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Inclusion in New Danish Cinema: Sexuality and Transnational Belonging

Inclusion in New Danish Cinema: Sexuality and Transnational Belonging

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Inclusion in New Danish Cinema: Sexuality and Transnational Belonging

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May 1, 2015


Often recognized as one of the happiest countries in the world, Denmark, like its Scandinavian neighbours, is known for its progressive culture, which is also reflected in its national cinema. It is not surprising, then, that Danish film boasts as many successful women film directors as men, uses scripts that are often co-written by both the director and the screenwriter, and produces among the highest numbers of queer films directed by and starring women. Despite all this, Danish film is not widely written about, especially in English. Inclusion in New Danish Cinema brings this vibrant culture to English-language audiences. Meryl Shriver-Rice argues that Denmark has demonstrated that film can reinforce cultural ethics and political values while also navigating the ongoing and mounting forces of digital communication and globalization.

May 1, 2015

Informazioni sull'autore

Meryl Shriver-Rice is the director of environmental media at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science & Policy at the University of Miami where she developed and teaches for the Master’s programme in environment, culture and media. Her current media studies research focuses on short form digital video and the role of social media in shaping societal values and perceptions of the environment; and augmented reality, interactive media and site-specific animated projection in climate change activism in south Florida and archaeological heritage sites in central Italy.

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Inclusion in New Danish Cinema - Meryl Shriver-Rice



If you have a good script and you are a sufficiently interesting human being, you will be allowed to direct your own film.z That’s the way it is in Denmark.

Paprika Steen (Hjort, Jørholt and Novrup Redvall 2010: 266)

Picture candlelight, a warm glowing fireplace on a cold evening. The candlelight gently plays off the faces of friends holding drinks around a table laden with delectable food in a room filled with the sounds of a carefully curated music selection. People come and go for hours while drinks are poured, toasts are made and animated discussions go on into the night as two young athletic skinheads catch one another’s glance in the narrow hallway that leads to the bathroom. The camera moves into a close-up that captures the ripple of sexual tension that briefly crosses one of the men’s faces. This scene begins to describe the all-important concept of the experience of hygge in Danish culture and the ways in which it has been employed in Danish cinema to introduce audiences to themes and relationships that challenge Danish social conventions. Hygge is poorly translated to ‘cozy’ in English, but this sacred social institution is more complex than the simple word cozy allows. Hygge is a central social norm in Danish culture that is all about crafting an experience that allows for and invites intimacy and camaraderie. This obsession with creating social spaces of ease, safety and comfort is not surprising given that the Danes are known to inhabit the ‘happiest nation’ in the world. Is hygge their secret? It cannot hurt that their socialized government also makes certain every citizen is housed, educated and provided with health benefits. A talent for crafting the normative social tranquility of hygge is certainly part of the reason that Danish films are effectively taking on transgressive and highly contentious subject matter within sexually and ethically ripe storylines. This traditional Danish sense of social comfort provides an apt and contrastive backdrop for interrogating social norms and introducing unsettling alternative social realities.

In this book I investigate this special talent for crafting strange and uncommon cinematic moments of relief and empathetic understanding within extremely charged and intimate psychologically challenging narratives that are far removed from ordinary lived experience. By ‘psychologically challenging’ I am referring to storylines that actively challenge the spectator’s settled patterns of seeing, caring and responding to the world. These storylines include male neo-Nazis falling in love, female bodyguards for illegal sex workers, transgendered sexuality and identity, women soldiers on home soil with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, lesbian coming-of-age stories, a husband violently abused by his wife, arranged marriages and forced co-habitation for the purposes of citizenship, and same-sex marriage and alternative family structures.

How are these films seducing, confronting and comforting audiences? The answer is only partially explained by the candlelight and soft lighting (although admittedly these elements are found in many scenes). In addition, Danish cinema relies on the fact that you, the spectator, are likely (like everybody else you know) immersed in social media, YouTube and reality TV. Recent Danish films are employing a digital aesthetic that mimics current Internet and reality TV culture via a roaming voyeuristic camera presence that knows few boundaries. This participatory voyeuristic feel has an amazing capacity to instil empathy in the spectator when intertwined with the ethical and moral world of New Danish Cinema. Dark realistic narratives propel the spectator into scenes full of anguish and emotional turmoil; yet manage to relieve this tension through meaningful human interaction (within a hygge-like comforting social space) that dispels earlier anxiety.

