Luleå Biennial 2018
In 1970, the film-maker Lena Ewert, together with her colleague Lars Westman, made the film Comrades, the Opponent is Well-Organised.
To the Strike Committees
Kiruna, Malmberget and Svappavaara
When the strike is over, there must be a document that says what the strike really was about and for Swedish workers to take part in.
When I (Lena Ewert) was here before Christmas, I saw that no filmmaker is working to make a comprehensive depiction of it all.
That's why Lars Westman and I arranged money during Christmas to do this.
We have the tools (cameras and tape recorders) and know how to operate them, but the only ones who know what ought to be said in the film are you miners.
Lars and I agree that we do not want to be "thinkers and interpreters”, but rather to put our knowledge about film-making at your disposal, and for you to feel that this is your film, and that it speaks your language.
When the film is complete, the strike committees will be given copies that can be displayed in, for example, Folkets Hus and other premises across Sweden.
(...) So far, we have filmed public meetings with an emphasis on the workers in the "audience". We hope that with this you have understood that we are not driven by a frenzy for “newsworthiness”, and that the internal meetings and other things we wish to film are strictly confidential.
In addition, we are discussing the possibility bringing editing equipment to Kiruna for the film's completion. Because that part of the work must also be done together and be supervised by the miners.
Lena Ewert and Lars Westman
I met Lena Ewert in connection with my research on the Great Mine Strike winter 1969~70 in the Malmfälten - where nearly 5,000 miners employed at LKAB put down work for five weeks. The filmmaker Lena Ewert was one of the many cultural workers who came to show her solidarity with the workers, and engage with their situation. "The mining strike created a crack in the facade of Sweden’s cosy self-image of the People´s home- and radicalised cultural life in Sweden". This is approximately what I write in the preface to my book “The Art of the Strike”.
My idea as an artist was to create a project through which to investigate the historically important, and in my generation perhaps forgotten, miners’ strike through the solidarity that emerged in the wake of the 68-movement. At that time, I sought an art world beyond competitiveness, market value and commodification. Why not look back at the specific examples from the strike, which concerned solidarity? is what I thought.
During these years, the relevance of the strike has been confirmed, if, for instance, we turn to the struggles faced by the unions. Not least, the ongoing conflict in the port of Gothenburg today reminds us of how important it is to protect the right to strike. And in addition, the strike among the workers in the same port in November 1969, three weeks before the mining strike, is what ignited the wave major strikes in Sweden in the 1970s.
The result of my research has taken the form of a book and exhibitions about one of Sweden's most radical strikes and its cultural output some 40 years after the event. I have been thinking a lot about whether I have done those on strike as well as all involved cultural workers justice? An impossible task, of course, since I can only try to interpret impressions using my tools as an artist. In retrospect, I think that what I faced does not come close to the responsibility that Lena Ewert felt weighing on her shoulders, together with her colleague Lars Westman, to disseminate one of Sweden's largest labor market conflicts throughout the ages.
In 1969, Lena Ewert is looking for a different political reality, away from the urban environment and away from the caustic debates surrounding the films she contributed to during the Film School years. Ewert, who previously participated in the most radical film productions of the late 1960s (The Record Years 1966, 1967, 1968 and The White Sport, which were made at the Film School), now wants to design a film project for herself. She embarks on a new challenge, causing her to taking a different kind of political and social responsibility as a filmmaker no longer in school. Ewert goes to a strike meeting in Kiruna and experiences a very strong strike. Soon afterwards, she invites the filmmaker Lars Westman to return with her, and see it for himself:
I went up there because Lena had been to Kiruna and seen that it was a very strong strike. Lena and I needed to get away from everything in Stockholm, it was that sort of period in our lives. I drove a Citroën cabriolet, it was cold, and we arrived five minutes before the strike meeting began. We started filming right away, without asking, we just went in. They saw us, we were the only ones who filmed, the others had their cameras switched off. Lena and I did not think the strike would last so long, we had no plans to be gone for so long. We did not have money for it. But we decided while we were up there that if no one else does this, then we'll have to do it, we’ll make it work.
Together with her friend Lars from her student days at the Documentary Film School, who had just made the controversial film Conveyer Belt about workers at LM Ericsson’s factory, she begins a dialogue with the miners that resulted in Comrades, the opponent is well-organised (1970).
