“Eat Sleep Die” (“Äta sova dö,” dir. Gabriela Pichler), treats a topic of central concern in this time of financial crisis: unemployment. Set in a village in Sweden, the film revolves around 20-year-old Raša, a sturdy, virile but tender-hearted only child who lives with her father. At the local salad processing plant, Raša has perfected her technique as the fastest packer, but this doesn’t stop her from losing her job when the management makes cutbacks. Though she is keen to work, and dutifully attends the local job centre’s re-deployment courses, there just aren’t any jobs in her town. As her father goes to Norway in search of temporary work, and the job centre suggests that she move to the city, it looks inevitable that the search for employment will tear Raša away from her family and community, the main source of joy in her life.
“Eat Sleep Die” has a documentary quality, prompting comparisons with the Dardenne brothers. But first-time feature director Pichler is much gentler in her approach. The BFI London Film Festival catalogue aptly describes “Eat Sleep Die” as ‘unsensational': while there are a few outbursts of frustration and tears from the jobless characters, they typically take a calm and practical approach to their problems. The film takes place in factories, humble homes, modest shops and restaurants: spaces which are neither pretty nor oppressive. But the warmth of the interactions among the characters more than compensates for the dullness of their surroundings. When he tells her that he is going away, Raša’s father softens the blow by taking her to a Chinese restaurant, where he teases her about her chopstick skills and orders her favourite dessert. In the factory, as a small group of workers process bunches of parsley, one of them sings a song in her native Thai, bringing beauty and dignity to their task.
Music in fact plays a key role in the film, in terms of reinforcing bonds between people: the title sequence is charged with throbbing dance music from Raša’s birthday party, where she is surrounded by friends; her father expresses his devotion by wryly singing a sad Serbian song as he sets off for Norway; and in the film’s final scene, the Serbian guests at an informal dinner party sing another song in their own language, here underscored by a genuine sense of melancholy that their togetherness may be under threat.
“Eat Sleep Die” is not just about community togetherness, though: it also points to underlying tensions between different ethnic groups. When there is a shortage of jobs, the locals (including established immigrants) can be quick to blame newcomers. As a group of factory employees speculate about who will be let go, they agree that it should be the Iraqis: ‘last in, first out’. Having immigrated to Sweden from Montenegro with her father when she was just a baby, Raša is well-integrated into the local culture. She is nonetheless aware of the prejudices that exist in her adopted home. When all the jobless locals except Raša are invited for an interview at a fire protection firm, Raša feels the need to visit the company and reassure them that although she has a Muslim surname, she is not Arab.
The film treats another theme incidentally: that of gender roles, and their relationship to immigration and joblessness. In this respect, Raša’s tomboyish qualities underscore the dynamic between herself and her father. Although they never speak about Raša’s mother, the fact that they are Muslims who emigrated from Yugoslavia about 20 years ago points to the possibility of a family trauma. In the meantime, Raša’s dad has assumed the role of both father and mother. We first meet him when Raša returns home from work: wearing an apron, busy cooking dinner, he tells his daughter to go and have a shower, because she ‘smells like an old man’. In more traditional societies, especially among the older generation, Raša’s father would be seen as taking on a woman’s role. Sure enough, he doesn’t feel right living off his daughter’s income, and seeks paid work in spite of his poor health. Raša, meanwhile, often has to act as his parent: taking her father to the doctor because she understands Swedish better, washing his hair for him, and preparing hot water bottles for his aching back.
While there is nothing wrong with men and women, parents and children, taking on different roles than they would traditionally have done, the fact that they are forced to do so highlights just one of the many strains placed on immigrants and the unemployed. At a time of widespread financial difficulty, immigrants and the unemployed receive even less sympathy than usual: for this reason, films which present their lives with such sensitivity are particularly welcome.
“Eat Sleep Die” was among 12 films in the BFI London Film Festival’s first feature competition, eligible for The Sutherland Award.