Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Armwrestler From Solitude

It's been a while since I've covered any foreign language documentaries here, but let's change that. The Filmhouse is currently running the touring programme from the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, and as I'm off work for a few days, I thought I'd randomly pick one.

The Armwrestler From Solitude - or, if you prefer, Armbryterskan fran Ensamheten - is a profile of the five-time women's world armwrestling champion Heidi Andersson. Heidi comes from Ensamheten in Lapland (population 16, all of them related - it's really more of an extended family home than a town). Ensamheten can be translated either as "the Loneliness" or "the Solitude", hence the name. Given that we're talking about an area of Lapland which has a population of 1 per square km to start with, you can only wonder how remote this place must be.

Heidi may be the ideal ambassador for the ultraminority sport of women's armwrestling. She's passionate, she's enthusiastic, she's friendly, and she doesn't look like a bodybuilder. No, she looks like this. (She's also got her own website here, but a lot of it's only in Swedish, and there doesn't seem to be a gallery.) She's a wholesome Nordic farm girl who just happens to be able to squash you like a bug.

You'd think this documentary ought to make itself. We've got a world champion in a sport so obscure that the women's division doesn't even have prize money. We've got a strange little community where she lives in the middle of nowhere with fifteen of her close family, nine of whom are also armwrestlers. We've got the 2003 World Championships in Ottawa to provide a story. And we've got the obvious interest in what attracts women to a sport that seems as hypermasculine as armwrestling.

So where did it go wrong? A combination of weak structure and hagiography, basically. Directors Lisa Munthe and Helen Ahlsson clearly adore Heidi and her family, and think that they can fill long stretches of screen time on charisma alone. Unfortunately, it doesn't work out like that. We start off with the impression of a family of nice people living in a pastoral arctic utopia... and that's exactly how it stays for over an hour. The family armwrestle one another. Heidi trains. The family armwrestle one another some more. Heidi writes a column for the local paper. The family do a bit more armwrestling. Everyone is happy. Everyone is overjoyed to be living in Solitude, and armwrestling so very much.

And they do indeed seem like wonderful people living a wonderful life, but that doesn't make for a terribly compelling film. I'm not looking for a "dark side of Solitude" angle, but we never get beneath the surface here. At one point her father talks about how he lost his job as a lumberjack, but it's never followed up. Nor do we get into Heidi's feelings about Solitude in any real detail (you'll learn more about it on her website). Or the effort of raising money to fund her trip to Ottawa - despite the gift of Heidi doing public appearances in what seems to be the local branch of B&Q, taking on all-comers and cheerfully thrashing them all. We're told that Heidi won some sort of sportsperson of the year award, but that never goes anywhere either. There's so much more that could have been done with this subject matter, and yet we end up watching endless footage of the family acting exactly like any other family. Her website suggests a keen interest in the environment, which doesn't even put in an appearance in the film. To be honest, I'm still not entirely clear what she actually does other than armwrestling.

The competition gives it a bit of direction towards the end, but even there the narration is shaky. Is it really that hard to flag up that the match we're watching is the final? Or that the rules are best of three? Heidi obligingly wins 2-1 after dropping the first point, which is classic story material, but they still don't really make anything of it.

It's an incredibly frustrating film. Heidi seems a very nice person but the film never gets to grips with her - and even if they wanted to be superficial, they could have made a far stronger story with the material they have. I'm half tempted to send the directors back to do it again properly, because a well-made documentary about Heidi Andersson ought to be fascinating.