bureaucratic language, there is not one mention of the most important thing, namely the taste and the content of the fruit. Does a strawberry taste better if it is 25 mm in diameter?

In Sweden, they’re closing many of the school kitchens because centralized kitchens facili-tating large-scale preparation of food that can then be shipped out to schools, old people’s

homes and hospitals are regarded as better. The food often tastes bad and everyone complains, but nothing can be done, since it would be too expensive to reinstall the kitchens, the stoves and the freezers.

This makes me think about standardization, questions of formatting and regulations. Somewhere in the back of my head I think of TV. More and more people watch cooking shows but fewer people are spending time in the kitchen. How is it all connected?

What does a film taste like? How do regulations enforced by TV networks on format and time shape the way stories are told on film? How stultifying are the reigning forms of distribution for the narrative? What lies hidden behind the values of the TV networks and what are their fears? Is there a thought pattern that influences us as viewers? For which stories do we make room?

I sense a lack of courage within the TV networks. Public service is well worth a long and hard fight but nonetheless, I experience that anxiety over viewer ratings and the increasing demand for profitability from the TV companies suffocates the art; factoring more heavily in the decisions concerning what will be produced and aired. The talk is less about substance and more about programme format and length. An air of resignation is almost palpable. Everything is governed by this paralyzing awareness of a leadership body far removed from the art in the production. A leadership that allows the commissioners to become slaves to various formats and slots. What is their vision and direction? What is public service today? What is their take on the viewer? How does the demand for profitability from these large and rigid organizations sway and suffocate the ability of programming departments and commissioners to reach

does a


taste better if it is 25mm in diameter?

imagine if i

refused to go

to a museum

because the


came in different sizes

28 DOX #87 AUTUMN 2010

decisions. And what, in the end, is the effect on filmmakers and, ultimately, their stories?

What is a format really and what relevance does the question of format have? What significance does film have? Or TV? Since we do spend many years, maybe as many as six to ten years of our life, in front of a square or rectangular box with moving pictures, the question surely seems important. It is the responsibility of film institutes and TV management to provide the opportunities for serious and wide-ranging research, as well as to ensure discourse on what is portrayed in film and its consequences. Yet, when was the last time anyone heard discussions of this sort being promoted by television? There should be so much more discussion, far removed from the influence of politicians, focused on crafting the tools necessary to understand our time: the past, the future, now. This could make a big difference for future generations and our own perspective. Every decision we make in the area of film is of vital importance. Who are we? Who do we want to be?

    To make really good films is hard. Every film means taking risks. The impact of a film may not always be immediate, but it can lead to change, not always measurable in political terms, but it can etch itself into a viewer’s conscience and create new outlooks. Much is also required of the filmmaker in terms of ethical standpoints. Film is a unique and powerful cultural phenomenon that is built upon unknown encounters and on opposites; on sheer will and a longing to understand society and the structures and systems in which we live. Film is not so much a genre as it is a method—or more specifically, various methods where the most important tools are related to light, time and movement.

Very often it means a lot of time and a lot of movement. It takes time to get close to a person or a story, to partake in the lives of others; to get to be a part of a process and then to stay long enough to see the consequences of this interval of time and narrative.

There is a tremendous homogeneity in our trade which, in itself, is hard to believe. Or perhaps, frighteningly all too believable in today’s conformance hysteria which sadly allows only limited viewpoints. This homogeneousness contradicts our own wish and outspoken desire for broader perspectives. The starting point should be that “normal” does not exist. There is much more we could do to understand why, before the camera eye, some worlds are allowed to exist while others are not.

Enormous control of formats prevails in the film business. One might wonder what effect this has upon the narratives being told. How does it influence the editing? And what impact does it have on me when, as a commissioner, I ask that documentary narratives fit into a formatting system that is built upon a certain form of convenience and old habit. How is it all related? Is there a risk that we could lose something in the narratives? Authenticity? A kind of freedom? Just imagine if I refused to go to a museum because the paintings came in different sizes! Or if a literary agency required its authors to write novels of the same length every time? Why is this system possible in the movie industry and even more so, in the world of television?

How can it be that films are refused because they are too long or too short? This affects the editing of the films which are not allowed their own organic rhythm, but instead are forced to adhere to a kind of narrative conformity. Something that also influences the stories is

understand everything, just because it’s aired on TV. As a result, many attempts to eloquently affect the narrative through images fail. Who does understand a film? Who has the answers to life? Not I. Or, in any case, not the same answers as you.

The fact is, technical advancements are already weakening the case for time slots. It does notmatteranymoreifafilmis36-minuteslong or 9 hours, as long as I am motivated enough and can choose when to watch it. So it is time to direct our attention to something beyond superficialities. It’s time to develop the narrative.

What is a film? Who decides this? Is film a right, a value in and of itself? Who’s examining the impact of film in the larger perspective? What is meant really by, “adapted for television”? Why do the television programmers have so much power? Where is this discussion taking place and which of our needs are being satisfied by the present system? I believe people want unfiltered knowledge and the revival of a narrative unrestrained by format.

Generations to come will no doubt come to view primetime as unimportant. They may not even watch TV at all. But they will want substance: and here is where the documentary narrative will have a solid opportunity for development. Much is already happening but we can be more daring. If that is what we want. Perhaps the film and television industry should attempt to condition the expectations of their audiences for something other than displays of egoism and stereotypes that batter the inner- self. Quite simply, for different dreams. We should take ourselves much more seriously. Not as superficial consumers but as wilful beings who possess the soul of the storyteller.

Tove Torbiörnsson is commisioning editor

at The Swedish Film Institute.