On April 10th 2014, the Danish Film Institute invited directors, film educators, and international film experts to a discuss the question: Where is the art in Danish art cinema? I showed up as one of twelve members of The Art Delegation, which consists of people from different cultures all living and working in Denmark.
The event started with a screening of the art film Seven Boats produced under New Danish Screen. This film should serve as an example of a successful art contribution to Danish cinema but is actually done by the Icelandic filmmaker, Hlynur Pálmasons. Is Iceland in this case considered to be Danish even though Iceland declared independence from Denmark for 70 years ago? Somehow this rhetoric disturbed me, especially because I’m not sure that we would see the same usage of the word “Danish” in connection to an artist with Middle Eastern, Latin American or African background where a word like immigrant is considered more appropriate?
With this film example it was clear from the beginning of the event that the answer to more art in Danish cinema should somehow be found in the non-Danish artistic contributions. And there we were The Art Delegation, sitting in the front row ready to bring cultural diversity in to discussion.
The international panelists tried to answer the question, about how Danish films are viewed and considered abroad. Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar nominated documentary The Act of Killing was highlighted and used as a good example several times. This was interesting because it made me think about when the Danish society and press starts calling a foreign artist Danish. It is not difficult to see that the brand Danish only gets attached to the foreign artists when they get successful and when their productions like The Act of Killing starts circulating globally on hundreds of festivals; not while they are still looking for the career paths in the homogeneous cultural landscape of the present art scene.
The Art Delegation consisting of culturally very diverse group of foreigners was still sitting as part of the audience discovering that that Danish cinema only wants to be relate to productions of some foreign artists; obviously only the already successful ones or the ones that culturally and geographically are close to Denmark.
In my opinion, not helping to cultivate the more miscegenated cultural landscape is a very strange development, because we know that artists with mixed cultural backgrounds have historically always played a progressive role in art movements. Automatically I thought about the development of art-cinema where one of the important contributors was Salvador Dali. Because of his mixed cultural background, he spoke a bizarre mix of French, Spanish, Catalan and English and was freely incorporating words from all different languages. Luis Buñuel is another Spanish filmmaker who used different languages and who apart from Spain also produced films in Mexico and France. As a result of this vivid cultural exchange he enriched the art cinema by working across establish disciplines, expressing his ideas in nearly every film genre from experimental film, over documentary, satire, to musical, fantasy and western. Man Ray is yet another important figure in the art cinema history with a strong immigrant background. He was a Russian Jewish immigrant who grew up in New York having to change his original name Emmanuel Radnitzky, because of the ethnic discrimination. By moving to Montparnasse, Paris, he continued being the immigrant. His artistic production has without the doubt taken shape from his experiences of being a foreigner in various contexts. Others like René Clair and Marcel Duchamp moved from France to USA. They too lived and produced their art between cultures.
So, if we are looking for art in cinema, it is strange not to look for foreigners. Foreigners have the ability to see things from different cultural perspectives, which is the key to new developments.
I turned my attention back to the panelists and heard them talking about the talent and how to support young experimental filmmakers to be more risk-taking. A couple of panelists said that most of the students at the film schools have the same cultural and social background, but that, even though they recognize this problem, it is difficult to break the homogenous educational structure because there are not so many underground film events and alternative platforms where other kind of talented experimental filmmakers could be found. Even when doing workshops and other outreach events, it is difficult to find new people to join the Danish cinema. I could not agree with this information because I personally know a lot of projects that support an alternative thinking about cinema. Denying the existence of alternative platforms that are already fighting for survival and visibility was very close to arrogance. Even more arrogant was the remark that the Danish cinema should be giving less money to alternative projects in order to cultivate more risk-taking filmmakers. In their opinion cutting the budget should be nourishing for new talents, because if the artists are really good and talented, they should be able to make their films in cheap alternative ways. Romanticizing the picture of artists working only for the love of art and without the need of money is arrogant, especially when drawn by people who all are part of the established cinema scene having steady jobs with secure incomes. I do agree that the artists are good at finding creative and alternative solutions and can manage doing their productions with very little or no financial support, but knowing that there is money in the Danish cinema, it is unacceptable to regard this bohemian idea of artists producing without money, as the optimal working condition. If less project-money from the Danish cinema is used to support the artistic expressions, then more will be used to the commercial ones. It is a question of priority that brings us back to the main question of the debate: Where is the art in Danish art cinema?
So the Danish cinema wants to be more risk-taking, but their prioritizing when it comes to financial support and power structure is not really following the same line of thought. This lack of coherence was bothering me, so I posed a comment questioning if they are honestly willing to see more risk-taking film contributions. If so why don’t they welcome contributions from young artists, cross-disciplinary artists or artists from other cultures. A simple receipt for inclusion could be employing young, experimental and immigrant artists for decision-making positions and include them in the boards deciding the flow of financial support and artistic development in the cinema. If we all know what should be done to shake the Danish cinema of today, why is nothing being done? Why are the institutions and people working for Danish cinema only talking about risk-taking without really taking the risk?
My question to the panelists was not answered. They simply asked someone from the audience to respond to me. I found it not only rude but I also could not help wondering if the debates, being organized in the name of risk-taking, are showing the sincere worries of the people in Danish cinema at all…or are the people debating at these events only performing in order to make the Danish cinema look critical and seem interested in change, when in reality non of the member of the cinema community of today really want to change anything because they prefer the comfort of already being members of the club?
When the event finished and the lights were turned on I looked around and realized that the members of The Art Delegation sitting next to me in the front row, all had a very depressed expression on their faces combined with defeatism in their looks. I made a strange connection between the atmosphere among The Art Delegation members in the end of the debate and in the film we saw in the begging, showing a man quietly but desperately swimming in the cold see between seven boats all with their own “stories” and non of them willing to give him a helpful hand to save him by taking him “on board”. All boats seem to be occupied in the film and all doors seem to be closed in the real film world. This is how I think The Art Delegation members felt. Like me, they too probably thought that we were invited to a real debate where change could happen, but it seemed like the debate was just a theater play led by the cinema industry to fulfill their own needs and criteria of being critical in order to please the political decisions. Taking active part in the debate only supports the play. Ones questions or comments to the panelists only reinforce the illusion of a critical environment. Any critical engagement from the audience gets observed and neutralized in this setting. So I think the members of The Art Delegation felt closer to paralyzed than depressed, because it became clear that there is no possibility for a real critic, thus no real exchange of ideas or development taking place.