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Göteborg 2017: Lone Scherfig on ‘Their Finest’, Dogme film and ‘Italian for Beginners’

Lone Scherfig is a Danish director, writer and producer who made her breakthrough by being one of the key members of the Dogme95 film movement. She has been widely acclaimed for her films, including the Oscar-nominated film An Education (2009). Scherfig’s movies are generally romantic comedies, including her film One Day (2011). Through experimentation in creative constraints and her attention to detail, she is recognised as a huge talent in the film industry.

Please tell us about your new film, Their Finest?

Their Finest follows propaganda filmmakers during the London Blitz in the Second World War. This was a time where film was very important; the propaganda films were used to educate citizens of London during the Blitz – telling them either simple things like to eat more carrots, or even more important notices like going into the bomb shelters at night.

It’s a world I love to dive into – one full of film history. It’s a fantastic challenge to blend archival footage with footage we’ve shot. We show real propaganda films, fake propaganda films, and show a film within a film – so we’ve done a lot! It’s meant to be quite effortless with no sign of all the work behind it. The audience is supposed to enjoy watching the two main characters fall in love, as well as learn a little bit about film history during the Second World War.

It seems like a lot of work went into creating an authentic film experience…

Yes, absolutely. I wanted Their Finest to be a celebration of the people who made films during this dramatic period in history. Even though every day friends and homes were being bombed, these people woke up every morning and went to work. It really was England’s finest hour in that everyone would help each other, even if they were strangers. This is why Churchill gave the speech, titled ‘Their Finest Hour’, the speech the film is named after.

Is this a film that could’ve been made in Denmark, or do you feel it’s essential to have the British feel?

I believe this film could’ve been made in Denmark. When I was at university I wrote about propaganda filmmaking in Denmark and Germany. At the time, there was a ban on American films in Denmark so the Danes could only see German films or Swedish films, for example. A lot of Danish films at the time actually have a lot of subliminal messages because of this. This part of film history would’ve made a very good script.

You had your film start during the Dogme95 movement, and through that created the highly successful Italian for Beginners. What do you feel you have gained from being a member of the movement?

Dogme95 has given me a lot. Italian for Beginners was a huge Scandinavian success. It was actually the biggest selling Scandinavian film of all time until The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This success gave me so much confidence and I felt I had something to offer, particularly by mixing comedy and tragedy by telling stories of people doing pretty mundane things. From Dogme95, I received offers from abroad as well as an education. But most importantly is the knowledge of filmmaking it gave me. Having a more relaxed approach, which Dogme95 encourages, seems to work well with my style of filmmaking. There are still Dogme95 films coming from the Danish Film School and that’s fantastic to see.

Do you still use similar filmmaking styles from the Dogme95 period?

I do, but mostly in the use of physical space. I use that a lot when I write; I always write with locations in mind. I’m also much more audacious in the editing of picture and sound because Dogme95 is a hideous style to look at, but it somehow works! At the Göteborg Film Festival, there was a screening of Italian for Beginners at 10am on a Saturday morning, and it was completely sold out. That is incredible, especially considering the film is seventeen years old and looks horrible. They still went to see it despite the fact they could probably pick it up on DVD for twenty Swedish kronor.

What do you believe it is about Italian for Beginners that has resonated with audiences?

I believe it’s the message of the film, which is that even if you are stuck in a situation, it’s possible to change directions, find a circle of people who love you and become an overall better person.

I’ve seen people sit and laugh at the same moments all around the world, so this film is universal. People have something in common with the characters in the film, and that’s something I’m very proud of. Perhaps it’s because the film is so rough; it forces you to find an ‘in’. It’s different from a film that tells you what to think, feel and believe.

How do you feel the current Danish film industry is towards female directors? Do you have an opinion on the movement?

We won’t see the impact of the movement until five years from now, maybe more. I am so privileged and haven’t had any issues being able to make the films that I want to, so I can’t complain.

I also work with men all the time. For example, Bill Nighy in Their Finest is one of the hardest working partners I’ve had for a long time. He respects what I have to bring to the table. I love working with men and I love training with male actors.

There are a lot of women in Their Finest. The producer, the production designer, and the writers are all women, plus the protagonist is a woman. But this is because I work with people who I’ve worked with before, not because I’m consciously doing it.

I just hope that young women who want to work in film are as technically intelligent as a lot of men. There’s a lot of technique involved in filmmaking and I know when I was studying I wasn’t that interested in the technical aspect. If I’d just forced myself to study technique I would’ve made better films from the start.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Danish filmmakers?

In Denmark, there’s so much pressure for budgets to be lower and lower and there’s talent that doesn’t thrive in that extremely tight space where you must shoot fast with little equipment. For example, it’s hard to do period dramas. It means that the industry is favouring directors who can work fast and compromise aesthetically. Eventually, it’ll become clear that audiences are dropping and there are just too many films being released.

You’re attending the Göteborg Film Festival not just because of Their Finest but also because you’re receiving the Nordic Honorary Dragon Award. It must be so nice showcasing your two cinematic sides, in a way!

Yes, I quite like being able to do that. They are also two very different film industries. European films, in a way, are much more of an art form and less of an industry. While also part of Europe, British films are struggling with the language aspect as they must compete with other English speaking countries. They have the same language as American films, and that means there’s more competition at the cinema. In Scandinavia, we have more of an auteur-oriented business and have more artistic space. Having stronger funding schemes makes a big difference. It’s easier to work in Scandinavia and it’s easier to finance it, but you’ll never have access to a large audience. Nordic films will always be art-house abroad because they are subtitled. I hope to be able to combine the best of both worlds, and the next film I’m making will be a Danish/Swedish co-production shooting in the United States of America.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.