“A Human Position asks patience of the viewer, but rewards that patience with an unexpectedly emotional catharsis that makes you reflect on your own life and what you do with it.”
What is the purpose of life, and what is my purpose in life? Questions most people struggle with at some point in time, often during their younger years. When you’re living in an environment as homogenous, monotonous, and eventless as the sleepy town of Ålesund, Norway, these questions must come naturally. Watching A Human Position, the sophomore feature of Norwegian director Anders Emblem, is sometimes akin to watching paint dry, and that’s entirely the point (in one scene the protagonist actually watches paint dry, a sly sort of joke Emblem seems to slide into the film from time to time). Because if life comes as easy as it does to the average citizen in a rich country like Norway, what is there to get worked up about or fight for?
Asta (Amalie Ibsen Jensen) works as a reporter for a local newspaper in Ålesund. Most stories are exactly the kind you’d expect: fans of the local football team being unhappy with their players, the local nouveau architecture threatened to be demolished by developers, an interview with a representative of the local tourism board. These stories don’t give Asta much aim in life, but that’s okay for the moment; she seems to be recovering from some trauma, although Emblem never fully reveals what it is. Nor does he disclose the exact relationship between Asta and Live (Maria Agwumaro), who live together as… roommates? Lovers? Live is clearly infatuated with Asta, but Asta’s despondence keeps her at arm’s length. Asta’s absent-mindedness hints at a depression perhaps. But when she hears the story about an asylum seeker who, after the factory he worked at came under scrutiny, is forcibly returned to his home country, suddenly Asta finds something she can sink her teeth into, an issue she can take a position on. “We are privileged citizens, so we are not allowed to complain,” says Live when Asta asks her if Norway’s welfare system is perhaps the country’s most important asset, “but we would be stupid not to fight to preserve it.” As Asta dives deeper into Aslan’s story, it becomes clear that that same system is too bureaucratic to take responsibility for the individual. So what is the purpose of life, and how to find happiness in it? A Human Position‘s final scenes give a tentative answer, true in all its simplicity: love.
Several observations can be made about A Human Position that are food for thought. Asta and Live have a ‘Japanese night’, dressing up for the occasion, Live in kimono and Asta in a judo kit (“Will there be judo later?” asks Live. “We’ll see,” says Asta; this isn’t about judo, clearly). They play Go and drink sake, watch a Japanese movie. Given how much A Human Position resembles a Norwegian Hamaguchi film, this seems like another tongue planted in cheek moment by the director, but there is more to it. The exoticism is uncomfortable, especially given Asta’s fight to get to the bottom of the story of an asylum seeker, and also because Live has clear non-European heritage. When you become assimilated into a society, you start to share its habits and prejudices, Emblem seems to say.
Emblem shoots the streets of Ålesund as empty worlds in which Asta roams alone, often at some distance, as if searching for her place. The visual metaphor is pretty straightforward but striking. She often gazes at a derelict building across the street, its rusty windowsills an outlier in this town of neat and orderly buildings and spotless streets. It’s as if Asta is looking for something to break the monotony, to get her out of her rut. If it’s not Aslan, then perhaps the old furniture that Live likes to lovingly restore. Asta rarely shows any emotion until the film’s final scene, and when she finally breaks, the realization that she has found her purpose shows in her face. A Human Position is a film about our own position in society, especially when juxtaposing it with the have-nots of this world, and about simply being happy with what we have. It asks patience of the viewer, but rewards that patience with an unexpectedly emotional catharsis that makes you reflect on your own life and what you do with it.