Danish documaker Simon Lereng Wilmont’s Oscar-shortlisted “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” which observes the impact of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine on the life of a 10-year-old Ukrainian boy, encapsulates why, just as with fictional features, Danish docs are thriving.
This fly-on-the-wall portrait that unfolds from the boy’s perspective without a word of narration “deftly weaves a precise coming-of-age narrative into its morally urgent anti-war tableau,” wrote Variety critic Guy Lodge. Besides stemming from a special sensitivity for the children’s universe that Danish cinema is known for, the pluriprized doc is also emblematic of how local documakers are honing their craft, pushing boundaries, and taking their works to new heights.
“In Denmark they are really experimenting with various forms of documentary storytelling in terms of making the narratives dramaturgically like feature films,” says Petri Kemppinen, head of the Oslo-based Nordisk Film & TV Fund.
The thriller-like “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” doc by celebrated journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger was recently a buzz title at Sundance. It sheds new light on the mysterious 1961 plane crash of Swedish U.N. secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld, who was on a secret peace mission when he died.
Aside from compelling storylines, Danish docs are particularly hot at the moment because several take place outside Denmark, driven by the strong interest in social issues that Danish directors have, says Susan Wendt, head of sales powerhouse TrustNordisk. “There is a deep purpose; they want to start discussions and open up issues,” she says.
Sometimes personal and social issues mix. Berlin Panorama doc “Western Arabs,” by multi-hyphenate Omar Shargawi, who was born in Denmark of a Danish mother and Palestinian father, is being described in promotional materials as an intimate portrait of a Danish-Arabic family through good and bad over 12 years. Shargawi previously co-directed “1/2 Revolution,” which was shot in Cairo during the 2011 revolution and went to Sundance in 2012.
The real breakthrough in documentary filmmaking began a dozen years and since then docs from Denmark have scored several Oscar nominations, says Danish Film Institute director Claus Ladegaard. As a former producer of several docs he has been instrumental in growing the sector by ensuring there is plenty of support from the DFI and broadcasters.
“We are such a small business, so the editors, the cinematographers — everyone — are actually the same people that are making feature films or TV dramas,” he says. This helps understand why Danish docs are heavily influenced by feature-film-type storytelling and evolving concurrently, he adds.
A promising high-profile Danish doc expected to surface on the festival circuit this year is “The Winter Journey,” about a personal voyage back in time to Nazi Germany and a particular project by Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. It’s directed by Anders Østergaard, whose “Burma VJ” about the 2007 uprising in Myanmar was nominated for an Oscar.
Kemppinen has high hopes for an upcoming animated doc called “Flee,” a refugee story about an Afghan immigrant who after a journey in the hands of human traffickers arrives in the Danish countryside at age 11 and makes friends with a boy who later in life becomes a film director. This second feature, which is due out in 2020, is directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen and produced by Final Cut for Reel, the prominent company behind “The Distant Barking of Dogs.” “Flee” is budgeted at €2.7 million ($3 million) making it the most expensive documentary the Nordisk Film & TV Fund has ever funded.
He sees the timely “Flee,” a universal story told through a personal prism, as part of the animated docs genre “which can work for a larger audience.”