THERE's a recurrent theme in Jan Troell's three-hour-long documentary about Sweden and the Swedes, ``Sagolandet'': A lone wolf is on the run across Sweden's ``civilized'' southernmost landscape. He's a wild cousin of the dogs in a nearby training school who obey the least command of a pompous instructor. The contrast is comical, and the whole audience laughs. But we also laugh at ourselves. That's the way Mr. Troell's satire is: always a little sad, never accusing, never judging. One of Sweden's most prominent film directors and photographers, Troell is also his own cameraman. But he does more than stand behind the lens; he puts himself in front of it as well.
``Every film you make,'' he says in a Monitor interview, ``is in some way a projection of yourself, isn't it? So long as a filmmaker tells his own truth, he is being faithful to a reality.''
``Sagolandet'' is Troell's very personal summing up of Troell's feelings about contemporary Swedish society. Its title is hard to translate. ``Land of Dreams,'' it could be called. Troell's own subtitle is more suggestive: ``More or less accidental landings in Reality.''
``As a child,'' says Troell, ``I had this dream that I was walking along a path to Sagolandet on the other side of the world. The Land of Dreams is that of the child - but there is also an ironic side to the title.
The driving force behind ``Sagolandet'' was Troell's fear that the well-intentioned belief ``that the state knows what is best for the Swedish people inevitably leads to a Big Brother society where imagination, joy, and sense of adventure - life itself - is being suffocated.''
But Troell insists ``the film is not politically oriented. It is about our attitudes toward life. Where do they lead?''
``Sagolandet'' shows us a cross-section of episodes and people. The film includes interviews with young people and old - students, lorry drivers, a farmer and weaver, forest workers, politicians, bureaucrats, and others. There is also an interview with distinguished American psychologist and author Rollo May, whose comment on Swedish daily life runs like a red thread through the film.
But the film is shot through with another, brighter thread: the determination of Troell's little daughter Johanna, born in 1983, to grow as fast as possible - including her joyous (and triumphant) efforts to stand up by herself. Johanna thus illustrates Dr. May's assertion that challenges are stepping stones to creativity.
``I started to think about this film 10 years ago,'' Troell says. ``The idea had its roots in some sort of discontent, in a feeling of love and love betrayed. ... It had to do with my love for Sweden, which I think is closely connected to the feelings of children.''
But the film went through many stages. ``At one point I was even naive enough to believe that if I could round up a group of wise men and women they would say wise things and somehow change the world!''
He continued to struggle with the idea out of a sense of duty. Joy came with Johanna. She was his first child; he was 51. Her birth, he says, ``changed my whole perspective on life.'' It also heightened his feeling that the state was suffocating life, and set the film in motion.
In the end, the film was five years in the making.
``After Johanna was born, I simply took my camera and started shooting. I had no plans no preconceived ideas, but felt I had an inbuilt tuning fork that vibrated when I was on the right track. I trusted my intuition and it worked. ... [My] compass was Rollo May's words: `The ultimate goal of life is creativity.'''
After three years Troell had enough film for an 80-hour showing. ``It took me two years in the cutting room to give the material a structure. It was the most difficult, ... gigantic task of my entire film career. I almost gave up before I got started.
``Then my early experience with short films came to the rescue. I started weaving a carpet! I had all those cross-threads that kept on appearing and disappearing - Rollo May, my daughter, the dogs, and their wild cousin the wolf. ... Then I filled up with golden shreds and other colors, until the pattern was there. But remember to read between the lines!''
``Sagolandet'' is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at times almost unbearably dark. Troell wanted to end it with May's ringing note: ``Despair is the birth of hope.'' But little Johanna changed all that.
He and Johanna had driven out to a field for him to photograph a scarecrow. But she got bored waiting in the car. So she plucked ``a bright-colored flower among the wheat, toddled up to the lonely wooden figure, and lovingly put it in his pocket. And just at that moment I had my camera ready,'' Troell says with a big smile.