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THESSALONIKI DOCUMENTARY 2020

Review: Meanwhile on Earth

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- In Carl Olsson’s Swedish-Danish-Estonian documentary that screams Roy Andersson’s name, death is just another chore

Review: Meanwhile on Earth

Likely to scare the bejesus out of anyone interested in the Feature Length International Competition at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival this year, Carl Olsson’s gentle Meanwhile on Earth [+see also:
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doesn’t do explicit, nor does it really have to: its subject matter alone is plain troubling. Dedicated to the simple practicalities of dying, as carried out in Sweden’s contemporary funeral industry in this case, and the people who are there to literally pick up the pieces, it shows exactly where we go after we die. Which is not nearly as far as one would hope.

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Not interested in the sacrum or in the profanum, Olsson shows death at its most mundane – backstage preparations abuzz with small talk and well-rehearsed movements, given time to play out in the long shots he favours, with the camera always fixed. “She knows the drill,” says someone about a colleague’s exceptionally obedient dog, but everyone else knows it, too. And instead of asking them how they feel about it, Olsson just lets them do their job.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, not after five seasons of Six Feet Under, but there is indeed a whole sector dedicated to the business of dying. Someone has to do it. Would it be better not to know it, at least not in so much detail? Maybe, although the people Olsson shows here are thorough and respectful (and extremely laconic), bowing before the dead, acknowledging the person they used to be before. But ultimately, yes, it’s their daily routine, so there is no escaping a relieved “thank God it’s Friday” observation – the fact that it comes while digging a grave making it only slightly more absurd. The happy memory of “eating like there is no tomorrow” at a buffet, as shared by a funeral driver, sure sounds very different as well. Life is short, for God’s sake – there is no point in fasting.

If it all sounds a bit funny, it’s because it is, and yet it’s not – for all the humour and talk about “a night out with all the gravediggers”, one can never properly shake off the sadness or – damn it – the fear. It’s really as if Roy Andersson, that tragicomic existentialist, were suddenly let loose in the funeral parlour, observing the little peculiarities of dedicated crematorium workers, cleaners mopping the floors under the corpses or in-house musicians, and even venturing further once or twice to show an elderly lady eavesdropping on bingo while in the smoking room and another one left in front of the blaring TV, all alone, waiting for the inevitable. Olsson is a skilful, sensitive filmmaker, but there is no escaping a simple conclusion here: just enjoy every day, for in no time, someone will be playing the flute as they are reducing you to ash. If you’re lucky, that is.

Meanwhile on Earth is a Swedish-Danish-Estonian co-production staged by Caroline Drab and Anne Köhncke for De Andra Film, and co-produced by Ivo Felt, Charlotte Madsen and Lisa Nyed for Allfilm, SVT, Film i Skåne and Final Cut for Real. Its world sales are handled by Syndicado.

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