Life through the lens

Youth preachers, a backpacking widow and the World Mermaid Championship - Skellefteå filmmaker Andreas H Nilsson's documentary films range between extremes. But they always have one thing in common: If you find a person who is multi-layered and interesting, the story grows by itself.

The neon sign from McDonald's Örkelljunga makes the rain-slicked asphalt glow in the dense January darkness. In front of a dozen A-tractors lined up, teenagers of varying degrees of sobriety are chatting, joking, shouting and just glaring - it's exactly the scene you'd expect from a painfully uneventful Friday night in any small Swedish town. Well, except for the charismatic young man with a guitar and a chalky white smile who alternately sings and preaches about Jesus' unconditional love, that is. Newly saved Nils and his friend Oscar are on a spontaneous mission trip in his hometown Örkelljunga, and have decided to spread the gospel of Christianity among the local motorized youth.

A moment later, Nils and Oscar are deep in a healing prayer over a gently amused young man who, in his own words, "slammed his buddy's EPA into a tree last year". With his hand securely placed over a badly sprained Yankees cap, Nils begins to chant: "Jesus, we just pray for Sebastian, that he will be totally healed where he crashed. We just pray for him in Jesus' name, Lord."

Six months earlier, in June 2021, filmmaker Andreas H Nilsson and his colleague Gustav Hugosson are sitting in a team meeting with project managers from SVT. Ten directors will each be commissioned to make a documentary about being "young in Sweden", could the filmmaking duo possibly have an idea in mind? They don't really have one. What they do have, however, is a short film project about tongue language - an obscure prayer language in free church environments. But of course, the step from this to reflecting the lives of young people in the Free Church is not insurmountable. An embryo of the documentary film "Jesus in Örkelljunga External link, opens in new window." is beginning to take shape.

- We researched all over Sweden, pulled all the strings we had in the free church environment and got tips about Nils from two completely different directions. We got to see a movie clip of him standing on a boat in a student cap and shouting "Jesus loves you" through a megaphone. If you find a person who is multi-faceted and interesting, the story grows by itself, and with Nils we felt quite immediately that we had found the right one," says Andreas H Nilsson.

Andreas and Gustav met in 2008 when they were both studying at Viebäck photography school in Småland. Initially, it was still photography that attracted them, but a film course at Biskops Arnö aroused the interest of both friends in documentary filming and directing.

Andreas Nilsson looking at his movie camera

The documentary Home of the Brave was released in 2016 and won Best Short Documentary at the Chicago International Film Festival.

- "I've never really watched a lot of movies, so it's perhaps a little strange that it became my profession. But there was something about the unpredictability and freedom of documentary filming that captured both me and Gustav," he says.

And the unpredictable nature of documentary filming became painfully clear when Andreas and Gustav were working on their first project. 'Life After Death' began as a low-key portrayal of pensioner Elsie Hammarlund caring for her sick husband at home in the forests of Småland, and ended up on a sun-drenched sandy beach in Australia.

- We had found the person and started filming - but didn't really know what the story was. Until her husband suddenly passed away. It was so incredibly sad, and we wondered if we could even continue. But there was the story: what happens when your husband passes away, when you've been together for 60 years?

In the movie, we follow Elsie through the initial shock, funeral, loneliness and crisis. But in the midst of the deepest grief, something comes alive in Elsie. A sense of adventure that leads her - and with her Andreas and Gustav - to the other side of the world.

- That's the thing about documentary film, there's an understanding that it's unpredictable just like life. You work towards an idea you have, but you have to be responsive and adapt all the time," says Andreas.

The ability to adapt was put to the test when Andreas and Gustav filmed the short documentary Miss Mermaid. Sweden had qualified for the Miss Mermaid International competition, and some 30 mermaids would compete for the prestigious title during a few days of intense competition at a hotel in Egypt.

