Film review: Gavagai translates poetry into film

a still from Gavagai of a man with a backpack at a train station

Photo courtesy of Kirk Kjeldsen
A still from the film, which is set in Telemark and shot to reflect the melancholy beauty of the area.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Gavagai is a cinematic masterpiece that pays homage to the great Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas as it explores the unbearable grief of a man over the loss of his wife.

The North American premiere of Gavagai will take place at the 20th annual Maine International Film Festival in Waterville, Maine, on July 20, 2017. Its world premiere took place at the Norwegian Film Institute Cinemateket in Oslo on October 21, 2016.

The poetry of Vesaas was the inspiration for this film. When Norwegian American Kirk Kjeldsen first read his poetry, he saw a similarity between the poet’s aesthetic style and that of film director Robert Tregenza.

Tregenza and Kjeldsen are colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, where Tregenza is the director of the Cinema Program and Kjeldsen has been an assistant professor since 2010.

Kjeldsen introduced Vesaas to Tregenza and they decided to collaborate on a film that would showcase his work. They chose 15 poems from his book Beyond the Moment: 101 Selected Poems (translated by Anthony Barnett) and structured their own original narrative around them.

Photo courtesy of Kirk Kjeldsen
Director Rob Tregenza and producer Kirk Kjeldsen take a break from filming in Kjeldal.

Two men and two women. Two love stories. Two protagonists, a taciturn German businessman and a jovial Sámi tour guide, very different but similar in their understanding of the power and importance of love in one’s life.

Carsten Neuer, the German (played by Andreas Lust), has recently lost his young Chinese wife to an incurable illness. His grief is overwhelming. He struggles to deal with it by taking over her unfinished literary project: a translation of some poems by Vesaas from Norwegian to Chinese. He decides to go to Norway to find inspiration and also to find an appropriate place to scatter his wife’s ashes.

The film opens with a train arriving at the Nisterud train station in Telemark. Carsten is the lone passenger to get off. He soon finds Niko, a Sámi guide (played by Mikkel Gaup), who is engaged in a rather unusual business. He leads elk safaris, or, if people prefer, he can do a beaver safari. For obvious reasons, his business is not booming so he spends his days sleeping in his office.

Carsten hires him to be his driver and to take him to places associated with the poet. Niko tries to be friendly to his stern, distant customer, but Carsten is too immersed in his pain to be able to communicate.

The film proceeds in slow motion. Both men are enveloped in their own silent worlds. We learn that Niko is also struggling because he is unable to make a commitment to his pregnant girlfriend whom he loves. He is losing her, but, unlike Carsten, he still has hope for a successful outcome. Carsten’s love is lost forever.

We see both men encountering their women. Carsten’s lovely wife (played by the Sámi actress Anni-Kristiina Juuso) floats in and out of his consciousness. He desperately wants her but she is no longer within reach. One of the film’s most powerful scenes is when they come very close but their words cannot penetrate the glass wall that separates them.

Between you and me
a soundless wind stands
like a glass wall:
It is a day for glass walls.
Each time I look at you
you open your mouth
and cry out,
but not one word gets through.
Your eyes widen
and read on my lips
that I too
cry in bitterness.
At moments like this
you press your face against the
like a fraught child,
contorting your features.
Swollen and disfigured with want
you lie close on the other side
and the silence is complete.

Carsten finally shares with Niko the reason for his visit to Telemark. He explains that the little red book he writes in is for his translations and that the box he carries contains his wife’s ashes. Niko then begins to view Carsten in a more sympathetic light and he also begins to see his girlfriend Mari in a different way. He suddenly realizes the fragility of love and the need to nurture and cherish it.

In the film’s dramatic ending, the two men’s paths diverge. Carsten remains stuck in his grief while Niko prepares to improve his life.

Nature plays a significant role throughout the film, which is set in the strikingly beautiful Norwegian county of Telemark with its trees and lakes, overlapping browns and greens. The camera sweeps slowly over the landscape. The sunlight is soft. The frequent gently falling rain mirrors Carsten’s tears.

The music is subtle, barely noticeable but at the same time haunting. Kjeldsen and Tregenza looked for music that would not overpower the imagery. After a fruitless search, Tregenza asked his daughter Earecka Tregenza and her husband Jason Moody, both musicians with the Spokane and Seattle Symphonies, to compose the background music for the film. After reviewing the final version, they wrote an evocative accompaniment for it.

In looking for a song to play over the credits at the end, they discovered the album Strid of the Oslo Kammerkor (Oslo Chamber Choir). They felt that the track in which Håkon Daniel Nystedt, the choir’s musical director, combined the traditional Norwegian folk song “Å, for djup i Jesu Kjærleik” with Bruckner’s classical “Locus Iste” would be perfect.

There is very little dialogue in the film. Throughout one hears the recitation of the 15 poems of Vesaas. The film concludes with the poem “The Road.”

The road ends in the night,
but the night ends on the road.
The road slices like a knife
through life.
Separating good and evil.
The road is the road
to the last day.

Why was the film given the unusual title Gavagai? This word was invented by the renowned Harvard analytic philosopher W.V. Quine. In Quine’s theory of translation, gavagai is an example of something that can be translated in different ways, depending on the context.

Kjeldsen explains that he and Tregenza translated poems that were already translated from Norwegian into a script and then they translated that script into a film about a character who was struggling to translate his wife’s unfinished translations while trying to find a way to communicate his own grief.

He sums it up by saying, “In a way, the piece is all about translation and the indeterminacy of translation, which is Quine’s thesis when he used the ‘gavagai’ example.”

Gavagai was directed by Rob Tregenza, produced by Kirk Kjeldsen, and written by Tregenza and Kjeldsen. Run time: 1 hr, 29 min. For more information about the film, visit

The source of the two poems in this review was Beyond the Moment: 101 Selected Poems, by Vesaas Tarjei (trans. Anthony Barnett). The book is currently out of print but may be reprinted soon. Contact the translator/publisher for more information at

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.

This article originally appeared in the July 14, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.