Gunvor Nelson: “Red Shift (All Expectations)”


(Here are after are used the screenshots from “Red Shift (All Expectations),” dir. Gunvor Nelson, 1984)

I dug into the oeuvre of Gunvor Nelson out of sheer voyeurism. Her 60min b/w Red Shift (All Expectations) fell into my hands by accident, and I was captivated.

The theme was Sweden, where I have just recently been. The country was already a recognizable territory, but it still remained impersonal, restricted. Quite naturally, I longed to peep into the soul of a Swede; and Gunvor Nelson, a Swedish experimental film director, happily obliged.

In one of her interviews she told that although she is very emotional, as a Swede, she has difficulty expressing her emotions, so making a film for her is a way to get them out. Nelson calls her films “personal” rather than “experimental”: in the process of making one, she tries to go deep into herself, as much as possible, she says, and tries this way to find a universal.


Red Shift appeared to be very personal indeed. The images on the screen had a dreamlike quality to them. I saw there women of three generations – a daughter, a mother, a grandmother. They were members of Gunvor Nelson’s own family, portrayed by Nelson’s friends, her own mother, her own daughter and herself. The protagonists were engrossed in their everyday activities: cleaning, doing dishes, preparing lessons, knitting, sewing, dressing, sleeping. And Nelson didn’t hesitate to show the intimate details of their behavior and their relationships: how irritated one was at an elderly mother’s clumsiness, how a menstrual blood stain settled on a bed-sheet, how an aged woman put on her stockings with shaky hands. On the background their voices buzzed incessantly: thoughts, demands, laughter, musings and petty irritations of a day.

It was as if I was looking through a dim window into another world, or at least into another person’s house. What differentiated this particular window from any window of any Swedish house, which are known for absence of their curtains, is time. Through flashbacks I travelled between the Simple Present of Gunvor’s motherhood to the Simple Past of her childhood, where her mother was not an elderly woman anymore but an active housewife. On the background a voice read pieces from a diary of a noted American frontierswoman, Calamity Jane, who left her daughter in care of another family. These events sent me back even further, through time and space, to the late 17th century USA. Moreover, from the vantage point of my sitting room, all these tenses shifted one notch back, making me another woman in a chain of many women of the world. That was a shift from personal to universal here.


But no matter how much the time shifted, expectations remained. In fact, the film is filled with expectations to the brim. As the title suggests – it’s all expectations.

A child expects a mother to give her maximum attention or to stay aside, when it is needed. A mother expects her child to follow or at least to listen to her good advice. And of course, everyone is expected to love each other. Flowers are expected to bloom, and spring is expected to come. Everyone knows deep down but yet no one expects that a child, for real, wouldn’t listen or that a mother wouldn’t step aside on the first notice. No one expects winter though it is scheduled to everyone’s widespread knowledge. People are not expected to age either, though everybody knows that they do.

A flower carved on surface of a photo frame is expected to be shiny. “Good that dirt comes off,” a voice says from the screen. At least something happens as it is expected to.

And yes, an experimental and even personal film made by a female director is expected to show some menstrual blood and genitalia as completely natural thing. Expectations are met but the audience is still surprised. We didn’t expect THAT! I can imagine Gunvor Nelson chuckle at this point. I remember, she noted in one of her interviews that many films she makes are, in fact, comedies.


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