There's an inherent interest in watching a well-known director's most unexpected, out-of-character work; what will this artist do with his skills when forced as far as possible outside of his comfort zone? And in the case of Ingmar Bergman, I think it's more or less objectively true that the farthest he ever went afield from his usual work in Strindberg-influenced character dramas gnashing their teeth over the impossibility of human connection and the terror of living in a universe that God has abandoned was 1970's Fårö Document, the director's first feature-length documentary (of two), in which he grapples with the economic crisis threatening the continued existence of the rural community on the small island of Fårö in the Baltic Sea.

Fårö was, by the time this film was shot in the spring of 1969, a well-established member of the director's stock company. It had been love at first sight when he scouted locations there (against his will) for Through a Glass Darkly, and he filmed three more features there over the next decade: Persona, Shame, and The Passion of Anna. By 1969, he had made a home on the island, and he would remain there, on and off, until he died on Fårö in July, 2007. The television documentary Fårö Document began life as a simple exercise in celebrating the place and its people: Bergman had an idea to produce several documentary short films, each spending just a few minutes looking at one element of life on the island. The first of these was to be about the life of a sheep farmer, sheep being the backbone of the Fårö economy, such as it was; by the time Bergman had finished filming interviews for this project, he realised that he had hit upon a much more urgent and less charming story about the precarity of rural life in Sweden at the end of the 1960s, and how badly the national government had failed to address the unique needs of such a tiny community (Fårö proper had, by this point, been absorbed into a larger municipality including several other communities on the larger island of Gotland; even with all of these groups thrown together, the whole municipality had only a few thousand residents). He thus broadened his scope, and went out to commit some genuine journalistic research, gathering testimonials from Fårö residents of all walks of life as they consider the likely fate of their home, if things keep going the same way.

Almost as much as making a documentary in the first place, it's a real surprise to see Bergman make such an unabashed political message movie as Fårö Document. The film has a very clear point it wants to articulate about the way Swedish society is structured, and particularly how that structure fails small peripheral communities far from urban centers; it collects anecdote upon anecdote about the economic hardships involved in everything from selling meat for a fair price to keeping a small library running. The portrait the film paints is of a world that has been left to slowly waste way quietly, out where nobody sees it and nobody cares that it's happening

While Bergman is obviously offended on behalf of the islanders and unhappy at their lot, Fårö Document isn't a tragic film. What it documents, for the most part, is a kind of flat pragmatism: the world is the way it is, and all we can do is deal with it as it comes. This is the subtext of basically every one of the interviews, though it comes out strongest early on, when Bergman speaks with Ingrid Ekman, a truly extraordinary interview subject whose recollections about the thirty-some years she's been in charge of the family farm since her father died lay out a thesis of good-natured, hard-working people who have no romantic ideas about what they're doing, just a slightly stubborn earnestness about doing it as well as they are able. Ekman is the highlight of the film, the interview subject who most benefits from Bergman's stripped-down stylistic approach: the film favors long interviews that don't cut away from the subject's faces, and she gets the longest of any of them, sitting against a backdrop of farming equipment that frames her, visually and narratively both.

That's another part of what's going on here, of course. Fårö Document was shot by Bergman's go-to cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and while it's not exactly stand-out work by his elevated standards, it's still quite lovely to look at, and quite purposeful in how it presents its material visually. We're still in the thick of the filmmakers' fascination with faces and close-ups, and having real human beings and not movie actors to train their attention on gives Fårö Document new textures and layers. The basic material is the same as it has been in any one of the Bergman/Nykvist collaborations of the 1960s: watching people speak at length and giving us an ability to look deep into their faces in the hopes of grasping what they're feeling as they speak. In this case, though, there is no artifice, no narrative context, just real humans placed in front of us, simple and straightforward, with the handsome black and white cinematography providing aesthetic weight and dignity to the everyday people as they discuss their everyday problems.

This is one of multiple strands at play in Fårö Document, and it's certainly the best one. While we're meeting all of these various people in stately monochrome, the film is intercutting them with footage of the sheep industry that keeps Fårö alive, in bleak, unfussy color. This includes a protracted sequence, early on, of watching a sheep getting slaughtered and butchered, presented in a casually artless way that has no scrap of sentiment to it: it is unblinking and real and defies us to squirm away in discomfort, and it's unpleasantly powerful without feeling like it's trying to be cruel or gross, and I'm not really sure that it has a place in this movie. Fårö is sheep country, and it feels right that the film spends time delving into that, but it's also creating an entirely separate aesthetic experience and thematic argument from the rest of the movie.

This becomes an even bigger problem later in the film, perhaps for the last third of its brief running time (it is just under an hour long). At least sheep are naturally part of the story Bergman has been telling; near the end, he abruptly switches over to the evergreen question "and what do the Young People think about this?", and thus we get the first full-color interviews in the movie, with Fårö's teenagers and young adults confronting, with even less sentiment than their forebears, that this island is going nowhere and the only real hope for people like them is to get away from it. A more deft documentarian might have drawn straight lines from the rich and productive theme of economic struggle to these young people fretting about the lack of opportunities life on Fårö might offer them, but somehow, as straightforward as this relationship seems to be, Bergman fumbles it. The change from black and white to color stock doesn't smooth the transition - I'm sure it's meant to be a sign of the disconnect the young people feel from the traditions of the place, but in practice it feels more like it's setting up a "kids vs. adults" dichotomy that in turn makes these interviews feel less like the natural evolution of the film than a brand new film about generational culture wars and the coming of modernity. Which almost fits - the coming of modernity has already been a major theme in the background of many interviews, but the subject in the foreground has always been the hungry, devouring capitalism riding in on modernity. The interviews with the younger generation changes the focus to modernity per se, and it leaves the film feeling like it has badly lost focus - not a great thing for any movie to do near the end, and not an easy thing for a movie this short to manage.

The lesson, then, is that Ingmar Bergman is not a natural-born documentary filmmaker. But it also feels like he had good instincts that he could easily have honed, and it's exciting to see his primary strength as a fiction filmmaker - probing, lingering close-ups - was such an excellent strength for a documentarian as well. There are insights here, however clumsily they are expressed from time to time, and it's exciting to think that Bergman would have an opportunity to refine his skills her when he revisted the people of Fårö in another documentary ten years later.