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CIFF 2023: Paradise is Burning

October 18, 2023


Stories of children fending for themselves have been around for quite some time in various forms. They are often coming-of-age tales of teens who are forced to grow up fast in dire or extreme situations. Whether they are stranded on a deserted island (Lord of the Flies), figuring out life in a post-apocalyptic landscape (How I Live Now), or a group of outsiders surviving on their own (ahem, The Outsiders), these stories are often adapted to film as well. “Paradise is Burning”, from Swedish filmmaker Mika Gustafson, brings to mind such stories, yet she has crafted an original story (along with actor Alexander Öhrstrand) that revolves around three young sisters who must figure out life after their mother has left them.

After premiering at last month’s Venice Film Festival, “Paradise is Burning” makes its way to the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) as it tours the festival circuit.

Set in modern-day Sweden, “Paradise is Burning” follows three sisters, ranging in age from 7-years-old to 16-years-old left to fend for themselves after their mother has disappeared. Laura (first-time performer, Bianca Delbravo) is the eldest and therefore compelled to become something akin to a guardian for her sisters, careful not to show the internal pressure of their situation. As the outspoken middle sibling, Mira (Dilvin Asaad), often looks after young Steffi (Safira Mossberg), which seems like a full-time job. They are not outright criminals (at least in their minds), but they do get by relying on stolen groceries and using swimming pools of wealthy neighbors while they are on vacation. They are not alone though as there are others the same age who live in a similar manner day by day.

It’s unclear how long Laura has been evading phone calls from social services, but it’s obvious she’s going to have to find someone to impersonate their mother in order to keep all three siblings under the same roof. Enter complete stranger, Hanna (Ida Engvoll), a curious single woman Laura meets while trying to evade a nearby homeowner. Reluctant at first, Laura includes Hanna in her daily reconnaissance and the two wind up breaking into empty houses together. Could Laura invite Hanna into her life even further? How would that conflict with Laura’s dynamic with her sisters? Does Hanna have any motives beyond pure curiosity or is she simply a caring adult? These and other questions surface the more time we spend with these fascinating characters.

It’s no surprise that Gustafson captures a raw and real verité style, considering her previous work is as a documentarian and “Paradise is Burning” is her first fictional feature film. Adding to that approach are the actors who portray the three sisters (“Sisters” was the name the film was originally called and seems more appropriate), who were plucked from obscurity with no previous acting experience. In the case of Delbravo, she was discovered on the street by Öhrstrand. This makes sense, considering how naturalistic and real the performances feel. Gustafson’s approach, partnered with cinematographer Sine Vadstrup Brooker and editor Anders Skov, feels very kinetic, as if we are along for the ride throughout the unpredictable summer days these sisters experience. When the right moment comes, the camera pauses and carefully considers the face of these young girls as they navigate the unexpected of the present and future days.

Gustafson provides enough space and breathing room for each sister to come into their own as they each figure out life and each other. “Paradise is Burning” is a tender and honest look at sisterhood in a carefree environment that inevitably has to contend with the realities of the world.




“Paradise is Burning” is screening tonight at 8:30pm (CST) at AMC NEWCITY, Screen 13. More details and tickets can be found here. 

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