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New Voices Shake Up Scandinavian Cinema

While Sweden’s Ruben Östlund grabbed some Oscar nominations and took home Cannes’ Palmed’Or last year, two other Scandinavian filmmakers basked in the international spotlight following their Cannes competition premieres: Ali Abbasi with “Holy Spider” and Tarik Saleh with “Cairo Conspiracy” (previously titled “Boy From Heaven”).

Abbasi, an Iranian-born Danish helmer, and Saleh, a Swedish director whose father is Egyptian, are part of an exciting new generation of Nordic helmers who are shaking up traditional Scandinavian cinema.

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These filmmakers are delivering singular and timely movies shot abroad or in different languages, weaving together genres and political elements.

“Holy Spider” was based on the true story of a family man who became a serial killer and murdered sex workers in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, while “Cairo Conspiracy” is set against the backdrop of a ruthless struggle between Egypt’s religious and political elite.

Breaking away from the longentrenched trend of so-called Nordic Noir, literary adaptations and historical movies, these films are not easily financed and sometimes have limited  commercial  potential at home. But they’re often being rewarded by top critics, festival laurels and international sales —“Holy Spider” and “Cairo Conspiracy” were shortlisted at this year’s Oscars as the Danish and Swedish official entries, respectively, even if they’re set in Iran and Egypt.

At the Berlin Film Festival, Scandinavian cinema will have its largest presence ever, driven by these diverse Nordic voices. The Panorama section, for instance, includes “The Quiet Migration,” an adoption-themed drama by Korean-born Danish helmer Malene Choi, and “Opponent,” by Swedish-Iranian filmmaker Milad Alami. “Opponent,” which shot in Farsi and English, follows a man and his family who have been forced to flee Iran in the aftermath of a devastating rumor. Hoping to get a visa, he joins the local wrestling club. “Opponent” producer Annika Rogell at Swedish banner Tangy says she was able to raise financing for the movie within the Nordics on a modest budget, after having found it particularly difficult to persuade French financiers to back the project.

Rogell, who started her career producing the Sundance documentary “The Black Power Mixtape,” says local financing in Scandinavia is opening up to movies that tell “different kinds of stories,” including “Opponent.” But getting the full financial support from local funds is increasingly competitive and “you need very unique point of view, and a different visual language.”

“‘Opponent’ is about Sweden as well but mostly about Iran,” says Rogell, who adds that she has “always aspired to give a voice to people who are generally not being heard, and tell stories about contemporary society and problems we are facing today.” Indeed, she notes the movie resonates with the current turmoil in Iran.

The producer also says “Holy Spider” helmer Abbasi and Alami, who both studied at the National Film School of Denmark, often give each other feedback, which also was the case during the development of “Opponent.” This type of collaboration between filmmakers is far from unusual in the Nordics.

“It’s an interesting time. We have these talented filmmakers who have foreign backgrounds and are now in a position to explore their roots and tell stories that they’ve had in themselves for a long time, with a different perspective,” says “Holy Spider” producer Jacob Jarek at Profile Pictures.

He said the Nordics, like the French, have been somewhat “skeptical” about making movies in non-local languages because of their respective cultural policies, but in the past few year “everything is changing.”

That said, even if local funds are more open to non-local stories than they used to be, Jarek argues it’s still tough to finance movies such as “Holy Spider” with only Nordic partners when they’re above a certain budget level. He says it’s also true for a filmmaker such as Abbasi, whose previous movie “Border” won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard prize.

Holy Spider
Holy Spider

“Ali developed ‘Holy Spider’ for seven years, and started writing it before ‘Border’ and ‘Shelley,’” says Jacob Jarek, who produced the film at Copenhagen-based Profile Pictures.

“Because ‘Holy Spider’ was taking place in Iran and had no Danish stars, we knew we couldn’t get the full support from the Danish Institute and we just got some production support,” he says. “They mainly grant Danish movies and their funding for English or foreign language films are usually reserved for the biggest talents.”

Once the script for “Holy Spider” was penned, Profile Pictures got strong French and Germany partners on board, Why Not Prods. (“A Prophet”), One Two Films (“Yesterday”) and Wild Bunch Intl. (“Titane”).

“When you have someone very talented like Ali Abbasi, it shouldn’t matter whether he wants to do something in Persian, Danish or English,” Jared continues. What matters the most, says the producer, is to give these talents the resources to keep working with local producers instead of going elsewhere.

“I feel that [local sources of financing should keep up with the times and think outside of the box.”

While they thrive at major festivals and win awards (“Holy Spider” won the actress trophy for Zar Amir Ebrahimi, and “Cairo Conspiracy” took the screenplay trophy at Cannes), these films seldom achieve commercial success in Scandinavia.

“The paradoxical thing with a film like ‘Holy Spider’ is that it’s way more attractive internationally than locally, so you get judged by the local industry a bit, like you’re not making a big movie, but internationally you’re doing something much more valuable,” says Jarek.

Those types of projects have often been picked up by French sales agents, but Nordic sales companies are now also increasingly on the lookout for them. TrustNordisk, which is behind some of Scandinavia’s best-known helmers, from Lars van Trier to Thomas Vinterberg and Susanne Bier, is at the Berlinale with “The Quiet Migration,” which marks the fiction feature debut of Danish Korean Malene Choi.

Produced by Manna Film, “The Quiet Migration” revolves around a young man living a peaceful life in the Danish countryside with his adoptive parents who starts longing for his native homeland, South Korea. Susan Wendt, TrustNordisk managing director, says the movie was inspired by Choi’s own experience of feeling torn between Denmark and South Korea.

“There’s definitely a trend there, where directors who are either adopted or immigrants to the Nordic countries want to tell personal stories and it’s part of the new and younger generation of filmmakers coming out,” says Wendt.

TrustNordisk is currently in talks to acquire more projects about stories set elsewhere, including in the Middle East. She says these movies can sell well as long as they’re telling “intense stories” and have a festival selection. Rikke Ennis, whose banner REinvent Intl. Sales is negotiating to acquire Julie Budtz Sørensen’s Danish series “Family Stories: A Boy Disappears” at the Berlinale Series Market, says, “Filmmakers are tired of telling the boring local stories that you’ve seen for so many years.

“They want to tell things that are close to their heart,” says Ennis. “A Boy Disappears” is about “a Tunisian man living in Denmark who is being looked upon in an awkward way by the Danish society.” “When you are from two cultures, you can bring up themes that are super relevant, especially in the society we live in today because it’s something everyone can relate to,” says Ennis. “We have so many cultures mixed all together in the Nordics, but it’s the same in Southern Europe and even in the U.S.”

She predicts there will be “more diverse, universal content that have a deeper meaning to human society” in the future.

“The audience demands it. They’re being flooded with an ocean of content, and are getting more and more critical!”

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