More storytelling, less objectivity: An interview with Ib Bondebjerg

Arne Dahl

Society plays a crucial role in Nordic Noir series but not just the issues themselves, the ways in which those are depicted are essential, too. To really go under the surface we’ve taken a closer look at the Arne Dahl TV series and interviewed Danish professor Ib Bondebjerg, who also talked in more detail about the characteristics of the Nordic film production and the challenges that European films have to overcome.

When watching Nordic crime (or basically any kind of fiction), a journalist is most likely confronted with stories of cultural clashes between oppressed groups, minorities or even indigenous people, and the rest of society. The ways in which these series deal with these groups either differ from one another or show some similar tendencies, but regardless of that they always have a standpoint. Unlike journalists, these series have the credentials to be either stereotypical or even judgmental, and this might evoke ambiguous feelings in individuals working also with image and text, since journalism should be as objective as possible, especially when certain segments of society are involved.

But should objectivity be taken into consideration when a series or a film is developed? What are actually the bases of producing motion pictures up in the North? Why do we talk about Scandinavian brand instead of accumulating enough facts about each Scandinavian country, placing Denmark, Norway and Sweden in the centre now? To grasp the gist I’ve asked Ib Bondebjerg, who is a professor at the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication, Section for Film, Media and Communication, at the University of Copenhagen, but he is also one of the people behind the Scandinavian Film and Television course on Coursera, a course of which Cinema Scandinavia can be superbly grateful for. In addition to the basic differences and the background of joining forces, I was also interested in the future development of the so-called Scandinavian brand and the roles of film festivals concerning Nordic films.

Barbara Majsa: A large number of people outside Scandinavia tend to discuss Scandinavian films instead of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish. This is, of course, somewhat understandable, however, if one takes a closer look, he/she might notice some differences. Could you give us some examples?

Ib Bondebjerg: The film cultures of these three Scandinavian countries are in fact very similar in terms of support systems, dominant genres and tendencies, which is not so surprising, since these countries have pretty similar history, at least in recent time, and the same kind of welfare system. However, there are also differences, partly because these states are different in size, with Sweden as the biggest, and Norway as the smallest. This is reflected in the production of film and television, where Sweden and Denmark have demonstrated a much higher production of films than Norway. It is also reflected in the distribution patterns of films nationally and internationally. Until recently Norway has shown a rather weak circulation and audience figures for films outside Norway – including other Scandinavian countries. Swedish and Danish films tend to attract a much wider audience nationally and internationally, and both Sweden’s and Denmark’s brand is stronger internationally than Norway’s, a brand created since the 1960s. Furthermore, Denmark ranks first in European distribution.

BM: We surely can talk about a Scandinavian brand. Why is it so natural and important to join forces? Why do these countries in fact aim at presenting themselves as Scandinavian instead of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish? The national cinemas, for instance, do not necessarily need support.

IB: Even though Sweden and Denmark present a strong brand internationally as national cinemas we are talking about very small nations in a global perspective. This is the reason why Scandinavian collaboration in both film and television is so important, and has being going on for decades with Nordvision, the organisation of public service broadcasters, and with The Nordic Film and TV Fund (started in 1990). A high degree of international co-production is also necessary. Most of the films that make it outside the national space are in fact co-produced with several partners not just in Scandinavia but also the rest of Europe.

BM: This – let’s say – strategy works very well, but what could be the next step? Our world as well as people’s habits change so rapidly nowadays so no one knows what the future might bring. In what way do you think the Scandinavian brand concerning cinema can reinvent itself in the future if it’s needed?

IB: All national cinemas must reinvent themselves and create frameworks to sustain and develop new talent. The challenge right now is to establish a more transnational European film culture because in the digital future, where borders will be even less important, where digital platforms can reach everybody, the fragmented European film culture will be a huge problem. We need to build a European film culture in which cultural diversity is maintained, but where we finance, produce and distribute films from all over Europe much more widely. Right now the share of European films in Europe, outside there own national territory, is just 8-12%, which means that US films and national European films dominate – with US films in still absolute power with around 63-70% of the total market.

BM: The Gothenburg Film Festival is the biggest showcase for Nordic films. Unfortunately, most of the films screened there are not distributed across the globe. What role do you think a festival should have in the world of (Nordic) cinema?

IB: The Gothenburg Film Festival is the biggest showcase in terms of the number of Scandinavian films screened, and does a good job, but it’s not the most important platform for Nordic films. It is still the bigger, international festivals and markets that are essential: Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, Venice, etc. But I do not think festivals can handle the basic problem that is the distribution of European films doesn’t work. We need to create a much stronger synergy between the national film cultures in Europe, break down the national borders and make it much easier for films to travel. Moreover, European countries need to spend much more on marketing and distribution – the budget for that is tiny. Of the total of 10,000-12,000 films produced in Europe every year, only about 10% have any significant distribution outside their own country. That’s a problem that no festival can solve.

The American hegemony has been embodied in numerous studies and discussions during the past decades, but so far no real cure or remedy has been found yet. Hollywood has been always great at absorbing international talents to boost their own, somewhat trudging industry in one way or another. Nowadays, we celebrate television before films so keeping eagle eyes on popular TV series created somewhere else in the planet is definitely not a coincidence. Tendencies show that while in Europe, for instance, these stories, mostly Nordic Noir series, are sold to broadcast in other countries, in the USA a remake is developed, which is, of course, Americanised a bit. But why do we love shivering? Ib expands on the development and the popularity of Nordic Noir as well as the importance of objectivity in it.

