Blekkmetal is a compelling video document – worth watching simply for the live performances the film captures, but even more so for its unique entry into and perspective on the Norwegian black metal scene. This documentary / concert film isn’t and won’t be widely available, so if you have the chance to catch its Canadian premiere in Montreal on July 3rd, don’t hesitate. Blekkmetal is essential metal viewing.
The Blekkmetal Concert Film and Documentary
Grimposium and Uneasy Sleeper
Directed by David Hall
Produced by: David Hall, Vivek Venkatesh, Jason Wallin, Owen Chapman, Ivar Bjørnson, Jannicke Wiese-Hansen, Kirsti Rosseland.
Featuring: Enslaved, Taake, Aeternus, Gehenna, Helheim, Old Funeral, Kampfar, Hades Almighty and Gaahls Wyrd, Ivar Bjørnson, Kjetil Grutle, Hervé Herbaut, Jannicke Wiese-Hansen, Kirsti Rosseland and many more.
If you don’t know what you’re in for – well, even if you do – the opening minutes of the Blekkmetal film are a little disorienting. The 84-minute feature documents the 2015 Blekkmetal music, tattoo and art festival, a one-time event held in a converted cannery in Bergen, Norway in 2015. But the film itself doesn’t announce this fact until around four-minutes in, and even then, it takes another quarter hour or so before a viewer can really feel immersed in the festival. By the time you reach the end, though, that lead-in has become essential to an immersion that is now near-complete.
Not the documentary you’re expecting
As the Blekkmetal film begins, any relative insider can get a sense of being on familiar ground. With the very first shot we’re once again confronted by the now-familiar reasons for the Norwegian black metal scene’s notoriety – the violent incidents of the early 1990s that loom over any recollection of the time, the place or the sound. My initial reaction to this was confusion mixed with a shade of disappointment: this is not the documentary I was expecting.
The jarring opening (deliberately jarring, I would argue) is smoothed over during the following minutes. A description of the Blekkmetal festival scrolls over a colourless image of open fire, accompanied by an acoustic segment from Ivar Bjørnson & Einar Selvik’s Skuggsjá. Here, familiar black metal aesthetics begin to overshadow the notoriety, and it’s a welcome shift.
However, there’s no time to get comfortable with this familiarity, at least not in terms of the soundtrack. Sure, the ethos of “My Way” as covered by Sid Vicious makes sense, but wouldn’t a black metal track be a more obvious choice for the title sequence of a documentary so focused on black metal? And as the film transitions into establishing the filmmakers’ journey to Bergen, again the soundtrack doesn’t make obvious sense. Why lead us into a black metal festival with the twangy intro and blues-rock boogie of The Kinks’ “The Contenders”?
Just past the 20-minute mark, a recording of Enslaved performing live at the Blekkmetal festival begins the process of burying these questions along with my initial ambivalent reactions.
Blekkmetal features several such performances, presenting individual songs in their entirety each time. I read this as signalling the importance of – and the filmmakers’ respect for – the music and those who make it and appreciate it. The live concert footage is of impressively high-quality for what is clearly not, and clearly not meant to be, a high budget film.
Interview segments frame and punctuate the live performances. Musicians, including and alongside festival co-organizers and Osmose Productions founder Hervé Herbaut reflect on the festival, the city of Bergen, the past… And instead of a reiteration of the same old story, something unique and vital emerges from this collection of memories and insights.
Music + people
Juxtaposing and interweaving live performances and interviews, the Blekkmetal film presents both – or either – as central. The filmmakers repeatedly remind us that it is the music (and related art forms or forms of artistic and emotional expression) that hold the event, the film, and perhaps the scene together. But they also make it clear that the music is created and consumed by particular people, and that its meanings are inseparable from these collectives and personalities.
The Blekkmetal film celebrates and de-mythologizes a moment of black metal history and its legacy, so that black metal appears completely other and yet utterly everyday. Once you enter the world of the festival by way of the film, the early Norwegian scene becomes less like a cabinet of curiosities and more recognizable as a mosaic of lived realities. The film offers a compelling and important glimpse of this alternative view.
Situating Black Metal
For me, the Blekkmetal film unfolds in three sections:
- After reaching the end of the film, I read the opening minutes, and the focus here on the church burnings and related violence, as something along the lines of an ironic epigraph. It tells us that the early nineties Norwegian black metal scene is at the core of what this film is about, but it misdirects us as to how this theme will play out.
- The subsequent “what is Bergen?” section is more of a prologue, situating the Blekkmetal event and the recollections and reflections of those taking part. It functions as a reminder and maybe even a subtle argument that scenes are situated in particular places – physical, social and geopolitical. Black metal has become a transnational phenomenon but each articulation and interpretation is located in a specific space.
- What follows is the main attraction: the concert footage and the interviews, the music and the people.
It’s the third section, the bulk of the film, that I found most captivating and which had the most emotional and intellectual impact. And yet, there’s a moment in the epigraph that hasn’t yet worked its way out of my head. Here an interviewee (not identified or introduced until later) defines black metal as “not fun,” explaining and identifying with a kind of cathartic violence and the “no mosh, no core, no fun” mantra.
I could hardly be surprised to hear this mantra in a film so focused on Norwegian black metal. In fact, to exclude it might have seemed suspect, like an effort to edit out part of the scene’s history. Yet the manner and timing of its appearance and iteration felt like an endorsement of a hostile perspective. I respect an individual’s right to turn to metal for their own reasons and to define it in their own way, but when these interpretations and definitions take on the power and immobility of dogma…it’s off-putting, to say the least.
The Blekkmetal film, however, is not dogmatic. It doesn’t contest, apologize for, or rationalize away black metal’s violent ethos. It moves beyond it. The film’s engagement with the festival and with those involved illustrates that (and how) black metal is so much more than its mythos.
If you will be in Montreal on July 3, or can get there, do not miss out on the Blekkmetal film’s Canadian premiere, presented by Grimposium. This isn’t just a rare opportunity to see the film – it’s also a chance to hear from those involved in its making. In addition to a panel with Enslaved, the event also features a panel on independent cinema with producer Kevin Tierney (Bon Cop, Bad Cop), Aisling Chin-Yee (Fluent Films) and David Hall (director – Blekkmetal).
Also not to be missed – a live performance on July 2 by Bardspec, Ivar Bjørnson’s dark psych ambient project: FB event page.