Controversial Love

After his international hit "We Shall Overcome", director Niels Arden Oplev is back with a new drama about youthful rebellion against oppressive mores. Based on a true story, "Worlds Apart" takes an unblinking look at a teenage girl’s struggles, when falling in love makes her challenge the rigid principles governing the lives of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

"Do you love God more than you love me?" 17-yearold Sara asks her father, sharply phrasing the central drama in Niels Arden Oplev’s "Worlds Apart": a teenage girl ostracised by her family and friends because she gets a boyfriend. Her father declares that he can't see her anymore if she chooses to be with her boyfriend, Teis. Sara presses him for an answer: Why does it have to be that way, she wants to know. Does he really love God more than he loves her?

"The law says parents can't hit their children or sexually abuse them. You can't mistreat them, but you are allowed to brainwash them all you want, whether in the name of communism, racism or any other fundamentalist thinking." Niels Arden Oplev

"The law says parents can't hit their children or sexually abuse them. You can't mistreat them, but you are allowed to brainwash them all you want, whether in the name of communism, racism or any other fundamentalist thinking." Niels Arden Oplev


Religion separates father and daughter. As Jehovah's Witnesses, Sara's family lives under strict rules, dictating what they can and cannot do.



Born1961. Graduated in direction from the National Film School of Denmark, 1989. His graduation film, "Winter's End" (1989), was honoured at the Student Film Festival in Montreal, chosen as Best Fiction in Mexico City and nominated for an Academy Award in 1991. Arden Oplev is the concept director for two popular Danish TV series, "Unit 1" and "The Eagle". His first feature, "Portland" (1996), was an Official Selection in Berlin. More recently, "We Shall Overcome" (2006) was a hit at several top festivals, also winning the Berlin Crystal Bear.


Founded 1906, making it one of the world's oldest production companies. Nordisk Film has produced high-quality films for a worldwide market during the silent era. Today the ompany is part of the Egmont media group and a market leader within the development, production, post production and distribution of electronic media in the Nordic region. Activities comprise film, animation, commercials, music videos, DVD and electronic games. Owns cinemas in Denmark and Norway as well as production facilities throughout Scandinavia. Produces animation through its subsidiary A. Film. Legendary films include Carl Th. Dreyer's first silent features, the popular "Olsen Gang" series (Erik Balling, 1960s/70s) and Oscar winner "Babette's Feast" (Gabriel Axel, 1987). Among notable titles today are "Facing the Truth" (2002) by auteur Nils Malmros, "Aftermath" (2004) by debuting Paprika Steen, and the epic Tour de France documentary Overcoming (2005) by Tómas Gislason. Within the low-budget concept Director's Cut, the company has produced a series of features, among these "Reconstruction" (Christoffer Boe, 2003), recipient of Camera d'Or, and "Accused" (Jacob Thuesen, 2005), selected for Berlin.

Arden Oplev's new feature, based on the real-life events of a young Danish woman, takes up big issues of what it means to grow up in a context that tolerates no dissent from the reigning dogmas. Arden Oplev’s last film, "We Shall Overcome", which won the Crystal Bear in Berlin two years ago, is about a 13-year-old boy, in 1969, who rebels against an oppressive school system personified by a draconian headmaster. In "Worlds Apart" , Sara challenges the rules and mores of a rigid religious system. The two films are quite different, both in story and style, but Arden Oplev openly admits that they both deal with issues that are very close to him.

"To zoom in on why I made this film, again it's about how adults treat children that are in their power, that are their responsibility," Arden Oplev says.

We are in a Copenhagen café, as the Danish director takes a breather from the demanding preproduction for his next project, adapting Stieg Larsson’s bestselling mystery novel, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", shooting later this year in Stockholm with a Swedish cast. "The law says parents can't hit their children or sexually abuse them. You can’t mistreat them, but you are allowed to brainwash them all you want, whether in the name of communism, racism or any other fundamentalist thinking," Arden Oplev says. "Probably, that's not something you can legislate, but you can make a film raising concerns about what it leads to."Many films have been made about people drawn into various sects or cults," he says. "But there have not been a lot of films about what it means to be born into and grow up in a sect. What happens when that's all you've ever known and you're suddenly forced to add nuances to what you've learned? What do you do when your image of the world completely shatters and you have to survive?

"Worlds Apart" takes up those issues and, of course, I hope the film will generate debate."

To verdener foto Jens Juncker Jensen

"Worlds Apart". Photo: Jens Juncker-Jensen


After "We Shall Overcome", Arden Oplev was having a hard time deciding what film to do next, when the story for "Worlds Apart" came to him suddenly on an ordinary day in April 2006.

