Cultural Crossroads: “The Return” by Bergen filmmaker Ingrid Berven see its US premiere at Seattle’s Nordic Lights Film Festival

In the Norwegian/Georgian documentary film The Return, Ingrid Berven tells the story of a Tbilishi family who sends their daughters to study abroad for a better future with the hope that they will someday return home. Photo courtesy of Ingrid Berven

Travel has always been a key component of Sister Cities exchange, and sometimes a trip abroad can result in the unexpected.

For artist Ingrid Berven of Bergen, Norway, it meant moving into the new medium of documentary film, and for me, as president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, a chance meeting in Bergen led to a new involvement in the Seattle cinema community with the successful U.S. premiere of Berven’s debut film, The Return (2017). Through the association, and with sponsorship from the Nordic Heritage Museum and the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), I was able to bring Berven’s film to the Nordic Lights Film Festival in Seattle on Saturday, January 13, 2018.

Because 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of the Seattle-Bergen sister city relationship, I had traveled to Bergen with a delegation from Seattle. Our trip continued along the coast of Norway on the Hurtigruten Coastal Express. It was a journey of diplomacy and discovery. After saying goodbye to our group, I returned to Bergen to explore new opportunities for exchange.

Timing can be everything, and during my last few days there, the Bergen International Film Festival (BIFF) opened, a unique opportunity to see films not available for viewing outside of Scandinavia. On my last day in Bergen, some friends invited me to a screening of The Return with the filmmaker herself. The film marks an encounter between the cultures of Bergen and Tbilisi, a city in the country of Georgia.

Not knowing what to expect, the documentary became a revelation to me, as we followed Berven on her adventure in the Georgian city. She first traveled there in 2005 to visit friends in the Norwegian foreign service who were stationed there as part of the rebuilding effort, as Georgia sought to transition into a market-driven capitalistic society.

In Georgia, Ingrid Berven was surprised to discover a rich cultural landscape that had many mutual influences and parallels with Norway. Most notably, she followed in the footsteps of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, who had written his novel In Wonderland (I Æventyrland, 1903) after his travels there a few years earlier.

Berven learned that although 70 years of Soviet rule had devastated the infrastructure of the country, its cultural life and soul had remained intact.

Through her interactions with a prominent family of educators, scientists, and artists, she began to see many parallels with her own life back in Bergen. Observing the lives of her new Georgian friends, the artist started to reassess her own Norwegian experience, how the generations interact, and how the legacy of the past will be passed on to shape the future. Ingrid Berven decided to make her first documentary film.

The Return is an artistic juxtaposition of scenes from the cities of Tbilisi and Bergen. Both were part of major trade routes, Bergen a Hanseatic center on the North Atlantic, and Tbilisi located directly on the Silk Road on the Mtkvari River. Both cities are to this day major cultural centers, and both are surrounded by majestically high mountains.

In The Return, we learn that the influence of Norwegian culture in Georgia was significant. Hamsun not only visited the area, but his works were read there before being banned, and the music of Edvard Grieg has remained in the classical repertoire to this day. Dagny Juel, a writer and cult figure of the fin de siècle bohème who stood model for Edvard Munch’s famous Madonna painting, was shot and killed in Tbilisi in a mysterious episode, and even today, Norwegian tourists make pilgrimages to her grave there.

Grieg’s music figures prominently in the film, with the haunting melody of Solveig’s Song from Peer Gynt. In the Ibsen poem play, the song is a manifestation of longing, a strong emotion felt by her new Georgian friends, who have sent their children out into the world to study and develop themselves as individuals. While the next generation’s happiness and success is paramount, requiring huge sacrifices perhaps unthinkable in today’s Norway, the older generation carries an overwhelming desire for their loved ones to return home.

In his novel In Wonderland, Hamsun wrote that, “Whoever drinks the water of the Mtkvari once, will always dream of returning to the Caucasus.” Berven, like Hamsun, became enchanted, and spent over a decade creating this film. After seeing The Return in Bergen, I, too, fell under the spell, and sought to bring it back to Seattle so that the people there could experience it too.

At the end of his journey through Georgia, Knut Hamsun finally observed, “We usually leave home to come back famous and better, but we find ourselves in the worse conditions than those who never left.” Without a doubt, travel can invoke an overwhelming sense of longing back to the places we have visited. Yet, in a positive light, the outer and inner journey of travel broadens our perspective and ultimately enriches our world view, which is the magical experience of The Return.

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Lori Ann Reinhall shares updates about the Seattle Sister Cities’ international program.

The Sister Cities Exchange

Local Voices. Global Impact.