Denmark has finally started addressing the lack of diversity in local movies and TV series. From afar, the country is the epitome of liberalism and home to provocative filmmakers like Lars von Trier and a new wave of directors with foreign origins, such as Ali Abassi (“Holy Spider”) and Milad Alami (“The Charmer”).
But up close, the Nordic country has been sliding to the far right and enacting Europe’s harshest anti-immigration laws, pushing the local film community to react. The alarm was recently rung by A Bigger Picture, a female-led advocacy group spearheaded by Laura Allen Müller (“Borgen”), Sandra Yi Sencindiver (“The Wheel of Time”), Malaika B. Mosendane (“Chosen”), Siir Tilif (“Fatal Crossing”) and Dorcas Joanna Hansen (“Elvira”).
Along with newspaper articles and appearances on TV shows, the campaign triggered the most vivid reactions when it flagged the all-white casts of three high-profile Danish productions, including Von Trier’s “The Kingdom series.” To make a point, the organization scrubbed the white actors from these posters and replaced them with actors of diverse backgrounds.
The campaign struck such a chord that A Bigger Picture was able to enlist the support of dozens of filmmakers, producers and film bodies. It secured meetings with The Danish Film Institute, which is the main source of financing for local movies, as well as SF Studios and guilds for actors, directors, producers and screenwriters. And while Von trier rejected the campaign by telling local newspaper Berlingske that “any form of censorship or quotas is a restriction of freedom of expression and thus ultimately leads to fascism,” his three production partners at Zentropa, including Louise Vesth and Sisse Graum Jørgensen, reached out to A Bigger Picture to discuss.
“We were surprised because we thought we’d really piss off a lot of people, but we got a lot of positive feedback,” says Sencindiver. “We were very happy to learn that Zentropa’s three producers were interested and curious to hear what we had to say, and opened their doors to hear our perspective on what the barriers and problems are in the industry.”
Müller says they were also “surprised to hear that people in power don’t realize what kind of discrimination we’re experiencing.” She says it’s “symptomatic of how everybody in a position of power has reacted to our campaign. They react to it as if this was a new problem, which is quite odd because so many people within the industry have been frustrated — women over 45 or people with disabilities or people who have fluid gender identities or have different sexual orientations or people of other races than the white one.”
Sencindiver says she thinks there’s more diversity in other Nordic countries. “Even though Sweden and Denmark are neighbors, they have very different opinions — Denmark likes to look upon itself as like the naughty little brother, while Swedes are known to be very politically correct,” she explains.
“In Denmark, political correctness is considered a boring thing. So you don’t dare to speak out,” says Müller.
Lene Børglum, a leading producer in Denmark whose credits includes Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” and “Copenhagen Cowboy,” said she has had difficulties obtaining financing for projects with diverse cast, mainly due to the fact that “projects are evaluated on the cast, and it is hard to find skilled diverse actors who have previously been in successful films.”
She finally obtained some development support for a new feature film with an African cast (pictured above with the crew) set in Copenhagen. The project will be directed by Danish/ Caribbean filmmaker Mike Spooner. “It tells the experience of African immigrants who come to Copenhagen, and we’ll do it with a very small budget,” says Børglum. She points out one of the reasons behind the structural racism that’s been going on in Denmark is embedded in the way financing is reserved for content with bankable stars and filmmakers attached. The producer says the lack of representation starts out in film and acting schools, leading to a dearth of actors and crew members from different ethnic backgrounds. On her upcoming project, Børglum says she worked with casting director and found non-professional actors.
The producer says she’s seen only one Black director coming out of the Danish film school, Patricia Bbale Bandak who directed Diêm Camille’s show “Bad Bitch”, which marked marked Denmark’s first TV series featuring Black cast. It aired on the Danish broadcaster DR. Børglum is part of the task force launched by the Danish Producer’s Association “to find solutions.”
Next up, A Bigger Picture will be meeting with the Minister of Culture, but some major gatekeepers have yet to join the movement, notably Denmark’s two biggest public broadcasters, DR and TV2.
Since there are no concrete initiatives to achieve a wider representation of minorities in films and TV series in Denmark, A Bigger Picture is now trying to push for policy, targets and data on representation from the Danish Film Board and other tax financed institutions. “How can we point to a structural problem and find solutions if we don’t have any hard data? We’ve got to continually measure how it’s going so we know where the problems are now, and have a vision and target of where we want to be in the future,” Sencindiver says.