Why Swedes Are So Lonely

I spoke to the director of The Swedish Theory of Love about why we Swedes are so lonely, independent, strong and sad.

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nov 10 2015, 11:00am

Courtesy of Lars Tunbjörk/Fasad

As an 80s kid growing up in Sweden, I always thought it was normal for the elderly in our country to be lonely. To live alone as a single young adult was normal – it was weird and sad to live with your parents if you were past the teenage years. To be completely independent both financially and emotionally as a member of society was given. If you were independent, you were strong! Oh, how blind I was.

Turns out that these occurrences aren't necessarily true outside of the Swedish boarders, at least according to the documentary The Swedish Theory of Love which premiers this week at Stockholm's Film Festival. Erik Gandini's documentary makes an excellent and poignant portrait of the ever-present loneliness in Sweden. And while it's visually exquisite, the message of the film is pretty sad but also enlightening. I met up with the director to talk about why we live in a country where it's acceptable to apply for governmental assistance, but unacceptable to cry in someone's arms.


Courtesy of Lars Tunbjörk/Fasad

VICE: Hi Erik! How did you get the idea of making this documentary? Is the Swedish loneliness something you have thought about portraying for a long time?
Erik Gandini: I make movies based on what I think is interesting and nowadays we can depict the world with very simple means. It's a good time to express social critique which I do. I'm half Italian and half Swedish, I grew up in Italy and came to Sweden when I was twenty years old. All my life I have lived some kind of "split life", as you do as an immigrant. You kind of see two communities, and you see how diametrically different they can be comparing to each other. There's a sense of relativity; what's normal here can be totally abnormal in the other country and vice versa. To be honest, when I moved here, I saw everything that The Swedish Theory of Love is about; a society of independent individuals and I found that really hard to understand. I didn't know the social codes, I didn't understand why people were overly private and why they were so against being dependent on their parents. I come from a country where your family is a big and important part of your life.

But you feel like Swedes don't have the same relationship to their families?
Here in Sweden there's an attitude to relationships that I find difficult to comprehend. There is nothing wrong with solitude and independence but we have to be mindful about the consequences of isolation. It's not about destroying the system – its about increasing awareness of this issue.

Do you think that the Swedish people have become spoiled by the well-functioning social security schemes in the country?
Well, I discovered that there has been an ideology here in Sweden that is pretty unique to this country, and that is the idea that the citizens should be independent and free from one another. When the idea was implemented there was this notion that no adult should be financially dependent on their relatives and so we created a society where no old person should have to live with their children and no young person should have to live with their parents after the age of eighteen. A sociologist named Zygmunt Bauman who is featured in the film, claims that "independence have stripped you from the ability of socializing". Something that fits well with the Swedish social model.


Courtesy of Lars Tunbjörk/Fasad

Would you say that we are imprisoned in an unwanted solitude because of our society's daily demands of independence?
What's tricky here is that the social structures offers the ability to be alone: we have a roof over our head, we pay our bills on direct debit and we don't necessarily need to have any contact with other people. In other countries where you don't have this super effective social structure, you have to help each other. That's not the case in Sweden. We are free from each other. I mean it's a great vision and you cannot be against independence – but there are drawbacks with this model. Our country is a world leader when it comes to autonomous individuals but we're also the world leaders of people living in solitude, and that's interesting to me. A few years ago The Swedish Red Cross made a survey that showed that 40% of adults in Sweden feel or live in a life of solitude. They started these campaigns in which they urged us to take care of each other, and to care more about our elderly, to lnot let anyone be alone on Christmas day and so on.

In other countries where you don't have this super effective social structure, you have to help each other. That's not the case in Sweden.

Has social media reduced the need for people to socialize in real life?
Social relationships online is based on the total freedom to just switch off when it gets too real or too uncomfortable. So yes, the promise of the comfortable life online is treacherous, but it's on your own terms.

Can the unwanted solitude be a factor that contributes to the high number of suicides that occur annually in Sweden?
Hard to say but there's a book written by this woman working with people who suffer from terminal illness. She asked her patients the question of, if they had the chance to go back in time, what would they change? And the most common answer was; "I would live a life after who I am, rather than after what others might expect me to be". The other two most common answers she got were: "I would work less" and "I would spend more time with my friends and family instead of working so much".

Lastly, are you nervous about how the film will be received?
Well you're always a little bit nervous when when it's time to let go of something you've worked hard on. However, it's a privilege to release a film and I'm very confident in what I want to say with my work.

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