Danish director Ulaa Salim talks to Variety about his provocative debut feature, thriller “Sons Of Denmark,” which made a strong showing in Rotterdam’s Tiger competition and just screened at Karlovy Vary Film Festival. The film is set in 2025, and unfolds in a Denmark where an ultra-nationalist politician, Martin Nordahl, is poised to assume the premiership, one year after an Islamic terror attack on the Copenhagen Metro. Nordahl’s extreme rhetoric and fear mongering in regard to the country’s Muslim citizens and immigrants goads the far-right organization Sons of Denmark into committing hate crimes. Meanwhile, some of the country’s Arabic minority make plans to resist.
Salim, a recent graduate of the Danish National Film School, was born in Denmark to Iraqi-émigré parents. He and producer Daniel Mühlendorph, a film school classmate, established their own company Hyæne Film, and this is their first feature production.
I saw that your film ranked toward the top of the audience poll in Rotterdam.
I felt that it struck a chord with the audience. It’s a tough film to watch and I’m happy that they liked it and that it had an emotional impact.
In a time when the world is getting smaller and smaller, we are all of a sudden closing up on ourselves. I tried to use imagination, emotional attachment and different perspectives, so we see it’s not about left or right, or extreme Arabs or extreme Danish, but it’s universal. It’s about a struggle to survive, with the fear or hate of others a common aspect in all the characters. We all know that things are shifting politically, but because we are bombarded with so much information in our everyday life, we don’t notice when the extreme has become normalized.
You play with the narrative structure, keeping the audience guessing about who the main protagonist is and whose story you are telling.
I like movies that surprise you and engage you and do things that you expect, but then take you out of your comfort zone. I took what was well-known in Denmark – a well-known actor and a love story and then I put in a bomb. Then you see Rasmus Bjerg, a beloved comedian [who plays Nordahl] and hear him saying some horrible things. Then I show the ghetto area of Denmark and I put classical music over it. I play with expectations.
Your film opened wide in Denmark on April 11, close to the national election, something which made your film even more relevant and important to discuss.
The film is political in the sense that it takes a grab of society and says okay, let’s talk about this. I think Denmark is a lovely place, a privileged place to be born and raised, but there are some tendencies that we need to speak about. Cinema makes us reflect, makes you think let’s talk about this.
What are some of the important things you learned from making your first feature?
Taking chances will always make your film somehow better or more unique. Never fear taking chances, be fearless. Also, be modest about how you are and how you work and always work hard. Believe that you can make a great film, but be modest and work hard towards it.
What’s next for you? And for Hyæne Film?
I’m doing a love story next. It’s hard for me to speak about at this early stage, but it’s about creating a family. It will be about love and sorrow while “Sons Of Denmark” is about hate and fear. I want to make Danish film, European cinema. That’s what really interests me. You can learn from other film cultures, but you need to grow your own film culture and make it stronger.
At Hyæne Film, we’re trying to be a place for talent to come and do their first and second feature and grow with us. Lisa Jesperson, a Danish Film School classmate, already has a feature fully financed that she will direct with Daniel as the producer. It will shoot in September.
Daniel and I produced an animation web series that is coming out this summer. It’s a satirical cartoon for which “South Park” is a kind of reference. Last year we did three short films, with different directors.