They put SEK 90,000 towards the film. A sum they accumulated through stipends, bank loans with the help of the strike fund as creditor, and their own funding. In one of the hundreds of committee protocols from the strike, it is noted that 10% of the net income from public screenings of the film should be distributed as the Strike Committee saw fit.
Other filmmakers from the alternative scene also supported them. Filmcentrum, made up of a group of young political activists, was perceived as an alternative to the heavy institution of the Film Institute, and supported urgent society reportage. The first agitprop films, according to the writer and filmmaker Carl Henrik Svenstedt, came from France to Stockholm around 1968. Filmcentrum helped and contributed a editing equipment that they sent up with Ulf Berggren to Gällivare. Carl Henrik Svenstedt from ”Filmcentrum” since followed with the money they had collected:
I have tried to figure out how much money it was. I remember being ashamed because I thought it wasn’t a lot, but nobody knows or remember how much money it was. But I asked Lena what this meant, solidarity from the bottom up, so to speak. She said there had been no film if they had not received the support, there is no question that it was absolutely crucial to the project. It was a great scene to walk into: you arrive in Gällivare, and there, inside a barrack, are Lasse Westman and Lena Ewert, editing. It was midsummer night, it was bright outside, and there were always two miners with them, because it was part of the socialist concept that workers would be there to check the quotes. So it was out of this material and these chaotic conditions that the film Comrades, the opponent is well-organised came, and, as far as I can judge, it is one of the best resistance films that have been made when it comes to raising the issues of the working class.
The film Comrades, the opponent is well-organised does not contain a single interview, they captured everything as it happened, in situ, because they understood the material to be an invaluable testimony to the time. But the film is not as spontaneous as you might imagine.
While they enjoyed strong support for their film among the miners, they were also aware of the responsibility that came with it. Some of the precautionary measures they were had to contend with are to give a vow of silence, and to keep recorded material from internal meetings in a bank vault, to be retrieved only as approved by the Strike Committee. The Strike Committee would also approve which scenes from the 21- and 27- mandate delegations could be included. An editing committee was eventually formed of six representatives from the Strike Committee together with Ewert and Westman.
Many of the people I’ve met over the years recall the courage of the miners in speaking to large crowds in sports arenas and town halls; that they were able to take the floor to not only speak freely and from the heart but also with great rhetorical skill. There were many strong voices among them, such as: Harry Isaksson, Elof Luspa and Martin Gustavsson. The strike is well documented, so it would not be possible to distort the story of one of Sweden's most radical strikes. For the first time, a strike could be followed through film, television and radio. Unfortunately, the media was quite reluctant to document the process because of how wild the strike was, and not sanctioned by the Swedish Trade union’s Confederation (LO). LKAB was one of Sweden's largest state-owned companies and an industrial crown jewel. The only ones that let the cameras roll as much as they could were Ewert and Westman. The strike was surveyed and monitored even by IB. It was a sensitive situation - the strike constituted a threat to democracy and the Social Democratic government party, together with the LO, did everything to break it.
The spaces in which the strike took place, the mining towns Kiruna and Malmberget, have changed dramatically. Soon, they will no longer even be in the same locations. Malmberget has been eradicated, and the community forced to migrate to Gällivare because of the mining industry. Two thousand homes, as well as association rooms, the church, sports facilities, the bathhouse, the iceskating field, schools and retirement homes will be moved or demolished. Also in Kiruna you can witness houses rolling away on trailers to be move to the newly planned town. But the mental traces left in the spaces where the striking miners congregated, such as the town hall, will not be erased. That strong feelings about the strike remain with the children of the miners and their families was something that really affected me. One miner I called up to ask out about the strike said that enough is enough: he had no more to say on the matter. He wanted to rest and find peace in his soul in the final years of his life. Lena Ewert took the strike extremely seriously, and came, also on a private level, to identify with the place – Malmberget was never a temporary retreat, but somewhere she would stay on and that provided her with a family for a long period of her life.
For me, Comrades, the opponent is well-organised is an important document of its time because it was made with workers, for workers, and as such will always remind us of the people who were behind the strike. The persistence and accuracy of Ewert in portraying the strike as democratically and true to her principles as possible, has fascinated me immensely. These were not a normal circumstances for making a film. This happened while everything was still at stake, and all of Sweden held its breath. To be so strong in coping with this kind of division of labour, responsibility and pressure from within the film crew, but also the pressure from the outside, the controversy of the strike, is admirable.
