When Janus Metz’ film Armadillo was awarded the Grand Prix de la Semaine de la Critique at Cannes in 2010 – the first documentary film to ever claim the prize – it was a sign that Danish cinema had evolved into a new stage. Recently, the effects of documentary productions have spread concentrically through Denmark’s film industry, resulting in a pastiche of genres and influences that has been collectively grouped under the termNordic Humanism. It seems that if you can boast of being the ‘happiest country in the world’, amidst the superlatives of social security and government support structures, you develop an appetite for the less utopian side of reality – the Greeks got their cathartic kicks from tragedy in order to feel good.
Since Von Trier’s Dogma era in the late 80s, the distinction between reality and fiction has been designated as an inherent grey zone in Danish film, both in technical approach and in content. Director Phie Ambo puts it like this: “Denmark is unique in that we do not distinguish between film ‘languages’ and there are no rules governing which of them should be used in documentary films and fiction films.”On one hand, this has led to documentary productions being accused of overt manipulation and theatricalisation of their subject matter. Writing on Armadillo, Guy Dixon remarks “there’s a controversy of the more cinematic kind: while the footage is expertly photographed, all the different uses of filters and postproduction colour correction (to say nothing of the superb sound)… is disturbing when we’re talking not about the mythology and madness of war, but about showing real, dead people in a ditch or actual children running from fighting.” In 2011, Mads Brugger’s Ambassador provoked legal action from the Liberian government who regarded the filmmaker as “an impostor” and “a criminal” in relation to the subterfuge utilized in making the film.
On the other hand, a director such as Michael Noer has been consistently exploring the marriage of documentary to the genre films that have hegemonised Scandinavian cinema – namely, the Nordic-noir crime scene. Noer is first and foremost a documenter. After graduating from the National Film School, Denmark in 2003, he began his career with a handful of well-received documentaries, following groups of friends as they co-exist in their respective neighbourhoods and habitats, most cogently expressed in De Vilde Hjerter : Vesterbro (2008). Noer has since directed two feature films: R (2010) was co-directed with Tobias Lindholm, and Nordvest (2013) was co-written with Rasmus Heisterberg, who penned the screenplay for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Together, these films portray how Danish documentary is applied to the template of genre.
A genre film is bound by a strict set of conventions, tacitly agreed on by filmmaker and audience. It provides an ordered world of which we have some innate knowledge: the plot is fixed, the characters defined. In addition, we are provided with a body of reference to which our film may be usefully compared. The subject matter is the story and how its basic content is configured: the motif, plot, settings and characters. Imitation or critique of life and reality is to remain a secondary consideration, or else altogether avoided.
Noer’s two films assume forms defined within the corpus of Nordic-noir, and crime film in general. R is a prison film, following in the vein of infinite precedents from Cool Hand Luke to HBO’s Oz. Nordvest rehashes the familiar themes of the gangster film that have been exported from Hollywood since the 40s. There is a strict adherence to the structure and narratological form of crime films, an interplay of problems and their consequences that is consistent with plot development in traditional crime fiction. In R, Rasmus discovers he owes a debt to the prison gang. In fulfilling it, he alienates himself from some parties and ingratiates himself with others, with varying consequences. In Nordvest, we follow Kaspar as his criminal career progresses from small-time thief to pimp and drug dealer, biting off more than he can chew. Tests and initiations act as narrative guides, and we expect the actions and their consequences.
Character is identified through iconographic means – Adidas, tattoos, shaved heads and weed abound– and is established with speed and directness. Our first view of Rasmus is of the back of his tattooed neck, strung with a gold chain. Nordvest exposes us to two men in balaclavas and gloves within the first few frames – in Noer’s worlds we know a person visually. Noer depicts social and fictional typologies succinctly: the cop, the gang leader, the ethnic minority. In both R and Nordvest, the police officer plays a minor yet binding role, representing the latent legality that these worlds exist within but are not subject to. The police officer is both patronizing and sympathetic, an exasperated father figure or voice of vexed morality. A myriad of typological roles contend throughout the films: the intimacy of the brothers in Nordvest, the corporeality of their tenderness and nakedness, implicitly evokes classical allusions (Patrocles and Achilles, amongst others), especially in Andy’s assumption of Kasper’s role as murderer. There is a dense complexity of ideals and references. Noer uses the conventions of genre film to create a framework: the audience expects and receives a large measure of known information.
