A constant factor in Danish cinema over the last 60 years has been films for children and young people. Like all other national film industries, Danish cinema has had its share of glories and crises. However – in terms of volume, quality and audience appreciation – Danish films for children and young people have been remarkably consistent over the years.
There are several reasons for this consistency. One, filmmakers along with the film and broadcasting environments have shown a natural interest in doing stories for kids. Two, financial and production conditions have made it possible to maintain a continual output of films for young audiences. Finally, there is a general acceptance of children and children’s culture in Danish society, which shows through in the films. This includes a perception of childhood as a significant and decisive period in a person's life.
The birth of children's films
The singular Danish tradition of films for children and young people began right after World War II. An early masterpiece was Bjarne Henning-Jensen's "Ditte, Child of Man" (1946). The story of a girl who overcomes so much adversity thanks to the goodness of her heart, "Ditte" is rightfully regarded as a Danish classic. It contains many central features of Danish children's films.
Telling stories about children for children. Taking the lives and feelings of children and teens seriously. Making artistically ambitious films for a youthful audience. For 60 years, these have been hallmarks of Denmark's extensive and internationally recognized output of films for kids. Though much has changed – language, fashion, the tone of discourse, film technique – a straight line still runs from "Ditte, Child of Man" to such recent films as Niels Arden Oplev's autobiographical "We Shall Overcome", the biggest Danish box-office draw in 2006 and an award-winner at the Berlin Film Festival.
Like all good films, "Ditte, Child of Man" and "We Shall Overcome" can be seen with equal enjoyment by children and adults. Both centre on vibrant portrayals of children, representing the life of a child the way it really is.
Children's films — children in films
From the mid-1940s on, children were included in Danish films, not just as supporting characters but as real, leading characters. And not just in children's films, either. The tendency was general.
Danish films in the 1950s and 1960s were mainly in the folk-comedy vein: popular films appealing to the entire family. Their stories of Danish family life featured lots of children. Two popular and durable film series, "Father of Four" and "My Sister's Kids", both centred on kids and both largely played out at child level. The formula is still a winner: remakes of "Father of Four" and "MySister’s Kids" have been among the biggest Danish box-office hits in recent years – among children and adults alike.
In the 1960s, Danish films became more experimental, more artistically playful. This 'modern breakthrough' also spilled over into films for children and young people. The 1970s and 1980s were a regular golden age for Danish children and youth films. Some of the best pictures in the genre were produced in those two decades, as a number of directors consciously and uncompromisingly dedicated themselves to stories about and for children and young people. Highlights include Nils Malmros' "Boys" (1977) and "Tree of Knowledge" (1981), Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's "Rubber Tarzan" (1981), Bille August's "Zappa" (1983) and "Twist and Shout" (1984), Jannik Hastrup's animated "Benny's Bathtub" (1971) and "Samson & Sally" (1984), as well as Morten Arnfred's "Me and Charly" (1978) and "Johnny Larsen" (1979).
This 'golden age' for Danish films for children and young people drew on the artistic seriousness of the 1960s and the cheery everyday adventures of the folk comedies. The films strike a balance between serious, humorous and fantastic – a combination that has become something of a brand for Danish children and youth films. In fact, this blend of realism, fantasy and humour is still widely evident. "We Shall Overcome" has it. "Terkel in Trouble" (2004), the controversial animated comedy that drew crowds and raised eyebrows with its raunchy humour and transgressive themes, has it, too. So does Natasha Arthy's children's musical "Miracle" (2000). And now, Nikolaj Arcel's fantasy film "Island of Lost Souls" (2007) and Ole Bornedal’s sci-fi comedy "The Substitute" (2007) mixes the tradition with modern genre elements.
State subsidies and distribution
The state subsidies for film production administered by the Danish Film Institute (DFI) comprise an important part of the financing for practically all Danish films. The National Film Act and the subsidy rules were overhauled in 1982. New legislation was introduced, stating that at least 25% of state subsidies for film production should be designated to films for children and young people. This unique scheme is still in effect today and can largely be credited with the continued production of (quality) Danish films for children and teens.
Besides feature films, Denmark has a long tradition of shorts and documentaries for children and young people, a tradition reaching as far back as 1932. Like feature films, these are largely produced with state subsidies via the DFI. Moreover, the DFI plays a major role in distributing the films. Shorts and documentaries do not sell a lot of cinema tickets in Denmark; the vast majority of such films get no theatrical distribution at all. Accordingly, the DFI oversees DVD distribution and online streaming of short films to libraries, schools and institutions where the films reach large audiences. At public libraries, short films for children are among the items that are checked out the most, and Danish schools have a longstanding tradition for using films in the classroom.
In addition, broadcasting plays a central role both in the production and the distribution of films for children and young people. The two national broadcasters, DR and TV 2, are frequent coproduction partners, and the films have very wide audiences when shown on national television.
In other words, Danish children and young people have easy and broad access to films that are for and about themselves and in their own language.