A strong contender in the foreign-language Oscar race, “Land of Mine,” directed by up-and-coming Danish helmer Martin Pieter Zandvliet, underscores the wealth of talent coming out of Denmark within the past decade.
Zandvliet’s third feature film, “Land of Mine” is the fifth Danish film to be nominated for a foreign-language Oscar in the past seven years, and it has a shot at becoming the fourth Danish film to take home the Academy Award, joining the ranks of Gabriel Axel’s “Babette’s Feast,” Bille August’s “Pelle the Conqueror,” and Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World.”
Denmark will also be represented at the upcoming Berlin Film Festival with “Loving Pia,” the sophomore outing of Daniel Borgman, which will play in the Forum section, and Kasper Barfoed’s crime drama “Below the Surface,” set for the Berlinale Special Series roster. The 2016 Toronto festival was also a showcase of emerging Danish filmmakers with critically acclaimed screenwriter-turned-director Rasmus Heisterberg’s “In the Blood” and Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson’s “Heartstone” selected for the Discovery section.
Denmark’s recent track record at the Academy Awards and major festivals is particularly impressive considering the small size of the country, which has under 6 million inhabitants, and the number of local films released (under 30 movies) each year, in comparison with countries such as France and the U.K.
While Danish cinema came of age in the 1990s with Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, the masterminds of the so-called Dogma movement (a set of rules reminiscent of the French New Wave’s rudimentary filmmaking approach), Denmark has succeeded in nurturing new breeds of talented directors over the years, ranging from Oscar-winning helmer Bier to Nicolas Winding Refn (“The Neon Demon”), Tobias Lindholm (“A War”) and Zandvliet, as well as a flurry of bold new voices such as Fenar Ahmad, whose thriller “Darkland” currently tops the Danish box office.
“Dogma is long gone but I think we still have an approach which is still dogma-like, but with bigger budgets. We use vfx, but still 10% of a Hollywood budget for the same look. We use great actors, but they are not all known,” says Rikke Ennis, CEO of TrustNordisk, the sales powerhouse that handles most Scandinavian hits, notably “Darkland,” which was produced by rising outfit Profile Pictures.
“We dare to take chances in terms of storytelling, formats and new distribution models. It is about daring to be visionary regardless of consequences,” adds Ennis, who sells most films by Nordic masters, from Von Trier to Vinterberg and Bier.
Film schools and the Danish Film Institute, in particular the Danish New Screen program, are the driving forces behind this upward trend for Danish movies, and have played a strong part in raising a new generation of filmmakers, screenwriters, producers, says Cia Edström, head of industry at the Goteborg Film Festival.
Edström, who is in charge of selecting 18 works-in-progress titles from across the Nordic region for Goteborg, pointed out that two anticipated movies, “The Guilty” and “The Charmer,” are directed by graduates of the National Film School of Denmark: Sweden-born Gustav Möller, and Iran-born Milad Alami, respectively.
The Danish Film Institute (DFI) plays a crucial role in boosting the industry as a whole, even though it is highly selective. Of 300 applications for features, the DFI supports only 20-25 and is increasingly focusing its resources on development. On average, a Danish project spends 18 months in development.
“We put so much emphasis on development nowadays. Ten years ago, we allocated 6% of our funding budget on development, and now it’s 20%,” says Claus Ladegaard, head of film funding for the Danish Film Institute, which gave out $28.2 million to 26 feature films in 2017.
“A script has to be top-notch before the film goes into production, because the problems you have in the writers’ room, you’ll have them in the editing room,” says Mette Damgaard-Sorensen, artistic director of the New Danish Screen scheme, which grants funding to five or six projects selected out of about 40 submissions each year.
Ennis says the quality of the screenwriter is the No. 1 asset of Danish pics. “Storytelling is something we are very good at here in Scandinavia,” he says. “The depth of characters, the melancholic approach, and exotic nature seems to work internationally.”
The Danish New Screen scheme has spotted some of Denmark’s most exciting filmmakers to emerge in the past 10 years and helped finance their directorial debuts, notably Zandvliet with “Applause,” Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer with “R,” Shahrbanoo Sadat with “Wolf and Sheep,” and Ali Abbasi with “Shelley,” as well as the sophomore outing of Annette K. Olesen with “In My Hands.”
Denmark boasts the second most-subsidized film industry in the world after Norway, but unlike France, another highly subsidized industry, Denmark only provides selective, thus non-automatic, subsidy schemes, emphasizing the quality of projects, Ladegaard says.
Local producers are embracing the support of the DFI, claiming that it ensures a fairly high level of artistic freedom.
“Our industry depends on subsidy … and it’s very healthy to have a national film institute and a film commissioner on board and not only making films entirely based on market conditions. It gives us the courage to experiment and go farther out on the ice,” says Henrik Zein, general manager of Nordisk Film Production, whose recent credits include “Land of Mine.”
Denmark’s biggest public broadcasters, DR and TV2, are also big supporters of homegrown talent: They both back the initiative and have the option to show movies that come out of it. “Broadcasters in Denmark are involved in talent development because it allows them to build ties with the local talent pool that potentially goes into TV drama,” says Damgaard-Sorensen.
The biggest challenge that the Danish film industry is now facing is the increasing drain of Danish filmmakers who get lured by Hollywood after they’ve made a local hit. Refn, Lindholm, Zandvliet, among others, are all making movies and/or TV shows with American talent and producers.
But Zein says most helmers end up returning to Denmark to make movies.
“It is good to be a big fish in a small lake and besides, it’s great to come home to your rock band and crew where everybody knows everyone. And for us in Denmark, having directors work in Hollywood is an invaluable talent development.”