What makes a "film pledge" visionary?

22 May 2007
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Unimpeded by Norwegian language, culture, or social conditions, Norway should be capable of creating and expanding a visionary arena for critically independent, international documentary film.

The Ministry of Culture’s Trond Giske launched the so-called “Norwegian Film Pledge”1 this spring with the White Paper on Film. The Government presented proposals to Parliament advocating an increased commitment to Norwegian feature-length films, organizational mergers, and a relocation of the film archive.

But how promising is all this and what does “bolstering” really mean here? Are we to be hoisted up over the shoulders of our big brothers, Denmark and Sweden – internationally famed for the likes of Dreyer, von Trier, and Bergmann? We who are culturally most widely recognized for our expatriate Norwegians like Munch and Ibsen? Or does the Ministry of Culture’s Einarsson Committee believe that this is simply a promise of better things to come, in the sense that promises encourage visions, and goals to strive for? The text of the White Paper on Film states: “The aims of Norwegian film politics should be visionary and forward-looking.”2

And “increased activity leads to increased quality” if we are to believe the quantitatively accurate White Paper.3 But this is a methodical challenge. On average, we are subsidizing each Norwegian feature-length film to the tune of 9 million kroner (EUR 1.1 million)4 – which unfortunately produces a lot of low-budget, naive, and chuckleworthy feature films. The goal is 25 Norwegian films per year.

Another weak point is found in the “Norwegian requirement”. The White Paper’s principles are evident in the text: “Development and preservation of culture and identity presupposes the production of films in the national language.”5 This is of course understandable in the case of the five children’s films being planned, but would it not be true to say that in today’s world, many of us feel just as much European as Norwegian? A “Norwegian” filmmaker’s thought processes and values go well beyond production of a Norwegian film in Norway. Of course, the fact that the goals are to be “visionary” while simultaneously respecting such language limitations makes things rather difficult. “The main aim for the sector is [to provide] a diversity of film and television productions, based on Norwegian language…” and “…recognized for their high quality, artistic daring, and innovation, and that challenge and reach a large audience in Norway and internationally.”6 Naturally, it is doubtful whether one can reach significant international audiences with the kind of pompous nationalism that dictates: “The projects must contribute to the promotion of Norwegian culture, history, and social conditions.”

The Ministry of Culture would rather focus on commercial politics. In point of fact, the Norwegian Film White Paper makes use of the term “film industry”: “The Ministry believes that the film industry has undergone positive development in recent years…There is significant potential for further development, most notably within the spheres of business management and marketing. […] To the greatest extent possible, the goal should be for the production unit to be skilled in all commercial aspects of the work, including marketing and product launching… “7

Now to the White Paper on Film’s international concerns; international film producers with a desire to come to Norway are to receive support. Foreigners are to be lured northwards by financial support to the tune of 15 per cent of filming costs incurred on Norwegian soil – the justification for this being that foreign directors contribute to a “professionalization and internationalization of the film sector”.8 Absolutely! But such commercial politics fixes the emphasis on the financial contribution these “guests” will be able to leave in Norway, which may lead to the “promotion of Norway as a tourist destination”.

And just what is it that is going to contribute to our diversity? Unfortunately a budget earmarked by “incentive schemes” is insufficient for international film producers. In 2004, Iceland, a pioneer in the world of incentives schemes, awarded 170 million kroner (EUR 21 million) in incentives – and recouped 300 million kroner (EUR 37 million) in VAT and tax from productions carried out in Iceland. And what is Norway doing? We are squeezing out 10 million kroner (EUR 1.2 million) a year as part of a cautiously proposed “pilot scheme.” Some will take the plunge, others will not.

On the other hand, it is interesting today to note the dawning of a promising Norwegian network of documentary directors and producers who are striving to achieve something and who take risks to get there. Typically, these are people who have left behind safe jobs in the media; they are documentary filmmakers with an international vision that extends far beyond commercial politics and Norway as a tourist destination. They are people who subscribe to a fundamental, global humanism and have the courage to show opposition to gross injustice.

