Disco (2019)

Disco first published by EyeForFilm at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival 2019

The elevator pitch for Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s film would go something like this: a young championship disco dancer who keeps stumbling on stage is undone, done over or redeemed by her faith. 

That jarring juxtaposition of sparkly, sexualised Seventies choreography and fire-and-brimstone Catholicism is absolutely key to a film that explores the mismatch between devout religious beliefs and modernity. At first it seems that the Christianity of teenaged Mirjam (Josefine Frida Pettersen) comes from her immediate family – after all, her bullying stepfather Per (Nicolaiu Cleve Broch) is the pastor in the flashily charismatic ‘Freedom’ church which lures in young worshippers with dance routines and laser displays.

Yet the film is set in a hermetic, possibly artificial world in which several major characters – including Mirjam’s televangelising Uncle Kent (Terje Syversen), or the more puritanical Pastor Samuel (Esen Klouman Høiner) – are leaders of rival churches, much as all televisual and online media here seem to be evangelical in nature, and every perceived mental or social problem in the world, including depression, homosexuality or even just collapsing mid-performance, is said to be a demonic attack curable with faith. All this is absurd, although Syversen plays it totally straight, showing the difficulty of navigating 21st-century issues through the oppressive frame of irrational dogma – and the more allegorical the film becomes, the more the viewer is inclined to suspect that Syversen is targeting not just Christianity (in its different forms and factions), but any rigid belief system or community bubble.

Separated from her violent biological father at a young age, and full of questions about what he might have done to her, Mirjam turns for answers to fathers of a different kind (in a film where nearly every adult male character is a priest), and ultimately to the great invisible, unknowable Father in the sky, submitting herself to the abusive ritual practices of the church in a bid to understand the abuses she may have suffered at home as a child.

In this closed system where all expression and ideology are both inculcated and restricted, it seems that the only way that Mirjam can rebel against her parents is by disappointing them on the dance floor (frustrating what Per regards as God’s “special plan” for her), or by turning away from their church to one that is stricter and more traditional. The question that the film poses is whether Mirjam can and does find the ineffable Truth that she has sought, or whether she is always, beneath her healthy, happy exterior, in the same place of doubt and despair, alone and collapsed into a huddle on the floor. 

Disco would make an interesting double feature with Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday (2018) – another film which asks what, under constrained, controlling circumstances, a girl is to do.

© Anton Bitel