Essential Voices

INTERVIEW. There is a common thread in
all of Helle Hansen's work. The Danish Film Institute's new commissioner for documentaries has years of experience as a journalist and filmmaker. A driving force in every job she ever
held, paid or unpaid, has been to give a voice to those who have a hard time being heard.

Helle Hansen cut her journalist teeth at a left-wing weekly, where everyone worked without pay. Later, she helped start up TV Stop. As an alternative to the established media, this community TV station was aimed to be a mouth-piece for vulnerable, overlooked groups and individuals in Denmark.

100 Percent Behind the Job

So it didn't seem at all obvious when, in the early nineties, Hansen elected to continue her training as a journalist on a broad, primetime entertainment series on national television, but that’s what happened. She got a call asking if she would be interested in a job on a popular Friday evening show. Hansen knew it was a terrific opportunity. She was thrilled but also deeply conflicted. 

Helle Hansen

Born 1963. Journalist and director of numerous documentary films for TV. Hansen has since 2004 among other things worked with acclaimed journalist and commentator Jens Olaf Jersild on a series on politics for the national broadcaster DR. Hansen recently directed the documentaries BZ and The Power of Words for DR and the Danish Film Institute.


"I actually cried after that call," she says. "I asked myself if I really wanted to be responsible for goofy TV segments with an animated mascot and weird fashion shows. I think you should be 100 percent behind the job you agree to do, whether you get paid for it or not. But I accepted and my worries were put to shame. I had to learn to give up some control, but all along I was able to stand by my reports. I learned so much and I'm actually very proud about a lot of the things I got to do on the show."

Words matter

The short reports Hansen made for the show and for a youth programme gradually grew into complete TV programmes and documentaries produced with funding from the Danish Film Institute. Her interest continued to involve giving a voice to vulnerable or unjustly treated groups of people. 

Her films have tackled subjects ranging from the Danish squatters movement to Syrian refugee children forced to live underground. She once tracked a female health worker in Nepal and she recently put the finishing touches on a film about the tone of the Danish immigration debate, entitled "The Power of Words".

"The film shows how the political rhetoric has changed over the past decades, from the time everyone laughed at the right-wing politician Mogens Glistrup and his 'Out with the Mohammedans' to the present day when condescending speech about immigrants has spread from the parties on the right to the parties on the left and, in turn, to the public discussion in general. There has been what I consider a highly troubling shift."

What's up in Denmark

For the last seven years, Hansen has worked in close partnership with the journalist and commentator Jens Olaf Jersild, who has taken up social and political issues for serious treatment in a series of high-profile TV programmes on DR. Maintaining the open and humble basic attitude from her days of volunteering, she feels well prepared for her new job as DFI commissioner.

"I think I'm well equipped to see what's going on in Denmark. Where is our society headed, politically, culturally, socially? In my opinion, good documentaries should make a difference. They are essential in our democracy. Films should make noise, be unpleasant, make us happy or angry. As long as they don't leave people indifferent. I think there are a lot of courageous filmmakers, directors as well as producers, who are willing to take up difficult and controversial subjects. That's a distinct and good trend," Hansen says.

"The big challenge for me, and for us as a Film Institute, is to insist on the artistic quality that gives films a long life. Supporting the director in his or her visions. We have enough superficial snapshots as it is."