Science fiction may not initially spring to mind when you are thinking of Scandinavian cinema, but the Swedish sci-fi Aniara certainly seeks to change that perception. Based on the 1956 work of the same title by Nobel laureatte Harry Martinson, Aniara follows a ship of refuges from a dying Earth that are knocked off course and stranded in space. With the film showing in Australia as part of the Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival 2019 (July 17- August 7), DAVID O’CONNELL asked directors Pella Kårgerman and Hugo Lilja about what it was like tackling such a well known work for their debut feature film.

What inspired you to tackle Aniara?

Growing up, I (Pella) was very close to my grandmother. She was extremely playful and interested in literature. Together we went to see a theater play of Aniara. The following night she got a stroke and ended up in a hospital. I started to read the book loud to her there, and as she was getting better we started to role-play it. We pretended that the hospital was the space ship named Aniara, the doctors its crew and the patients its passengers. Basically, that’s when the story truly hit us, on a very deep level.

How challenging did you find it to tackle a science fiction epic (based on a well known work) for your first feature film?

We probably wouldn’t have dared to make this film, if we wouldn’t have been debutants and not fully aware of what was a head of us! At one point it really felt like we were free falling. But luckily we had a lot of fantastic and super talented people around us, catching us.

This seem very much a film that is reminiscent of a past era of science fiction (60s and 70s), before the genre became very spectacle and effects driven. What was it like tackling a contemplative science fiction film?

We don’t have that much to compare with (laughs). But we love 60s and 70s movies, (sci-fi and others) that are character driven and deal with society and philosophy.

What themes were you particularly interested in bringing to the forefront of the work?

We’re very interested in the existential theme – how we humans deal with our limited time and our uncertain purpose in the universe.

The premise of a destroyed Earth and how humanity finds a new home planet is quite common in sci-fi. But in reality we don’t have hyperdrive and world building technology so Aniara’s more pessimistic outlook on our chances of survival in that scenario felt very important.

Are we already on a spaceship heading towards extinction?

It seems like it, doesn’t it? In fact Earth is moving at the exact same speed as Aniara does, 30 kilometres per second.

Did you change any elements of the original work, to highlight these themes?

In the original Earth is destroyed by nuclear war. We changed that to climate crises which feels more imminent today.

What prompted the look of the interior of the ship?

It was both an economical and an aesthetic choice. We’re pretty sure that we can’t escape the time we live in. For example all the science-fiction films from the 60’s looks very much like the 60’s, even if they are to depict the future. Then it’s better to be pragmatic and realistic.

And in our case, we really wanted to create a ’here and now’ feeling. We wanted the ship to feel familiar. If we were to emigrate in large scale to Mars today, we’re pretty sure that the ships will contain both shopping malls, bowling and spas. But especially shopping malls.

Were there any films that either inspired elements of you film, or you references in Aniara?

We’re huge fans of Haneke and Tarkovsky, and playfully referred to Aniara as ‘Solaris (1971) on speed’. But it’s questionable if anything of that can be seen in the film. But one of the Mima (an AI entertainment system at the heart of the film) images is inspired by the shoots of seaweeds in Solaris. Funnily enough we recently learnt that the iconic image we tried so hard to mimic, apparently was the result of a failure. Tarkovsky had gathered thousands of frogs for the image but when they turned on the lights all the frogs disappeared.

Will you direct more science fiction films, or do you have another genre in mind for your next work?

Yuval Harari has said that sci-fi shapes how we all understand technological, social and economic developments of our time. We very much agree to that and those are the kind of films we love to watch ourselves. So the answer is yes!