This is what Lena Ewert herself said at a strike meeting:
... the most important thing about the film is that it is the miners' own view on the matter that its expressed. That the miners after the strike have their own film with their view on the matter is very important because many different interpretations in the form of books, radio and television programs will be made. It is about time that the workers have their own film.
E-mail Interview with Lena Ewert, 4 August 2012, from the book The Art of the Strike. Ingela: When you look back on the three films you made during the 60s today, what strikes you as the deriving force behind your engagement with political film? (*The White Sport, The Record Years, Comrades, the opponent is well-organised*). Lena: All films are political. (To not take a stand is also taking a stand). I chose to make films that portrayed events that were beyond myself. I know that even in this type of film, I am also the one who sees, hears, and makes decisions in the editing room, that is, interprets what I’ve seen. But after many years of working in theatre and after a Bergman-inspired film school experience, I needed to direct the camera lens away from myself. Ingela: What did *The White Sport*, with group 13, mean to you as a filmmaker? Lena: It was a confirmation that cinema films can work with the same speed as reportage journalism, and at the same time, relay with detail and objectivity. (Investigative journalism was not on mainstream TV then). And also that all you needed to find a way of working was to have time, a camera, raw film, a sound recorder, and to not hesitate to show up! After the filming (which was the smallest part of the work effort, time-wise) this collaborative spirit of finding resources for developing, cutting, sound recording, etc. continued. It was the beginning of working collectively for me. One consequence of our enthusiasm was that the project received support from many sides, even outside of Group 13. (Rock Studio was at our disposal, their lab, mix studio, etc.) Another lesson that I learnt was that the Film School was not free of the power structures of the rest of society. The film school director Harry Schein and then-chief of police, Carl Persson, agreed that the unedited film material should be made available to the police for them to identify demonstrators. How the two of them had their hopes snuffed is another story. The lesson I took from the mainstream media’s treatment was, among other things, that the film, despite the explicitly collective structure behind it, was dubbed "Bo Widerberg's film". (He was on set for three days, and, besides, was busy filming Elvira Madigan that summer.) Ingela: Did you see yourself as part of the 68-movement? Lena: Yes. In the 60's unorganised. My sympathies were with the Leftist Youth League (which later broke with the mother party, Left Party Communists, after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia). In the 70's, after we had finished working on the film, I was more active in organised local work, like distributing and writing for Stormklockan. I also wrote for Folket i Bild, Kulturfront, NSD, Aftonbladet and others. Ingela: Why was the mining strike especially important to support? Lena: The mining strike represented a force that had the possibility to change society in a fundamental way: the demand for influence was strong and clear. Also the demands on salary, and safer work environment received strong support and was subsequently followed up in the logging industry, at Volvo and other places. The Social Democratic Party, as the governing party, was put to the test, and its internal crisis made increasingly visible. Ingela: What was it like being a female cultural worker in Malmfälten? There is a kind of macho culture in the mines. Did you take a feminist perspective with you? Lena: A society mostly characterised by heavy industry of course gives way to a certain kind of socialising. In Malmberget, men were completely dominant in mining underground. In Kiruna, there were more women doing similar work. To have a job gives influence. Film jobs were certainly unfamiliar to most and were seen as soft labour. My work with the film about the strike, and the later films for SR TV, was dependent on contact with Stockholm. It probably didn’t flow as simply as if I had had the opportunity to meet in person. As for “Macho", I thought that the one holding the camera was given a higher status than the one holding the microphone. But surely this applies in Stockholm, too? Ingela: Did you perceive the working class to have a key function in terms of driving societal change – that if there was to be a change, it would have to come from the working class? Lena: The strength of the working class is crucial. But to be successful in changing a society such as Sweden's depends on the collective strength of a wider spectrum of the population. Ingela: What were your working methods? From the actual filming to the editing room, representatives from the Strike Committee were present throughout the process – in that sense, it was a collective effort. How do you think that worked out? Lena: The process that took place after the strike, I had not expected. After returning to the work, there was a fatigue in terms of continuing to value and go over the strike. I think not talking about what had happened was a way to avoid the risk of igniting further fragmentation. This was also reflected in the work of the editing team. In the end, we were asked to attend meetings and check the editing and audio. We were careful about protocols and decision-making. We felt the need for transparency, and to really go by the book. Ingela: How do you think the film was received in the cinemas across the country? What kind of expectations were at stake? Lena: A lot of problems arose during distribution. Filmcentrum was helpful. A support group was also formed for the film's distribution, to make sure it was not hushed.