This Only Happens in Movies: Review of ‘Denim Hunter’ Film

The Story of How Viktor Fredbäck’s Denim Dream Came True: First International Review

During Amsterdam Denim Days in October, we were among a few lucky people who crowded into a room at De Hallen to watch the exclusive first-ever screening of Denim Hunter, a film about Swedish denim collector Viktor Fredbäck and his quest to complete his vintage denim collection.

Maybe a bit surprisingly, unlike the book that Fredbäck had published in 2015, True Fit, the film teaches us very little about denim. But we get something even better. We get a story arc as old as time:

An adventurer sets out in search of a prize. The journey changes him, and, through this process, we are illuminated. It’s the blueprint for countless adventure stories, and it makes for one hell of a ripping good yarn.  

Important Dates for the Denim Hunter Film

Oct, 2023: Screening at Amsterdam Denim Days

Dec 1, 2023: International premiere at Dance With Films festival in New York

End of 2023: Digital worldwide release (TBC)

The film is the product of a long-lasting cooperation between filmmaker Emilio Di Stefano and his subject, Viktor Fredbäck, one of the world’s most passionate denim collectors.

Fredbäck began collecting denim two decades ago. His collection started small, with a Buddy Lee doll from the 1920s. From there, his passion began to swallow the lion’s share of his time and money. 

Viktor Fredbäck lies on a floor of (non-vintage) denim.

Fredbäck’s collection (400 pairs strong and still growing) is by no means the world’s largest, but he’s not a collector concerned with volume.

He wanted his collection to represent the history of denim through the ages, and he’s turned over every rock in his path looking for those historic pairs.

We meet Fredbäck in the opening scenes where he explains his obsession with a single idea: he wanted a pair of jeans from every decade.

He already had a pair of A.B. Alfeldt Champion Overalls from the 1870s, but he didn’t yet have anything from the 1880s.

Di Stefano and Fredbäck (Photographed by Paul Blomgren)

The Filmmaker and the Collector Connect

Fredbäck’s undeniably magnetic presence had made him something of a minor celebrity in Sweden, where he had appeared on the small screen quite a few times, growing more comfortable in front of the camera each time.

He was a contestant in a televised competition to find Sweden’s Collector of the Year—a competition he won. A Swedish newspaper profiled him, and it was this article that caught filmmaker Emilio Di Stefano’s attention. The filmmaker reached out and the two met the next afternoon.

Before meeting Fredbäck, Di Stefano had a long history of telling stories that shared a common theme that fit with what Fredbäck was trying to do. Di Stefano says that he is drawn towards stories “about people who want to become someone, who want to achieve something.” It’s this fire in their guts, this driving force, that is at the core of great stories, and Fredbäck’s story is no exception.

Viktor Fredbäck and Brit Eaton

What most intrigued Di Stefano was the story that Fredbäck told about the denim hunters (like Brit Eaton, Michael Allen Harris, and Russ Miller—all featured in the film) who scrambled around on their bellies in abandoned mine shafts looking for scraps of denim discarded by miners more than a century ago. 

Di Stefano wasn’t particularly interested in the denim itself (fashion isn’t a subject that holds any particular appeal for him), but the hunters were another story.

These men went to the ends of the earth in search of vintage denim. This combined with Viktor himself, who wouldn’t rest until he could call himself a real denim hunter. There was a story there, and he wanted to tell it.

A month later, the two were in the United States laying some of the groundwork for the film.

From the outset, they knew the film would take a while to complete. They began the film planning to spend about five years on it, but, as is usually the case, they hit a few snags along the way.

By the time all was said and done, it took them seven years to shoot and edit the movie. They stopped filming in 2019—appropriately with the last scenes in the movie—and they’ve been hacking, trimming, and polishing the movie ever since.

The film was almost entirely self-financed, with the filmmaker and his production company shouldering most of the financial load. They got some help from Swedish Television SVT, the Swedish Film Institute, and Film i Väst, but Di Stefano and his production company bore the majority of the costs. 

Dynamite Dan descends into an abandoned mine.

… Not Just for Denimheads

This is not a film for us denimheads. It aims at a broader audience. It is dramatic, not educational. It’s not a journey of historical discovery but, rather, a literal journey that circles the globe and crisscrosses America. There’s no attempt on the part of the filmmaker to help the viewer understand why denim inspires collectors. This kind of journalistic, documentary approach would have resulted in a very different film—and that’s not what Di Stefano is trying to do here.

He was inspired by films like King of Kong and Finders Keepers, both directed by Seth Gordon, and both of them gripping stories that focus more on the characters involved than on the stories themselves. If Di Stefano had set out to make a documentary, with Fredbäck and his denim collection as the star of the film, he would have been pulled irresistibly towards the history of American workwear. He doesn’t make denim a starring character in the film, and it’s better for it.

This is in large part thanks to the cast of characters. Of course, there’s Fredbäck himself, whose obsession is evident from the moment he fills the frame. We meet Fredbäck’s denim hunting mentors Michael Allan Harris and Russ Miller early on—these scenes were the first ones that Fredbäck and Di Stefano shot together. They trek out into the Mojave in search of blue gold (watch the film if you want to know what they find). 

Viktor with Russ Miller (left), Michael Allan Harris (brown tee) and the crew

Later, we meet portrait photographer Cory Piehowicz, legendary denim hunter Brit Eaton, Mike Stroup, a Colorado ex-con on a journey to pay his respects to his departed grandfather, and Dynamite Dan, a man who alternates between sending bowling balls into orbit and exploring abandoned mines. There’s also an appearance from an unnamed man who arrives on screen wearing a Cookie Monster costume.

We spend considerable amounts of time with some of these characters, less with others. This is a result of the editing process. Di Stefano says that tons of great material ended up on the cutting room floor. There was apparently a close encounter with a bear while they were filming with Brit Eaton, and there was a scene with the cremated remains of Mike Stroup’s father that was, Di Stefano says, simply too wild to be believable. 

The Next Hunt

Both the filmmaker and his subject are on to the next hunt. Di Stefano has a number of small projects on the go—none of them quite like this one, he says. He says that it may be some time before he finds a project he wants to dedicate more than half a decade of his life to, but he doesn’t regret (not in the slightest) the time that he invested into this one. He’s intensely proud of Denim Hunter, and he should be. 

Fredbäck is looking forward to spending more time with his young child and his wife after the promotional tour for the film wraps up. He’s found himself intrigued by vintage tees, and it’s bringing out all of those old hunting instincts, which couldn’t have stayed dormant for long. Depending on how far he goes in the search of that holy grail of vintage tees, there may be a movie in it. We’ll bring the popcorn.

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