The Anguish of Looking Back

Louise Friedberg's debut feature "The Experiment" (working title) shines a light on a dark chapter of Danish history. Denmark, today a small, relatively peaceful country with an international reputation as a climate-friendly nation of bicyclists, until 1953 was a colonial power wielding its might to commit state-sanctioned abuse against Greenlandic children.

the_experiment_1

With the very best intentions, Gert (Ellen Hillingsø), the Danish matron of the children's home in Greenland, keeps a tight grip on one of her children in The Experiment Photo: Christian Geisnæs

In the late 1940s, Greenland was impoverished and ravaged by disease. During World War II, the Allies had exploited Greenland's strategic location in the mid-Atlantic, and now the United States and the UN were pressuring Denmark to whip Greenland into shape and transform it from an under­developed society of hunters and fishers into a functioning welfare state.

"To me, there are clear parallels to how we treat people today who are different. The whole way of thinking the concept of 'stranger' hasn't changed in all those years. We mirror ourselves in 'Others,' and we want them to be like us instead of protecting and preserving the differences that make them what they are." – Louise N. D. Freidberg

One result of this was that Denmark in the early 1950s enrolled 22 Greenlandic children in a pilot project. The children were taken from their homes and shipped to Denmark where they stayed with Danish foster families for a year to be 'Danified,' before they were once again returned to their homeland. The idea was that they would serve as well-educated elite children and role models in the 'new Greenland.' When the children returned home, however, they had lost their language, their culture and their family. The project was a failure and the children were the losers.

It is their story the Danish director Louise Friedberg is telling in her first feature, "The Experiment".

The concept of the stranger hasn't changed

Friedberg graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in 2005 with her graduation film "The Departure", which shortly after won the Nordic Presentation competition. Before film school, Friedberg had worked as a scripter and an assistant director on several film and TV productions, including the Danish Broadcasting Corporation's successful drama series "The Eagle".

Friedberg's first non-student production in her own name was "Blood Sisters" (2006), a short film about two seven-year-old girls in a bloody struggle to save their friendship. "Blood Sisters" was selected for the Berlin Film Festival's Generation section and went on to win awards in Rome, Sydney, Melbourne, Sao Paulo and Odense. Choosing a group of Greenlandic children as the subject of her first feature is no coincidence, as Friedberg sees it, "I've always worked in the subject of children and grownups, both in my graduation film and my short film. In this case, I was floored by the story's inherent abuse," Friedberg says. The story is more than a relic from a distant past, she adds.

"To me, there are clear parallels to how we treat people today who are different. The whole way of thinking the concept of 'stranger' hasn't changed in all those years. We mirror ourselves in 'Others,' and we want them to be like us instead of protecting and preserving the differences that make them what they are," she says.

"Behind the 'great Danification' of the fifties was a belief that it was possible to introduce Danish conditions to a country as fundamentally different from ours as Greenland. It's not hard to draw parallels to the thinking behind the current war in Afghanistan."

Photo fron the film The Experiment
"The Experiment". Photo: Christian Greisnæs

Character-based storytelling

Friedberg had heard about these Greenlandic children over the years, but it wasn't until she read the book I den bedste mening ("The Best Intentions") by Tine Bryld””social welfare worker and radio icon who graced Danish youth for three generations””that the full impact of the story really hit her.

"It's crazy that we know so little about this story in Denmark. We are so quick to pass judgement on other countries for their mistakes and shortcomings, while our own past is really pretty dark, too," the director says. Bryld assisted on the screenplay, which Friedberg wrote with the screenwriter Rikke de Fine Licht. Choosing among the many different stories within the story was a challenge.

"That was actually the hardest thing," Friedberg says. "We did a huge number of rewrites, because our material had so many good stories, big and small. Gradually we got to the point where we realised that we wanted to tell the big story through the little story. That is, stick to a few central characters and focus on life at the children's home round about the time when the children come back to Greenland, when it becomes very clear that they are different because they have they lost their language."

The two writers decided to condense their story around nurse Gert (played by Ellen Hillingsø), the Danish matron of the children's home in Greenland.

"I wanted to tell the story through Danish eyes, because that approach is obviously most available to me. So we made the Danish matron the central character in the film. She is a woman who believes in the experiment and acts with the best of intentions," Friedberg says.