The curious juxtaposition of challenging social themes and Danish cultural norms shot through the voyeuristic lens that mimics existing ever-present digital media culture has helped to thrust New Danish Cinema into the limelight at high-profile film festivals in recent years. From the success of The Hunt at the European Film Awards (Thomas Vinterberg, 2013) to the Academy Award winning In A Better World (Susanne Bier, 2010), New Danish Cinema has arrived. From a nation with a population of just 5.5 million that usually produces only twenty films a year, has come an unprecedented number of award-winning films. Like most Americans, I was unaware of this success when I first encountered New Danish Cinema through a random DVD purchase of A Soap (Pernille Fischer Christensen, 2006) at a local Blockbuster (a DVD rental store which has all but disappeared from the consumer landscape due to competition from digital media providers like Netflix and iTunes). The viewing experience was dark and powerful, heart wrenching and yet palpably hopeful. I felt like a voyeur, like I had been allowed to view a highly private experience that positioned me to respond to the screen in a way I had not experienced in which the provocative was made familiar.

The experience sent me on a mission to scour Netflix, Amazon and all other film sources to discover if this film stood alone or if it was part of a larger Danish film culture. It quickly became evident that there was something very timely and provocative occurring in the films coming out of Denmark. These films are articulating selfhood through a relational digital aesthetic reminiscent of habitual social media use in the form of Facebook, Instagram, or FaceTime videos. This cinematic space is capable of confronting contemporary ethical issues head on by positioning the spectator to relate to the ethical demands of the film with appropriate passion and self-reflection. With the ever-heightening forces of digital culture, globalization and sexual equality, these films speak to an impatient screen-oriented culture that is becoming increasingly difficult to engage.

Like many European nations, Danish society continues to deal with the incorporation of groups who are constructed as the ‘Other’ (or embody radical difference) in to a mainstream culture that often tests the limits of tolerance. Cinematic fiction has become a site of contestation where diverse identities within Danish citizenship are explored. Because widespread homogeneity and social equality is valued at the expense of individual expression in traditional Danish society, it is bold for Danish films to continuously depict forceful nonconforming individuals. New Danish Cinema addresses this tension by transforming threatening groups and themes into non-threatening elements of the Danish social fabric through incorporation of hygge-like spaces of intimate comfort that encourages spectator empathy. In contrast to the predominance of solitary escape for characters facing challenges in other Nordic cinema, Danish narratives confront conflict through and within comfortable social relationships (see Nestingen 2008 for an examination of Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish fiction).

In addition to addressing the presence of ethnic Others, sexuality and desire are at the forefront of the films in this book. Unlike the major studios in Hollywood, Danish film culture is often reaching beyond the concept of same-sex sexuality, to include sexuality that is not gender specific, and hence not wholly heterosexual or gay. In lieu of the term ‘bisexual’ I use the term ‘queer’ to denote all sexuality outside of the spectrum of strict heterosexuality. An attempt to locate this fluidity of sexuality in American popular fiction, which in Europe as a whole often dominates available entertainment at 70–80% of the supply, brings in low numbers (which is surprising given an American cultural emphasis on individuality) with the only substantial examples to be found within shows that have freedom from big studio control via Netflix’s new production house, such as Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, both 2013 (Højbjerb and Søndergaard 2006: 8).

At the moment, Denmark is a film-making powerhouse. It also boasts the highest number of women directors of any national cinema. While risking a crude, American-centric evaluation of a film’s worth, an unprecedented total of four Danish films have been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in the last seven years, with one winner in 2010. These include After the Wedding (Susanne Bier, 2006), In a Better World (Susanne Bier, winner, 2010), A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel, 2012) and The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, 2013). Furthermore New Danish films have been sweeping award ceremonies at Cannes, the European Film Awards and the Berlin International Film Festival. During this same time period, a Danish director went on to be nominated for the 2009 Academy Award for Best Picture for the British production An Education (Lone Scherfig). Worthy of note is the fact that women directed three of the five films just listed, including the Academy Award winner In A Better World. With more than one film up for an Academy Award every other year and massive international film festival buzz, it is safe to say New Danish Cinema is receiving unprecedented recognition within both international awards ceremonies and critics’ circles.

While women directed a good majority of the films of this book, my research is not an attempt at drawing out feminist understandings of a specifically female aesthetic, perspective, or experience of cinema. In fact, what is innovative and unique about Danish women directors is their ability to attend to gender in ways that are not obsessed with defining human beings by traditional notions of gender. As a result, characters are more strongly defined by their human personalities, actions and ethical choices than by their gender. Director Annette K. Olesen explains:

I’ve often felt that cinematic narratives tend to show us men, not only as gendered beings, but also as non-gendered beings and thus as representative of a kind of universal humanity. Cinematic representations of women have always been strongly gendered. Women’s screen presence has been defined by gender, with women for the most part representing femininity, sexuality, motherhood and so on. I’m a film-maker and a woman, and I like to think seriously about things. So it’s hard not to notice the extent to which women have been excluded from the non-gendered modes of representation that are used to evoke aspects of humanity as such. I’m interested in representing women in the more gender-neutral way that is usually reserved for male characters. But there’s no systematic reflection on this in my films.