Given that genre is essentially reality’s antonym, these films might seem a curious progression for Noer the documentarian. However, genre and documentary share a past: Louis De Rochement began to experiment with shooting on actual location and using local residents in the 40s on films such as Lost Boundaries. This inaugurated a postwar semi-realist trend, termed doco-noir, with films such as Boomerang! and Call Northside 777. These in turn were inspired by Roberto Rosselini’s neo-rationalist films in Italy. The Dogma manifesto, despite explicitly denouncing genre as a style, has also bridged the gap between the two styles.
It is in this tradition that we can understand Michael Noer’s application of documentary to genre. We are observing a refracted reality. Of the actors in R, only Pilo Asbaek, who plays Rune, was a professional actor. At least 75 people that were cast had prison experience. Roland Moller – a former inmate and gang member – and Dulfi Al-Jabouri continued on to star inNordvest. The storyline that revolves around Kaspar and Andy inNordvest is based on the real relationship between two brothers that Noer researched – and the roles are played by actors who are brothers in real life (Gustav and Oscar Dyekjaer Giese). The layers of reality that Noer is investigating and recording both complement and clash with the framework of genre: we are asked to step in and out of a suspension of disbelief.
Most poignant is Noer’s sense of topography and place: he works within closed environments – the prison or the inner-city suburb – in a way similar to how the stage works for theatre, and context becomes just as important – if not more so – than the characters. It is the description, not the creation, of places that Noer strives for, just as the documentaryVesterbro stems from an investigation of environment. The worlds portrayed are small and become instatnyl familiar, and we associate the characters as extensions of their environment. The overlapping of social spheres within identical contexts is disjointing: Kaspar prepares his drugs on the same table that he was eating dinner at with his sister moments before. A real prison was used to shoot R. The separation of ethnicities in the prison gives us a map by which we gauge the racial tension.
Both Noer’s films are shot with hand-held camera, always following the main character. The climactic murders in both movies occur out of shot, and we are left with the psychological impact imprinted on the characters. One thinks of Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, and how the reaction is more valuable than the action. The films end on a tone of ambiguity, a notion that Noer believes is emblematic of life: “I saw no reason to map out a moral or an ending – the conclusion is tough and almost identical to life: there is an open ending to the film, and presumably to life, too.”
Genre made relevant
Noer has made deliberate use of the genre form to explore specific areas of Danish society that he believes require attention. For most people – even its citizens – Copenhagen is a city divorced from the phenomenon that has engendered just this type of film. The worlds of the prison and the criminal lie very much on the peripheries of Scandinavian society. Recent film and TV has challenged this dichotomy. Perhaps the escalation of problems in the Danish cities has led to a heightened awareness. Increased immigration combined with comprehensive difficulties in intergration has made Copenhagen a melting pot of ethnicities. Noer questions the idea of an open society that invites multiculturalism, and explores the fading image of the ‘bullet-proof’ Danish system.
The function of a documentary is to describe and portray a world, but looking through the lens of an anthropologist or documenter, the paradox is that we often feel a great divorce from the subject matter. The worlds examined are usually just that: different worlds which we view with keen interest but also with a sense of detached apathy.
Genre is a universalizing tool. The use of less individualized characters sets up an Aristotelian catharsis by allowing us to feel empathy: genre characters allow us to easily assume their roles. The fact that we know that they are not realistic, not part of the real world – unlike the documentary – lets us slip into their Adidas or Nikes with ease. The other side of the coin is that, despite the fantasy of the ideal, life may imitate genre more than is expected. Speaking on Nordvest, Noer reflected that “if there are elements within the film that remind you of other films it is not only because it is a genre film, but also because these two live a genre life”. Stereotypes and typologies exist outside of fiction too.
Noer has been clever enough to recognize the attraction of genre and to use it as a format to describe the circumstances of his social context. The beauty of these films lies in the harmony of approach. A dialectic is provided but not resolved. Noer realised this in Nordvest: “ I would not have called the film ‘Northwest‘ if it did not have a dual meaning. Northwest is the region but it is also a direction and this direction is the guide our main character is in need of.” The creation of this penumbra gives Noer his crucial value.