James Koenig

James Koenig: Founder and Director of Scandinavian Film Festival L.A.

By: Timothy J. Fuller

Scandinavian Film Festival L.A. (SFFLA) all began when James Koenig first saw Liv Ullman’s directorial debut Sophie and realized how few foreign-language films get picked up for wider distribution. As a man devoted to the arts with a deep appreciation for cinema, especially Nordic and Baltic cinema, Koenig opened the doors of the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, CA to filmmakers from Denmark, Finland Iceland, Norway, and Sweden in 2000 and later to their Baltic neighbors, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

Now in their twenty-third year, SFFLA continues to showcase a wide variety of talent from across the Nordic and Baltic world, including multiple films up for Oscar nominations. Koenig insists that storytelling is at the forefront of the festival, but also remains a cultural event well-poised to serve those with business to take care of. “We like to be matchmakers,” he says, bringing together an international ensemble of filmmakers and connecting them with an American audience in the heart of Hollywood.

Koenig remains adamant that Nordic and Baltic films are especially relevant these days with Finland and the Baltic countries bordering Russia.  It is more important than ever to affirm those countries’ ties to the West. He cites the films 5 Days of War and Purge as two academy-nominated entries that shed light on the continuing conflict between Russia and the West. 5 Days of War, directed by Renny Harlin, the most successful Finnish Film director in Hollywood, recounts the story of a five-day invasion of Georgia by the Russians. The 2012 Finnish film Purge, an entry for The Best Foreign Language Oscar, is a drama set in Estonia that follows the story of Zara, a young woman who seeks to escape Russian human traffickers and ends up in the hands of Aliide, an older woman who experienced the horrors of the Stalin era and the deportation of Estonians to Siberia.

Koenig’s love of cinema began in his high school days at the local art-house theater of Indianapolis, Indiana, where he would sneak off to see The Virgin Spring and films by the great Swedish Director Ingmar Bergman. Later in life he moved from the subtitles of foreign-language film to the supertitles of Opera, where he would later find his calling as an Opera-singer and singing instructor. As a singer he performed in the U.S. and in Europe.

After numerous visits to Finland for concerts and recitals he was decorated as a “Knight of the Order of the Finnish Lion” an honor bestowed on him as a non-Finn.

Koenig tells his students, “The more you can travel and the more you can experience language and different cultures, the richer you are for it.” He recounts a story where he once traveled to the foothills of the high Atlas Mountains in North Africa and learned the word “thank you” in the local Berber language. “That one word brought me so much goodwill,” he recalls, “we all have to open ourselves to language, culture and cuisine, but especially to music, art and cinema.”

For the past two years SFFLA has continued its annual tradition despite Covid restrictions, having gone virtual since the lockdowns of 2020. Koenig insists that the experience of a live film festival cannot be replicated over the internet and looks forward to returning to the Writers Guild Theater post-pandemic. “We’re looking forward to being back in the theater because what do we like besides storytelling?  We like conversation.”

These lobby conversations are the heart of any good film festival, not just for making business contacts, but for exploring the meaning and impact of film entries. “When we did the Norwegian film The King’s Choice, a story about the Nazi-occupation of Norway, there was this little old couple that expressed to me how much they enjoyed the film. ‘I was there’ the man said, ‘that was my story.’”

“It’s all about telling our human story,” relates Koenig, “and each country might have a very unique and different personality through language and culture, but in the end, all of the stories point to our common humanity.” That common humanity continues to be at the heart of SFFLA and Koenig hopes to continue bringing attention to Nordic and Baltic films in the coming years. 

With 4 feature films short-listed for Oscar contention at the 2022 festival, and two feature films, The Worst Person in the World and Flee, nominated in multiple categories, SFFLA will continue its tradition in 2023 of bringing attention to Nordic and Baltic films to filmmakers and audiences in L.A.. Although Koenig can’t tell you what’s coming “up the pike,” he assures you that Nordic and Baltic films continually offer amazing quality in cinema and much remains to be anticipated from this year’s “Top Films from the Top of Europe” represented at the Scandinavian Film festival.

With the current crisis in the Ukraine predominating international headlines, it is more important than ever that ties to the West are affirmed, and stories are told and shared though the creative alliances of cinema and the arts in general.

2022-07-28

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