In Wiktor Ericsson’s feature film debut, Jordgubbslandet (2017, English title: Strawberry days), the harsh reality of Eastern Europeans coming over to Swedish farms to pick berries and fruit comes to light. We follow 15-year old Wojtek (Staszek Cywka) who comes to work in a strawberry field in southern Sweden with his parents. Immediately we understand that Wojtek and his parents, alongside the other Polish workers at the field, aren’t treated with the same respect as if the workers were from a western European country. Director Ericsson highlights this issue when Wojtek begins a romance with the farmer’s daughter, Annelie (Nelly Axelsson).
Early in the film, Annelie’s father remarks how “you can’t trust those people”, meaning the Polish workers, and Wojtek’s mother calls the Swedes “peasants” – the divide between them is clear from the start. Following a Hollywood-esque pattern of a teenage romance, the two teenagers must meet in secrecy and around others they pretend they don’t know of each other’s existence.
The film is visually stunning and uses the natural light and beautiful landscape of Sweden to its advantage, much like how Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s Hjartasteinn (2017, English title: Heartstone) captures the Icelandic nature. But there is something about Jordgubbslandet that doesn’t feel right.
Every Swede in the film, except Annelie, are two things: 1. white Swedish farmers, and 2. racist. The adults are depicted with solely capitalistic goals who refuses to call an ambulance when Wojtek’s mother falls ill on the field, and the teenagers drive cars decorated with the Confederate flag and give the impression that they’re too lazy to have any ambitions. They follow their parents’ footsteps by being just as horrible to the Eastern European guest workers and Annelie seems to be the only one who’s not running around shouting slurs.
There’s a common misconception that farmers are racists. Not just in Sweden or Scandinavia, but throughout Europe and Northern America. They are constantly described by the media as uneducated working class people who just want to point to the easiest target as the root of economic downfalls. This is most notably during general elections when racist and fascist parties take place in parliaments over the world and it’s those racist farmers that we are to blame.
This is, of course, ludicrous as we can just point towards top business people and high-income politicians who can just as well be racist. But instead, they are seen as “charity lovers” – their racism isn’t about beating up Polish workers but seeing immigrants as a charity. Whilst the Sámi people are far from immigrants, quite the opposite, it’s notable in Amanda Kernell’s film Sameblod (2016, English title: Sami Blood), of how the white Swedes see the Sámi people as something you have to take care of and nurture, similar to a helpless child.
Throughout the entire film, the farmers are nothing but extremely racist. Not one of the characters develop or change their standpoint – even Annelie, whilst welcoming Wojtek to her, avoids him when they are with others, as she fears what will happen to her if they find out that she’s with a Polish boy. Unknowingly, she is active in her actions, actions that feed racism.
I do believe that there are farmers who neglect workers’ rights and see Polish people as scum, but I doubt that all farmers, who hire Eastern Europeans to pick their strawberries and cucumbers, are this racist. And the reality is far from what’s depicted in this film.
I am not from the countryside. My closest connection with a strawberry farm has been when I’ve gone there with my parents and cousins to the self-picking fields as a kid. But I refuse to believe that all people on the countryside are uneducated and lazy racists. The depiction of the Swedes, however important and thoughtful it may have been from the director’s side, is false. It’s just as false and degrading as saying that all immigrants are terrorists. As opposed to the issue of every man being part of a structural system that feeds the patriarchy and misogyny, farmers are not part of a structural system that feeds racism. And I am extremely disappointed that this is the way that they are depicted in a film that’s being praised to the sky.
Nevertheless, the film is an important film. With the rise of racism, fascism and the issues between the farmer and guest worker relationship, Jordgubbslandet is a film that must be watched. But we must look at it with a critical eye and we must stop seeing all farmers as racist.