(Hjort, Jørholt and Novrup Redvall 2010: 197)

Given the extraordinary and innovative film coming out of Denmark, the aim of this book is twofold: to contribute a critical film analysis of New Danish Films to the growing scholarly literature on New Danish Cinema and Nordic films more generally, and to add to the visibility of New Danish Cinema in the general movie-going public. In short, this book is meant to further introduce New Danish Cinema to the English-speaking spectator by providing a detailed analysis of the recurrent themes addressed in these films. New Danish Cinema offers the film industry and the general public an opportunity to glimpse the power of digital film-making as a vehicle for self-reflexive emotional release and a locus for the negotiation of contemporary social, political and aesthetic issues. In a period of transnational, post-closeted (see Vitto Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, 1985), post-feminist and multicultural transition, Danish fiction films are showcasing the contestations of a society undergoing the impacts of globalization and shifting cultural norms. If this book does nothing more than inspire the reader to explore the rich film culture in contemporary Denmark by adding a few films to a Netflix queue, then it will have been a success.

In current film studies scholarship, there is a noted lack of available literature on narrative, aesthetic, or scene analyses of New Danish Cinema for English-speaking scholars and audiences. I hope to tackle a few of the noted absences in existing literature that have been highlighted by various authors – at the core of these is an urgent call to examine the content of fiction films. From a methodological standpoint, I am aware that I can only analyze Danish films from the perspective of a non-Danish outsider. I approach these films from the viewpoint of an international spectator, and I inevitably miss nuances when characters speak in regional accents and more or less formal versions of Danish. As with any academic spectator, I will remain objective when possible, believing, as do Mette Hjort and Jack Stevenson, that my status as a non-Danish spectator allows for an experience unencumbered by what might be read in the films as ‘ordinary’ or ‘typical’ of the Danish experience (Hjort 2005: 238; Stevenson 2003: 229–230). Furthermore, I realize that my experience of Danish films is somewhat less complicated than that of a Danish spectator, but then this aligns me with the vast majority of viewers around the globe who also do not speak Danish, which at 5.6 million speakers has one of the smallest language populations in the world.

Throughout, I address published remarks that stand in opposition with my findings. One such instance is a comment that Jack Stevenson has made in his evaluation of the films by some of the first women Dogme directors Susanne Bier and Lone Scherfig. Stevenson has asserted that the Danish Dogme films directed by women were successful because they were ‘women’s pictures’ (Stevenson 2003: 122). Stevenson does not present a thorough argument for why and if this is true, and what this really means if it is true. Is a ‘women’s picture’ less valid as a form of cinematic art? I intend to address the possibility that the ‘Danish sense of coziness’ that he mentions is not as gender specific as he would like to maintain (Stevenson 2003: 121). In fact, this sense of ‘coziness,’ a word bandied about by English-speaking film scholars to denote the Danish concept of hygge, is in fact a critical element of the unique character of recent Danish films. As I will explore further in later chapters, the feeling of hygge in New Danish Cinema is carefully crafted within relationships through an intimate digital aesthetic, and has little to do with tying a pretty bow on a happy ending.

It is impossible to write about New Danish Cinema without mentioning and situating my work in relation to the formidable scholarship of Mette Hjort: the sole author who has offered any concentrated observations on the content (of films other than Lars von Trier’s, which have acquired a concentrated following) of New Danish films (in English). Her 2005 text titled Small Nation, Global Cinema: The New Danish Cinema is the lone book in English on New Danish Cinema. Most of her work concerns production strategies, however she does briefly discuss film content in relation to the patterns with which narratives deal with the subject of Danish citizenship (Hjort 2005: 244–258). She asserts a need for further commentary on the manner in which the discourse of Danish citizenship is embedded in the individual films of contemporary Danish cinema which she describes as a ‘public sphere in which identity-based claims oriented toward recognition, participation, and belonging are articulated’ (Hjort 2005: 253).

Beyond Hjort’s work, there are three main texts on contemporary Nordic cinema. These texts pointedly note the lack of academic literature in English on contemporary Nordic cinema. In the introduction to Nordic National Cinemas, Tytti Soila, Astrid Soderbergh Widding and Gunnar Iversen (1998) contrast the literature on cinema studies in Sweden versus Denmark and state that ‘there is a thorough and detailed mapping of the history of film production for Denmark,’ but unlike Sweden Denmark has ‘virtually no aesthetic film history’. They note that in both countries, the academic literature has been ‘tied to certain historical periods and certain great auteurs’. Soila, Widding and Iversen also note that the majority of literature on Nordic cinema in general has been ‘exclusively the study of specific aesthetical masterpieces’ (Soila et al. 1998: 5–6). This is certainly true of contemporary Danish cinema with Lars von Trier standing out as the obvious auteur example. While interesting from an art cinema perspective (as a great international innovator), von Trier has demonstrably detached himself from the Danish (film-making) tradition (Schepelern 2006: 249). Due to the massive amount of attention both in media and film criticism paid to von Trier (and often without mention of any other Danish films), his work is not a focus of this book. Specifically, they point out a need for scholarship on the types of popular films that (Danish) people have actually seen. I kept this statement in mind while selecting films for my study, and was careful to include only movies that garnered relatively high box office results in Denmark.

