National conservatoires in the arts form indispensable pillars of civilised societies. Most Western nations have for centuries maintained a national theatre, a national art gallery and a national musical institution, with most receiving at least some government funding and all some government control. While previously spaces for cultured, educated elites, they are now increasingly national focal points in culture for the masses. Being such a fast-growing and unusual medium, an emergence of national film institutions took time. But cinema’s unparalleled ability to connect with an entire population (rather than solely the upper classes) made having national film institutions just as – if not more – important as having institutions for the theatrical, visual and musical arts.
For nations recovering from war, this was particularly true. Britain’s and Canada’s film institutes grew up post-Great War, the USA’s, Australia’s, India’s and Scandinavia’s post-Second World War. Films of the late 1940s and early 1950s charted – and, existing in such a powerful medium, to some extent assisted – the rebuilding of nations, both physically and socially. Rebuilding from war uncovered for the first time the true power of film and meant keeping national film institutes became increasingly important for each country. With government direction films could reflect and pioneer a new society, keeping in tune with the changing attitudes of citizens. Some nations used film to help mould entire ideologies. The Soviet Union most obviously, through their film institutes the VGIK (ВГИК) and state-run studio Mosfilm (Мосфильм), bodies that essentially dictated how each film was to be made in order that their vision of a Communist utopia may be advanced.
Few countries though, free or otherwise, had – and still have – no requirements for censorship. Whether through such undebated necessities as imposing age limits, rejecting films with scenes of a particularly sexual or violent nature, or more upfront political censorship, governments, through national film boards, hold a monopoly on exacting what their population are able to visually consume. Finland’s Board of Film, for example, has banned a total of fourteen films since it was founded, eight for political reasons. For fear of invasion, the Finnish government was so eager not to stray from mirroring Soviet foreign policy that, lest it may offend the Politburo, it followed their lead in censoring many of the same films. These included the 1986 film Born American and, in 1972, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which, when it was shown on Swedish television that year, saw the Åland Island’s cut their Swedish signal off for the duration of the broadcast.
But censorship is but one role of national film boards and institutes. For, just as governments can restrict certain material, through the same channels they also have the power to commission it. They may seek to educate their population by endorsing factual films. Equally, by using the film institutes as distributors, they may seek to mould or alter international perceptions of their country abroad.
Perhaps the most obvious Nordic film to achieve both these things is the 2014 Danish war series 1864. It sought to educate the Danish population about their history, but, broadcasting in much of the rest of Europe and Australia, also to educate those populations about Danish history. Making it work required a budget of 173m DKK, only possible with government support, through Danmarks Radio (DR), a company under direct government direction.
In Finland the Finnish Film Foundation (Suomen Elokuvasäätiö / Finlands Filmstiftelse) granted most recently €30,000 to the Elokuvaosakeyhtiö Suomi production company so it could produce The Unknown Soldier (Tuntematon sotilas / Okänd soldat), a film that depicted Finnish soldiers fighting in the so-called ‘Continuation War’ of 1941-1944. Adapted from a book by Väinö Linna, a work considered fundamental to Finnish national identity, and released in 2017 to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Finland’s independence, the government had every reason to sponsor the film. It both reflected the celebratory patriotic mood of that year and, with an international release, educated foreign visitors about Finnish history. With a budget of €7m, it was the most expensive Finnish film ever made. But without government backing, that budget would have been inconceivable, so the film would not have roused such fervour at home, or interest abroad as it did.
But perhaps the most obvious example are the films of Ingmar Bergman. Though the relationship between him and his compatriots may have been fraught, his films are still seen as synonymous with the progress of Swedish liberal, post-War Swedish society abroad. Therefore, while his work is often troubling – indeed his films were frequently banned in the United States – they had the full support of the Swedish Film Institute (Svenska Filminstitutet) who spotted an opportunity to showcase a liberal Sweden, fitting well into the social democratic policies of the government of the day, lending it support at home, and at the same time promoting the image an increasingly bohemian Sweden abroad.
To finish off, this being an edition dedicated to the work of Nordic film crews, I think it necessary to stress the role film institutes have as ‘crew’. Put in simple terms, as I have discussed, they step in, under government direction, either before the film is made (to commission it in the first place) or after the film is made (to censor and ensure it is never seen). Between the start and finish post their presence is, however, always omnipresent. They have the power to make or break a film at any moment of production, in so doing turning film crews into either heroes or villains. They are always, though seldom physically, amongst any crew but, with such authority, they are always above it.