Is there enough ‘art’ in Danish film?
A panel of experts at CPH PIX say that the luxury of public support for Danish film may be inhibiting risktaking and creating a ‘monoculture’ on screen.
If you look in recent lineups of Berlinale Forum or Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, you see an absence of new Danish films. That’s despite the country’s film industry going through something of a golden age of international success from Love Is All You Need to The Hunt to A Royal Affair and Nymphomaniac, with one of the world’s best government-backed support systems for film.
So where are the ‘art’ films? That was the question posed at a panel on Thursday at the CPH PIX festival in Copenhagen.
Vinca Wiedemann [pictured], the widely respected producer who just became head of the National Film School of Denmark, noted that when she was the first artistic director of the Danish Film Institute’s New Danish Screen strand, which is engineered to back more creative talents, “we didn’t see enough risktaking in the applications.” She said that Denmark’s enviable level of government support for film – meant that “producers don’t want to take risks themselves, they want the support system to do it [take risks].”
After the panel previously brought up Thomas Vinterberg’s 2003 comment that Denmark is comprised of “only five million people and they’re quite wealthy so there’s nothing to talk about,” Wiedemann wondered: “maybe we are too wealthy, too lazy?”
The local experts were responding to earlier comments from international guests (including myself and critic/programmer Neil Young) about the current state of ‘art cinema’ being made in Denmark.
There have been many initiatives to support new voices, such as New Danish Screen itself, set up in 2006 to back more innovative, envelope-pushing films, has in the past backed films such as Christopher Boe’s Reconstruction, Pernille Fischer Christensen’s A Soap and Anders Morgenthaler’s Princess.
More recently the DFI has backed the Super16 and Super8 initiatives and the new Shoot It programme, which backs short films that are pitched not with tedious paperwork but with a video pitch of less than one minute.
Yet the panel agreed more can be done to support new voices and more experimental work.
Jakob Høgel, outgoing Artistic Director of New Danish Screen, pointed out that there is much to celebrate in the Danish film world – 250 short films made per year at a high standard, and lots of talent working at an “extremely high level of professionalist and proficiency.” But the flipside of that, he noted, is that “there is no underground culture. We have a real challenge with homogeneity….there are so many good, talented people but they work in a monoculture.”
One area that is trying to break from that monoculture is the second-largest city in Denmark, Aarhus in Jutland. “What I’m doing in Aarhus is trying to change culture and traditions,” said Morten Hartz Kaplers, Head of Aarhus Film Workshop. He runs workshops seeking out new voices and finding subsidies to help filmmakers get their careers started.
He said economics do come into play, as young people can’t afford to pay the rent as they are trying to get their careers off the ground. And he said that rich kids that have the financial freedom from their families to make films can be “nice pretty boys and girls that have boring ideas.” (That idea was vehemently opposed by one film school student in the audience.)
“It’s time to change the way we develop talent,” said Kaplers. “The system is based on the idea that the industry will carry film talent into the market. The industry is making all the safe choices in stead of backing daring films.”
Høgel noted: “The less money, the more freedom you have.”
Kaplers challenged Weidemann to stop taking on “insecure” young fiction directors into the film school, but to instead choose “strong” candidates who could make their first features at the school.”
Weidemann seemed eager to find new ways of working. “The film school has a big responsibility of educating the new generations, it’s one of the key institutions in Denmark for making change.” But she doesn’t want to label the world in a black-and-white way as art vs. commerce. “Talent is not either commercial talent or underground talent. Talent is talent, talent is creativity…you should encourage them to look in different directions.”
While everyone praised the work of Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing, Hogel cautioned “I think documentary is a bigger problem [than fiction],” pointing to filmmakers having two typical goals with Danish documentaries, a local TV deal and a premiere at The International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). “The Act of Killing shows you can do so much more,” he said, pointing to its successful release across the globe and at hundreds of festivals.
Speaking from the audience, Let’s Get Lost filmmaker Jonas Elmer encouraged the free thinkers to “fuck everything…I don’t think the system is helping to make special, unique films.”
Wiedemann says that she understands that the film school can only offer places to such a small number of students, but she wants to see the school now grow as a place where everyone interested in film across Denmark can congregate. “I want to create an opening, inviting space,” she said. “Everyone has to create some free space for the new generation of filmmakers…and for free minds.”