- We were waiting to board at Arlanda when we got a call that the competition management had changed the schedule and all the water events were already over. We just had to scrap the whole storyboard. What would we do now? Disaster, says Andreas.

However, the result was no disaster, quite the opposite. Miss Mermaid is an intense and entertaining five-minute mini-documentary in which two dozen mermaids take turns delivering their best poses in a hotel armchair, predicting winners and telling the story of the fierce competition in the mermaid industry.

- It was a great contrast - this grey hotel room filled with incredibly exciting and colorful people in mermaid costumes. We cut a version that was very far from the idea we had presented to SVT but they agreed: this was better.

In the fall of 2021, Andreas, his partner Anna Bjursell and their then one-year-old daughter Kerstin took the plunge and moved home to Skellefteå after many years in Stockholm. The dream of having their own house and being close to their family had taken hold, and after a year and a half of searching, the couple had found a charming old turn-of-the-century house in Söderbodan outside Skellefteå.

- "Neither of us is particularly handy, so we definitely didn't want a renovation object. Then we ended up buying a summer cottage without a sewer. It's a work-in-progress, you could say.

The move was followed by another big change for Andreas. After ten years with his partner Gustav, he is now completely on his own with his company Nils-Hugo Produktion.

- "The fact that we started together meant a lot, it made me dare much more. If I hadn't had Gustav, I probably wouldn't still be in the business today," he says.

Andreas Nilsson sits on the stairs with his movie camera in his lap.

“I never really worked on projects in Stockholm, but went out into the country. Mullsjö, Kristianstad, Örkelljunga - there are exciting stories everywhere.”

House Be's geometrically stimulating premises on Storgatan in Skellefteå are relatively empty on a cloudy Friday in March. This year's second edition of the Morning Meeting - this time with the theme of housing construction - with Skellefteå's municipality and business community with over 200 participants has just ended. Andreas meets us in the entrance and around every corner awaits the next perfect environment for shooting. Photographer Jonas Westling nods approvingly and, unsurprisingly, the writer's presence becomes superfluous as two people with photography as their profession, passion and lifestyle discuss image selection, lighting and background. I am content to watch the photo session from a distance.

- The first year I worked from home but I felt I needed that: to go to the office and put on a "work suit". House Be is very mixed with many different industries gathered in one place, which I think is great fun, says Andreas and shows us into his office where an entire wall is covered with shelves filled with camera accessories.

In addition to documentaries, Andreas has worked on commercials and commercial collaborations with a number of well-known brands, including outdoor brand Klättermusen, bag brand Sandqvist and hamburger giant McDonalds. The commercials can offer a welcome variety to otherwise time-consuming and long-term documentary projects. Not to mention an equally welcome financial boost.

- You have to have commercial projects on the side to make ends meet - as long as there's been time and it hasn't been about something completely unethical, there aren't many times we've turned it down. But we did when a grain producer wanted to pay us with flour. That's where we drew the line.

Andreas is currently in the development phase of two documentary film projects and alternates this with freelance work for SVT, among others. Moving home to Skellefteå and setting out on his own after ten years as an obvious film duo was a big change.

- It is only when Gustav is not there that it becomes clear what he stands for and contributed. It's a bit scary to stand on your own two feet, but at the same time exciting to see where it leads," says Andreas.

Text:Jonas Pekkari

Photo: Jonas Westling

Portrait of Andres Nilsson at House Be

Today, Andreas runs NilsHugo, his own production, based at House Be in central Skellefteå.

This is Andreas H Nilsson

Age: 38 years
Family: Partner Anna and daughter Kerstin
Lives: Söderbodan, 2.5 miles north of Skellefteå
Does: Documentary filmmaker based in Skellefteå
Background: Studied photojournalism at Biskops Arnö and after that started the production company Nils-Hugo Produktion. Has filmed and directed short films such as Jesus i Örkelljunga, Home of the Brave, Terje, Miss Mermaid and Livet efter döden.