This year’s edition of the Reykjavík International Film Festival included a special focus on Danish films, screening such varied titles as Billie August’s latest feature "Silent Heart," Susan Bier’s comeback to Danish-language filmmaking "A Second Chance" and the bizarre Mads Mikkelsen-starring comedy "Men and Chicken." But even the Icelandic-language feature "Sparrows" can equally be called an Icelandic and a Danish feature, given the fact that it has a Danish producer, and is equally supported by the Icelandic and Danish film institutes.
But how is Danish film faring today? To discuss the state of Danish filmmaking, the festival invited "Sparrows" director Rúnar Rúnarsson, his producer Mikkel Jersen and Jesper Morthorst, who produced August’s "Silent Heart" and the Danish TV-series "Rita," which became the first Nordic show to be acquired and distributed worldwide through Netflix.
The panelists began by explaining the film school system in Denmark, with Jersen and Rúnarsson representing the Danish Film School while Morthorst comes from the more alternative Super 16. While the panelists took gentle shots at each other’s schools, they were in agreement that both were great starting places for the food chain of the Danish film industry. Furthermore, the Danish Film School — according to Jersen — is very interested in co-productions, something he values immensely. "It’s a great way to learn from other emerging producers and build a career quickly," he said. "A reason small countries do well is because they have to co-produce."
But in addition to have strong film schools, the Danish Film Institute has dedicated itself to support establishing filmmakers through their New Danish Screen support scheme, which all the panelists singled out as being important for their development. "I was lucky to have made a lot of shorts before school, and they had picked up a number of awards," said Rúnarsson. "But it was still hard to finance a debut feature." That would be "Volcano," his Icelandic-language drama, which premiered at the Cannes Director’s Fortnight in 2011. The filmmaker added that New Danish Screen provided about five million Danish Krónur for the production. "It’s not a lot of money in Denmark, but it helped enormously for the budget in Iceland," he said.
Morthorst also mentioned the institute-run Danish Film Workshop, which offers filmmaking facilities and post-production offices for filmmakers free of charge. But everyone has to make non-commercial work. "There’s an understanding that it’s a small country and it can’t really be a business,” Morthorst said. "When we’re so far from that as a reality it’s important to have Danish films and Danish Film culture. And there’s an understanding that talent development is extremely important."
Morthorst added that when the business has it tough financially, production companies move away from talent development, in order to focus their work on established names.
After the boom in Danish filmmaking as a result of the Dogme 95 movement, Danish filmmaking went through a bit of a decline, with leading filmmakers like Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg working on less successful challenging features. But things have changed in the last five to 10 years, according to Morthorst. "What has happened is that the creativity that emerged through the Dogme movement has been seen through commercial glasses by the producers," he said. "It has opened up the films for the audiences. They place more thought into the question who should connect to the material and how they should do it." As examples, he cited Susanne Bier and Thomas Vinterberg. "Their latest films retain the core of their artistic and creative vision, along with a commercial package," he said.
But that doesn’t mean that all is perfect when it comes to the current climate in Danish film and both Mikkel Jersen and Rúnar Rúnarsson sounded some alarm bells. According to Jersen, there’s a drought of good feature projects, in part caused by the successes of Danish television. "Danish screenwriters are in huge demand after the popularity of the Nordic Noir. It’s hard to find writers because they’re all working for TV." Rúnar Rúnarsson also mentioned that many of the screenplays intended for the arthouses were now following exactly the same beats and structures of the market-driven stories. "The next step is to personalize the stories for the directors. This is becoming a problem for Danish filmmakers, the films are too much a construction," he said.
Jersen went on to describe what happened at a work in progress screening during the Gothenburg Film Festival, when it became apparent that all the Danish projects had clear concepts or genres — like a historical epic and both zombie and vampire films – but they seemed to lack strong directorial identities. "A sales agent came to me and said ‘Wow, you’re really trying to be Hollywood,’" Jersen recalled. "This is the result of the market falling, we place all our trust in interesting concepts, not interesting directors. The voice of the director has vanished."
That isn’t to say that filmmakers aren’t attracted to working in Demmark, as Rúnarsson explained. "There’s both the social safety net and visionary ideals, which makes it a great place for filmmakers," he said. He also provided the clearest explanation regarding Denmark’s successes and how the film industry will find a way out of its possible crisis. "Denmark doesn’t have any national resources – so how have they become a rich nation? They’re great businessmen, and they have a great school system,” he said. "Those are their national resources."
He went on to emphasize the importance of co-production between the smaller nations, and why Denmark has become so good at producing work with the smaller countries. "They think outside-the-box and see new avenues,” he said. "They see it as an asset to get new talent. They’re clever, they always get something out of it."