While the world-at-large has a certain view of Denmark, homegrown filmmakers show another.
Other than the inevitable rite of passage of having your bike stolen, you’re unlikely to become a victim of crime in Copenhagen. Muggings are rare and murder almost non-existent. It’s a city of law abiders, where pedestrians wait at red lights even at the dead of night. It’s the capital of a country that sets international standards on public transportation, cuisine, design and welfare – a country that is aspired to.
But the country’s filmmakers have another view. Crime, drug abuse and social exclusion all feature heavily in cinema despite their apparent omission from daily life. The clearest example is the ‘Pusher’ trilogy, Nicolas Winding Refn’s tribute to the Copenhagen underworld.
Unglamorous, badly lit and filmed with handheld cameras, the films portray a world of botched drug dealings, human trafficking, betrayal and murder. The shaky cameras and wide angles produced stark and gruesome films that make you feel as though you were actually in the room – vivid renditions of events that might easily have taken place.
The films do a good job. Instead of being fanciful imaginings of a world unlikely to truly exist, it lifts the lid on the illusion that Copenhagen is as ordered as it appears. It owes this in large part to the cinematography techniques it employs, a nod to the Dogme 95 movement that set out to strip films of special effects and technology in order to heighten their realism.
The ‘Pusher’ style has recently been employed to uncover another world hidden from the eyes of Danish society. Scooping both the Robert and Bodil awards for best film this year – Denmark’s top two cinematic accolades – was Tobias Lindholm and Michael Noer’s prison drama ‘R’. Shot on location at Horsens Prison, the film follows the incarceration of Rune and his attempt to navigate the complex criminal hierarchies in jail. Exposing the daily bullying, humiliation and violence faced by inmates, the film offers a grim insight into the lives of Danish prisoners.
“It’s something that not many people know about. Nobody’s talking about what the sentences mean to these people, and what longer sentences are likely to mean,” Noer told The Copenhagen Post.
The film features a cast of both professional actors and criminals – the lead villain, the Mason, is played by former prisoner Rolland Møller, who also served as a consultant on the script.
“I wanted to use the film as a mirror on society and we saw the opportunity to use these amateur actors to add to the realism.”
The effect of the documentary filming style, combined with the use of real criminals as actors, meant the film could act as a commentary on real life. Whereas in a typical Hollywood prison drama the setting and characters are used as a vehicle to tell a moralistic tale, ‘R’ hopes to expose the conflicts and choices that inmates have to make when placed in a real prison environment.
“I believe in the strength of realism and the strength of documentary,” Noer said. “In this case we took a fictional story and put documentary into it.”
“I think that besides being dramatic or entertaining, it’s important for film to give a face to the world of the unknown. Film can make the audience meet people they normally would not relate to, and by using a story and a realistic style it can make the audience relate to others.”
Making a point about the prison environment was at the core of producing this film. But it’s not the only issue Michael believes is facing the country.
“Denmark has an identity problem,” he insisted. “In the last ten years Denmark is slowly becoming aware that the world is closing in. We are a small nation that is known for our interest in the world around us, but we are losing this awareness and image.”
Despite this, he believes there is cause for some hope.
“When I was a teenager nobody wanted to talk about politics, but in high schools I visit now, kids are talking much more about these things.”
The truth is that Denmark is not solely inhabited by the beautiful, well off and design-savvy. Following its massive regeneration, Vesterbro has become the centre of Copenhagen’s nightlife scene, with hipster bars and cafés springing up on a weekly basis. But it still remains the centre of the city’s prostitution and drug industries – an unaddressed world of shady characters and murky deals that intermingles on busy weekend nights with Copenhagen’s middle class who turn a collective blind eye.
The ultra-realistic documentary film genre, as characterised by ‘R’ and the ‘Pusher’ trilogy, offers a means for people to craft stories that present the truth in a fictional yet realistic way. But whether it will provide enough encouragement to address real social issues is anyone’s guess.
Written for the Copenhagen Post.