By Tara Judah
It may be a stretch to call them ‘popular’, but Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, Agnès Varda, 1985), Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008) and Cathy Come Home (Ken Loach, 1964) are engaging and well revered films about homeless women. Tjuvheder (Drifters), which has screened in Sweden and Norway and at a handful of international film festivals (including Thessaloniki, Göteborg, Munich, Norrköping, Donostia-San Sebastian, and now Cairo) is a Swedish film about two homeless women who are stuck in a cycle of poverty and substance abuse.
Minna (Malin Levanon) suffers ADHD, self-medicates with amphetamines (mostly Speed) and has, unwisely, ripped off a petty drug dealer. When the unsavoury man at the top of the drug chain finds her out she is forced to work for him to pay off her debt. Other than her cat, Minna has almost nothing. Meeting Katja (Lo Kauppi), who suffers alcoholism and who is trying to sober up to get her son out of foster care, gives Minna hope: the two women decide to live together in a caravan on an unofficial, communal housing lot. The community of homeless is built upon a code of trust: whether they are addicts or thieves, they must look out for each other and maintain a sense of loyalty within their community. This sentiment is the film’s foundation; translated into English the title literally means, ‘Thief’s Honour’ or, as the idiom goes, ‘Honour Among Thieves’.
Tjuvheder is a development of Grönlund’s short film, Gläntan (The Clearing, 2011), and the problems of homelessness in Stockholm are obviously important for him: Grönlund worked previously for Situation Stockholm, a street newspaper sold by homeless people, much like The Big Issue in the UK, Africa and Australasia. But it’s not gritty social realism and the impossible situations facing impoverished victims that makes Tjuvheder so engaging – Grönlund doesn’t labour the point. Rather, it’s a reminder that the so-called undesirables of society, whom the wealthy are wilfully blind to, exist, and that humanity is not some special thing reserved for a select, privileged few.
To this end Grönlund doesn’t go out of his way, aesthetically, to exaggerate a depraved mise-en-scène. Minna and Katja are without, but they, like most humans, are striving. The caravan and the housing lot are not just a place; it is their home. The objects they acquire to create a space for themselves in the world; what they wear, the jewellery Minna steals, the hair dye she treats Katja to, these are all expressions of their aspirations for existence in a world that constantly refuses to acknowledge them. Even when the authorities visit the housing lot, to give a heads up that thefts in the local area and conflicts in the community could mean they will all be moved on, no alternative housing benefit, rehabilitation program, assistance or suggestion of where they might be ‘moved on’ to is ever mentioned.
Strange that humanity is so often marked by inhuman objects; the status that capitalist materials bring can be shocking. For it is only when you are deprived of access to these supposedly meaningless things; a car, a job, or an apartment, that the symbols for social capital worth truly show their meaning. To own is not to be free from the rules, but not to own excludes the player from the game altogether.
What sets Tjuvheder apart from other social realist dramas, then, is that it does more than just expose poverty: it asks the privileged, who are its intended audience, to rethink the structures that create and perpetuate such conditions and social frays. Furthermore, it makes us question ourselves and our own humanity.
It is not a spoiler to say that Minna doesn’t find freedom, but she is not condemned, either. Instead, she is shown as a woman with great humanity, who has a great struggle before her if she is to prove it to others.
Director: Peter Grönlund
Guión: Peter Grönlund
Fotografía: Staffan Övgård
Productores: Frida Jonason, Mattias Nohrborg