"I was reading a really good story in the paper, written like a gothic tale, about a girl, Tabita, who is expelled from the Jehovah's Witnesses. Her story really touched me," Arden Oplev says. "At the same time, I thought it would be exciting to do a story that had never been done on film before in Denmark. Her story was eminently suited for film, which deals with emotions much better than any piece of reporting ever can, no matter how well written. "As a filmmaker, I'm in a phase now where a story's emotions are very important, plus I’m interested in religious stories. My personal view of metaphysics is like the old Bergman quote: Your heart is religious, but your brain is atheistic. It's exciting to explore the relationship between reason and feelings. And after "We Shall Overcome" I felt it was important to find material that I could connect with emotionally," the director says. "What Tabita went through completely fascinated me."

Arden Oplev and his regular screenwriter Steen Bille got in touch with the two reporters who wrote the story, and they hooked them up with Tabita. Arden Oplev and Bille did a five-hour interview with her that became the raw material for the film.

"Once I had talked with Tabita, I knew I had to do this film," Arden Oplev says. "I was even more fascinated now, because there was so much going on in her story that we never would have thought of ourselves.

"Later, we obviously changed certain things to dramatise the story, like the part about denying someone a blood transfusion. In the film, Sara's friend dies after an accident. In real life, it was someone else, but we needed it to be someone we had connected with in the film to make it relevant to the main story. Such changes are always debatable when your film is based on a true story. How far can you go? I’m sure if you took apart "Erin Brockovich", you would find corners cut and things added," the filmmaker says.


Arden Oplev and Bille did extensive research into the Jehovah's Witnesses. They wanted their story to be as truthful as possible regarding the community's faith and way of life.

"We took great pains to represent their faith as correctly as possible," he says. "I talked with former Witnesses, I read their literature and visited their church. But of course, you have to deviate at certain points. We couldn't always stick to the exact format of a prayer meeting, for example. Someone is also bound to point out that all Witnesses aren’t as strict as the ones in this film, but I never said I was portraying one of the less orthodox families.

"The story has been condensed to a couple of months from a couple of years. We also chose to link two central Jehovah's Witness dogmas. One is that we are living in the last days. The other calls for expelling anyone who does not act correctly. Linking the two, expulsion equals a death sentence, since outcasts won't survive Armageddon and be part of a new and better world. We pushed that point. Some would say too hard. But for me, part of the reason for doing a film about the Jehovah's Witnesses was showing how those two dogmas bring things to a head – for everyone, but especially for the children," the director says.

"I do not presume to judge these people. I don't judge anyone. Personally, I think it's wrong of the father to cast out his own child, but I can't make myself the judge of why or how someone would make that decision, since I didn't grow up a Jehovah's Witness myself," he says.

"Ultimately, so many people end up doing the same things, believing the same things, as their parents. Say, becoming every bit as conservative as them," Arden Oplev says.


Sara, the lead, is played by Rosalinde Mynster, 17. For Arden Oplev, casting is always difficult, but especially so when having to rustle up fresh new faces.

"Casting is really hard and I’m completely neurotic about it," he says. "I still wake up in the middle of the night in an anxious sweat worrying about how "We Shall Overcome" would have turned out if we hadn't found Janus for the lead.

"Finding the right person to play Sara was just as tough, and just as crucial, because the acting is so central to this film. It's a completely simple, bare-bones story, with no car chases or anything else thrown in," Arden Oplev says. "I hadn't done a realistic film set in the present in a long time, and I found the filmic simplicity of everything hinging on the acting to be very attractive," he says.

"If the story had been told from another angle, it would have been 'just' another story about young love. But it's not, because a huge absurdity lurks in the middle of the apparent simplicity. Sara and Teis live in a parallel reality that only looks exactly like ours," the director says.

"On the face of it, Sara's family looks just like any other family. But beneath the seeming normality, there's a hidden layer of absurdity. Take the part where Sara and Elisabeth are reading with their younger brother August. They look like any other ordinary kids doing homework, except the subject they are studying is the end of the world and Jesus Christ as the commander of the heavenly armies!

"The family's fundamentalist Christian faith puts everyone under pressure," Arden Oplev says. "Perfectly normal, simple situations, like your daughter wanting to go to a party or meeting a boy, instead turn into insurmountable problems."

Shooting the first part of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" in the spring (the three novels have sold nearly two million copies in Sweden alone) is a change of pace for Arden Oplev. As the title implies, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is an altogether more fiery affair, with murder, mayhem and exploding cars.

"Worlds Apart" has only hellfire," the director jokes.