Focusing on the matron, "The Experiment" is a character-driven film that uses its protagonist as a prism to refract the story's development.

"The film is a historical drama based on real-life events, but I treated it like a character-based film, because that's how I work. The film's drama comes out of locating the main character in a greater social context. It's in those situations that people face their greatest challenges," Friedberg says.

Photo from the film The Experiment
"The Experiment". Photo: Christian Greisnæs

The best intentions

The matron truly believes she is improving the lives of the Greenlandic children, but she's carried away by her ambitions, her feelings and, especially, her identification with a small Greenlandic girl, Karen, who hesitantly resumes her relationship with her mother back in Nuuk. Karen becomes the film's collective image of the 22 children who all, in a very fundamental way, are alienated from their parents. "I don't understand what you're saying, mummy," Karen says. Losing their mother tongue was a central problem for the children.

When the project began, the children felt chosen, maybe they even looked forward to getting away from their arduous life, but they returned to Greenland with a huge sense of loss about their families, their language and their identities. In turn, as the children failed to live up to the expectations that had been created for them, all good will surrounding the project evaporated.

The big question posed by the film is whether Denmark was aware of the injustice it was committing and the dramatic effects of 'Danification' on these Greenlandic children. "The title of Tine Bryld's book of interviews is 'The Best Intentions,' and it's a good title because I think it's very true," Friedberg says. "It's my impression that the whole thing happened in an oops sort of way on the part of Denmark. Denmark was forced to shape up under pressure from the UN and the US. Something had to be done, and fast. The experiment was conducted with the best intentions, but it certainly had not been thought through. Plus, the whole thing was conceived in the colonialist mentality of 'They don't know what's best for them.'" Even so, "The Experiment" is not meant to be an indictment.

"In the research phase, I thoroughly acquainted myself with the case, and the more I read, the less black and white it seemed," Friedberg says. "The real crime is that, even today, no one talks about this case or has an opinion on it, even though we now recognise that a mistake was made. As recently as last summer, the Danish government refused to reopen the case, probably out of concern that a possible apology could lead to demands for financial restitution. So, if I am making an accusation, it's that we're afraid to look back and admit that we made a mistake. Why is that so hard to do?

Factbox

Louise N.D. Freidberg

Born 1973, Denmark. Graduated in direction from the National Film School of Denmark, 2005. Has worked as a scripter and assistant director since 1995. "Blood Sisters", Friedberg's debut as a director, was selected for Berlin's Generation programme and went on to win awards at Rome, Sydney, Melbourne, Sao Paulo and Odense festivals. "The Experiment" is Friedberg's feature film debut.

Nimbus Film

Founded 1993 by Birgitte Hald and Bo Ehrhardt. Celebrated for several Dogme films, including Cannes winner "Festen"/"The Celebration" (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998), and "Mifune" (Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, 1999), triple winner at Berlinale. Other films: "Dark Horse" (2005), selected for Cannes' Un Certain regard; "A Soap" (2006), double-winner at Berlin. "Flame & Citron" (2008), greatest Danish boxoffice success in recent years. 2009-2010: "Valhalla Rising" (Nicolas Winding Refn), "Submarino" (Thomas Vinterberg), and the feature film debuts "The Experiment" (Louise N.D. Friedberg), and "Above the Street Below the Water" (Charlotte Sieling). Nimbus have two films competing at Berlinale 2010: "Submarino" by Thomas Vinterberg, selected for the Competition, and "Sun Shine" by Alice de Champfleuy, running in Generation Kplus. More about Nimbus Film at www. nimbusfilm.dk

Contact

DFI-FILM Issue 

Susanna Neimann

Editor
Tel. +45 4119 1540
susannan@dfi.dk

Annemarie Hørsman
Editor
Tel. +45 3374 3474
annemarieh@dfi.dk 

Lars Fiil-Jensen
Editorial team
Tel. +45 2032 8121
larsf@dfi.dk

Anders Budtz-Jørgensen
Editorial team
Tel. +45 3374 3528
andersbj@dfi.dk

Det Danske Filminstitut

Danish Film Institute /
Det Danske Filminstitut

EAN-nr: 5798000794085
CVR-nr: 56858318

Gothersgade 55
1123 København K

Tel. +45 3374 3400
Fax +45 3374 3401
E-mail: dfi@dfi.dk

Tickets
TEL. +45 3374 3412