Great Danes

Carsten Knox explores the Scandinavian domination of this year’s Atlantic Film Festival and discovers why something’s awesome in the state of Denmark.

It’s looking pretty idyllic In A Better World.
It’s looking pretty idyllic In A Better World.

What's the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Danish movies?

Could be Babette's Feast, the foodie classic that won the 1987 Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Could be the grinning mug of Lars von Trier, director of Melancholia, Antichrist and Dancer in the Dark, for whom the expression "enfant terrible" was practically invented. Or it could even be the Dogme 95 manifesto, the "vow of chastity" a number of Danish filmmakers signed, shirking Hollywood-style glam and effects in favour of actual locations, hand-held camera and natural light. The movement drew attention and spawned a bunch of great movies---including The Celebration, Breaking The Waves and Italian for Beginners, all of which screened at the Atlantic Film Festival---even when the filmmakers involved eventually moved on and broke their own rules.

The Danish industry is still going strong, as evidenced by five excellent pictures at the AFF this year; Mads Matthiesen's Teddy Bear, Susanne Bier's Love Is All You Need, Dogme 95-founder Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt, the Closing Gala film A Royal Affair from Nikolaj Arcel and controversial documentary The Ambassador, directed by Danish journalist Mads Brügger.

"Of all the Scandinavian countries, the Danes have had the strongest film program for close to two decades," explains veteran AFF programmer Ron Foley MacDonald. "If you think about the whole Dogme movement, Lars Von Trier in particular, they dominate like Bergman dominated the '50s, '60s and '70s."

For a country of five million people, the Danes have always had a perspective beyond their borders in order to be culturally and economically competitive. "They're export-oriented rather than domestically inclined," says MacDonald. "Consequently if you think about someone like Susanne Bier"---her 2010 picture In A Better World screened at the AFF and won the 2010 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film---"whose films have travelled the world and are often set or partially set in countries other than Denmark, you get a true internationalist auteur that comes from a Scandinavian base but has a real global outlook."

A proponent of Denmark's cinema during his stretch as a programmer at the AFF, Andrew Murphy credits the frequency of Danish films shown here to the Danes themselves, for reaching out to film festivals around the world.

"Scandinavian countries have these amazing film institutes in place to really get out there and promote their films," he says. "We've developed these great relationships with the Danish Film Institute," and other Scandinavian film bodies, "we've been lucky to have these relationships to allow us access to this material over the years." 

The lasting legacy of the Dogme movement can still be seen in many of the new Danish movies, suggests Murphy. "The Celebration for me, oh my god, this film changed so many things in my head. And for them it was a way to get away from the blockbuster and break it down to basics. It was about the performance and the words. That's what was fascinating about it, not that the actors weren't wearing make-up."

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