Beate Arnestad’s film My Daughter the Terrorist (2006) is a “painful” story from Sri Lanka. We follow two young women, Tamil guerrilla fighters. Unable to bear the feelings of powerlessness and humiliation engendered by the pillaging of Sri Lankan government troops, they are ready to die for the cause.9 There is a detailed account of a mother who loses her daughter to the guerrillas and of a young boy who weeps and pleads with his dead father not to leave him. We witness the dead-pan deliberations of female guerrillas as they debate the site of their imminent burials. This is not a sentimental film, rather, a portfolio of human fates filmed in direct cinema – where the observations of individuals highlight societal problems. The director’s voice is absent from the film.

Line Halvorsen, previously profiled in the Norwegian Le Monde diplomatique, has also produced a similar type of documentary. In USA versus Al-Arian, she portrays, through a handful of other voices, the extent to which the US has become an oppressive and farcical society of control.10 Norwegian Halvorsen previously lived on the West Bank, which was also the location for her 2003 film, A Stone’s Throw Away – a social commentary told through the accounts of a group of Palestinian boys. This is most clearly demonstrated during the curfew, when she films the boys’ token protests, demonstrations of their powerlessness – small stones thrown at patrolling Israeli ironclad tanks.

Erling Borgen is also a Norwegian documentary powerhouse. Even if several of his documentaries (A little piece of Norway, The Ambassador), may seem slightly fragmentary, they each have a glowing political core. This is also true of the Norwegian documentary Smaken av hund (2006).

Documentary film reaches out to the emotions. Sometimes the best form of criticism is the documentary film.

To be visionary means to want something, to raise awareness and hopefully influence future events. Allow me to cite two role models from the annals of documentary film.

In the sixties the American filmmaker Emile de Antonio created an evocative montage to illustrate his stand against the role of the US as post-war global police authority and new imperial superpower. He is most well known for In the Year of the Pig (1969) – a crass confrontation with America’s politics in Vietnam. The documentary provided a general historical backdrop at the height of America’s involvement in Vietnam. De Antonio used French and American but also Vietnamese film archives. He was therefore labelled a traitor and the documentary was prevented from being publicly broadcast. It was, however, screened at universities and seen by a wide audience. The film was to become one of the most significant and influential icons of the American anti-war movement. In celebrated American cinema direct tradition, the film renounced commentary. Argumentation was shaped through cutting and editing.

Peter Watkins’ “The War Game” is a kind of television report from the future.

The English director Peter Watkins is another visionary, famous in Norway for creating something we were unable to create: the film Edvard Munch (1973).11 However, somewhat more critico-political is the “documentary” from this former BBC man, The War Game (1965) – a kind of television report from the future. In order to illustrate “what would happen in the aftermath of a catastrophe”, he made a film about a nuclear bomb exploding over a northern English airport. He portrays the society of survivors, the social glue in dissolution – horrible, detailed depictions of the burned, the blinded, the radiation sick. The police execute those who steal food. His use of amateur actors adds to the disturbingly “real-life” feel of just such an eventuality.

The authorities at the time pressured the BBC to such an extent that the film was never shown on television – their justification being that the film would lead to mass hysteria in the population… But cinema showings were allowed and the film became a hit with audiences all over Europe. Watkins received an Oscar for best documentary film and continued to make films about the nuclear threat in many different countries (he also interviewed a number of Norwegian citizens).

Would he have been lured to Norway by Giske’s “incentive percentage”?

Shouldn’t a wealthy country like Norway – ridiculously rich in resources and economically “independent” – be able to intervene critico-politically where it really matters?

The White Paper on film mentions the word “documentary” 91 times and the word “feature film” 71 times; clearly, five documentaries per year are required. At the same time, we are told that “documentary films are not very popular either with cinemas or audiences”.12

However, there is a difference between providing support and making a promise. The promising and the visionary have to deal with this; the majority of Norwegian film cannot centre on dishing up entertainment to our consumerist, market-adapted, silver-spoon generation.

Don’t get me wrong, I think feature films are important, in fact we write a lot on that very theme in Le Monde diplomatique. Of course, some good films will come out of the film grants. The Norwegian film Reprise (2006) by Joachim von Trier is a good example. This is a film which ostensibly deals with the West-side bourgeoisie and the existential despair inherent to youth and “becoming someone” – perhaps culturally typical of the nineties “Morgenbladet generation”.