The more recent (2005 and 2008) volumes titled Transnational Cinema in a Global North: Nordic Cinema in Transition (edited by Andrew Nestingen and Trevor Elkington) and Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film, and Social Change (Nestingen) emphasize the need to view Nordic film texts as more than merely a ‘national text’. Instead, they assert that Nordic films need to be considered as cinematic texts that will be viewed and internalized internationally, and as a product of international influences. This standpoint is in harmony with the methodological approach of this book: viewing each text as both a product of globalized Danish culture, and a text that has the potential for influencing film aesthetics and sociocultural perspectives outside of Denmark.

Nestingen and Elkington call for what they label a ‘cultural studies’ approach to Nordic cinema that will ‘prize visual culture from the national rubric’ to show the way articulations of difference are expressed (Nestingen and Elkington 2005: 13). Specifically, they point out a need for research on gender, sexuality and transnationalism to demonstrate how New European cinemas unmask, denaturalize and challenge cultural norms that they argue have been the foundation of prior national cinemas (Nestingen and Elkington 2005: 13). In their thoughts on current scholarship on Nordic cinema, Nestingen and Elkington assert that ‘representations of alterity and marginality, particularly in terms of diasporic and queer cinemas, require discussion’ (Nestingen and Elkington 2005: 22).

Gender, sexuality, queer subjectivity and transnational belonging are all major components of a large portion of recent Danish films, particularly in work directed by women. While I cannot possibly cover each of these topics in their entirety in a single book (in particular the films of new Danes like Omar Shargawi still require attention), it is my hope that each chapter in this book can function as a springboard for other non-Danish-speaking film students and scholars to discuss the unique and compelling content of New Danish Cinema. It is a travesty that so little attention, both in scholarship and within film school classrooms, has been paid to these timely films. Keeping this in mind, my first chapter provides an overview of the Dogme beginnings and unique production strategies of New Danish Cinema. A further review of the few texts written in English on New Danish Cinema is also included both to situate my own work and as reference for further research. Furthermore, the first chapter elaborates upon my methodology and interest in the unique digital aesthetic of Danish cinema that is so (historically/technologically) timely given the recent rapid global rise of digital (social) media and digital screen culture.

In Chapter 2, I provide a historical summary of the groundbreaking Dogme 95 movement. A chapter on Dogme films is critical as a foundation for this book, as much of the innovation and creativity (aesthetic expression/narrative subject matter) of New Danish Cinema is in large part a result of the Dogme 95 movement. This chapter examines the style and aesthetic of Dogme films and goes on to scratch the surface of a few of the ethical and philosophical trends that can be seen in three popular Dogme films. This includes the first Dogme film The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998), Susanne Bier’s Open Hearts (2002) and Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners (2000). Chapter 3 takes a look at the unique production situation in Denmark where there are as many successful women directors as men – a fact that no other country in the world can boast. This chapter takes a look at how and why women have been successful as directors and explores whether this is due to preferential treatment or a more egalitarian industry.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on sexual and romantic desire as a site at which egalitarian politics play out. Chapter 4 describes and explores three repetitive themes in heterosexual relationships by examining films that particularly emphasize each theme. The texts I consider use sexuality and desire to engage with debates over the complexities of gender, family structure, ethnicity, race and transnational relations. These include: triangular desire and dialectical identity formation (Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, 2002; Brothers, 2004; and Between Us, 2003); family and transnational belonging (Chinaman, 2005 and After the Wedding, 2006); and gender and agency (Okay, 2002 and With Your Permission, 2007).

In Chapter 5, I examine how sexuality outside of the heteronormative is employed in queer Danish cinema to challenge socially controversial subject matter. This chapter is organized to explore different narrative themes in which gender and heteronormativity are deconstructed for the purposes of vilifying prejudice and exclusion. While much of popular (and marketable) queer cinema tends to be internationally dominated by masculine sexual experience and male direction, women Danish directors have been at the forefront of producing the majority of innovative queer cinema. This chapter is divided into the performance of masculinity and femininity (Brotherhood, 2009 and A Soap, 2006), queer stereotypes and alternative family structures (Okay, 2002; Shake it All About, 2001; and Triple Dare, 2006) and individualized desire (Little Soldier, 2008 and Hush Little Baby,

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