"At least now no one can accuse me of ignoring my background," Fenar Ahmad says. That's more or less what the talented young director thought when his third film, "The Perfect Muslim", was ready to meet its audience in 2009. A sociological study of how Muslims are expected to behave to be considered perfect in Danish eyes, this documentary chronicles the director's encounter with a culture he is now part of himself, having arrived in Denmark at age five as an Iraqi refugee. He previously explored the same theme in two award-winning films, "Nice to Meet You" and "Mesopotamia". Now it was time to try something different.
"Through the character of Jolly I have been able to tell of my own childhood, my own sexuality and relationship to my parents and friends without having it be about skin colour or race." - Fenar Ahmad
"At the time I felt I had had my catharsis. I had picked these things up, turned them over and now felt I had moved on. Looking inside doesn't stay interesting," Ahmad says.
An Outsider's Story
For a filmmaker who is a former refugee named Ahmad, it seems like a no-brainer to make political films. The 28-year-old director has understandably been wary of being slapped with the 'political filmmaker' label.
"Of course," he says. "I have a pretty distinct story. I'm a refugee and my name alone is enough to imply a political angle. So I felt like holding back on my own story a bit."
Even so, Ahmad's personal history isn't entirely out of the picture. He may not be a bespectacled teenage girl or come from the tiny Baltic island of Bornholm, like "Megaheavy"'s protagonist, but he can easily relate to the story of growing up an outsider.
"In Megaheavy my own background as an immigrant has been transformed into a nerd girl with glasses, from Bornholm," he says. "Through the character of Jolly I have been able to tell of my own childhood, my own sexuality and relationship to my parents and friends without having it be about skin colour or race."
"Megaheavy" is set on a Polaroid-hued Bornholm in the early 1980s. If you're over 25 you'll have no trouble recognising the 'ugly decade.' Jolly listens to heavy metal tapes on her Walkman. Her mother has a hand-rolled cigarette between her lips and a chunk of shrimp cocktail at the end of her fork. The young man next door, who helps Jolly lose her virginity, scoots around the island on a classic Puch VZ50 moped. Nothing is left to chance, visually or story-wise.
"Aesthetics is incredibly important to me. There's a point to every shot, everything is analysable. Or, of course, you can just enjoy the view," the director says.
The story of Jolly and her first love is Ahmad's midway film at Copenhagen's alternative Super16 film school, which has been turning out directing and producing talent for the Danish film industry since 1999. Before Super16, Ahmad picked up some skills at the DFI's Film Workshop, and he is among the budding stars who have received grants from the New Danish Screen talent-development fund. He acknowledges his debt to the availability of talent-development programmes in Denmark. "I would never have been able to start making films without them," he says. "The National Film School seemed like a distant planet to me. In my head it was just as hard to become a film director as an astronaut. It's meant everything to me that someone was there to help me get started."