But if one is to make one’s mark internationally and in a forward-thinking manner, international documentary film created by Norwegians could well be an area of commitment. Indeed, who else would support as important a film as USA versus Al-Arian? The US? At the same time, American intellectuals are making a lot of highly convincing documentaries, for example Paul Thomson’s 9/11 Press for Truth; a critique of the events of 9/11 based on 7000 mass media news reports.13 Just imagine how far such filmmaking could come with Norwegian state funding.

It is interesting to note that Norway actually receives general “support” from the EEA/ESA. They categorize Norwegian films in general as “difficult films”, thus granting exemption from the EU’s principle of free competition. Especially “difficult and low-budget films” can therefore be granted in excess of 50 per cent financial support. Since Giske & co. are now proposing a level of support under this level, does this mean that we should perhaps be less “difficult” and more “business-minded”? In any case, I believe protecting our native language and our sheepish pride in our Norwegian identity is not so important. The “difficult ones” that deserve financial support are first and foremost the critical and non-commercial international film that provide a wide-ranging, humanistic critique.

The documentary is the poor cousin of the feature film. To be visionary is to set your focus beyond the low-budget average. A stronger focus on the documentary may come in this month through the second parliamentary White Paper on general broadcasting or it could be highlighted by Parliament when the “film pledge” is processed in June. If Norway had supported production of 15 solid documentary films a year, we could, just like von Trier’s film circle in Denmark, have made our mark on the international scene. We have enough Norwegian men and women with a track record of humanist engagement. This would have been a visionary and forward-thinking cultural politics.

One can, in fact, produce 10 sturdy international documentaries for the same budget needed to make five feature films, at around 4 million Norwegian kroner (EUR 500 000) each. It is commonplace for the documentary director, producer, and photographer to invest a great deal of idealism and private funds – as in the case of My Daughter the Terrorist – to make an hour-long documentary with a price tag of 2 million kroner (EUR 250 000).

Today it is the private Freedom of Expression Foundation that has to a large extent ensured that many a Norwegian and international documentary saw the light of day. My hope is that the commitment being made by “The New Film Institute” allows sufficient openness to substantial state support and an arena for critical and independent documentary film, and that fewer and fewer skilled Norwegian documentary filmmakers will find themselves constrained to produce commercial films to make a living.

We could, for example, present filmmakers with backgrounds in cinema direct and cinema verité who would, together with film crews, venture boldly into international conflict zones at short notice. Films with a focus on international issues and which reach an international audience – precisely what the White Paper called for.

Here’s an example: imagine a promising Norwegian female director, a cross between Peter Watkins and John Pilger, who travelled to Iran last year to make a “forecast report” on “the result of the American invasion of Iran”. The filming of approaching hangar ships and a 36-hour bombing that sets the country back 15 years (this after the superpowers scoffed at the energy demands of the growing population, rhetorically calling the commitment to nuclear energy “the nuclear bomb”). A 60-minute reflective and emotionally engaged Norwegian “documentary” could globally disseminate the possible consequences in advance: not just close-ups of the corpses of children, headless cadavers, the fatherless and homeless – but a country in the grip of a depression with a generation of decimated families growing up fed on a diet of life-long hatred of the West and replete with the promise of revenge.

  1. See parliamentary White Paper, nr. 22 (2006-2007), The Pathfinder. For the Norwegian Film Pledge. See www.regjeringen.no/nb/dep/kkd/
  2. Ibid, p. 43.
  3. Ibid, p. 8.
  4. In 2005, 15 films received 135.8 million Norwegian kroner (EUR 17 million) in funding.
  5. Parliamentary White Paper, p. 97.
  6. Ibid, p. 43. "Norwegian language" cited 10 times in the White Paper.
  7. Parliamentary White Paper, p. 76.
  8. Ibid, p. 85.
  9. See also article on Sri Lanka in Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo), 4/2007.
  10. See Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo), 2, 3/2007.
  11. See also www.mnsi.net/~pwatkins/munch.htm.
  12. Parliamentary White Paper, p. 22.
  13. See 911pft.com/pft/catalog/9-11-Press-for-Truth-DVD-p-1.html. The film was shown to a packed auditorium at Parkteateret on the occasion of Le Monde diplomatique's 4-year anniversary.

Published 22 May 2007

Original in Norwegian
First published in Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 5/2007 (Norwegian version)

Contributed by Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo)
© Truls Lie/Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) Eurozine

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