Co-Produce with People You Like

BACKGROUND. Danish documentary filmmakers have greatly expanded their networks in recent years. International partners especially appreciate the Danish knack for making audiences think for themselves. Here's an outline of current co-production trends.

Every year, the Danish Film Institute supports four to six international documentaries involving Danish filmmakers, so-called minor co-productions. 

Small film communities have a tendency to say, This is how we do it here. In a creative context it's good to mix things up once in a while Niels Pagh Andersen

But why is this such a great idea? What do international partners look for in the Danish documentary film community? We asked a handful of filmmakers, who have new projects out, along with the Danish Film Institute's key person in documentary co-productions. 

Head of Documentary: Strong Reputation

Overall, the Danish Film Institute supports minor co-productions to strengthen creative and financial partnerships between Danish and international producers, says Ane Mandrup, the DFI's Head of Documentaries. Applications are primarily evaluated based on the artistic quality of the project and, secondly, on its value or potential to the – preferably long-lasting – partnership between the producers. 

"Co-production is pretty demanding. So it's essential to find people you get along with creatively. Danish documentary producers are already very good at that," Mandrup says, adding that the documentary community generally has a strong tradition of international co-production, both major and minor, for instance via financing forums at IDFA and Nordisk Panorama. Perhaps that's because documentarians are used to being out in the world and reporting back home, she reflects.

In recent years, Danish producers have broadened their co-production activities, cultivating relationships with new nations. Co-productions outside Europe are on the rise, in places like China, South Korea and the United States. Meanwhile, Holland and Austria are new European co-production partners. 

"Production companies used to focus much more exclusively on partnerships in the Nordic nations. The picture is much broader now. While Nordic partnerships once made up two thirds of the pie, today they represent just under half of the Danish Film Institute's grants. And the trend is growing," Mandrup says. 

"Danish production companies are attractive as creative sparring partners, thanks in part to the big financing networks they have been building up. Plus, we have creative filmmakers in Denmark – especially DPs, editors, sound people and graders – whose reputations are so strong that they are in international demand. Then co-productions emerge naturally." 

The American Producer: A Sense of Stillness 

One example of a thriving transatlantic collaboration is the partnership between Final Cut of Denmark and Louverture Films of the US, who have produced two Danish minor films together: "Shadow World" by Johan Grimonprez, and now "Strong Island" by Yance Ford. 

For "Strong Island," the American producer Joslyn Barnes sought a partnership with Signe Byrge Sørensen, of Final Cut for Real, and the Danish editor Janus Billeskov Jansen, because she felt the Danish aesthetic and narrative approach would be a good match for the film. 

"I had this strange feeling that 'Strong Island' had a Danish quality to it. Something about how much is communicated in the silences, the emphasis on a formal aesthetic and structure, a dramatic restraint," says Barnes, who sees in Denmark a long history of experience in observational cinema. 

"Yance wanted a film that would unfold and allow enough room for the audience to come to their own conclusions – a film that explored what the right questions were, rather than providing answers or telling audiences what to think. And in a film that deals with deep questions of race, of fear, of loss, Yance recognised the critical importance of ensuring that viewers could feel their own agency," Barnes says. 

One of the things the American producer immediately appreciated about Billeskov Jansen was the deep questioning process he engaged in with Ford before they even decided to work together. "He wasn't interested in generalising or relativising, but in understanding," she says, praising the Danish editor for his ability to communicate the film's important themes in an immensely creative way that "avoids any false note or shred of sentimentality."

The Editor: It Feels Good to Mix It Up 

Niels Pagh Andersen is another Danish editor much in demand. His credits include Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing" and "The Look of Silence", Pirjo Honkasalo's "Concrete Night," Kristina Lindström and Maud Nycander's "Palme" – and now Torstein Grude's "Mogadishu Soldier." 

"Mogadishu Soldier" is a Norwegian-Finnish-Danish co-production composed from footage shot by young soldiers from the African Union fighting under the UN flag in the Somali capital against the radical Islamists of al-Shabaab. 

"The fascinating thing for me was that there was no real filmmaker. That was a challenge, because there was no clear point of view, storyline or geographical handle," Pagh Andersen says. "Since the soldiers shot the footage themselves, it gave a different picture of the war than the one we normally see. The soldiers show the war as an everyday business." 

When Pagh Andersen picks a project, he puts a priority on being into the topic, sharing the director's vision and being challenged. "I have worked on a lot of different films, so I like to get projects where I don't know how to do things," he says, adding: "Working internationally, there are more job offers. I have multiple options and can pick the projects that fit me best." 

It's also a matter of getting new inspiration and a different perspective, Pagh Andersen says. 

"Small film communities have a tendency to say, This is how we do it here. Different countries have different traditions, and in a creative context it's good to mix things up once in a while. Especially, if, like me, you want to communicate to the whole world, conveying universal feelings and themes that everyone can relate to," he says. 

"I definitely think co-productions are rewarding, and in Denmark we have excelled at making them. It's not interesting to me if co-productions are just about moving money back and forth across borders. The important thing is that something happens creatively that wouldn't have happened if you'd stayed in your own backyard." 


The Co-Producer: It's All About Sharing a Vision

According to "Mogadishu Soldier"'s Danish co-producer Peter Engel, who runs Wingman Media, producing an international documentary is impossible without a good network of co-producers, since there is less support funding, percentage-wise, to be had in the Danish system. 

Engel has teamed up several times with the Norwegian production company Piraya Film, his closest partner. As minor co-producer, he expands his network, for instance, by taking part in meetings with potential distributors at IDFA, which can turn into new project pitches. More than anything, it's about creative collaboration and human relationships, he says. 

"Co-productions only make sense to me if you're co-producing with people you like, if you can tell there's a potential for building lasting partnerships. In the film industry, a lot of co-producers have lifelong partnerships. I believe that's what I'm doing with Piraya Film. I prefer to make political films, and so do they. 

"Also, there are Swedish production companies where I know I only have to call once. Where I know we understand each other and have the same sense of humour. It's all about sharing a vision, ideologically as well," Engel says •