BM: Swedish crime fiction writer Arne Dahl (Jan Arnald) has elaborated on the development of Nordic Noir when answering a question on why we love Scandinavian crime. He says: ‘I think since 30 years it’s been a separate development of crime fiction in Scandinavia in comparison with England and America, or Britain and America. And these different traditions hadn’t really met, and suddenly they did and so there was a whole different approach to crime fiction on the other side of the water. It was different but the preconditions were really the same. It was a different attitude, a different way of describing reality and so on. I think that’s it. Close but not really close so there is still a bit of an exoticism in it.’ Do you agree with him? What is your opinion on it?

IB: Nordic Noir is a concept created by British-American critics and distributors, among them British company Arrow Films. It is a smart brand, but it is not necessarily a brand that says something very precise. If we take the historical perspective, we see that Nordic Noir combines national, Scandinavian and international tendencies. Film noir elements (with both American and French roots) are mixed with the Scandinavian tradition for crime with a social profile, and an American-British tradition. Sweden is clearly the leading country in Scandinavia with its strong crime tradition dating back to the 1970s. The Millennium Trilogy is probably one of the main reasons for the breakthrough of Nordic Noir around 2010, also with The Killing (DK) and The Bridge (DK/SWE).

In addition to that, the fact that BBC4 started broadcasting series like these. Before that Wallander created a Nordic buzz effect that went viral. The new Nordic Noir owns special qualities, but I also have to say there are very similar and good crime series in many other countries, for instance the American True Detective or the British Broadchurch.

BM: Crime series usually reflect upon social and societal problems, and in addition to that, they also support debates and discussions on social, economic or political issues. Can literary works, TV shows and films depict society and its members of different background meanwhile avoiding stereotypes and prejudices? Is it possible to stay objective?

IB: I do not find stereotyping and prejudices a huge problem in crime series and in Scandinavian crime series in particular. But objectivity would be a wrong concept when we discuss fiction. Fiction is not journalism, and is in fact never objective in that sense. Crime series often carry a high degree of social and psychological realism, and in series like The Killing or The Bridge, for instance, it is even the main focus. In these series we do not just get very revealing portraits of social groups and public institutions, we also experience characters and plots that link crime to central political and social topics like terrorism, financial fraud, globalisation etc. Fiction often makes us understand such things much stronger than journalism because fiction operates with strong narrative force and emotional identification frame that forces us to experience and think about these matters. But it is not journalism, not objectivity – it is storytelling with a potentially strong reality dimension. 

The TV series based on Arne Dahl’s crime stories doesn’t only demonstrate a potentially strong reality dimension, but reflects upon almost all segments of society while tackling issues such as domestic violence, immigration, family structures, love relationships, religion, class gap, organised crime, the relation between Finland and Sweden, the Holocaust, child abuse and pedophilia, human trafficking, etc. Unfortunately, the list can be continued, which says a lot about our world, and at the same time, the presence and actions of the main characters having different backgrounds and representing various regions of Sweden create a somewhat new and yet unknown image of Sweden, too. Arne Dahl definitely has a firm opinion on things.

In an interview one of the founders of Nordic Noir, Maj Sjöwall (the co-creator of policeman Martin Beck) explains ‘that today’s writers dwell too much on their detectives’ personal lives’. One of Arne Dahl’s specialties is indeed to combine private and work life as well as he possibly draws a detail-oriented map in his mind on which he marks every specific nuance and spicy joke that always touches upon some sensitive issues or interesting parts of everyday life. Once Jenny Hultin says to Arto Söderstedt: ‘Do what you’re best at!’ Söderstedt replies: ‘Speaking Finland Swedish?’ Then she replies: ‘No, think!’ (Pointing at his head as well.) Considering the mutual history of Finland and Sweden, the Finnish minority in Sweden and the Swedish minority in Finland, this is actually a nice gesture, and it also sets up an atmosphere that helps people to get rid of those stereotypes that don’t let individuals to live without being judgmental. One must be a good observer and pay attention to the dialogue and the things places within the frame to be able to understand Sweden a bit better.

Still, somehow the TV series seemed to some extent more American than, let’s say, The Killing. Sometimes the plot, sometimes the characters’ personal history carries such elements that are relatively unrealistic in Sweden, and therefore the viewers lose touch with reality. Beyond that, the plot is often quite predictable, but luckily surprising turns take place from time to time. Despite all this, the series as well as other Nordic products are till quite addictive so they still have their charm. Read a list of Ib’s recommendations below!

BM: Which film would you recommend those who would like to see Scandinavian films that are not so known outside the Nordic countries?

IB: There are many I would recommend, but let me give a few Danish examples. There are, for instance, the films by Danish director Nils Malmros. He is famous – in Denmark, but not anywhere else. But his coming-of-age pieces are among the best films in that genre, also internationally, for instance the wonderful Kundskabens træ (The Tree of Knowledge, 1981). I could also mention one of the biggest social realists in modern Danish cinema, Per Fly. His trilogy on the social classes in Denmark (Bænken (2000), Arven (2003) and Drabet (2005)) presents a powerful portrait of the darker side of the Scandinavian welfare state. Speaking of Denmark only, I would also recommend keeping an eye on young talents like Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm.

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.